Culture-As-Interface In Its Historical Context

This is a companion article to Culture As Interface that provides more depth on how the culture-as-interface framework is connected to the history of related concepts.

Early on in my exploration of a framework (such as culture-as-interface) I like to get to know how others have used that framework or frameworks like it.

What do I mean by “used the framework”? In this case I mean that someone has explicitly identified both the wider world (human and nonhuman) and our innate human nature as the primary contextual influences on culture and then included both in cultural analysis.

So far, I’ve found relatively little use of the culture-as-interface framework as described in the video. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. If you know of ways in which this framework has been used, please let me know. I can easily imagine that the broad idea gets a nod in the introductory chapters of various anthropology textbooks, but if it does, it doesn’t appear to be given much further use.

Assuming for the moment that indeed it isn’t getting much use, I initially found its lack of use puzzling. It seems like such an obvious way to describe the context of culture. As a step toward trying to understand this puzzle, I’ve been exploring the history of related concepts. What I found has convinced me, as I describe in Culture As Interface, that it is only in the 21st century that enough pieces have come into place to make it a practical framework, but now that the pieces are in place, the framework has a lot to recommend it.

All well and good, but what about that history …

Historical precedents

In exploring the historical roots for culture-as-interface, I have focused specifically on the three components of the overall framework:

  • culture and the wider human world
  • culture and the nonhuman world
  • culture and our innate human nature

The following three sections look at each of these components:


Most people understand, and have for probably tens of thousands of years, that cultures are influenced by neighboring cultures in ways that range from adopting their neighbors’ ideas and technologies to the interplay of aggression, conquest and defense among cultures. This kind of understanding is commonplace in history, anthropology and archeology, to name just three of the relevant social sciences.

There is also a broad understanding that different parts of a culture influence each other (although institutional turf battles often weaken the practical application of this awareness of interdependence). This awareness is central to sociology, political science, anthropology and history as well as other social sciences.

So culture-to-culture and institution-to-institution frameworks are common and well used.

It is only in the past few decades that global environmental change (e.g. climate change, depletion of non-renewable resources, collapse of ocean fisheries) has gotten fast enough to matter from a human perspective. Earlier, geographic differences, i.e. spatial rather than temporal variations in the nonhuman world, were the main nonhuman factors thought to possibly affect culture.

In this spatial sense, people have been making a connection between a group’s customs and its local geographic character for at least two thousand years, likely much longer. This kind of thinking entered modern social science in the late 19th century in the unfortunate form of environmental determinism, whose attempts to explain culture based on geography were simplistic at best and ethnocentric at worst. The rejection of these flaws swung the pendulum so far that geographers since the mid 20th century have been wary of considering environmental factors in explanations of culture. (I recommend Why Geographic Factors are Necessary in Development Studies for a good discussion of this history and its implications.)

The mid 20th century also saw the triumph of fossil-fuel-based industrial society’s ability to heat and cool buildings so cheaply that there was little apparent need to consider the local climate or solar exposure in the design and placement of buildings. In these and other ways, the mainstream of industrial society behaved as if the environment was simply an aesthetic amenity that provided no practical constraints.

As evidence has grown that the human impact on the environment is important and has significant and growing repercussions, the mainstream response has been to treat this as an engineering or regulatory issue. Mostly the attitude has been that our cultures are fundamentally sound; they just need a little adjusting. So environmental issues are seen as a task for the culture rather than a symptom of fundamental issues in the culture. (The field of Ecological Economics is a notable, but still not fully mainstream, exception.)

The reaction to these environmental concerns on the part of vested interests has been strong and persistent, as can be seen in the political and public-relations effectiveness of the anti-climate-change campaign. The net result is that the issue of the relationship between culture and the nonhuman world has been highly politicized.

We arrive in the early 21st century with a surprising amount of confusion and controversy about just how, or even whether, to address the relationship between culture and the nonhuman world, in the social sciences as well as politically.

People have been thinking about the relationship between culture and innate human nature for likely thousands of years. Most of the attempts to discern our innate human nature during this time have started from observations of people’s behavior, but those behaviors are heavily influenced by culture so it is hard to disentangle the truly innate from the cultural. Nevertheless, the history of attempts to discern innate human nature still reverberate in today’s attitudes about the relationship between culture and our innate human nature.

Over the last few thousand years, much of the thinking about innate human nature has been within the frameworks of religion, philosophy and literature. In cultures based on the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), a major facet of this thinking has been the notion of original sin and the “fallen” nature of humanity. Culture and more specifically religion were then seen as the necessary antidotes to this fallen nature.

Ideas of differences in innate human nature among individuals were also used to explain commonalities within families and differences between families. These ideas were further used to justify hereditary roles in society and class hierarchies. In many Empire Era societies, you were born not only into a class but also into a profession, with almost all women being born into the one role of wife/mother.

The last few hundred years have seen a broad and expanding reaction to the rigidity of these older ideas, beginning in earnest with the Enlightenment, including John Locke’s “blank slate” (1690) assertion that we have no innate concepts and the American Declaration of Independence’s assertion (1776) that “all men are created equal.” This reaction has swung the pendulum in the “nurture” direction and diminished the importance of anything innate as part of the ongoing nature vs. nurture debate.

In the 20th century, I found three threads to be of particular interest:

  • Within anthropology, there has been a search for universal (and thus supposedly innate) human characteristics. There is a long list of candidates for such cultural universals, but these are essentially behavioral “symptoms” that may point to, but don’t directly identify, shared innate “causes.”
  • Within many social sciences (as well as the general public), there has been a wariness to consider any innate factors because of the history of using supposed innate factors to justify racism, sexism, classism and colonialism.
  • In the last few decades, progress in neurobiology and related areas of psychology has begun to look more directly at innate characteristics of the brain and mind. This is an important milestone because most previous ideas about innate human nature have been based on observations of behaviors, where it is hard to disentangle the innate from the cultural influences.

So, as with the relationship between culture and the nonhuman world, we arrive in the early 21st century with confusion and controversy about just how, or even whether, to address the relationship between culture and innate human nature, although with some promising new material coming out of neurobiology.

Finally, I’d like to mention the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology, which attempts to understand our innate human psychological nature in terms of the conditions in which humans evolved. In effect this looks at the influence of the wider world and even early culture in shaping the deep structure of our minds over millions of years. This serves a different purpose from culture-as-interface but at least it acknowledges the importance of the wider world in shaping the human condition.

Moving forward

Based on this history, I’m no longer surprised that culture-as-interface hasn’t gotten much use so far in the social sciences. In addition to the reasons described in Culture As Interface as to why it is only now becoming a useful framework, I would like to mention two additional considerations that weigh more heavily on the conventional social sciences than they do on those of us working with the Foundation Stones.

1) The framework is strongly interdisciplinary, which is something many people love in theory but that gets little traction in conventional practice. The Foundation Stones, however, are inherently interdisciplinary, so the framework is a natural fit.

2) Both culture-and-the-nonhuman-world and culture-and-our-innate-human-nature got associated with discredited ideas in the 20th century, and the scars from those experiences have lingered in various social sciences, keeping them from responding freshly to today’s opportunities. As a new interdisciplinary project, we can learn from those past mistakes but we don’t have to be burdened by those scars.

As we come full circle and turn toward the future, I feel a great appreciation for all of this history. We can now make use of an interdisciplinary framework like culture-as-interface because of all of the good specialized work that has been done in the social sciences, in psychology and in environmental sciences. We do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants.

Robert Gilman, December 21, 2012

Do you see ways this article could be improved? If you do, please let me know.