16 November 2012

Culture As An Organizing Principle

Deep Thoughts On A Shallow Study

This morning I read an executive summary of yet another fairly shallow, study on parenting in marketing research cluster analysis style from the Institute for Advanced Cultural Studies at the University of Virgina. In a nutshell, the study classified the parenting styles of about 90% of American parents into one of four "family cultures" drawing from a representative national survey of about 3,000 parents of school aged children, followed by ninety minute follow up interviews with 101 of them over three years.

The four categories were "Faithful", "Engaged Progressive", "Detached", and "American Dreamers". I've inserted additional comments on each based on the executive summary in italics next to the relevant quotations from the press release below. The added emphasis is mind and some headings have been omitted without indication.

The Faithful (20 percent of American parents) adhere to a divine and timeless morality, handed down through Christianity, Judaism or Islam, giving them a strong sense of right and wrong. Understanding human nature as “basically sinful” and seeing moral decline in the larger society, including in the public schools, the Faithful seek to defend and multiply the traditional social and moral order by creating it within their homes and instilling it in their children, with support from their church community. Raising “children whose lives reflect God’s purpose” is a more important parenting goal than their children’s eventual happiness or career success.

This group has a 4-1 ratio of Republicans to Democrats, is concentrated in the South (it is rare in the Pacific and Northeastern States), is heavily middle class white, and contains at least a plurality of Evangelical Christians. They don't trust their children, distrust the larger society, obsess about sex and aren't worried about spanking. But, they do spend a lot of time with their children and get lets of community support through the church. I'm skeptical that many Jews or Muslims actually fit in the designation despite the P.C. inclusively of the label. They have more children - a quarter have four or more.

For Engaged Progressives (21 percent of parents), morality centers around personal freedom and responsibility. Having sidelined God as morality’s author, Engaged Progressives see few moral absolutes beyond the Golden Rule. They value honesty, are skeptical about religion and are often guided morally by their own personal experience or what “feels right” to them. Politically liberal and the least religious of all family types, they are generally optimistic about today’s culture and their children’s prospects. Aiming to train their children to be “responsible choosers,” Engaged Progressives strategically allow their children freedom at younger ages than other parents. By age 14, their children have complete information about birth control, by 15 they are surfing the Web without adult supervision, and by age 16 they are watching R-rated movies.

This group which includes me and most of my parent peers has a 4-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans, they are rare in the South and common in the Pacific states and Northeast, this group is heavily middle to upper middle class white, is secular leaning, trusts their children and the larger world (except religion), disfavors spanking, and is by far the most educated. They have slightly higher divorce rates than the Faithful, but still at the national average level. They are much more likely than the Faithful to see having two children as ideal and live accordingly.

The parenting strategy of The Detached (19 percent of parents) can be summarized as: Let kids be kids and let the cards fall where they may. The Detached are primarily white parents with blue-collar jobs, no college degree and lower household income. Pessimistic about the future and their children’s opportunities, they report lower levels of marital happiness, and do not feel particularly close to their children. They feel they are in a “losing battle with all the other influences out there” and it shows in their practices. They spend less than two hours a day interacting with their children, they do not routinely monitor their children’s homework, and they report lower grades for their children. When they do have dinner together as a family it is often in front of the TV.

American Dreamers (27 percent of parents) are defined by their optimism about their children’s abilities and opportunities. These parents, with relatively low household income and education, pour themselves into raising their children and providing them every possible material and social advantage. They also invest much effort protecting them from negative social influences and shaping their children’s moral character. This is the most common family culture among blacks and Hispanics, with each group making up about a quarter of American Dreamers. American Dreamers describe their relationships with their children as “very close” and express a strong desire to be “best friends” with their children once they are grown.

One comment true for all four categories rang particularly true:

Unlike many parents in the 1960s who faced a “generation gap,” today's parents believe their children largely share their values. Most family arguments and strife center around mundane, day-to-day issues like doing chores.

