Wednesday, September 05, 2007

How Cultures Think

A thorough understanding of how cultures think cannot be accomplished through a series of blog posts. In the past couple of offerings I have tried to identify the difference between Franchisers and Facilitators from a purely North American position and their role in missions. The broader discussion of how cultures work, however, is more complex.

I was introduced to anthropologist May Douglas and her concept of cultural theory in 1987. My students will either be encouraged or distressed that I am still using the grid and group model in analyzing culture. However, if a person can grasp this model it will help them understand how different cultures function. The issues of leadership, how cultures make decisions and how people view property are all tied to how cultures think.

In looking at the categories above one can easily identify Americans as Individualists or Franchisers. Bureaucrats, which is known as the establishment or the street term, The Man, are in every culture, but they are strong in places like Russia and East Europe. Hierarchy, where there is a strong bond as a group but also have layered roles is found in countries like China or India. Egalitarians, or Facilitators are most often found in rural communities but also formed as interest groups (MADD, PETA, MOPS, Young Republicans, etc.). The key in understanding grid and group is not in just knowing the categories but connecting the dots on why it’s important. Two brief examples.

LEADERSHIP - Americans love to talk about leadership and every year they travel throughout the world giving seminars on how to be a (servant, biblical, purpose driven) leader. Being from a society of Franchisers, Americans assume that leadership hold universal characteristics that transcends cultural boundaries. There is nothing wrong with teaching principles of leadership, but in countries that sees value in group solidarity, where decisions are not the sole property of the man/woman at the top, those leadership principles are of limited use. In high group cultures it's equally important to understand the dynamics of consensus in decision-making as is the character of a leader.

PARTNERSHIP - As noted in an earlier post, today’s trend is for the NAC to enter into partnership with national churches. Tensions often surface when the Franchisers try to impose their programs on people who are Bureaucratic, Egalitarian or Hierarchy. Franchisers value autonomy, risk taking, unilateral decision-making and innovation. Many cultures do not esteem these characteristics and, in fact, often see these actions as self-serving and selfish.

As Bob Buford writes in Half Time, “You can choose the game, but you can’t choose the rules.” To play the game properly in a cross-cultural context the most important ingredient is to learn the rules in which they play the game of life.

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