Culture's causes

Very few people today would doubt the existence of cultural differences. But where did these differences come from? Why did they occur? 

Culture’s function is avoiding misunderstandings through shared expectations of behaviour, allowing a society to survive. Survival conditions differ across the world. Culture follows. It is transmitted to children and other newcomers through rewards, punishments, love, and millions of little acts: “It takes a village to raise a child”. Each of us also becomes a transmitter of culture by every hug or shrug we give.

By studying the details of how culture is transmitted and how it is influenced, we may become better able to understand why, and how, cultures develop. This is a vast field that has been little explored. History, anthropological studies, but also gaming and agent-based simulation, can contribute.

Evolution of cultures

Cultures do not change quickly, at least at the level of values in society. They do change over many generations when livelihood conditions change. Geert himself hypothesized about ancient historical roots in his 1980 book. The introduction of agriculture, for instance, enabled class societies. 

Culture has ancient roots in human sociality. In Cultures and Organizations, I (Gert Jan) wrote chapter 12 on evolution of cultures over the last few million years, as our ancestors mastered fire, invented symbolic language and money, increased their mastery over the natural world, and became ever more intertwined through trade.

Continued relevance of culture

In the nineteen nineties, the advent of the World Wide Web made many believe in the advent of the “Global Village”. It has not happened. Markets globalize, but there are also counter-currents. The increasing scarcity of shared resources on earth forces us into one another’s arms. Yet parochial loyalties divide us, and intergroup conflict is never far away. World climate, oceans, and biodiversity are common goods, but we cling to our part like little boys. 

We do so in ways that show our culture: Societies keep behaving like markets, machines, families and pyramids, living on Mars or Venus, for today or tomorrow. It is a fiction to believe that migration will eradicate differences in culture; on the contrary, people migrate selectively.

Survival of the dimensions

Are new dimensions going to be invented, or disappear? No doubt. Geert liked to say that dimensions of culture do not “exist”. The climate, likewise, does not “exist”. Both are constructs that help us understand things. Neither have genes to carry them. Although… in some cases, culture seems to have genetic correlates, e.g. indulgence; no doubt, more findings will be made in this area.

Today, there is fierce debate about dimensions; in the competitive market of science, many researchers propose their own dimensions or argue that the six “Hofstede, Hofstede & Minkov 2010” dimensions should be changed. Personally, I am happy with the six dimensions: I can use them as a handyman would use a toolbox, and they enable me to get the work done. In particular, I like how they fit with sociological status-power theory.

All in all it is with culture as with the climate: we may disagree on details, but we all use the concept when preparing to travel.