The Centrality of Culture And Limits Of Cluster Analysis

Despite the fact that the study was fairly shallow, it has some resonance and validates the notion of using the organizational unit of "a culture" as an organizing principle in a wide variety of social science disciplines from archaeology, to linguistics, to the study of religion, to political science, to history, to educational theory, to law, to the economics and sociology of social class, to criminology, to applied psychology, to economic development.

Cluster analysis in survey methodology or demographic studies works primarily because there actually is an underlying reality of discrete cultures and subcultures that are internally fairly (although not entirely) homogeneous.

However, the study can be faulted for simply doing raw cluster analysis rather than fitting parenting cultures into the already well established literature of white and ethnic subcultures in the United States, sometimes reflecting different approaches to parenting by members of different social classes who form subcultures within the same culture, and at other times reflecting affiliations with fundamentally separate cultural units.

Raw cluster analysis methods conflate parallel but historically and culturally distinct groups based on superficial similarities in a way that can obscure as much as it reveals. For example, while "Faithful" parenting may accurately reflect to some extent the parenting style of an American Muslim convert who is culturally Southern with Evangelical Christian roots, it is likely something of a false friend that is more likely to be misleading than helpful when used to make generalizations about an American Orthodox Jew or a Muslim in an immigrant community.

Likewise, I suspect that the "Detached" parenting category may be a degenerate category made up of more than one class specific subculture within one of the other sets of parenting folkways that conceals differing sets of parental aspirations that aren't being realized by people who might have been Engaged Progressive or Faithful parents, for example, if they had the resources to do so.

The notion that the most fruitful way to understand political activity is on some platonic multidimensional scale looking at views, for example, on cultural and economic dimensions, is mostly wrong. Instead, political ideology is best understood as the product of a process of building coalitions of coherent, pre-existing, relatively stable discrete cultures and subcultures.

What Is A Culture, In The Sense Of An Analytical Object In The Social Sciences?

To use the analytical framework of Fischer's book "Albion's Seed," white Americans largely derive their own cultures from four English subcultures with roots going back to the colonial era which subsequent waves of immigrants have largely absorbed from local regional culture of the place to which they have migrated within the United States. These four main cultures were those of the New England Puritans, the Mid-Atlantic Quakers, the Royalist in exile lowland South, and the Borderlands Culture of Appalachia and the highlands South (the influences of the Dutch in the greater New York City area, of a small Celtic immigrant community in a small Southern coastal area, a West Indian colonial influenced area in South Carolina, the French influence in Louisiana, Hispanic influences in the American Southwest and Florida, and African American cultures were omitted from that analysis). The first two were particularly influential in the culture "North" which is predominant in Blue State America, while the latter two were particularly influential in the cultural "South which is predominant in Red State America.

Each culture is an organizing unit of analysis shares a rich and multifaceted set of "folkways" that include everything from marriage and parenting practices, to political ideologies, to attitudes towards legal institutions, to moral values, to attitudes towards the supernatural, to predominant means of economic organization, to styles of social interactions, to religious inclinations, to fashions in clothing, household goods, architecture, aesthetic sensibilities and food, to rhythm of the year. A "culture" in this sense, generally corresponds to a particular linguistic dialect, which is one of the folkways that goes into making the culture.

There are gray cases of ambiguous or hybrid individuals, but the overwhelming general rule is that the vast majority of people are easily associated with a particular culture (often specific to their ethnicity, with religion and region being a particular useful proxy for white subcultures that are not formally recognized in a rigorous way statistically).

The processes involved in religious conversions are often part and parcel of the larger process of cultural conversion as religion is an important component of and marker of cultural identity. Mass migrations, and sometimes mass populations replacements or mass "culture shifts" (by analogy to mass language shifts), are also critical mechanisms here. Subcultures with distinct and distant historical sources can experience convergent evolution in given conditions and can also borrow from each other creating areal effects similar to those seen in linguistic families.

