The meaning humans give to actions, concepts and behaviours is dependent on the cultural milieu and is conditioned to a great extent by the underlying meaning systems, values and frames of meaning he/she inherites from the society in general. Socialization plays a direct role in that process. Education, effects of peers and the intellectual atmosphere all contribute to what is called cultural meaning or systems of meaning. Cultural meaning conditions our perception and determines the way we process external perceptions. In this sense, what Gregory Bateson calls “an ecology of mind” is at work here.
The mind acts in an ecology of preceding concepts, comments and semantic networks operating in a particular field and in society as well. Through these networks meaning is produced within a particular person, system, or culture. This meaning then frames and motivates the actions of individuals and groups. “Events are not just there and happen, but they have a meaning and happen because of that meaning,” wrote Clifford Geertz. Meaning is also historically formed. For example; body image varies across cultures and is shaped by the specific meaning given to it by a culture.
There is a time dimension involved in this same process, too. Western societies tend to value slim and fit bodies in terms of representation in popular culture. Whereas, body images of other cultures are very different in most cases. Some Pacific island people prefer fatness both as a sign of wealth and of esthetic superiority. But with the advent of globalization and the expansion of western cultural codes through TV and other media, these same people have come to question their body images. Western culture’s meaning system expanded its sphere of influence in that case.
In fact, a mild fatness was accepted as a desirable physical trait in western history, too. Much of what is classified under popular culture is subject to meaning systems and the accompanying perceptions about them. A society’s selective perceptions and evaluations favor a certain behavior, a mode of thought and even such ephemeral things as fashion fads. Famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz suggests that an analysis of culture must also cope with the category of meaning.
“The culture concept to which I adhere . denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited concepts expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life. ” As is understod from this definition, meaning is an inseparable component of culture and it directly shapes our perceptions and understanding. Alternative meaning systems combine to give a culture its core values. As a cultural phenomenon, gift giving may be evaluated from that pespective looking at different cultures and their subjective meaning systems attributed to this practice.
As can be deduced from David R. Counts’ article , some cultures see the act of gift giving in a radically different way. Reciprocity brings about a gift giving approach that is essentially different from ours. The people of New Guinea think gift giving must include a symmetry in that you also have to respond to the act of gift giving by giving something in return for the one you received. It is a kind of implied bargain, or shopping through barter more to say. In the lack of formal rules and practices of trade, the natives created their own concept of reciprocal gift giving as a means of doing trade.
From a western point of view, the meanings ascribed to gift giving are very different, though. But New Guineans have refined this form of gift giving through centuries and created this particular meaning system. Western culture sees gift giving as away from commercial thoughts. Though reciprocity is emphasized again, the hints of mutual give-and-take are shunned carefully lest monetary concerns come between. Western culture’s refusal of this kind of gift giving and its derisory look at the issue are witnessed through some sayings and idioms. The term “Indian giver” is one such example.
A network of meanings developed through centuries of experience emerges as cultural meaning. It becomes a culture’s core over time and forms the basis also of other attitudes. Western culture makes one think there are indeed too many bananas, whereas in New Guinea there can not be too many bananas at all. Another cultural phenomenon seen through the different lenses of various cultures is leadership. Leadership is also loaded with cultural meanings and values. In general, eastern cultures are said to put much emphasis on social harmony and collective action.
Respect to elders, family ties are given importance in these cultures. Leaders in these cultures are expected to be humble, caring and considerate thinking about the well-being of their followers. In this sense, they are seen as somewhat paternalistic figures. They are required to show mercy and understanding towards inferiors, to care for the problems of those they lead. Whereas, in western culture a competitive society is preferred and leaders are thought to be assertive, highly competitive and efficient decision makers. Humane considerations do not seem to play great role in this scheme.
Efficiency and beneficial results matter more than paternalistic protection of subordinates. So, one who is accepted in the West as a good leader may be perceived as a ruthless go-getter obsessed with his egotistic views in the East. Cultural meaning acquired through immediate experience and classified into an unwritten code of ethics, appears as the determinant of perceptions about power and leadership. In contrast, a western look may detect an apathetic, lethargic society in the East viewing the style of leadership there as suffocating innovation and development.
These two seemingly irreconcilable views about the same concept result from the respective meaning systems of the two cultures. Leaving aside the theoretical concerns over the validity of the broad-based concept culture, it is possible to derive conclusions after comparing differences between meaning systems of societies. Culture as a web of meaning systems is observed best in such comparisons. I would like to quote here a passage from Clifford Geertz who is among those attributing great singificance to culture as a system of meanings. ” The concept of culture I espouse . . .
is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experiential science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. . . . Meaning, that elusive and ill-defined pseudoentity we were once more than content to leave philosophers and literary critics to fumble with, has now come back into the heart of our discipline. ” New Guineans asserted their view on gift giving and that’s what struck westerners most as strange.
In the other case of Fiji girls experiencing problems with their body image, western culture’s meaning system can be said to intrude upon the culture-and hence meaning system- of Fiji through the images brought by mass media. Culture is an ambient, all encompassing structure composed of interrelated and interdependent meaning systems. There are both implied and overt systems of meaning in a culture and they can be grasped through socialization. As I tried to show with respect to the phenomena of gift giving and leadership, specific meaning systems forming a culture condition our perceptions and how we evaluate certain phenomena.
If I am not mistaken, Italian writer Umberto Eco penned a short story protagonist of which is a “savage” from a distant land who visits a “developed and civilized” country to observe the mores, customs and habits of the people living there. Of course the apparent irony points to the reversal of the usual relationship between “savages and the civilized”; it has always been the civilized who observed and analyzed savages but that time roles were exchanged. The savage travels across the lands of the civilized people and, as can be expected in this case, gets surprised much.
For the first time, the usually observed, passive one turns a critical gaze toward the usually active observer. It is such a striking idea that the story caught me surprised. I think the irony here explains once again the essence of culture as a web of meanings. The savage walks through streets of cities, analyzes people and their unintelligibly strange habits, behaviors and customs. He is faced with a maze of meanings totally out of reach of his understanding because he is the product of another set of meanings.
He has difficulty with interpreting certain behaviors; some of them look funny and others as grotesquely irrational. I think Eco’s wonderful story has many implications for understanding culture and cultural phenomena. When faced with a different culture, all of us become as helpless and stricken as the savage. Devoid of cultural cues to interpret the events taking place around us, we try in these circumstances to find a usual meaning that enables us to grasp the world anew and have a sense of familiarity. We all live out our pesonal narratives in this search for meaning in a maze of seemingly opaque networks of meaning.