Several posts on Africa on the Blog have dealt with matters of culture – with an emphasis, of course on African culture and on what it means to be African. It started me wondering about what we mean when we talk about culture. That is a topic I would like to explore in this post. Following on from that, I will look at the challenges of intercultural communication in a second post).
Culture – stuff or between the ears?
So what do we mean with the word culture? Or, to make it less abstract (for me), what do we mean for example when we talk about Dutch culture? I guess that for most foreigners, Dutch culture means the stereotype images that many people know about – the tulips, the windmills, the wooden shoes, the seventeenth-century paintings, perhaps soccer, perhaps dikes. And yes, perhaps some people also think of the boers, the slave trade and centuries of colonial exploitation. All that is well and good – but in fact, I think none of those things come close to defining the culture and the country that I think I live in. The tulip trade is responsible for far less than 1% of the economy, I’ve never worn wooden shoes in my life, the paintings are nicely tucked away in museums, I’m not a soccer fan and the dikes are good to have but more a tax burden than a defining trait of how I see my cultural identity.
My guess – correct me if I’m wrong – is that many Africans will have a similar sentiment. I’ve had the privilege of visiting beautiful African cultural shows, like at the Bomas of Kenya, where, it is claimed, one can see ‘Kenya in miniature’, showing ‘different aspects of Kenyan culture’. I really wonder how much the average Nairobi citizen identifies with what is shown there.
To take a step into theory, culture is often reduced to its physical manifestations – to the art, the music, the architecture that you can touch, see or hear. But the culture I feel I am a part of is more than its physical output. On wikipedia, I found a definition by a certain Hoebel, who defined culture as ‘an integrated system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not a result of biological inheritance.’ In other words – culture is between the ears – but not only between my ears.
In my case, it is what I have in common with my fellow Dutch – that which defines us as being Dutch – rather than Flemish, German, English, or Yoruba. I guess everybody has this experience more or less – in a crowd of Germans, I am usually able to pick out a fellow Dutchman, even before that Dutchman opens his mouth. What is more – I just know how to deal with that Dutchman. No matter how much experience I may have in dealing with people from other cultures – I just can’t interact with them with the same instinctive ease that I do feel when I’m interacting with people from my own culture (whether I like them or not).
Dimensions of Culture – the Hofstede model
But how, then, is what is between Dutch ears different from what is between Xhosa ears? How is what between Xhosa ears in turn different from what is between Tswana ears? And what do we perhaps have in common? How can we describe this? Is there a vocabulary that is more sophisticated than the traditional prejudices and stereotypes? Because in common speech, there are all these stereotypes. Germans, for example, are supposed to be rigid, boring and they lack creativity. On the other hand, they’re hard-working, punctual and reliable, in contrast to those lazy Italians – and so on. I guess it is no different in Africa. People experience cultural differences and differences in mentality in their dealings with others and they are looking for ways to describe and to deal with those differences. Because this can lead to stereotyping, discrimination and hatred, enlightened folks tend to deny or gloss over those differences. But that is not an answer – because the differences are real.
Even though the likes of Museveni might disagree, we need the social sciences to try to get beyond this stereotyping. In particular, I would point to the work of a Dutch psychologist, Prof. Geert Hofstede. Hofstede was working with IBM, the one-time large American computer giant. When IBM started sending people abroad for its business, these folks experienced the same intercultural communications problems that Africans have had to deal with for centuries. So in 1980, he first published his theory, in which he tried to describe cultures using four dimensions. Since then, he’s added two more. What makes this interesting and sophisticated is that this theory tries to describe and differentiate cultures without making value judgements: there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ cultures. So this gives us a vocabulary for describing cultures that goes beyond the normal stereotypes.
I won’t go into all six Hofstede dimensions, but to illustrate his thinking, I’ll mention just two:
– Individual versus collective: this looks at whether the individual is seen as more important – or the group. Dutch culture is considered to be quite individualistic. Many African cultures are much more group-centred – in line, I guess, with the Ubuntu idea.
– Masculinity versus femininity: this is about the value placed on competitiveness and materialism versus relationships and quality of life. In feminine societies, the differentiation between gender roles tends to be less pronounced than in masculine societies. Dutch culture is seen as quite feminine – more so than many African cultures.
Hofstede and his collaborators have described cultures in this way for over 70 countries around the world. The attentive reader may have spotted a problem here immediately – so far, I have used the word ‘culture’ – where does the world ‘country’ come from all of a sudden? Yes, this is a problem – Hofstede has compared countries, not cultures.
For South Africa, the Geert Hofstede Centre, where all this material can be found, writes: “The scores here are for the white population of South Africa. The majority of the population is Black African, and their scores may be very different from those presented above.” Indeed they may be. We won’t deny that white South Africans are Africans, of course, but I think everybody knows that there are at least two varieties of white South Africans and many more varieties of Black South Africans and it would be wrong to just lump them together culturally speaking. So that’s a problem with Hofstede’s research when applied to African and other multicultural countries – although his basic approach is a breakthrough in thinking about and describing cultures.
Why bother with culture?
For me, awareness of the importance of culture – seen as something between the ears, rather than as something physical – is tremendously important in many ways. For one, I have argued in other posts, for example on Botswana and on the Central African Republic, that a degree of cultural homogeneity may be an important factor in the chances of success or the risks of failure of African countries.
Another important element for me is that cultural diversity is somehow similar to biological diversity. Every culture is unique and represents a unique human response to the world we live in and a unique way of dealing with the problems societies face. In the same way that the solution to the Ebola virus may be found somewhere in a small weed in a Congolese forest, other solutions to the problems humanity faces may be discovered by a cultural perspective on things that people are using somewhere in this world – for example in Africa.
Culture finds its expression in physical things, like music or also food, but it is also most clearly embodied in language. Therefore, to keep a culture alive, it is important to keep the language alive. To Africans I say: be proud of, use and develop the language your mother spoke to you!
I can go on and on about this, but instead, I would like to look at a different aspect, one on what moving to a different culture can mean for the a person. That will be the topic of my second post.
Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness.