Musings on Culture

As I reflect on SPP, I find myself thinking a lot about culture. It seems like the more I study or use culture, the more aware I become of it’s complexity.


I’ve always appreciated the iceberg model and the idea that culture is divided between observable and unobservable characteristics. What we often see immediately when we meet someone new is obvious cultural characteristics like attire and language, but it takes much more time and dedication to decipher what lies beneath the surface –e.g. core values and learned behaviors.  Things like “concept of justice” and “attitude toward the environment” are certainly not visible to someone who merely observes or engages in light interaction with someone of another culture.


I also like the idea of culture as a toolkit. I’ve never thought of culture as a set of assets that you can utilize as you need – but it is exactly that! Culture is a toolkit of learned values and behaviors, and that toolkit is unique to each person, even though there are commonalities among members of a specific community, geographic area, ethnic group etc… For me, this metaphor helps me better understand how our own cultural identity is a combination of multiple components, and that certain aspects are useful/helpful in certain situations, perhaps while being a hindrance or barrier in others.

The above metaphor also tells me that I will not always have the right tool for every situation. Really, I could look at part of my life’s work as expanding this cultural toolkit so that I am better prepared for challenges in multicultural or foreign/unfamiliar setting, but I know that there will always be more tools to acquire and old tools to be sharpened.

Going back to SPP now, I appreciate how Dr. Pushpa Iyer talked about cultural analysis as an essential component of peace building. How can one ever understand a conflict without examining the cultural landscape of the parties involved? This is similarly expressed by Dr. Kevin Avruch, who wrote about the necessity of cultural analysis in “Conflict Resolution in Intercultural Settings; Problems and Prospects.” In this chapter (and also when I saw him present in my intro to conflict resolution course at MIIS last year), he explained that that we must perform cultural analysis on ourselves. When analyzing a conflict, we are, in a way, bringing ourself into that conflict and therefore must understand where we are coming from. For example one must be hyper aware of when and how we confront moments of “non comprehension and unintelligibility.” Instead of dismissing these, or glossing over them with value judgments, we must try to understand why we don’t understand, and then take it a step further – attempt to learn how to view what was previously unintelligible  to us as normal/regular/essential etc… In this way we are building upon our ability to empathize, and also strengthening our understanding of cultural norms and identities that are very different than our own.

I now find myself reflecting on all the times I thought something was strange or crazy when I lived in Laos or Tanzania, and even how I made fun of certain norms or traditions. While I was certainly not right to do that, and sincerely hope I will be more open minded in the future, I appreciate the memories for showing me how I could have done a cultural analysis on myself at the time. 

Sites DOT MIISThe Middlebury Institute site network.