Culture & Society

  • Issue 85 / January - February 2012

    The Cultural Perspective and Societal Change

    Daniel Hummel

    Society is built on institutions; this is an inescapable fact. According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, an institution is "a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture" (Institution, 2010). The local neighborhood association is an institution that binds neighbors. The church or mosque is another institution that binds believers. The automobile company that manufactures the cars we drive is built on some kind of an institution that binds employees, stockholders, and executives while the country that we live in has some constitution or writ that binds together countrymen. One of the major concerns regarding institutions is that they may cause societies to stagnate, which hinders needed change. When societies stagnate the walls of Rome crumble, and what was cherished is lost.
    Two perspectives emerge in this context to address change in society. The first perspective is an instrumental one and relies on a rationalist, goals-oriented viewpoint. The second, cultural perspective relies more on stability and depth. The two values in this perspective, stability and depth, ensure constancy in the face of changing times but could also spell society's death knell if it turns too far inward (Christensen et al, 2007).

    "From the vantage point of instrumental logic, the institution is intrinsically inefficient because it cannot quickly adapt to changing conditions for action or new problems. Yet from a cultural perspective one could argue that it is perfectly possible for an institution to live with such historical inefficiency over time" (Christensen et al, 2007, p. 46).

    Historically speaking, these two vantage points have been in conflict: Conservatives who wish to maintain the institution, on one side, and liberals who wish to change those institutions, on the other. An extremely conservative approach creates "institutional lockdown" where the organization is deprived of any opportunity to change. On the far end of the spectrum would be an excessively liberal approach endorsing revolution. These diametrically opposed concepts create a significant dichotomy.

    Edmund Burke, English statesman and philosopher, was extremely critical of the revolution in France. He defended the ancien regime as he felt that the institutions of France and Europe were the result of an evolutionary process that had reached its next highest point under the noblemen/monarchs of Europe. For him, European civilization was founded upon the institutional principles of chivalry and clerical learning embodied in the spirit of the gentleman and the spirit of religion. Those who wanted to overturn the French system were to him savages who opposed all of the etiquette that had built Europe (Kontler, 1997).

    Before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a group of revolutionaries calling themselves the "Young Turks" attempted to change the institutional characteristics of the country. One of the Young Turks named Ahmed Hilmi was more conservatively institutional in his approach to reform. The Young Turks became more anti-religious, and Hilmi wanted Islam to remain the cornerstone of the country. He was starkly against those instrumental values embodied in positivism and materialism. He felt, much like Burke, that the country evolved to that point and that it had as its foundation a spiritual orientation which should not change despite whatever transformations might be needed (Bein, 2007).

    Burke and Hilmi embodied the cultural perspective and were averse to revolutionary thinking. Nevertheless, both thinkers recognized that change was needed, but their approach was more incremental and less absolute. It was for this reason that Burke vehemently opposed the French revolution and Hilmi the Turkish revolution.

    Positivism/materialism that was prevalent amongst the Young Turks has been criticized by scholars such as Dwight Waldo, who noted how it took on the same characteristics of absolute thought that is often associated with religion (Waldo, 1984). Hugh Miller makes this claim as well in his discussion on Postmodernism and Neo-liberalism, where he notes how the rational quickly becomes irrational particularly with performance measurement (Miller, 2007).

    Dwight Waldo states, "In both disciplines (scientific management, i.e., positivism and public administration), these anomalies (inconsistencies between environment and paradigm) and difficulties have been revealed, frequently and characteristically in discussion of the problem whether management is a 'science' or an 'art' and the relationship of the science and the art" (Waldo, 1984, p. 55).

    Jonathan Swift, in his classic novel Gulliver's Travels, includes in his story the Island of Laputa. On this island, there are scientists whose science has no benefit for human civilization and in which all previous knowledge is rejected. The result is a detached group of people who do not benefit society and are themselves actually detrimental to it. The king of this island shows little interest in culture and only cares about mathematics and music. This island in Swift's story represents Swift's account of those who are positivistic in thought and how their endeavors are actually not benefiting society, but rather dismantling it (Swift, 1998).

    Given this perspective, the instrumental perspective is called into question and its true ability to react to change correctly. The cultural perspective is more incremental in this respect, but as Christensen, et al (2007) point out, there is a risk of historical inefficiency. Would it be safer to say that society can live with this risk? If the goal is to operate efficiently/effectively in continual adjustment with the environment, then how can any semblance of community develop given that communities often need stability to grow? If the goal is community development that depends on integration and facilitation, then how can any semblance of necessary change develop? This represents the crux of an unsolvable problem in society.

    Burke and Hilmi lived in revolutionary times and applied cultural thinking to solve societal problems. The questions raised in their times apply just as fervently today in terms of needed change. Many of those who had beaten the drums to the revolutions that gave rise to modern day societies have in turn given way to conservative descendants of those movements that resist all change. Much of what was lost in those revolutions has not been forgotten by the populace, and the only way forward is to adopt a "middle way" between the instrumental and cultural perspective. Maintaining this balance is often easier said than done.

    Daniel Hummel is a Research/Teaching Assistant with a focus on Public Budgeting at Florida Atlantic University.

    Christensen, T. et al. 2007. Organization Theory and the Public Sector: Instrument, Culture and Myth. New York: Routledge.
    Bein, A. 2007. "A 'Young Turk' Islamic intellectual: Filibeli Ahmed Hilmi and the diverse intellectual legacies of the late Ottoman Empire." International Journal of Middle East Studies, 39, pp. 607ÔÇô625.
    Institution. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved March 30, 2010, from
    Kontler, L. 1997. "The ancien regime in memory and theory. Edmund Burke and his German followers." European Review of History, 4 (1), pp. 1ÔÇô15.
    Miller, H.T. 2007. Postmodern Public Administration (rev. ed.). Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.
    Swift, J. 1998. Gulliver's Travels. New York: Oxford University Press.
    Waldo, D. 1984. The Administrative State (2nd ed.). New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers.


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