Doing Cultural Analysis

on Sunday, 06 July 2003. Posted in Issue 37 Community Development in the Age of the Celtic Tiger, 2000

Bill Toner, SJ

May 2000



The November 1997 issue of Working Notes featured an article entitled \'Working Class Cultures: Can They Adapt\', which referred to the process of cultural analysis. The focus of that article was certain features of lower working-class culture (such as early school leaving) which made it difficult for young people in working class areas to participate fully in our modern economy.

This article discusses more fully what cultural analysis is, and how it can be carried out. It may be possible for community workers, for instance, to carry out a modest project in this area, perhaps as an alternative to the more common \'needs analysis\' carried on in communities.


Cultural Analysis

Cultural Analysis describes the attempt to discover the key assumptions, values, artifacts and symbols that are operative in a group. These four different \'levels\' of a culture are as depicted below :[1]

In this model there are, firstly, basic assumptions in the culture (or sub-culture). These form the bedrock of the culture and are unconscious for the most part.[2] These assumptions concern such things as:

The relationship of humanity to the wider environment. For instance, in our culture there is a assumption that, to a certain extent, nature can be subjugated and controlled; whereas many older cultures see nature as the controlling force, even needing to be \'appeased\'. Hitchcock\'s allegorical film \'The Birds\' depicts a conflict between these two points of view, with some of the characters in the film seeing the attacks of the birds as retaliation against humans for their maltreatment of the natural world.
The nature of \'truth\' and what is \'real\'. For instance in our culture we mostly accept as true and real what is scientifically verifiable; whereas in other cultures the \'spirit world\' is considered as just as real. But in many parts of rural Ireland people would consider it foolhardy to dig up a \'rath\' or \'fairy ring\'; whereas in urban culture it would be a matter of indifference.
The nature of human relationships. For instance, in some cultures there is an assumption that humans are inherently aggressive, in others that they are inherently cooperative. Golding\'s novel, \'The Lord of the Flies\', in which a group of boys marooned on an island turn on one another savagely, is a vivid portrayal of one point of view. 
The relative importance of the individual vs. the group. In modern Israel, the kibbutzim are running into difficulties as a culture gap opens between the young people, who are more interested in pursuing individual careers outside the kibbutz, and their parents, who have spent their lives in the communal living of the kibbutz. In Ireland the family meal is almost a thing of the past.
· The nature of human nature itself. For instance in some cultures people are thought of as basically good, in others as basically evil, in others again as neutral. There are also basic assumptions about whether people are \'perfectible\' or whether they are intrinsically flawed and fallible. Consider the assumptions in Carole King\'s song, \'You\'ve Got a Friend\':

"Ain\'t it good to know that you\'ve got a friend,
When people can be so cold.
They\'ll hurt you, and desert you,
And take your soul if you let them…"

· The nature of human activity. Some cultures display an orientation towards \'doing\', other towards \'being\'. It used to be said that German people live to work, while Irish people work to live. But there is some evidence that in this respect the two cultures are coming closer together.
Values describe what \'ought\' to be done, in the light of the basic assumptions. For instance, whether or not people believe that ghosts are \'real\' may affect their attitudes towards ploughing up graveyards. Or, if there is an assumption that life is competitive rather than co-operative, there is seen to be a value in fighting rather than talking. Although values arise out of basic assumptions, these values also play a major role in creating the basic assumptions in the first place. For instance suppose a new headmaster coming into an unruly school believes in the value of strict discipline, and introduces suspensions and other penalties for even minor misdemeanors. If this policy works, the value may gradually start a process of what is called cognitive transformation among the school staff. It gradually becomes a belief among the staff, and ultimately an assumption, which is not even consciously adverted to, about the correct way to run a school.

