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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

How to challenge – or defend – a dominant culture

This blog is a slightly longer read that describes a particular model of culture. This subject may be as dry as sawdust to many, but it has afforded me helpful insights into some of the complex dynamics that make up a culture – and glimpses of what it might take to influence and change it. Here goes.

I was recently recommended a book by a good friend of 30+ years standing who is mainly US-based but is Austrian in origin and teaches part time at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. It is called To Change the World and was written by James Davison Hunter, an American professor based at the University of Virginia, to whom I offer acknowledgement for making use of his writing.

Whilst the book is predominantly a sober assessment of the complex historical and current relationship between state and religion (in this case, Christianity) in the US, constitutionally separate of course, I was struck by one of its foundational sections in which it lays out competing views of culture: a “common” model and an alternative that Hunter suggests is the more compelling.

I am going to attempt to summarise this alternative view here because I would be interested in what others think about it. Whilst not of relevance to everyone, I would suggest its potential value to anyone who truly wants to change the world. I know I do.

The common view of culture as he describes it is, in brief, the sum of what is in the hearts and minds of individuals, manifesting as values and summing to a series of worldviews, all of which coalesce into a majority viewpoint that makes up the expression of the culture of a group or society at large. If you want to change the culture, it follows, influence those values of individuals to such an extent that the roll-up via worldviews to overall culture is transformed to the way that you would like to see it. Wrong, he says, and a waste of time attempting to go about it this way.

The alternative model of culture, as Hunter presents it, is a synthesis of the thinking of luminaries including Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault, names I at least recognise, plus a bunch of others I don’t.

He presents it in the form of seven propositions outlining the basis of culture and a further four encompassing the way culture changes. He says his exposition is necessarily abbreviated and I am having a go at boiling it down even further here, so it will inevitably lose granularity along the way. Here is my attempt.

1. Culture is a series of truth claims and moral obligations. Hunter calls these “commanding truths”, added to which are associated obligations for adherence, all of which are so deeply embedded and foundational to our sense of experience that they become self-evident; in other words, it is more visceral than a “worldview” and thereby less readily mutable.

2. Culture is a product of history. The slow accretions of history give rise to the past persisting into the present consciousness of a community, and immersion in it eases a constituent individual’s way of seeing the world such that it is something experienced as second nature.

3. Culture is intrinsically dialectical. Dialectical – that is, in dialogue – along two axes. Firstly, between ideas and institutions (“culture as much an infrastructure as it is ideas”). Secondly, between people and institutions: institutions comprise individuals but institutions “act back” to form the structure of individuals’ consciousness.

4. Culture is a resource and, as such, is a form of power. Such a resource comprises symbols such as ideas, information, knowledge, wisdom, all as expressed through pronouncement, speeches, books etc., adding up to symbolic capital. This symbolic capital translates into power and influence through credibility and standing.

5. Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “centre” and “periphery”. Most symbolic capital is produced at the centre of a network where prestige is highest, not the periphery where it is lower.

6. Culture is generated within networks. In contrast to the “great man” (or person, rather) view of history, it is networks that create culture, the denser the more effectively it comes about.

7. Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent. Closely intermixed with the economy through the commodification of culture, and with government as the medium for production of knowledge and information. Also comprises many different “fields” such as ideological movements, religious traditions, publishing, education etc. plus other relatively distinct categories such as geography, ethnicity and social classes, all to some degree in tension with each other.

And four propositions on cultural change:

8. Cultures change from the top down, rarely from the bottom up. Whilst change can be created “bottom up” through revolutionary movements and the like, most enduring forms of cultural change are “top down”, the work of elites that is necessary for enduring success even if the original impetus came from below.

9. Change is typically initiated by elites who are [just] outside of the centremost positions of prestige. Typically, change originates not right in the nucleus but adjacent to it (and seldom at the periphery), eventually mounting a successful challenge to the elites at the nucleus, thus allowing subsequent propagation outwards and downwards.

10. World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap. That is, where there are dense and overlapping spheres of life, whether cultural, social, economic and often political. Even with such optimal conditions of overlaid aspects, change requires persistence over several years.

11. Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight. There is a near-inevitable conflict of attempted legitimation by the challenger and attempted delegitimation by the defender through labelling as deviant, inadequate and the like. This is true even though there are also sometimes other dynamics of convergence and assimilation.

What then is the consequence of this alternative view? According to Hunter, the demolition of received wisdom about how cultural change happens means that another approach to culture change is necessary for any chance of success: it is not by idealism alone and the sheer power of a momentous idea; it is not by via the individualism of a single, great person; it is not via grass-roots “hearts and minds”. In fact, if anything it is that cultures change hearts and minds and not the other way around.

In my own heart and mind, I do want to challenge and change the dominant culture for what I believe would be the better but, on the face, Hunter has just made my task a lot more involved. However, at least I know now not just to focus in futile fashion on the power of ideas to change hearts and minds and hope thereby to create a groundswell. I need to initiate a long march through the institutions and park myself just outside the predominant nucleus of the elites, enlist plenty of assistance in many areas of life and then be ready to propagate my grand plan.

And be prepared for a long fight. Easy!

Finally, if I may be so bold, I suggest you also take a peek at another blog entry, which is a discussion about the origins and development of “Western Culture”, based on writing by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah once it is posted in the near future. If this blog entry describes culture in abstract, somewhat theoretical terms, I hope the other entry complements it with a series of empirical observations that make it more concrete. You will need to decide for yourself whether they are mutually consistent and do be sure to let me know what you think in the comments section or by other means.

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22 lis 2020

Stephen - I'm curious about a couple of things. Does Hunter touch on generational change? It seems to me there have been cultural shifts that the "elite" in one generation would not countenance but that the next generation simply views as matter of fact, such as changes in attitudes to gender, sex and so on. You could argue that this is a new elite emerging from the next generation and starting to inform / nudge / shove the old elite. But if so, what informed that new elite? I'm thinking that is something at the grass roots - what they saw around them every day - and that was more influential than the "handed down" thinking of the old elite.

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