The Problem with Culture

There is an evil amongst us in this marketing industry of ours. It is leading us to confusion and disappointment. This evil is the ubiquitous ‘Cultural Research’. It’s leading charges bandy around phrases such as ‘looking through the cultural lens’, ‘providing you with the cultural expertise’ or ‘realising the cultural perspective.’ Such an approach needs to be handled with considerable care. The opinions of cultural gurus are given way too much credence as they sit on their rocks, self-appointed oracles spouting cliché and unsubstantiated opinion based on neo-colonial prejudices.

Culture is an Amorphous Construct

Some ‘research’ agencies have even used it as the foundation block of their whole ethos. Everybody wants to do it. It sounds sexy and interesting. But what is the really big problem with ‘culture’? Culture means so many things to so many different people. I mean what is it? Is it the food? The buildings? Is it the history? The stories? Is it people’s attitudes? Their education? The art? The myths, the legends? Religion? What is culture anyway?

Culture is Built around Prejudice

When we apply the ‘cultural lens’, what are we actually doing? Well for one, we are applying prejudice. The whole point of ‘culture’ is that it is a subjective framework, it is based on the comparison and contextualization of one’s own culture, relative to another. ‘Cultural Research’ is essentially based on stereotypes, cliché and Western-centrism…

Culture is Inhuman

When we think of the concept of ‘a culture’ we make huge assumptions on the populations within it. We seek to explain individual behaviour through mass generalisation, often based on prejudice and cliché. We are creating models of people but we have taken ‘people’ out of the equation.

Culture is Superficial

The problem with this is that by taking a solely ‘cultural perspective’ one doesn’t go deep enough. You can’t fully explain the reasons why things happen. It is superficial, it is full of cognitive biases and assumptions. We see things that conform to our own cultural comparison and not what is really there.

Culture is Just the Context

Now all of this is not to say we should totally ignore culture. It is me having a foaming at the mouth rant to try to explain why culture is not enough. Of course, it is important to appreciate what is going on in societies on a macro level but we shouldn’t base too many decisions or strategies on ‘cultural assertions’. We should avoid looking through that cultural lens in isolation. It’s an incomplete picture.

Think Human First

To best utilise the power of culture, it is important to root its relevance in the context of real people and the way they think, act and behave. Here, we need to realise the way that culture and history directly influence human values. The values of the population come to shape the culture they inhabit and vice versa. This relationship is inescapable.

As such, when we undertake an insight programme that involves any ‘cultural lens’ work’ we must learn to anchor it in the human. Our research needs a human component. It needs to be understood in terms of the ‘cultural’ interface with human values. As only by doing so will we be able to provide knowledge that goes beyond reductionistic prejudice. Let’s provide something of real meaning and purpose. The end goal should be insight that will improve the prognosis of our products, brands and services. This is why our research is based on the humans that live within culture and we do not merely focus an amorphous construct that can mean anything to anyone.

Rant over… Now, where’s my copy of Monocle?