The overall structure of variation in culture closely resembles the structure of variation in languages where some features (isoglosses) are particularly diagnostic of the overall nature of the dialect variation that exists as a whole. The concept of a "culture" in this sense is also closely linked to the notion of a "population" in population genetics. Difficulties in definition have more to do with fuzzy thinking about the concept within disciplines than it does with a deficiency of the concept itself as a rigorous and useful one.

The folkways of a culture are deeply intertwined with each other, interdependent and mutually reinforcing. While there is room for innovation and variation within a culture, diversification and assimilation of foreign influences, and the emergence of subcultures, individual pieces of a culture cannot be adjusted a la carte. Instead, a culture as a whole evolves from its historical roots with many interrelated parts changing at the same time in response to particular developments and influences.

Founding cultures are profoundly persistent. They still have clearly visible influences on day to day life two hundred and fifty years after their arrival, despite the fact that to survive every piece of these cultures must be retransmitted at each new generation. Founding cultures are more stable, for example, than the ideology of the political parties whose regional strengths reflect the coalitions built from them.

Cultural Darwinism

More than one culture can co-exist in a single region, and when this happens, it often corresponds, in part, to socio-economic or social class or caste or ethnic divides. Operationally, race is mostly relevant because it is reflective of a cultural package. But, the co-existence of multiple cultures in a single community or society is not necessarily stable.

Most of the interesting political struggles are fundamentally competitions between representatives of particular cultures. This is also the source of a great deal of societal tension and conflict in day to day life.  Understanding history in the context of struggles between competing cultures and of the evolutionary history of today's competing cultures can give history much more meaning and relevance than a more traditional presentation of the subject.

While academic and elite etiquette in multicultural society like that of the U.S. nominally assumes that all cultures in the land are equal in dignity, this is a bit like the equality one sees in U.S. Constitutional law. This equality in dignity does not deny the fact that cultures are real functional aspects of how we live our lives and that some cultures may have more of a "selective advantage" in society than another in a particular time and place. In one era, under one set of conditions, for example, in early 18th century Appalachia, a Borderland culture may be the optimal set of folkways from the available choices. In another place and era, for example, in the Mid-Atlantic states as industrialization is becoming a critical economic trend in the mid-19th century, the cultural concepts of the early American Quakers may be more optimal.

Memetic evolution operates to a great extent at the level of diversity within the cultures and subcultures of a region, in a manner parallel to genetic evolution. Variations that are more functional thrive and are transmitted to the next generation both parent to child, and by securing converts who consciously adopt cultural practices different from the ones that they were born to know. Dysfunctional variations wither as adherents of it have fewer descendants biologically and have fewer people who convert into the culture than convert out of it. Cultural co-existence is often unstable, at least until workable institutions of federalism or stable metacultural rules involving relationships between castes or distinct cultures within a society are worked out to form a seamless whole.

Put more brutally, often, when there is more than one culture in a society, one will win and the rest will lose.

Long before that happens, a society will start to have a superstrate or dominant culture, and one or more substrate or subordinate cultures. Ultimately, the subordinate cultures will tend to go extinct entirely.

The stakes in culture wars are high, the process of determining who wins isn't played by the rules of cricket, and as societies increasingly grow in scale as technology makes the world a smaller place, the number of competitors in each ring fighting to the death in these collective culture wars become greater.

The mass gladitorial competition of cultures as the increased scale of society has reduced the number of available cultural niches is going on as vigorously now as it ever has in history.  Half of the world's languages, and thus, half of its cultures (defined at the fairly high level of analysis of all of the cultures and subcultures associated with particular mutually unintelligible dialects) will die in a matter of decades.

Well mannered academics and elite culture members may have the luxury of treating the competitors in these culture wars as contestants equal in dignity.   But, in general, the competitors are usually going to be distinctly unequal in reality in their fitness within the context of a particular time or place. Some will thrive while others will wither, unless they can evolve to be more competitive or parley themselves into some "ecological niche" within the society's cultural landscape that allows them to persist under conditions that allow the culture to survive - for example, as the Amish and Mormons and ultra-Orthodox Jews have managed to in American society, but the Shakers did not.

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