What is culture?

The word "culture" stems  from a Latin root that means the tilling of the soil, like in agriculture. In many modern languages the word is used in a figurative sense, with two meanings:

  1. The first, most common, meaning  is "civilization", including education, manners, arts and crafts and their products. It is the domain of  a "ministry of culture".
  2. The second meaning derives from social anthropology, but in the past decades it has entered common parlance. It refers to the way people think, feel,  and act. Geert has defined it as "the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from another". The "category" can refer to nations, regions within or across nations, ethnicities, religions, occupations, organizations, or the genders. A simpler definition is 'the unwritten rules of the social game'.

The two meanings should not be confused. Our work refers to culture in the second sense.

How did we acquire our collective programming?

Human culture is the result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. During most of this time, competition between bands of gatherer-hunters was a powerful evolutionary pressure. As a result our social and intellectual skills have become ever bigger. But we did not lose the elements of our behaviour that identify us as social mammals. Fights for dominance, competition for partners, a wish to belong and to know who does not belong - all of these basic drives are alive in us. No wonder that culture revolves around basic issues that have to do with group membership, authority, gender roles, morality, anxiety, emotions and drives. Culture affects our love lives, our professional lives, our wars and our dreams.

An individual human being acquires most of her or his programming  during childhood, before puberty. In this phase of our lives we have an incredible capacity for absorbing information and following examples from our social environment: our parents and other elders, our siblings and playmates. But all of this is constrained by our physical environment: its wealth or poverty, its threats or safety, its level of technology. All human groups, from the nuclear family to society, develop cultures as they go. Culture is what enables a group to function smoothly. Here are some prominent levels:

National level

Today's world population is divided into some 200 nations. Comparing nations has become part of most social sciences. Some nations are more culturally homogeneous than others; especially large nations like Brazil, China, India and Indonesia comprise culturally different regions. Other culturally similar areas belong politically to different  nations: this is in particular the case in Africa. With these limitations, comparing national cultures is still a meaningful and revealing venture. Research by Geert and others has shown that national cultures differ in particular at the level of, usually unconscious, values held by a majority of the population. Values, in this case, are "broad preferences for one state of affairs over others". This differs from the often used meaning "cherished moral convictions", as in "company values".  The Hofstede dimensions of national cultures are rooted in our unconscious values. Because values are acquired in childhood, national cultures are remarkably stable over time; national values change is a matter of generations. What we see changing around us, in response to changing circumstances are practices:  symbols, heroes and rituals, leaving the underlying values untouched. This is why differences between countries often have such a remarkable historical continuity.

Organizational level

Many of us spend a large part of their time in organizations. Organizational cultures, the way Geert uses the term, distinguish different organizations within the same country or countries. Geert's  research has shown that organizational cultures differ mainly at the level of practices (symbols, heroes and rituals); these are more superficial and more easily learned and unlearned than the values that form the core of national cultures. As a consequence, the Hofstede dimensions of national cultures are not relevant for comparing organizations within the same country. National cultures belong to anthropology; organizational cultures to sociology. Because organizational cultures are rooted in practices, they are to some extent manageable; national cultures, rooted in values, are given facts for organization management.

Occupational level

Entering an occupational field like nursing or ICT implies acquiring a degree of mental programming.  Occupational cultures have symbols, heroes and rituals in common with organizational cultures, but they also often imply holding certain values and convictions. Occupational cultures in this respect  take a position in between national and organizational cultures. The culture of management as an occupation contains both national and organizational elements.

Gender level

Gender differences are not usually described in terms of cultures. It can be revealing to do so. If we recognize that within each society there may be a men's culture that differs from a women's culture, this helps to explain why it is so difficult to change traditional gender roles. Women and men are often technically able to perform the  same jobs, but they do not respond to the symbols, do not look like the heroes, do not share the rituals. Even if some do, the other sex may not accept them in their deviant gender role. Feelings and fears about behaviours by the opposite sex can be of the same order of intensity as reactions of people exposed to foreign cultures. The degree of gender differentiation in a country is highly dependent on its national culture.

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