What is a 'culture'? 2: Culture as internalised knowledge

Clearly communicative acts and other forms of social behaviour, while evidencing the culture, are themselves the outcomes of (often largely unconscious) choices made, on the basis of internalised knowledge and incoming information, at a more fundamental level. In the most general terms, this knowledge constitutes a tacit, unarticulated and unanalysed, background of commonplace assumptions against which events take place and in terms of which events make sense. That adults normally work for so many hours a day through a large part of their lives, that work is ordinarily remunerable, that time is a measurable resource, that most work presupposes some form of appropriate prior training, and such like, are all very general items of tacit knowledge that fall within this taken-for-granted background.

At the most fine-grained level of analysis, there are forms of knowledge pertaining to particular skills. Take, as a very specific and restricted example, the rules learned by the individual for the creation of documents with a word-processor. She will in the first place, long before ever laying hands on a keyboard, have learned a set of (language-specific) rules for arranging characters in sequence to represent words, and for arranging words in syntactically acceptable sequences to form sentences. Further, she will later have learned how to switch on her computer, how to insert a floppy disk, how to boot up the system, how to use a mouse, how to use the on-line tools for the formatting of text, how to send output to a printer. She will also have learned specifically how to create memoranda, business letters, reports, and so on, including any features of in-house style of the organisation of which she is a member. Each behaviour is the product of actions in part generated by the cultural knowledge related to writing. At the same time, this knowledge, to the extent that it is shared, enables others to interpret the behavioural outputs.

Culture, according to the definition I am going to use, is then not the overt behaviour, nor is it the complex co-ordination of actions producing that behaviour. Rather, it is that knowledge which one must have internalised in order to generate that behaviour. (Under this view, the 'corporate culture' may now be seen as a sort of epiphenomenal spume emerging from the lower level action.)

We shall therefore take 'culture' hereafter to refer more precisely to "the knowledge people use to generate and interpret social behavior" (Spradley & McCurdy, 1972, p. 8; see also Spradley, 1980, p.6), with a sufficiently broad understanding of 'social behaviour' to include intersubjectively interpretable manifestations of technical knowledge (as indeed Spradley and McCurdy themselves implicitly take it to mean). This will allow us to give an account of the information-processing activities of people in organisations. Provisionally (since this is something of an oversimplification), I shall follow Goodenough (1957, p.167; my italics) in holding that

A society's culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members ... Culture is not a material phenomenon; it does not consist of things, behaviour, or emotions. It is rather an organisation of these things. It is the form of things that people have in mind, their models for perceiving, relating, and otherwise interpreting them. []

In other words, then, we are stepping back from a phenomenal to a cognitive notion of 'culture' (see Figure 1). The output of cultural knowledge is to be distinguished from the internalised knowledge itself that underpins our ability to produce that output — that is, to generate intersubjectively interpretable cultural behaviour, including linguistic behaviour ('speech messages'), and to manufacture the physical artefacts that make sense to us only with reference to that shared knowledge.


Figure 1: Internalised knowledge generate behaviour, artefacts, and messages

The culture, then, — viewed as knowledge — is 'stored' in the minds of all those who participate in the culture, ultimately encoded neurophysiologically and processed by electrochemical activity in the brain.


[] The concept of culture I am using here has much in common generally with symbolic interactionism (Mead, 1962; Manis & Meltzer, 1967; Blumer, 1969), and specifically with ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967) -- that is, the study of the everyday, commonsense understandings that people have of the world around them. Blumer (1969, p.2) identifies three premises on which the theory rests:

  1. "human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them"
  2. "the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one's fellows"
  3. "meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person dealing with the things he encounters"

[Back to text]