Posts Tagged ‘causality’

The Song Remains the Same

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

“If behavior isn’t culture, then what is?”

That’s a question from the comments section of the Boston Review article I cited yesterday on the “culture of poverty” argument. I used to think a lot about this. As an undergrad, theorizing “political culture” was one of my pet projects. One of my mentors, Jeff Weintraub, has written perceptively on this topic for a number of years, and my gut always told me there was something there – that people’s beliefs and worldviews aren’t just a manifestation of underlying structural dynamics, but that culture and structure have a complicated interplay that together defines social reality.

The challenge is to acknowledge this interplay while avoiding reductionist arguments like the “culture of poverty.” It’s frustrating to me that cultural arguments so often get hijacked for conservative or reactionary ends. Culture is used to explain continuity – or to justify the status quo. “The poor will always be with us.” But for me, the appeal of culture was always the hopey-changey thing: that people don’t need to be constrained or determined by their material circumstances, that political imagination and intentional collective action driven by belief and vision about a better world can lead to real change. I see culture as enabling, not constraining. It’s something we build, not just something we inhabit.

We have such a hard time dealing with reciprocal causation, those dynamics between culture and structure aren’t very amenable to technical analysis, so our tools for understanding them aren’t great. Which means there’s some theorizing to do, to try to clear the air. I’ll start taking a crack tomorrow.

(By the way, this does actually have something to do with philanthropy, because values are a critical part of the philanthropic equation, and our conceptual tools for understanding and talking about values are pretty underdeveloped.)