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.