Why are we blaming ‘culture’ for social and economic problems?

By Associate Professor Sunil Venaik and Dr Paul Brewer for The Conversation(September 2015)


A recent edition of The Economist states:

“Chinese culture attaches a particularly high value to the idea that families should live together. Yet ever more people are living alone.”

The two statements are contradictory. The fact there is plenty of evidence showing many Chinese “people are living alone” should trigger the question: do the Chinese really attach “a particularly high value to the idea that families should live together”?

That such a question is rarely asked tells us something important about the predominant role of “culture” in modern communication and interpretation of events. Culture is taken as a defining, pervasive, obvious and well-understood explanation, and evidence is often optional. This is a poor way to understand and interpret social phenomena.

The idea that Asians are collectivist and westerners are individualistic is one of the most widely accepted stereotypes of cultural differences. Yet both assertions are highly questionable, if not downright wrong.

The fact that Chinese and Japanese families are more likely to live together through adulthood is offered as evidence of Asian collectivism. But rather than culture, this family accommodation phenomenon likely occurs because of the economic and geographic circumstances of their societies.

Property is very expensive relative to salaries in Chinese cities. Japanese cities are highly constrained in the availability of land for residential accommodation. Therefore families have tended to live together in both countries. This is not culture; this is pragmatism under the prevailing circumstances.

The Chinese government has recently strengthened a law requiring children to remain in touch with their aged parents. Western countries do not have such a law. Indeed, it has been suggested Americans may put more value on caring for parents than Chinese because, “… Chinese are more likely to have experienced that care of elders can be burdensome”.

In Australia now, “one-quarter of people aged 20 to 34 continue to live in the home of their mostly baby boomer parents” according to recent research. This also seems a very “unwestern” culture characteristic, although it is easily explained by the current economic situation of higher unemployment and rising house prices. In fact many observations appear to be the opposite to our cultural understanding of Chinese and westerners.

Culture vs attitudes

Take another example of cultural overreach in our own context. The recent government report into domestic violence in Queensland, titled “Not now, not ever. Putting an end to domestic and family violence in Queensland” included the word “culture” nearly 100 times.

Here’s a typical example, found in the executive summary:

“…the Taskforce was able to gain in depth insights into the culture that allows domestic and family violence to flourish…”.

The vast majority of the references to culture in the report also mention in the same sentence “attitudes”, for example: “Culture and attitudes affect the ability of victims to report violence and seek help.”

So what is the difference between culture and attitudes in a society? Two definitions of culture provided more than a century apart might help with this question. In 1897 Edward B. Tylor defined culture as:

“…that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

In 2014, Richard Spinello said culture is:

“…what rational people add to nature by their chosen ways of living, thinking and acting.”

These definitions include peoples’ shared attitudes, but many other things as well. So the word “culture” is unnecessary and an overstatement in the context of Australian domestic violence; “attitudes” is clearer and conveys the authors’ meaning. Yes, some attitudes of some people need to change to reduce domestic violence, but to make it a culture issue, which encompasses so much more than attitudes, is unnecessary and counterproductive. Doing this absolves individual responsibility for solving social problems. Yet we habitually include culture when discussing important social issues.

Another common misapplication of culture often arises when discussing the state of Australian aboriginal communities.

For example, the Australian Ministry for the Arts website states:

“Strong cultural identity is fundamental to Indigenous health and social and emotional wellbeing.”

Says who? If cultural identity is fundamental to Aboriginal wellbeing and if there is a large gap between the average wellbeing of indigenous people and the rest of Australia, then what are we to make of Indigenous culture? We seem to be simply going around in circles here.

Aboriginal disadvantage comes from geographical circumstances, being cut off from educational and medical resources and employment opportunities that exist in Australian cities as opposed to the Australian outback. Culture or lack of it seems secondary to the problem. If we continue to emphasise this ethereal construct called Aboriginal culture, then it is likely we will be distracted from implementing strategies to help

Aboriginal people.

Some may argue the frequent unnecessary appearance of culture in so many contexts is inconsequential. We disagree.

The unnecessary, and at times misleading, use of culture to explain social issues leads to a poor understanding of their root causes. Our world faces many challenges, ranging from war in the Middle East, to widespread global poverty, to low economic growth, to minority group disadvantage.

The more importance we attach to the largely misunderstood notion of culture to explain social issues, the harder it will be to manage these challenges and reach pragmatic solutions. And by perpetuating the culture myth with each new generation in schools and universities worldwide, we continue to risk understanding and solving fundamental problems.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Last updated:
27 February 2019