Friday, September 16, 2011

How do we measure culture -- a layman's approach

Culture is a difficult concept even among anthropologists because we all have our own way of trying to define and describe it. Yet, there are certain features of the phenomena which are objective. And from an economist's or other social scientist's point of view, it can be measurable

Defining Culture 

1. Culture is a product of social/collective behavior.
2. Culture is the result of human activity that organizes the environment into meaningful units for the members of society.
3. Culture is a learned and shared set of meanings passed on from generation to generation (generation here can be biologically or socially defined).
4. Culture is the unifying force that binds generations and individuals together into social groups for collective purposeful action.
5. Culture has both a material and a metaphysical substance.

       a. The material is what is found in an archaeological site or simply observed in the material world in which people interact. 
       b. It is metaphysical in the sense that there is a unique set of purposeful meanings for carrying out and achieving the social goals that are shared and understood by the members of the social system.

Macro and Micro Cultural Measurement

      Culture can be measured on the macro scale in terms of energy use and efficiency to achieve culturally defined purposes. A culture can be compared to another culture if we are talking about the same purpose. For example: Using man hours and calories per person as the metric, two cultures might be compared in terms of the number of man hours required to produce a week's worth of food to insure that each person has the opportunity of obtain 1500 calories per day. 

       Culture is measured on the micro-level using the anthropological approach. This is done by looking at ALL of the human and societal activities that the culture demands to achieve the purpose -- not just money and labor but also government activity, social recruitment, organization and behavior to implement the activity and its management, religious sanctions and interpretations of the rightness of the activity, family and individual resources and commitments required to participate in the process. These activities are largely organized as traditions that are passed down from generation to generation. For example, how your mother puts together your favorite meal which she learned from her mother and she from her mother.

 Measuring Culture from the applied anthropologist's perspective

Over the past forty years I have been defining culture from the applied anthropological perspective.  These are the steps that I find work, if the client is serious about solving the problem. That is, by serious I mean that the client is prepare to pay for the service, and dedicate time and effort to solving it. 

When I have been asked to help solve a client's problem, I always begin by studying my client's current practices and their behaviors associated with "the problem". First, I observe and record what they are doing and watch to see where there is a problem or if the problem is really a problem and not just a symptom of something bigger.

Then I ask them " Why do you think this is a problem?" and "Why do you do what you  are doing?" That is, I ask them to explain what they are doing and why? I want to know what their meanings are for doing things that are creating their problem.

Once I understand that, I can then discuss what it is they think they are doing and what it is they want to do.
After this, and only after this, can we begin to look for metrics to measure what it is that they real want to do or achieve. 

Metrics are Cultural Phenomena

The metric is the cultural phenomenon -- it is how the client values the activity and its outcome. If I impose my own metric, it may become interesting to me and my colleagues, but be meaningless to the client.
Econometric models are interesting to economists and some policy makers and totally meaningless to the general public who are asked to respond to the results of the analysis. The results have to be translated into meaningful, i.e. culturally relevant, policies.