Joseph Henrich Defines Culture

Since I was talking about the challenge of defining culture, we should look at how Joseph Henrich defines it in The Secret of Our Success, an important book that I have referred to often (most notably in this piece for National Affairs). On p. 3, he writes

By “culture” I mean the large body of practices, techniques, heuristics, tools, motivations, values, and beliefs that we all acquire while growing up, mostly by learning from other people.

That’s all he has to say in terms of definition, which leaves some questions unanswered.

1. Why the qualifier “while growing up”? It implies that we reach an age at which the receipt of cultural transmission stops, which seems odd. What empirical or theoretical problems does Henrich think he is avoiding by including the qualifier, rather than taking the view that cultural transmission can be received at any age?

2. Why the qualifier “mostly”? If it were me, I would be tempted to partition our personalities into three components: biologically innate; acquired through our own experience with nature; and learned from other people. Of course, any single behavioral tendency or thought pattern can be the product of all of these components, so that the precise partition may not be readily applicable. Still, I would make the general point that much of our behavioral tendencies and thought patterns are learned from other people, either directly or indirectly. In fact, that might serve as a one-sentence statement of the thesis of Henrich’s book. But in the definition of culture, I would drop the “mostly” and say that to the extent that a behavioral tendency or thought pattern is not learned from other people, then it is not cultural. In that case, it is mostly innate and/or learned through our own experience. If culture includes more than what we learn from other people, then what does it not include?

3. Note the inclusion of “tools,” which goes beyond my shorthand of “behavioral tendencies and thought patterns.” While we are at it, why not include consumer goods, or at least say that consumer goods are included as “tools” that help satisfy our wants? If we are going to include tools, then don’t we have to include institutions? Note that “institutions” is another term that gets used to mean many things, so we would do well to define it, also.

But perhaps instead of broadening the definition of culture, why not narrow it? Tools and institutions in part act as channels for socially communicating thought patterns and behavioral tendencies. But why not define culture itself as socially communicated thought patterns and behavioral tendencies (which I think covers everything other than “tools” in Henrich’s definition)?

Anyway, I think that if Henrich were to embark on another edition of the book, I would encourage him to spend several pages discussing the definition of “culture” and related terms, rather than leaving it to one off-handedly casual sentence.

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3 Responses to Joseph Henrich Defines Culture

  1. Edgar says:

    Excellent observations. The whole book seems to be a bit half-baked frankly. What really struck me was the conclusion in which he writes “Humans are bad at intentionally designing effective institutions and organizations, though I’m hoping that as we get deeper insights into human nature and cultural evolution this can improve.” Huh? On one hand this is obviously true as the 100 million killed by social designers in the last century attest. But, does anyone really think it will get any better if we just give it one more try? On the other hand it is patently false as the millions and millions private utopias around the globe formed by individuals coming together and negotiating a dazzling array of associations attest. Everything from the retirement community around the corner to law practices to Anabaptist religious communities. Forming organizations is something that humans excel at. How does he think the big brains are going to improve upon that? I think what he is really communicating is that the cowbirds always have a few ideas on how the cuckoos can build a few more nests. Government and academia always wants to overthrow the principle of subsidiarity and usurp decision making from the rest of humanity. That is why so little attention or discussion is given to the concept of subsidiarity. When organizations and institutions fail, I would assert that the single most powerful explanation is that one group of people within the organization has decision making authority that would be better exercised by another group. This observation is antithetical to the clerisy’s interests, however, and it will likely continue to be ignored. Reality provides us enough evidence to suggest that “the principle of subsidiarity” ought really be known as “the iron law of subsidiarity.”

  2. Roger says:

    The caveat “mostly” is appropriate because individual learning can be culturally primed. We can, for example, get a tool which was built culturally via the collective evolutionary actions of countless people for thousands of years, but then practice individually with it to develop skill. The individual learning thus builds upon a scaffolding of cultural learning.

    I would clarify the issue by stating that cultural learning involves learning from others and learning individually by building upon things or tools learned from others.

    Clearly, there is a hybrid category dependent upon both individual and cultural learning.

  3. Rohan Verghese says:

    For #2, I assumed that the other part could be learning from books and other media. That “learning from people” was mostly learning “learning from people in the flesh” ie parents, teachers and friends.

    After all, if you read a book from another culture, or even an older time period, and it influences you, is it part of your culture?

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