How do You Approach Culture?

Roman aqueduct

“What important questions are the least answerable empirically, and how should these questions be approached?” was a question put to Tyler Cowen recently. As he says, “Maybe that is too broad a question.” But his first response touches culture:

I am not sure we ever will understand “culture,”as more empirical work perhaps will broaden the concentric circles of our ignorance and create more open questions, by both teaching us more detail and showing how much context-dependence matters.

In my notes, I actually wrote broadening both knowledge and ignorance. Two sides of the same argument. Culture doesn't escape the universal force of entropy, the drive to expand and open. And this holds some value: to empower. More on this in a story below.

But the other piece is that expansion is as likely as convergence on a set of answers, more or less definite. At least until the next adaptation. The speed of ingestion of change has created challenges for digestion. Detail and context-dependence are relevant here. 

Given this premise, the word culture has two likely meanings: the slower-to-change accumulation over centuries, and the trendier experimentation. Both run in cycles, except of different magnitudes.


Questions change according to the era

Take for example the Barbaric invasions in ancient Rome.

One hundred years ago, when historians studied migrations in Europe, the questions was: which was the stronger race, Germanic or Latin? Today we ask something past historians maybe didn't see: how did the Romans manage immigration waves? How did they deal with the issue of citizenship?

Once you see the issue, you can find out more. Before we talked about invasions, in fact, the Roman Empire survived for a long time because they were able to integrate migrants. At least two centuries. Emperors had few scruples, great means at their disposal, and could do whatever they wanted. But…

The Romans let in groups of Barbarians—even entire peoples—and found them a place inside the empire. People had value in Roman times. Manpower was always in demand. Landowners aristocrats needed people to work the land. Generals needed soldiers.

There were never enough people. Smallpox killed one third of the population. More people died in border skirmishes. In this last century, immigration has became about individual stories. Even when large groups travel together, each person made the decision alone.

It wasn't so with Constantine. When the Emperor meddled in a war with the Sarmanti on the other side of the Danube, he made one single political decision to let those who lost into the Empire. At his command, administrators created 15 prefectures to deal with the people coming in. A sort of ancient times employment offices.

This system worked as long as Romans were waging wars. Which they did quite a bit, especially if there were no groups asking to come into the Empire. The Romans governed by moving people and putting them to work.

The defeated might have had little choice between working the land and joining the army, but they were free. After 25 years of service in the legions, they could become citizens. And pay taxes. Farmers could petition the state. Thus social mobility was possible.

In 320 AD, Constantine was involved in a trial in North Africa. A witness called to testify began his testimony with his name and profession: a professor of Roman literature who belonged to the town Council since birth. Only the 50-100 richest families in a city were part of the Council. Prof. Vettore's grandfather, however, was a migrant soldier who had served the Empire.

In 212, Emperor Caracalla decided that the division between citizens and indigenous or conquered people didn't make sense anymore. From that point on, everyone was a citizen of the Roman Empire who lived in and worked on its land. Historian Alessandro Barbero explains that at that point all migrants took on the name of the Emperor. They just added it to their own.

Even as the Empire was open to migrants early on, their acceptance as citizens came after centuries of living side by side. Focus on race superiority masked an inquiry more relevant today. The questions we ask change what we learn. As Barbero reminds us, today history works by hypotheses, in the same ways science works by hypotheses.

The process of digestion for change in Roman times lasted a few centuries. Hence history is a poor proxy for what's happening now. But we can learn a lot of interesting things about those strange animals that are human beings.


Narrative change

Convergence often involves a change in narrative.

When it didn't make any more sense for the Romans to fight using their old narrative, they changed it. As Brett Davidson explains in an article about narrative change: “the narrative representation of reality cannot be evaluated or challenged empirically, but rather according to whether it is coherent and ‘rings true’.”

This influence plays out at three levels:

  1. Individual decision-making—we think automatically, but also socially. Here's where mental models, heuristics, and metaphors are all factors. This scales to groups.
  2. Policy—“narrative strategies are important and ever-present aspects of any policy advocacy process” and “Along with struggles over power, money, law and so forth, there is ongoing struggle over ‘meaning’, or what has been called ‘the politics of signification’.” Crucial when it involves large-scale change. Like the reframing of the question in the history example above.
  3. Cultural narrative—embedded in the overarching way of thinking and doing things. This shapes how we identify problems, set priorities, and limit the types of solutions people view as acceptable. We don't know how Emperor Caracalla made his decision in 212, five short years before his untimely death. But we have the decision and the lag of time from 320 AD.

Narratives function as triggers for the transfer of value. But as such, they embody assumptions. And we may not be aware of what they are. Precision and context are useful to reveal assumptions and have convergence of meaning in culture.

Davidson outlines three approaches his organization uses for narrative change:

Companies are a relatively new idea. One that still has loads of potential. Corporations are entities that can transform and dissipate socially useful energy throughout society. They're vehicles for the transfer of value. Hence, context-dependent for cultural convergence.


Culture and the nature of change

To understand the value of culture, you need to think in capitalization terms. For example, social capital works harder and longer than other forms of capital, but, as they've been saying for centuries, you cannot buy yourself a stellar reputation. Can you put a price tag on the feeling of reading your favorite book with your grandmother?

When I produce a story for a company that involves research, intuition, and inventiveness, the output is data with a soul. It can stir emotion, become a favorite part of someone's learning experience and motivate an experiential process of adaptation. In this case, the output capital can do more work than the input capital. If the focus is only on transaction costs, you miss the value of the greater capacity to do work of the output.

Knowledge work is harder to measure. But not impossible.

  • Impact is about creating value.
  • It's the product of the environment and the skills that are present in it.
  • The environment is how people talk, decide, and work with each other.
  • Skills are communication, strategic thinking, execution, and influence.

You can see from this list that convergence is useful to energy. Companies first collect the dots, figure out their dominant sources of value, then connect them. But the environment is critical. As big context changes, entropy tends to exert its pull. Companies tend to react by constricting, which misunderstands the nature of change.

What makes companies change is the same thing that makes people change: when you change the story about yourself:

  • Writing and communicating to transfer value
  • Sourcing and curating information to pass on knowledge
  • Researching and analyzing to align with reality

Culture is long-term work: its value accrues by compounding.