Saturday, April 23, 2011

(Updated) Reflecting on Ben Kritz' Perspective on the Culture-System Relationship

"Everything is possible, until you try it."

(Note: I don't think I've read all of Ben Kritz' articles, but just judging from those that I've read, this rather tall and cerebral American gentleman rarely weaves personal details into the topics he writes about.  His sharing of a personal truth to shed light on a discussion of "system change = culture change" is quite appreciated and in a way, helps shed more light on the topic.  It also gives me an opportunity to clarify my evolving position on the matter, which I either failed to clearly state or had been misrepresented in the heat of an ongoing discussion with someone else.)

In Ben's post "A Personal Perspective on the Culture-System Relationship", a reference is made to a sentence in a post I wrote on which dwells on certain aspects of Filipino culture that tend to thwart change and my personal observations on the country's first nationwide automated elections in 2010 -- which I was very much a part of.

The quote he lifted was this:
Culture change doesn't come about immediately, but only through continuous reinforcement of the desired behavior.
The thing is, the context within which the sentence occurs wasn't included and one concern that I have is that my position on "system change = culture change" may not have been fully presented.

In my post (Culture change through constitutional reform or If I start wearing smaller clothes, I'll get thinner.) where this sentence occurs, I was discussing one of many realities of imposing system change as a means of changing culture.

Very briefly, let me state the main points made in the post:

- Most Filipinos do not follow rules and seek ways to go around rules.

- Simple rules like "Bawal Umihi Dito" (do not urinated here) aren't followed.

- A more complex system of rules such as RA9369 or the Amended Automated Election Law was aimed at correcting flaws of the Philippine electoral process that allowed wholesale cheating.  People worked to thwart the implementation of RA 9369.

- The assumption taken for reforming the electoral process was that a fast and accurate voting system would enable Filipinos to better express their collective wisdom in choosing a leader.  That collective wisdom has yet to become evident.

It is after these points that I said:
Okay, so, we changed the system? Where's the change in culture? 
The easiest answer is: Culture change doesn't come about immediately, but only through continuous reinforcement of the desired behavior. (And while we're waiting for culture change to happen, we'll also see those disenfranchised by the change find ways to keep the next election from being automated or find loopholes in the automated election system.) 
The more difficult answer is this: Culture change, if it can actually be done, might be a more complex process that would involve multiple approaches.
Culture is a very complex thing and I would suppose any attempt at changing a culture would involve a very complex solution also.

So, the simple statement "system change = culture change" perhaps needs to reworked and further articulated.

* * * * *

Among the many problems of discussing "system change = culture change" is this: Culture and System are intangible and as terms, they can be assigned any number of meanings in any given conversation.

A discussion on culture I hurriedly slapped together right now because I am not a sociologist and threw our my sociology textbooks 20 years ago.

In Ben's case, he talked about changing his personal culture -- as opposed to group culture or community culture, I suppose.  But reading it through, I think Ben used the term personal culture as a euphemism for a set of behaviors that surround the use of a substance.  And while I have no doubt in my mind that this sort of "personal culture" can be changed, I don't think this is the kind of culture change we're really talking about.

(Although, there is one discussion that I've come across that says that culture change can be attempted on a individual/personal level and that if all or most individuals in a group attempt the same, it could lead to cultural change.  This is possible too.)

Merriam Webster's online dictionary defines culture as:
1 : cultivation, tillage
2 : the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education
3 : expert care and training
4 a : enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training
  b : acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills 
5 a : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations 
b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time
c : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization  
d : the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic
6 : the act or process of cultivating living material (as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media; also : a product of such cultivation

Perhaps more than anything else, language defines what it means to be human. It forms the core of all culture. When people share a language, they share a condensed, very flexible set of symbols and meanings. That makes communication possible, at least communication beyond grunts and hand signals, and provides the basis for symbolic interaction, along with non-verbal communication and symbols. 
Along with language and non-verbal signals, symbols form the backbone of symbolic interaction. They condense very complex ideas and values into simple material forms so that the very presence of the symbol evokes the signified ideas and values. Not only is this more efficient than verbal or written language but it also skips over possible disagreements and nuances created by talking about these values and ideas using language.

