Culture as they see it

This time I asked my fellows about what culture is to them. Why? After months of reading the literature about culture in organizations, I feel as if that the more I read, the more I lose what it means. Getting too close to the subject makes you can’t see what it is! (A friend said: it is a true and empirically testable statement)

Then, as a way to distance myself a little bit, I thought that it would be helpful if I ask a person outside of the field about what they think about culture. Because sometimes, the best ideas come from an area different from yours. It turned out to be quite refreshing!

Of course, there is no right or wrong here. I was looking for their interpretation when they encounter something as ‘cultural’. Anything is valid from their own perspective.

No need to prolong, below are the excerpt of their answers to my question: what does it mean to you when you see something as ‘cultural’?

The answers

Yugo Risfriwan. A filmmaker based in Indonesia. He is practically my go-to person whenever I had a weird thought and need an external point of view.

It means that it has been done by kebiasaan [habit], by generations of people that came before. But membudaya [cultural] isn’t always something positive, it could even be destructive, people do it because they see other people before them doing it making it either a norm, or just plain habit.
We slowly adapt to them, like an organism that moves from his original habitat to another. In a social context I guess it’s the same concept. If we don’t adapt we will be outcast.
If I can analyze deeper, I think cultural things emerge mostly and firstly because of the environment/surroundings of that society. Maybe we can take an example of two groups. The mountain people and the beach people.
For example for beach people, the men tend to be fisherman and small boys wish to be a fisherman. Mothers would encourage their sons to go fishing.
For the mountains, they would have to berkebun [farm].
That’s a really raw example, really. But I think when you trace back, it tends to come to that.
Even in budaya [culture] that has to do with art. Since in certain parts of the world they only have that one certain raw material. If wood is plenty, they make wooden statues.
But now, we don’t have the travel limit anymore. There are tons of export and import of many societies mixing together. Sort of like hybrid cultures.

But at its base, I think why a certain culture exists is because it’s what came naturally. Because it was easy. Because it was accessible.

It’s interesting that he raises up the issues of:  (1) generations, (2) practice over time, (3) taken-for-grantedness, and (4) physical constraints. Culture is seen as a way to adapt to the environment that makes it easy for the coming generations to cope with it (so they can just do the work).

Alfatika Aunuriella Dini. A PhD student in Norway. She is Yugo’s wife, and what I love with this couple is their criticality. So, it just went naturally that I have to ask her too about this.

It is shared values, visible by repetitive action and embedded in a particular social construction/organization. It can also be in a form of cultural artifact like song, clothing, paintings, artworks, etc. And it’s constantly changing.
But can it also be ‘identity’?

Hmm, nice twist. That’s also what the scholars are currently debating: is identity part of culture or is it something different?

Abshir Sharif. A freelance supply chain consultant based in the Netherlands. He is my philosophical sparing partner.

For me when I hear culture, I relate to the specifics of people, society and organizations, a period in time, that means the norms on how they behave, the ethics of good of bad or aspects of their lives based on their circumstances around them that define their beliefs, emotions, etc.
But in short I would say, culture is the norms that guide our thoughts and behavior, it can be associated to specific period in time, or an organization, or people in a society.
It is system of ideas, customs and behaviors that is build together collectively through interactions and over a period of time.

Again, the issue of ‘time dimension’ (happening over time) is brought up, along with ‘norms that drive behaviors’, and ‘organizational or societal context’.

Ni Zhen. A PhD student in Luxembourg. She is my workmate with a research focus on innovation. Apart from research, she is also an avid art appreciator.

I think culture is, if I have to define rigorously, something that distinguishes human from animals, a complex system of symbols and interpretations of symbols. And they all inevitably involve some degree of intelligence and creativity.

Interesting! Symbols and interpretations of symbols. So I would translate this that culture is something ‘out there’ (outside of oneself, a symbolic representation) as well as something ‘inside here’ (inside of the self, a symbolic interpretation).

Ferdinand Padang. A master student in Sweden. He has worked several years for a large private company in Indonesia, and is currently taking his master degree on entrepreneurship.

If that appears to me, I’ll come up with a thought: should I follow or not.
But then it depends on the importance of that cultural matter. If it’s not critical for me, then it’s considered negligible [for me to follow or not].
Corruption, for example. People said that it is cultural [in Indonesia]. For me when seeing that, I think there must be a reason [for that to happen].

A different point of view. The way I interpret this is that—for him—the term ‘culture’ itself is not problematic (presumably defined in a wide sense). And the concern is more on how the “I” should react on a particular cultural practice, if it matters. Should I adopt it, should I not? Understanding the ‘reason’ behind certain practices will help the reflexive self to decide whether that practices appropriate or not to be reproduced.

Wrapping up

Culture is a wide term that can mean anything. I’m surprised, really. People are virtually able to theorize about culture—you don’t need to be a PhD in this field to theorize about it! Maybe if I were to answer my own question, I would find myself stuttering just to start my first sentence. Then the question for me is, what difference would it make if my research is about (organizational) culture? A homework to be thought through.