Historical Biases in Understanding Culture – A Barrier to Indigenization?

Western society has made significant advances in empirically derived truth and scientific inquiry (e.g., anthropology, psychology, linguistics, etc.) since the Age of Enlightenment (e.g., Descartes, Diderot, Montesquieu, Turgot, Vico, Voltaire, etc.). The impact and importance of this epistemological approach to the world and its mass adoption by Western societies can be perceived in many elements of European civilization and culture (Boon, 1972; Goodenough, 1961; Keesing, 1974; Triandis, 1994).

The rise of Europe’s epistemological renaissance occurred during the era of colonial expansion. At the time that Europe was pressing itself onto numerous societies around the world, dominating the global stage, many Western thinkers were using this colonial perspective as the backdrop for their formation of a scientific approach to culture. From their perspective, culture comprised of a society’s knowledge, values, beliefs, arts, technologies, morals, laws, customs, practices and habits (Boon, 1972; Goodenough, 1961; Hofstede, 1984, 2001; Keesing, 1974; Triandis, 1994). While this is a reasonable interpretation, it contained, unfortunately, the value of innovation and technological advancement (see Tylor, 1871; Harris, 1971; Stocking, 1966). This innovation approach to knowledge and culture is a European value rather than a core component of culture. The problem with this misattribution is that it is self-serving; it allows for the imposition of continuum-based view of a society’s culture based on their technological sophistication and advancement. For Europeans, this provided them with the appearance of an unbiased way of judging societies as more or less civilized (or savage). Furthermore, this social evolutionist perspective of culture (Harris, 1971; Long & Chakov, 2009) allowed colonial societies to believe, naively or not, that less civilized societies would eventually evolve toward the same position as Europe, especially if they were given the ‘right’ support and guidance (Boas, 1904).

Fortunately, more modern social scientific thought posits “that cultures be understood in their own right, not as a rung in a hierarchical ladder of evolution, […] but simply as a qualitatively varied entity” (citing Boas; Hogan & Sussner, 2001, p. 22). Despite this more equitable and relativistic approach to culture in social scientific disciplines, it is very difficult for the typical citizen to not use what they know and value as a filter for examining other cultures and ways of knowing. Without the appropriate training and critical reflection, anyone can be forgiven for not recognizing this misattribution bias. From this perspective, I sometimes wonder if remnants of Tylor’s 1871 perspective of culture still exist in our society? How pervasive is the use of one’s own values, beliefs and institutions in trying to understand, and judge, other cultures? Can we find ways to move past these types of biases to build a pluralistic cultured environment at the University of Saskatchewan?

As always, I would appreciate hearing from you about your thoughts, concerns, or suggestions on this blog post. Please contact me to talk (stryker.calvez@usask.ca).

If you would like information about the GMCTE including about the programs and supports we offer, please contact us at gmcte@usask.ca

Boas, F. (1904). The history of anthropology. Science, 20, 513-524.
Boon, J. A. (1972). From Symbolism to Structuralism: Levi-Strauss in Literary Tradition. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Goodenough, W. H. (1961). Comment on cultural evolution. Daedalus, 90, 521-528.
Harris, M. (1971).  The rise of anthropological theory: A history of theories of culture. New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Inc.
Hofstede, G. (1984). Culture’s consequences: Differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviours, institutions and organizations across nations, 2nd Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
Hogan, J. D. & Sussner, B. D. (2001). Cross-cultural psychology in historical perspective. In L. L. Adler & U. P. Gielen (Eds.). Cross-cultural topics in psychology. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Keesing, R. M. (1974). Theories of culture. Annual Review of Anthropology, 3, 73-97.
Long, H., & Chakov, K. (2009). Social Evolutionism. Retrieved on April 30, 2010, from: http://web.as.ua.edu/ant/cultures/cultures.php.
Stocking, G. W. (1966). Franz Boas and the culture concept in historical perspective. American Anthropologist, 68, 867-882.
Triandis HC. 1994. Culture and Social Behaviour. New York: McGraw-Hill
Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive Culture. New York, NY: Brentano’s.

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