Culture is Coordination
What is “culture”? Here is Wikipedia:
Culture is a concept that encompasses the social behavior, institutions, and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups. … cultural norm codifies acceptable conduct in society … Culture is considered a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning … material culture covers the physical expressions of culture, such as technology, architecture and art, … In the humanities, one sense of culture as an attribute of the individual has been the degree to which they have cultivated a particular level of sophistication in the arts, sciences, education, or manners. … In common parlance, culture is often used to refer specifically to the symbolic markers used by ethnic groups to distinguish themselves visibly from each other … When used as a count noun, a "culture" is the set of customs, traditions, and values of a society or community. …
The modern term "culture" is based on a term used by the ancient Roman orator Cicero … where he wrote of a cultivation of the soul or "cultura animi," using an agricultural metaphor for the development of a philosophical soul, understood teleologically as the highest possible ideal for human development. Samuel Pufendorf took over this metaphor in a modern context, meaning something similar, but no longer assuming that philosophy was man's natural perfection. His use, and that of many writers after him, "refers to all the ways in which human beings overcome their original barbarism, and through artifice, become fully human." (More)
Here are some academics:
“[The field of] “cultural evolution”[’s] point of departure is the assumption that humans can be modeled as adaptive learners who rely heavily on various forms of social learning—on learning from other people using a broad range of psychological mechanisms, including those glossed as ‘imitation.’ These learning mechanisms permit individuals to acquire ideas, beliefs, strategies, values, preferences (e.g., both food and mate preferences), motivations (e.g., fairness with strangers), decision-heuristics and judgment biases.” (More)
The hallmarks of “cultural behavior” are consistency within and across individuals, variance between populations, behavioral stickiness, and suboptimal performance. (More)
These definitions seem to me “clear as mud”. That is, they encompass so many things that we might we better ask what isn’t culture? On that, all I could find here is re org cultures:
free lunches, fitness memberships, power nap areas, game rooms, and lots more. While these are ‘awesome-to-haves’, and can help in shaping culture; they are not culture in itself. Also, great pay is not culture too. (More)
Culture Isn’t… All Play and No Work … Culture Isn’t… Meaningless Perks (more)
These things ARE NOT company culture: Secret Santa gift exchanges, Karaoke nights, Bean bag chairs, Nerf gun fights, Catered lunches, Cruises with your co-workers, Mashed potato sculpting contests. (More)
In game theory, we model social situations as “game trees”, i.e., trees where each leaf describes payoffs to all players, and each other node describes the choices of a single player, including what that player knows then about prior choices. A game theory equilibrium says what choices are made at each choice node, with this set of choices satisfying key consistency constraints. A single game can have many equilibria.
In the language of game theory, let me suggest that, at root, the core concept in “culture” is “coordination”, i.e., whatever it is that makes us fall into one game theory equilibrium over others. So culture is not the players, their choice options, what they know at each choice, or their final game payoffs. And culture is not the aspects of equilibria that are the same across different equilibria of a game. But culture can include player strategies and the beliefs players have about other players’ strategies.
Culture points to the many ways that different equilibria of the same game might differ from each other. The same group of people living in the same region using the same tech to make houses and food can still speak with different languages, have different music genres, cook different food dishes, and live under different laws. The things that could differ count as culture while features of their situation they are stuck with and can’t change are not culture. In a firm, its size, industry, location, and founder are not its culture, but corporate culture could set different particular prices, products, CEO compensation, ways to evaluate marketing plans, ways to hire people, or ways to let off steam. But the basic tech options and the prices set by supply and demand for labor, investment, or products, those are not culture.
Note that we often talk about “our values” as being a key part of “our culture.” This points to the fact that in the same basic game theory situation we can have different laws, social norms, and equilibria re what we praise or criticize. While those things will influence the priorities we place on different choices and outcomes, note that they don’t change the basic payoffs that define that game. So there is an important sense in which our underlying preferences don’t change when “our values” change. Cultural values can and do diverge from preferences in this way.
Note also that we tend to see prestigious art as especially exemplary of “our culture”. This points to the fact that we often look to our most prestigious artists and their art to figure out which game theory equilibrium we are in. So such art serves as coordination points telling us what are “our values”. Which is part of why those who want to change our equilibria fight so hard to become prestigious artists or to influence what counts as prestigious art. We also look to the prestigious more generally, especially “leaders”, when trying to infer our equilibrium.
A “clash of cultures” is when different groups of peple have different internal equilibria, and then find they must deal with how to behave when different groups interact. That creates a “multicultural” game, and different equilibria of that can be seen as different “meta-cultures”. Which are in fact cultures of a different game.