Artifact is a technical expression, and while it does include technology and art, in anthropology it also includes visible patterns of behaviour. The artifacts are derived from, or built on, basic assumptions and values. Schein explains:

The most visible level of the culture is its artifacts and creations - its constructed physical and social environment. At this level one can look at physical space, the technological output of the group, its written and spoken language, artistic productions, and the overt behaviour of its members. [3]

Some artifacts become highly symbolic for the culture, for instance Orange marches for the Protestant sub-culture in Northern Ireland. In general, a symbol is any act or thing which represents something else or carries a deeper meaning or significance Some artifacts of our culture in the Republic of Ireland which have high symbolic content would be the tricolour and the national anthem, the Angelus on TV, Croke Park and Lansdowne Road, Christmas and so on.

Uses of Cultural Analysis

Cultural analysis is particularly valuable in understanding changes in society, and in gaining insights into the success of failure of institutions and structures to adapt to change. Many institutions go through an ageing process and this is often because they are unable to adapt to deep cultural shifts.

It is useful to divide total culture as described above into two sets of components, viz.

(1) Assumptions & Values

Patterns of Behaviour:

These can be described in various ways, such as the less visible (1) and the more visible (2); or as primary (1) and derivative (2). This latter description can be an over-simplification. While it is generally true that assumptions and values are primary, and that artifacts etc. derive from them, it is also true that there can be a reverse causation, and changes in symbols and artifacts can modify the basic assumptions and values over time. For instance if a chief executive begins to come in to work without a tie, in an effort to create a more \'democratic\' climate, this symbol may over time modify basic assumptions of employees about hierarchy and power.

At any rate the dichotomy serves a useful purpose for analysing the process, and the effects, of change in culture. Some examples:

· A change in basic assumptions can lead to a change in patterns of behaviour. (For instance, if a group of people cease to see themselves as \'outsiders\', they may take a more active part in community activities. The basic assumption may be that "that\'s not for people like us") 
· Changes in basic assumptions and values may not be matched by changes in patterns of behaviour and symbols, leading to revision of assumptions and possibly cultural crisis. (For instance, if a previously divided community moves towards peaceful coexistence, the continuation by the authorities of patrolling with armoured cars, maintenance of dividing walls, barbed wire etc. can erode the basic assumption of peace.)

Process of Cultural Analysis

Step 1 - Data Collection

You cannot directly experience another person\'s values, assumptions or symbolic interpretations, but you can directly experience their artifacts. Therefore, observation of artifacts and the behaviour that occurs around them is a typical starting point in a study of culture. In this instance, artifacts are isolated objects, events, rituals, or linguistic forms (e.g. stories, jokes, metaphors). The best way to proceed is to examine as many artifacts and significant patterns of behaviour as possible. It is important too to note any symbolic uses of artifacts or behaviours.

Through interviews it may be possible to discover the interpretations that members give to the artifacts that you have observed. Initially, it is important to write down or tape record as much of the actual language as possible, rather than putting ideas into your own words. Sometimes during this part of the study you may begin to sense the degree of symbolic significance in the artifacts you have collected. It is important not to confuse interpretations with the basic descriptions, and therefore they should be recorded separately

Step 2 - Analysis

In this phase the data must be organized and reorganized until patterns suggesting specific norms and values, and symbolic themes, can be found. Progress will be made when you can link a fair number of artifacts to several norms and values and when you can identify the convergence of some key symbols on one or more cultural themes (e.g. status). It is important to read and re-read the basic data and let it \'speak\', rather than impose an order or meaning based on you own biases.

Further examination of, and reflection on, the data may gradually reveal deeper beliefs, assumptions and symbolic patterns. These in turn may reveal linkages between the norms, values and symbolic themes.

It is important to recognize that there is a lot of uncertainty in cultural analysis. Things may not be what they first seem. Interviewees may themselves be unaware why they do certain things or what basic assumptions they are working from. So cultural analysis is always open to revision.

What Artifacts to Select

Obviously it would not be possible to select all the artifacts in a culture for examination. A selection has to be made. Yet it is important not to select in such a way as to bias the study. Remember that \'artifacts\' include \'visible patterns of behaviour\'.

There may be some merit in selecting some artifacts or behaviours that seem \'quirky\'. In doing this there is some advantage in being an \'outsider\' to the culture, as the \'quirkiness\' may not be adverted to at all by \'insiders\'. One example would be the relatively high expenditure on First Communions and Confirmations among poor families, which puzzles middle-class people. Or among the better off, the ways in which social \'networking\' is used to get on in business, even where it would be quite possible to operate without it. An advantage of taking \'offbeat\' artifacts of this kind is that important basic assumptions and values may reveal themselves better, whereas they are deeply buried in more conventional behaviour.