Ideas / Knowledge / Beliefs
Ideas are mental representations (concepts, categories, metaphors) used to organize stimulus; they are the basic units out of which knowledge is constructed and a world emerges. When linked together and organized into larger sets, systems, etc., ideas become knowledge. 
Knowledge systematically summarizes and elaborates how we think the world looks and acts. Knowledge is the storehouse where we accumulate representations, information, facts, assumptions, etc. Once stored, knowledge can support learning and can be passed down from one generation to the next 
Beliefs accept a proposition, statement, description of fact, etc. as "true." Acceptance uses criteria found in knowledge systems provided by an external authorities (science, religion, government, etc.), rather than from personal, direct experience. These criteria allow the separation of "true" from "false" facts. Explanations and predictions (cause and effect logic) rely on beliefs. 
People sharing a culture use a common set of ideas and knowledge to slice and dice stimuli in and separate true from false facts. As a result, they tend to live in the same "world." Knowledge and belief systems can range from abstract and theoretical to concrete and practical. Our society has three general knowledge/belief systems: Science, Religion, and Political ideology  
Values are criteria for evaluating ourselves, others, and the world in general. Values classify things as good/evil, beautiful/ugly, or sacred/ordinary. They tell us ideally how we things should be, what the "ideal world" would look. They provide images of the "good society," the "good life," and the "good person." 
Values possess immense emotional significance and evoke deep, strong emotional feelings. People will fight and die for their values. Often behavior motivated by values looks irrational when viewed from a practical or pragmatic point of view.

As stated above, values and symbols often co-exist in the world. Many symbols condense and physically represent important values (examples: crucifix, American flag, the traditional family). Physical presence of the symbol means physical existence of the value. That explains why symbols carry such emotional baggage and why attacking or improperly using a symbol can evoke such a strong emotional, even violent, response (imagines someone using a crucifix to hammer in a nail or burning an American flag).

Some core values of American culture
Democracy and free enterprise
Racism and group superiority
Equal opportunity
Achievement and success
Material comfort
Activity and work
Practicality and efficiency
People who share a culture share a common language for talking about their inner selves. Accounts are how people use that common language to explain, justify, rationalize, excuse, or legitimize our behavior to themselves and others. If behavior seems unexpected or possible immoral, others want to know the context and reasoning behind the action. If the behavior is ordinary or expected, accounts show people we think like them and act from the same belief systems and moral framework. 
Motives are another type of account. Motives are verbalizations that lay out the "why" of our behavior. Usually we think of motives as hidden springs of action that create behavior, but culturally they are linguistic devices created after behavior happens. People use motive talk to explain the reasoning behind their behavior.
Norms Rules or expectations of appropriate behavior, usually specified by social role and situation
Rituals Highly scripted ceremonies or other sequences of behavior

Unless people have pre-set, existing rules for behavior they have to spend time and energy coming to some kind of agreements about how everyone will act or put up with unpredictable, chaotic, anxiety-inducing, potentially very unproductive situations. Culture provides a common platform for interaction by providing a framework which reduces the range of behavioral alternatives, establishing expectations people use to mutually control each other's behavior, and establishing the criteria needed for social control. 
Types of Norms 
Mores (pronounced "mor-ayz"; shares same Latin root as the word "morality")
Basic moral imperatives. Examples: monogamy, private property, prohibitions against incest, "thou shalt not kill," or protect children. Violating mores evokes severe punishment, often by law enforcement. 
Explicit system of norms enforced by formal social control (police, courts, prisons)

Rules of conventional behavior, everyday customs, and good manners. Examples: wearing socks with dress pants, eating with a fork, not picking your nose, covering your mouth when you sneeze, or wearing a swimsuit on the beach rather than a suit and tie. Violating folkways usually results in weak responses like ridicule, being shunned or ostracize, or gossip. People will think your weird if you violate folkways but they won't arrest you. 
Humans make objects, sometimes for practical reasons and sometimes for artistic ones. The form and function of these objects is an expression of culture and culturally-defined behavior often depends on the presence of specific objects. We call such objects material culture.
Material culture can range from the sacred/sublime to the everyday/ordinary; from the symbolic to the practical.
Okay, assuming that this list of components includes all that comprise culture, we can see that  laws are one of three components identified under the component of behavior.

So, at this point, in most of the discussions I've had with Ben and other members of a group of bloggers, what is more commonly referred to as "culture" is actually a subset component which is "behavior".

Changing the behavior of an individual or even a group of individuals is entirely possible.

(To be updated further...)

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