Cultural Scenes

Complex societies such as ours are not culturally homogeneous. That is, there is no single common stock of knowledge and beliefs that exhaustively and comprehensively defines and delimits the range of behaviours of all members of 'British society' (or 'American society', or 'French society', ...). Quite apart from the fact that our society is in any case made up of a large number of distinct ethnic groups, each with its own historical culture, individuals in complex societies will -- in virtue of internal subdivisions according to locale, employment, education, political affiliation, and so on -- belong to a number of distinct, if overlapping, subgroups, many of these subgroups possibly being geographically unbounded (e.g., membership of a liberal profession such as teaching or medicine, or of a multinational company). An American male will, for example, have learned in the course of primary socialisation and internalised what it means culturally to be an American; yet at the same time will participate in a culture developed within the context of his own family. Politically, he may support the Republican Party, and espouse their values and beliefs. Professionally, he may be a sales executive and have internalised the 'theory of the world' that provides cognitive support for his professional activities; at the same time, he may work for a company whose 'corporate culture' he has assimilated. In his leisure time, he may be a keen angler and have acquired the specialised knowledge, skills and vocabulary that characterise the 'culture of angling'; and so on (see Figure 6).


Figure 6: Cultural identities in complex societies

Consequently, rather than endeavouring to find and describe the 'culture' of the society as a whole, the ethnographer will look for particular cultural scenes which inform individuals' behaviour and experience in particular situations. Any individual's 'culture', then, may best be viewed figuratively as a complex cognitive map of which each cultural scene is an area or region. Sharing one cultural scene with one group, another with another group, and so on, each individual will have a (probably) unique combination of such scenes that define his culture overall.

DEFINITION. A cultural scene is the information shared by two or more people that defines some aspect of their experience.
COMMENTARY. Cultural scenes are closely linked to recurrent social situations. The latter are settings for action, made up of the place, events, persons, behaviour and objects that can be observed by the outsider; the former are the definitions of these situations held by the insider.

For some given social situation, there may be any number of potential corresponding cultural scenes -- as many as there are actors. Spradley and McCurdy give the example of the checkout desk at a library, which

is quite different for the librarian who designed it to safeguard his books, the employee who works at the desk for long periods of time, the professional book thief who peddles his acquisitions on the used book market, and the law-abiding citizen who frequently uses the library. (Spradley & McCurdy, 1972, p.27)

Each of the actors shares with the others the phenomenal components of the situation, and to an extent they share the same social reality and social understandings; what is identifiable and nameable by one will largely be so, in much the same way, for the others. Yet each will have a different cultural scene for the situation, reflecting their contrasting interests.