At the same time it is important not to restrict the analysis solely to behaviours and artifacts that appear unusual or incomprehensible, as otherwise many basic values and assumptions may be missed.

It would be useful to do a \'brainstorm\' to select artifacts and behaviors to be examined. Remember that it is important that people closely involved with these artifacts and behaviours be interviewed before any analysis is attempted. Interviews should be relatively unstructured, avoiding questions which would lead the interviewee in a particular direction. Otherwise there is a risk of the questions imposing a prior interpretation on the data, instead of letting the data \'speak\'.

A Sample List

If one were to undertake a cultural analysis among young people, for instance, a typical list of questions might include:

· What makes you feel good about this community, and what makes you feel bad about it?
· How do you spend a typical evening or weekend, and what do you spend most time doing?
· What do you spend your money on?
· Of all the things you do, what do you get the most satisfaction from? Can you say why?
· Who do you spend most of your time with, and why?
· What do you talk about? (The problem here is that most people could not accurately say what they talk about. This may best be studied by asking volunteers to agree to be tape-recorded, though this could obviously have an influence on what is said. It might also be possible to ask volunteers to listen in to \'public\' conversations in buses etc.)
· Do you ever take part in community activities? Why, or Why Not?
· Do you devote any time to \'cultural\' or artistic pursuits (going to films, watching videos, listening to music, reading etc. ). Which do you like most and why?
· Do you have any interest in topics, or such things as tarot, fantasy books, zen etc. How is this interest shown or acted out in practice?
· Are you taking any steps towards a job? Why have you chosen this kind of job?
Some room could also be left for questions in relation to the \'quirky\' artifacts and behaviours mentioned above.

Note that none of these questions ask about opinions or wishes. For instance the last question is not, \'What would you like to be?\'. The questions ask rather about behaviour, and reasons for it, and about other \'artifacts\' of the culture.

As explained above, sifting through this material, and reflecting on it, may lead to the discovery of other levels of the culture, i.e. symbols, in the first place, and, subsequently, values, and even basic assumptions. Remember that \'symbol\' refers to meaning. For instance playing or following a sport may mean far more than running around after a ball or enjoying the skill of others doing it. Such books as Nick Hornby\'s \'Fever Pitch\', or studies of football hooliganism, reveal the levels of meaning that can be associated with an apparently quite ordinary activity such as sport.


What would be the value of a process of cultural analysis in a local community?

One outcome would be the identification of important symbols and values, and perhaps even the basic assumptions that underlie them. This could have many uses. To give one example, many centres that have run personal development courses for working class women have found it extremely difficult to do the same for working class men. A carefully prepared cultural analysis might discover what it is that \'turns men off\' courses of this kind, and it might be possible to devise ways of producing the same results by other means.

Another example would be the issue of early school leaving. A cultural analysis carried out among parents, including some parents of early school leavers, might reveal differences in values and assumptions that could be explored and built on.



I would like to thank Gerry O\'Hanlon S.J. and Tom Giblin S.J., who read an earlier draft and made helpful comments.



[1] The basic model  comes from Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass 1987.   Mary Jo Hatch (Organization Theory: Modern Symbolic and Post-modern Perspectives.  Oxford University Press 1997) has added the ‘level’ of symbol to Schein’s model.

[2] See Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.  1987, Chapter Four, ‘Content and Levels of Culture’.   Schein draws heavily on F.R.Kluckhohn, and F.L.Strodtbeck’s study of a number of cultures in the south-western United States in Variations in Value Orientations.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1961.

[3] Edgar Schein, op.cit. p.14.  Emphasis added.

Please Note:
Another version of this paper, ‘Cultural Analysis and Religious Practice’ applies the techniques outlined here to religious practice.  This paper is available, free of charge, on request from the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Tel. 01-855 6814 or Fax. 01-836 4377 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.