3a- Examining Culture as Text

Cul­tur­al texts are those objects, actions, and behav­iors that reveal cul­tur­al mean­ings.  A pho­to is an image, but is also a cul­tur­al text, a pic­ture with cul­tur­al infor­ma­tion beyond just the pic­ture itself.  Food and cloth­ing also sug­gest cul­tur­al infor­ma­tion, and it doesn’t stop there. The entire place and space, all of the peo­ple and inter­ac­tion, all of the rit­u­als and rules and the var­i­ous forms in which they man­i­fest them­selves, are “read­able” texts, suit­able for obser­va­tion and analy­sis by the ethno­g­ra­ph­er and writer – name­ly by you.

This ini­tial descrip­tion of a cul­tur­al text may make it seem as though every­thing is a cul­tur­al text.  While, in some sense true, this doesn’t mean that every text has par­tic­u­lar cul­tur­al rel­e­vance.  Some­times, a book is just a book is just a book, a pic­ture just a pic­ture.  The dif­fer­ence between a rel­e­vant cul­tur­al text, (one that has con­nec­tion with your project), and an irrel­e­vant cul­tur­al text, (one that may have noth­ing to do with your project), has to do with the mean­ing trans­ferred to that text by the peo­ple who cre­ate and/or use the text.  The rel­e­vance of any par­tic­u­lar cul­tur­al text will be deter­mined as you con­duct your research.  But, even before you work on deter­min­ing whether a cul­tur­al text has par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance, you need to know and under­stand how to iden­ti­fy and ana­lyze a cul­tur­al text.

Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a cul­tur­al text is rel­a­tive­ly easy.  Take a look around the room or place you are in right now and briefly cat­a­log the peo­ple and/or things you see. These objects and actions are cul­tur­al texts.  In tra­di­tion­al Amer­i­can col­lege class­room, there are some cul­tur­al texts that are fair­ly stan­dard: tables and chairs or desks; bright light­ing; black or white board to write on.  Your class­room may also be a ‘smart room’, com­plete with a com­put­er or LCD pro­jec­tor.  There may be win­dows, one or two doors.  The floor may or may not be car­pet­ed.  There will also be the pres­ence of decoration—paint, tile, etc.  A space may or may not be void of peo­ple, who are also con­sid­ered to be cul­tur­al texts.  Their actions, arrange­ments and demo­graph­ics reflect how the space is used.  What is in a space and what hap­pens in the space are all cul­tur­al texts that are avail­able for analy­sis. In oth­er words, the space and objects with­in it are “read­able” cul­tur­al texts.  They say some­thing about the pur­pose, needs, and per­haps even val­ues and beliefs of the peo­ple who occu­py it.

The iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of cul­tur­al texts will be absolute­ly nec­es­sary, but they are fair­ly easy to iden­ti­fy once you get the hang of it.  The real work of ethno­graph­ic research is the analy­sis of these cul­tur­al texts once you spot them.  If your class­room is tra­di­tion­al, there will be places for peo­ple to sit, and sur­faces on which to write.  What we may not all share is the form of these seats and sur­faces and the for­ma­tion of these seats in the room.  Look around and take note: Are there indi­vid­ual desks, or tables and chairs?  Can you move seats into dif­fer­ent arrange­ments?  Are there com­put­ers?  How are the desks arranged?  Where do the stu­dents sit?  Where does the instruc­tor sit/stand?

Analy­sis can be chal­leng­ing because we have all agreed to the mean­ings; we take them for grant­ed.  For exam­ple, it is most like­ly that you have nev­er entered a class­room and been all that con­fused about where you should sit or what part of the space is intend­ed for the instruc­tor.  It is also most prob­a­bly true that whether the class­room desks are arranged in rows, or in a cir­cle, stu­dents will always leave the “front” of the room for the instruc­tor and arrange them­selves at a dis­tance from the instruc­tor.  There is an invis­i­ble buffer zone around the teacher space that stu­dents seem to acknowl­edge, yet it is not some­thing they dis­cuss and agree on before they enter the room. These things speak to the strong mes­sage of hier­ar­chy and author­i­ty sent through the way the fur­ni­ture is orga­nized in the class­room space and how well it con­nects to the stu­dents’ exist­ing beliefs about the posi­tions they and their teach­ers occu­py in that space.  This larg­er obser­va­tion, then, one that goes beyond the mere descrip­tion of what hap­pens to sug­gest a rea­son why this is how and why cer­tain behav­ior occurs, is the start­ing point for cul­tur­al analysis.

The analy­sis con­tin­ues as you work to ask even more ques­tions:  Are there any works of art or books or media that pro­vide insight into the val­ues and ideas of the peo­ple there? How do your class­mates or oth­er peo­ple around you present them­selves through their cloth­ing? What mes­sages are you “read­ing” from them? How might they be “read­ing” you?  These types of ques­tions are real­ly just the begin­ning as you iden­ti­fy the vari­ety of cul­tur­al texts avail­able to you in your research. As a researcher, you will be work­ing to uncov­er the sto­ries and deep­er mean­ing in arti­facts (things) and behaviors.

Arti­facts at a site may seem so “nor­mal” to the peo­ple who use them that they don’t even real­ize they car­ry any mean­ing. As read­er and researcher of cul­tur­al texts (arti­facts, styles, rit­u­als, behav­iors, expres­sions, etc.), you will have to inter­pret as you observe while attempt­ing at the same time to under­stand how the com­mu­ni­ty you are observ­ing inter­prets their own cul­tur­al pat­terns. Whether you are an insid­er (a mem­ber of the com­mu­ni­ty) or an out­sider (an observ­er of the com­mu­ni­ty), when you present your ethno­graph­ic research, you will attempt to tell the sto­ry of how things look from the inside. It is impor­tant to remem­ber that each view­point you encounter (includ­ing your own) is one way of see­ing and inter­pret­ing things, not the way of see­ing and inter­pret­ing things.

Return­ing to the instance of the class­room, con­sid­er the fol­low­ing questions:

  • Why are the desks arranged as they are?  What does that say about the pow­er dynam­ic in the classroom?
  • Why do you already know where to sit and what it means to sit in the front, mid­dle or back of the classroom?
  • Where have you cho­sen to sit?  Where have you been assigned to sit?  How has this expe­ri­ence affect­ed your feel­ings about school in general?
  • What was your favorite/worst class in high school?  How was the room arranged/decorated?  Can you reach any con­clu­sions about the rel­e­vance of design or decoration?

As you try to piece togeth­er the com­plex­i­ty of what it all means, you can and should engage in the process of dou­ble and triple check­ing your own inter­pre­ta­tions of infor­ma­tion at your site by delv­ing into oth­er insid­er and out­sider per­spec­tives and com­pli­ment­ing it with sec­ondary sources of infor­ma­tion; in ethno­graph­ic research this is called tri­an­gu­la­tion. Imag­ine a tri­an­gle with three points: first, your inter­pre­ta­tion; sec­ond, the inter­pre­ta­tion of the peo­ple who belong to the site com­mu­ni­ty; third, the inter­pre­ta­tion of oth­er out­side observers/scholars (sec­ondary sources). Some­where in the mid­dle of the tri­an­gle made by those three points, you will com­plete your read­ing of the cul­tur­al texts at your site and find the “par­tial-truths,” your own per­spec­tive, of your ethnography.