Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Analyzing the Webs of Significance

Evidences invisibles: Américains et Français au quotidien
I first picked up Raymonde Carroll's Evidences Invisibles:  Américain et Français au quotidien about 10 years ago.  I had reached a point in my relationship with this strange tribe where I could no longer clearly see what remained of the American I was and the quasi-Frenchwoman I was becoming.  Carroll's book provided some relief.  I found her analysis to be sane, practical and above all, relatively neutral.  Be warned, if you are looking for ammunition to prove the superiority of one culture over another, you will not find it in her work.

A few weeks ago I went looking for my copy in order to re-read one of her essays.  Though I searched every bookshelf of my house (and there are quite a few), it was nowhere to be found.  A new copy arrived yesterday courtesy of Amazon and La Poste and I spent most of last night reading and remembering the person I was and why this book meant so much to me years ago and what it has done for me.

At the time my focus was on the essays - her exposure of situations where French and Americans meet and sail blindly past each other without any understanding of the cultural logic that practically forces all the actors involved to act in a certain manner.  She talks about different conversational styles, child-rearing, showing love and affection, friendship and how to seek (and get) information.  And she eloquently and empathically writes about the hurt and anger that ensues when misunderstandings about these things occur.   I agree with almost all of her analysis though I had and still have doubts about some of the details.  This is interpretation inspired by the work of Geertz and Bateson and like all explanations/translations we can and should have room to discuss and disagree.

This time around, instead of skimming through the introduction to get to the "good stuff", I took a leisurely and ultimately very rewarding look at the first thirty pages where she talks about her methodology and her motivations.   Here are a few of the pearls I gathered as I read late into the night.

What is Cultural Analysis?

For Carroll "Cultural Analysis" consists of:
"un moyen de percevoir comme 'normal' ce qui, chez des gens de culture différente de la mienne, me paraît, au premier abord, 'bizarre', 'étrange'.  Pour arriver a cela, il me faut imaginer l'univers dans lequel tel acte qui me choque peut s'inscrire et paraître normal, peut avoir un sens, et ne pas être même remarqué.  En d'autres termes, il s'agit pour moi d'essayer de pénétrer, un instant, l'imaginaire culturel de l'autre."
("a method of seeing as 'normal' something that I see in people of a different culture that I initially find 'bizarre' or 'strange'.   To do this, I must imagine a universe where this act that shocks me is normal, has meaning and may not even be noticed.  In other words, it means that I must try to penetrate for a brief moment the cultural imagination of the other.")
This is, I think, the simplest and most cogent explanation of this kind of exercise that I have ever read. Geertz expresses it more eloquently but Carroll places it well within the grasp of each and every one of us.  One does not need a PhD in Anthropology to use this tool.

Errors to Avoid

Carroll believes that, in order to see another culture clearly, we must avoid the temptation to unravel the historical, ecological, economic or psychological roots of the behaviour we are analyzing.  Some examples of poor answers to the question "Why are 'they' like that?":

"Parce que les Francais ne supportent pas l'autorité" (Because the French can't stand authority).
"Parce qu'ils sont capitalistes' (Because they are capitalists).
"Parce ce qu'ils sont catholiques (protestant/puritain)" (Because they are Catholic or Protestant/Puritan).
"Parce que les X manquent de protéines" (Because people of X culture lack protein).

Going one step further she argues that we should all watch our words carefully.  Any sentence that starts with "Americans/French/Indians/Chinese are..."  followed by an adjective is dubious at best since it says much more about us and our culture of origin than anything objective about the culture we are describing.  The same goes for any statement that suggests that something is lacking in the people of the other culture - phrases like "the French/Americans/Indians/Chinese have no sense of or do not know..." In those cases, Carroll says, the only 'lack' that we are complaining about is the lack of our culture in them.  We may find the 'lack' profoundly disturbing but the problem (if it is one) is all ours. Reproaching a Frenchman for 'lacking' the qualities of an Englishman is just downright silly once you think about it.

An Act of Humility

It is profoundly humbling to be reduced from a competent adult to a mere infant just by getting on an airplane and traveling a few time zones away.  Arriving, we learn to our horror that a child of five knows more than we do about how to navigate in this particular place.  I have always contended that it is almost impossible to do cultural analysis from within our own culture where we are safely part of the arrogant majority.

Carroll has another view.  For her the very act of doing the analysis is an act of humility.
L'analyse culturelle n'est pourtant pas un acte d'arrogance, mais bien au contraire un acte d'humilité dans lequel j'essaie de faire abstraction, pour un moment, de ma façon de voir le monde (la seule que j'aie appris à trouver valable) et de le remplacer brièvement par une autre façon de penser ce monde, façon que par définition je ne peux adopter (même si je le voulais), mais dont j'affirme la validité par ce geste."
("Cultural analysis is not however an act of arrogance. On the contrary it is an act of humility in which I try to disregard, for one moment, my way of seeing the world (the only way that I was taught is valid) and try to replace it, for one brief moment, with another way of looking at the world, a way that by definition I cannot adopt (even if I wanted to) but whose validity I affirm through this exercise.")
I try to imagine a world where cultural analysis (Carroll's method or another) was part and parcel of everyone's toolkit.  Would there be fewer misunderstandings?  Perhaps not.  When my 'normal' meets your 'normal', we can still clash.  Understanding is not agreement.

I also see a potential for abuse and a risk that the person doing the analyzing might use the information to manipulate others.  If I have a good idea of where you are coming from but you know nothing about me and what my cultural programming is, am I not in an uncontested position of superiority?  In the hands of the malevolent, that could be a mighty sword to wield.

Still, I think it is an excellent skill to possess - if only for peace of mind.  In my own case I know that, as an immigrant, this method has helped me to put aside some my own bewilderment and anger in the face of incomprehension and hostility.  With insight and understanding I can channel those feelings into an exercise of the imagination that makes me an active actor in my own integration into another culture. In the end, like Carroll, I do not necessarily want (and perhaps can never have) that particular world view for myself but it frees me to love my adopted culture for what it is and to accept its truth as being equal to my own.


Jean-Louis Morhange said...

As a Frenchman living in the United States, I am in a situation somewhat similar to yours, and I also found Raymonde Carrolls' book very relevant and interesting. Thank you for letting your readers know about it.
As for your concern that cultural analysis might be used as a tool to manipulate those who do not possess it, I don't think it is warranted. Most would-be manipulators do not have the patience or intellectual curiosity to read books like Carroll's. The most influential professionals whose particular purpose is to exert this type of manipulation--the Karl Roves and Frank Luntzes--already have the knowledge and competence they need to achieve their purpose, as shown by their proven ability to manipulate their targets.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Jean-Louis, thank you very much for stopping by the Flophouse and for your comment. Excellent point about the manipulators and I agree that it would be highly unlikely that they would ever read Carroll's book in the first place. Still, I wouldn't put it past them. :-)