go to


Chapter Ten: The Systems Stage

Section 7: The Evolution of Culture



The development of culture proceeds according to the principles of societal development outlined in chapters two and four. The evolution of our understanding of "culture" through history, and as replicated in individual development, also follows general developmental principles.



We begin ethnocentrically. Unaware of alternatives, we remain unconscious of many aspects of our own culture. There is no basis for distinguishing the conventional and necessary elements of which we are aware, so we assume all is necessary. Looking at ourselves, we see only what we want to see.



When we first examine other cultures, we first notice the things that would make the least sense in our own culture -- rain dances, witch doctors, and an endless variety of others. Looking back upon ourselves, we confirm our sense of superiority -- our system appears more coherent and lacks preposterous oddities. This is how an authoritarian culture would tend to perceive other cultures.



As we probe beyond the novelties, we begin to notice that certain aspects of our culture, which we assume to be universal, are not. Not all societies are as aggressive as the United States; not all countries have a turbulent adolescent stage. Where, as in these two examples, our characteristics are proving problematic, we begin to doubt that our culture's superiority is as total as we once thought



For the formally operational, the differences and advantages of other cultures invite a systematic search for causes. Following the lead of anthropologists, we immerse ourselves, actually or vicariously, in other cultures. We begin to perceive the patterns that make up the other cultures, and now come to understand the logical role the formerly nonsensical aspects of other cultures play in structuring the other culture.



As we begin to comprehend another culture, we become able to see ourselves as others see us. Thus, we begin to form a more accurate cultural self-knowledge. This shifting of perspective makes us more aware of the ethnocentrism of our cultural evaluations:



Every civilization tends to overestimate the objective orientation of its thought and this tendency is never absent. When we make the mistake of thinking that the Savage is governed solely by organic or economic needs, we forget that he levels the same reproach at us, and that to him his own desires for knowledge seem more balanced than ours. (The Savage Mind, Claude Levi-Strauss, p. 3)



Like the intimacy of late adolescence, this cultural intimacy fosters moral and cultural relativism. This is a time of respect and acceptance of other cultures. As we discussed earlier with respect to the social-contract legalistic stage of moral development, cultural relativism does not provide a principled basis for planning our future.



Cross-cultural competence requires formal operations and intimate involvement ("in-dwelling") with two or more cultures. Prior to the acquisition, a child may master elements of two or more cultures but cannot systematically relate to either culture. (Of course, such early bi-culturalism will prove to be an asset once formal operations are achieved.) Without bicultural or multicultural involvement, a person would be too distant to comprehend another's culture, and too close to one's own culture to comprehend it. (One may be fluent in a culture, as with a language, without comprehending it.)



However, mastery of cultures and cross-cultural competence do not suffice for an understanding of "culture". As we study more and more cultures, we begin to establish systematic principles and techniques for the study of cultures. In a manner of speaking, we learn how to learn about cultures -- this implies an ability to anticipate the patterns in entirely new cultures. We become able to systematize cultural systems -- this can be seen as a manifestation of the powers of cognitive stage five. Thus, systems thinking allows us to know abstractly what characteristics are shared by all cultures -- and this is what is meant by understanding "culture" as such.



This new understanding of "culture" along with the accompanying structural tools that make the understanding possible can then be applied to one's own culture. This can provide new insights into ourselves -- elucidate the similarities and differences between ourselves and others. On the other hand, the tools within which we placed our confidence in studying other cultures might obtain absurd results at home; thus, we can become more aware of the limitations of our tools. This is consistent with the genetic structuralist premise that the correspondence between the knower (including one's tools) and the known is never exact. By refining our tools, and by borrowing corresponding tools of other cultures, we become better able to understand "culture" -- through its variations; through the invariants of "culture" we come to comprehend human nature. This, in turn, helps in the application of the morality of consequences -- since we better understand the ultimate measure of all things.







Book Contents

Transcultural Friendship: Our Political Future


<<Previous Chapter 9

Adolescence and Education

Chapter 10 Contents

The Systems Stage

Next Chapter 11>>

The Educating Society

<Previous Section




The Evolution of Culture

Next Section>