What’s a good way to explain culture?
Here’s one way to do it. Suggestions are welcome.
Let’s say we wanted to ask a perfect stranger to participate in a relay race. This stranger has no prior introduction to the idea of the race. They have never heard of it.
At a minimum, we’d have to explain the concept, the rules, the race. Drawing on the Wikipedia entry, we’d say something like
In a relay race, members of a team take turns running parts of a circuit. Each runner hands off the baton to the next runner at a certain zone.
In effect we are programming the stranger, supplying him or her with the knowledge he or she would need to participate in the event. It’s going to be time consuming. The stranger will say things like
ok, so you want me to carry this stick once around the track, and then give it to someone, right?
Right. Fight temptation to roll eyes. It’s actually a little bit more complicated. Never mind, this will come. First the idea, then the practice. But finally, we’ve build knowledge into memory and ability into muscle memory.
Now the stranger can run the race. Not well, but thanks to our efforts, he’s mastered the little things. Like, well, listening for the starter’s gun, which way to run on the track, that he should "stay in his lane," to whom the baton should be passed. "Not that guy. He works for the competition. That guy. Better."
When you break it down, it’s a lot of knowledge. And it is not just stuff you need to know. It’s stuff you need to have deeply embedded in mind and body. When you stop assuming the things we all know about the relay race, the instructions, the software, turns out to be kinda intricate. (We can imagine the code required to program a machine to run a race.)
Now compare this to the knowledge in the head of a member of the American relay team competing in Beijing this summer. The Olympian knows exactly what the relay is, where to go, where to stand, what to do, and so on. He or she has a deeply embedded knowledge of relay.
Ok, now compare these two people: the perfect stranger and the American Olympian. Culture is exactly the difference between what is in the head of the Olympian vs. what is in the head of the stranger.
This is not a pedantic exercise. Engineers do well, thank you very much, without knowing about culture. They do astonishing things. Bridges, I believe are everyone’s favorite example. And quite right too. Without engineering, every passage shore to shore would be an foolhardy act of faith.
But the fact that engineers don’t know about culture can be a problem. Because culture is the place that essential knowledge sometimes hides. Culture contains the things we need to know about the consumer. And it also contains the things we are assuming in our lab in the corporation.
In both cases, this is deeply embedded, deeply assumed, knowledge. Consumers cannot readily tell us what they are thinking. It is assumed knowledge. Which is to say, consumers know things about the world they do not know they know. There is assumed knowledge on the corporate side as well. The corporation and its engineers hold certain assumptions so deeply they can no longer see them.
So here’s my plan. It is to suggest that when the engineers think about the consumer, they think about themselves as a relay racer who understands the race, speaking to a consumer who has no clue. The task now is to surface all the assumptions the engineer is making and make sure these get passed along to the consumer. As we have seen, there are lots of things the engineer/race knows that must be passed along. The trick is to make sure these things are not concealed from the engineer by their familiarity. The trick is to make sure the corporate culture is not getting in the way.
But we could work it the other way round. We could suggest that engineers think about the consumer as the American Olympian, and about themselves as the novice. In this case, the engineer should assume that the consumer is a person who lives in a highly complicated world, one that is mysterious to the engineer. The task now is to get into this world of knowledge. This won’t be easy because the consumer doesn’t always know what they know. They can’t always say what they are thinking. We can’t just ask them. We have to listen and probe and follow up and ask some more.
And this is why God created ethnography. This is the technique expressly designed for listening for assumed knowledge. This is the way we get at culture. This is the way we learn the things a racer needs to know in order to race. This is the way we learn what the engineer needs to know to create something that actually serves the consumer.
And this is why God created ethnographers. Professionals with real training and experience. Ethnography does not mean an interview done in someone’s home. It cannot be done by someone who took an anthropology course in college. It cannot be done by someone who "thought about majoring in sociology." There is tons of data flying around, and hundreds of interpretive possibilities. The search for embedded knowledge, this takes patience, skill, a delicate interpretive touch and a certain brute intelligence. Many of the people now pretending to be ethnographers are simply too stupid for the assignment. Training aside, they are simply too stupid to process the data.
Ethnography shouldn’t be done by amateurs anymore than bridges should be designed by someone who "really thought about going into engineering." Caveat emptor. We get want we pay for.