The Culture Cycle

No one explains what, exactly, culture is, how it works, or how to change it for the better. A cognitive tool that fills this gap is the culture cycle, a tool that not only describes how culture works but also prescribes how to make lasting change. The culture cycle is the iterative recursive process whereby people create cultures to which they later adapt, and cultures shape people so they act in ways that perpetuate the cultures.

In other words, cultures and people, and some other primates, make each other up. This process involves four nested levels: individual selves, – one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions; the everyday practices and artifacts that reflect and shape those selves; the institutions – education, law, media, – that afford or discourage those everyday practices and artifacts; and pervasive ideas about what is good, right, and human that both influence and are influenced by all four levels.

The culture cycle rolls for all types of social distinctions, from the macro, – nation, race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, social class, generation, etc., – to the micro, – occupation, organization, neighbourhood, hobby, genre preference, family, etc.

One consequence of the culture cycle is that no action is caused by either individual or psychological features or external influences. Both are always at work. Just as there is no such thing as a culture without agents, there are no agents without culture. Humans are culturally shaped shapers. And so, for example, in the case of a school shooting, it is overly simplistic to ask whether the perpetrator acted because of mental illness, or because of a hostile and bullying climate, or because he had easy access to a particularly deadly cultural artifact (i.e. a gun), or because institutions encourage that climate and allow access to that artifact, or because pervasive ideas and images glorify resistance and violence.

The better question and the one that the culture cycle requires is – How do these four levels of forces interact? Indeed researchers at the vanguard of public health contend that neither social stressors nor individual vulnerabilities are enough to produce most mental illnesses. Instead the interplay of biology and culture, of genes and environments, of nature and nurture is responsible for most psychiatric disorders.

Hazel Rose Markus, Professor, Behavioural Sciences, Stanford University
Alana Conner, Science Writer, Social Psychologist, The Tech Museum
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