Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Culture of Nature

It amazes me how coincidental life can be at times.
Last Tuesday, February 1, I sat through class where we discussed Ann Swidler’s theory on culture as a tool kit—“a style or a set of skills and habits” and how it explained behavior and action in broader terms than as only defined by values and a “set of preferences or wants.”  In her article “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” Swidler illustrates her argument with an example of the culture of poverty.  She compares the behaviors of “lower class” and “middle class” individuals and suggests that the difference in these behaviors cannot be defined as driven by incongruent value systems but rather by incongruent knowledge sets. 

If one asked a slum youth why he did not take steps to pursue a middle-class path to success (or indeed asked oneself why one did not pursue a different life direction) the answer might well be not “I don’t want that life,” but instead, “Who me?”  One can hardly pursue success in a world where the accepted skills, style, and informal know-how are unfamiliar.  One does better to look for a line of action for which one already has the cultural equipment.

While this holds true for the majority of population, I find myself wondering how this can be applied to those who completely ignore their cultural tool kits and step outside of this zone of familiarity to become someone and to do something no one expected or even thought possible.  These stories are often marked by tales of hard work and extreme trials, perhaps proving Swidler’s sentiment that to “pursue success in a world…unfamiliar” is indeed no easy task, but nevertheless these stories exist.  It seems, then, that in these cases culture has failed to exert its hold over behavior: these are stories of individuals who clearly pursue values outside of their tool kit, and I wonder how much external influence has been exerted in these cases.  Perhaps this is the answer—that another culture, an outside culture, has moved in and altered the course of action.  But to argue this seems to argue that culture can then be defined by values and preferences alone, and the tool kit becomes less important in governing behavior.  I’m reminded of an argument I had with my fellow volunteers in Senegal regarding how to organize a girls’ camp and who to invite.  Urban volunteers championed that the camp should cater to girls with already strong academic background and an obvious diverse range of opportunity open to them in years ahead while rural volunteers wanted to expose village girls with no real access to education or opportunity to experience life outside of the village.  The urban volunteers argued that unless the girls were already literate then certain activities such as journal writing were impossible and that those without an idea of life beyond the village would not be able to benefit from goal-setting exercises and other “empowering” activities.  This was exactly what the rural volunteers wished to address: village girls and their families were not even aware of such activities, and unless we helped to expand their values then they would never have goals other than that of getting married by fourteen and having as many children as possible.  This opens another whole can of worms as to whether or not we were morally correct in assuming these families wanted to change their values (and essentially their culture), but Peace Corps is billed as an organization fostering cultural exchange so we considered the act of “presenting opportunity and choice” as the least culturally destructive  agendas to adopt. 

But alas, I digress—I have yet to address the true “coincidental” element of February 1.  Upon leaving the classroom with Ann Swidler’s “tool kit” theory fresh in my mind, I stopped at the kiosk of newspapers on the first floor of the building and snagged myself a New York Times.  There, on page D2 of the Science Times section, was an article on New Caledonian crows. 

New York Times Article: Nurturing Nests Lift These Birds to a Higher Perch (Natalie Angier)

These crows are one of a kind.  The New Caledonian crow might have the largest brain size among all of its relatives, and it possesses incredible ingenuity when it comes to manipulating inanimate objects to perform specific tasks.  The amazing discovery, though, is that while all New Caledonian crows possess a tool-making ability, it appears as if different styles have developed specific to region and that these styles have been maintained and specialized long enough among the regional populations (mostly due to the crows’ tendencies to live in a “nuclear family arrangement”) to lead scientists to claim these “crows have their version of culture.” 

These crows have a very defined (an unusual) tool kit.  It’s ironic that their tool kit should include actual tools, or at least a tool-making ability, but this irony does not detract from the reality that these skills are passed from generation to generation, thus creating a specific set of behaviors among crows within a given region.  It is nearly impossible to argue that these crows have some sort of different set of values than other birds—that is, they are still primarily focused on gathering food for themselves and their family and do not aspire to an otherwise un-birdlike agenda of world domination or the gift of human tongue.  However, the social structure of the New Caledonian crow is dissimilar to that of other birds in the family, and this provides a major clue as to how the development of their “tool kit” is perpetuated through generations.  While it could be argued that the familial structure (juveniles remaining with the parents for up to two years) is necessary for the juveniles to learn the tool-making skills from the parents, it could also be argued that the familial bonds indicate a different set of values amongst the crows, and that this set of values then allows for the cultivation of such tool-making skills, thus rejecting Swidler’s tool kit theory as a behavior-shaping phenomena. 

The latter seems to be the article’s angle on culture, that the skills of the New Caledonian crow as a cultural phenomenon are derived from their social structure that is derived from a set of values, in this case unusual young-rearing preferences.  However, the article indirectly supports Swidler’s theory as well—these preferences led to a development of a tool kit that now demands the continuation of behavior in compliance with the social structure, lest the skills and knowledge (in essence, the culture as Swidler sees it) go by the wayside.  So perhaps cultural values and preferences and cultural skills, habits, and styles cannot be so easily substituted one for the other when defining culture.  Instead, it becomes a “chicken or the egg” conundrum, where both are so intricately entwined that the cause and effect of both on the other is nearly impossible to delineate. 
Then again, perhaps this is an article on birds…and potentially irrelevant to the discourse on human culture?  But then that’s a whole other pickle…    

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