The earthiness of culture

Culture is not abstract and distant, as we may think of it, but earthy, intimate, and workable, like spinning clay on a pottery wheel. It exists within each relationship and group, shaping the experience of those involved, and being shaped by their actions. The word originates from cultivate, in the sense of farming, and has come to mean something that is grown within a group of people. What do we want to grow in the communities we participate in? And how do we develop culture?

Culture can be thought of as a dynamic process with three interweaving parts: worldview, norms or practices, and general feeling.

  • Of these, the feeling is the most immediate. It is simply the general feeling of being within a culture. If culture were a piece of art, the feeling would be appreciating the piece of art, what it evokes in us.
  • The worldview is the culture’s understanding of the world, what it is to be human, and the role of the human in the community, society, and world.1 This could also be called the culture’s values. In the simile of the piece of art, the worldview is the inspiration or message that is conveyed through it.
  • Norms and practices are the culture’s expectations for action that flow from the worldview. These are the composition of the piece of art, the shapes, strokes, and colors. They communicate the inspiration and lead to the feeling of what the art evokes.

For example, consider the practice of potluck. The worldview of the potluck is that we find value through participating in community, that everyone is appreciated, and that it is worthwhile to share. A potluck has a particular feeling—of contributing, sharing, and being appreciated. Having a catered meal may be more efficient, but it feels different, and sends a different message.

Cultural messages

The worldview and messages of cultures are not neutral; they can influence individual and community wellbeing. Potlucks convey the value of each person within the community, and the value of active participation in the community. This supports individual wellbeing through a sense of being valued and appreciated. It also supports community wellbeing by conveying a message of empowerment and encouraging active participation by members.

Even seemingly minor choices of how to do things convey a worldview—whether we greet people with a smile, handshake, or hug, how we arrange physical spaces, how we conduct meetings, how we reach out to others. As we create a community, these small choices can build up to create a distinct and powerful culture.

Transformative possibilities

Cultures can be strong enough to create culture shock, as I recently experienced when visiting the Rainforest Lab for Cultural Transformation. The communication practices and norms there were very different from those I’m used to: people frequently checked in about what I was wanting and needing, asked for what they needed, and spoke openly about their emotional lives. These combined to create a cultural environment that felt radically different than most, a feeling of being completely accepted and appreciated. Through simple immersion, I quickly found myself communicating in similar ways. This gave me a taste of living deeply from the worldview that it is worthwhile to be attentive to the experience of others. I left with that value strengthened within me.

Through culture, community can become a potent environment for personal growth: as people are immersed in the culture, their understanding of themselves, the world, and their relationship to it can shift. Considering worldview and culture as we create community empowers us to shape the world we are living into, even in even seemingly small choices.

*****

This weekend I’ll be attending the West Coast Communities Conference, so for the next post I plan to share about the conference and what I learned. Following that I’ll continue with the theme of culture, exploring the role of ceremony and ritual in its development.

1 Cordova, V. F. How It Is. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2007.

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