Understanding Group Culture

What do we mean when we say  culture?

The concept of culture in relation to an entire national population, ethnic group etc is a very hard thing to actually pin down – because there are too many variants. How would you define the “American culture”?  even a much smaller one,  like an “Australian culture”?  The idea of a single monolithic culture for “the Chinese” seems just too wide to get any real insight or understanding.  For a while those who really wanted to find a single culture looked to Japan as what was often thought to be the most homogenous nation on Earth.  But as soon as we see young Japanese activity and other sub groupings, we have to also doubt that idea.

The only effective way to gain any insight and understanding of “culture” is to take it as it is – in specific groups (Group culture), that may not even function in a single geographic area.  Further people usually belong in more than one cultural grouping at any one time.  (The level of belonging or “fit” will also vary between different memebers of a cultural grouping)

Of all the standard concepts of social science the notion of culture is the perhaps most elusive.  As Fine (1979) has noted, quoting from Herskovits (1948), culture, in the final analysis, consists of the “things people have, the things they do, and what they think.” Members of a cultural grouping develop, enact, and maintain their group culture through interaction with one another, but culture is not interaction itself, rather it is the content, meanings, and topics of interaction.  For instance, in a group of friends, the recurring topics of conversation, the shared jokes and opinions about the world, the tradition of meeting for drinks together on Saturday night are all elements of the group’s culture.

How can we make sense out of these amorphous patterns or habits that members share together, which constitute group culture? The first step is to realise that it is not just a random jumble of ideas and practices.  Rather these ideas and practices are put together in loosely organised sets that are meaningful to the group members in that they encapsulate for them their understanding of what the group is like and how it relates to its environment.  When a group creates a culture, then, it gathers together information and orders it in relation to the group’s goals and the needs of the members

As a consequence a group’s culture has an organisational structure that gives it a certain internal logic, a general consistency and coherence.  It is the way information is organised in the culture that gives it significance to group members.  It is also what gives the culture of a particular group its distinctive style, feeling, and meaning.

We must be careful to point out, however, that because group cultures have some internal order and coherence does not mean there are no loose ends, no bits of belief in one aspect of group life that contradict group beliefs in another area.  It is probably best to view group cultures as loosely ordered collections of information, beliefs, symbols, values, and practices.  Within this collection are various modules of beliefs and practices, usually associated with some important aspect of group life, that are more tightly and consistently organised.  Because these more highly ordered modules describe the group’s basic beliefs and its favourite traditions and rituals, there is close agreement on them among the members.  Most teenage groups, for instance, have very elaborately worked out and well-organised conceptions of what is “cool behaviour,” because this aspect of identity achievement is very important to such groups.  Cultural information dealing with less important aspects of the group is likely to be much more amorphous and less widely shared among the members.

It is possible, then, to view group culture as the group’s organised system of information about itself, its environment, and what it does.  But where is this system of information located? In the minds of individual members? In some abstract collective reality of the group as a whole? Neither answer seems ideal.  Yet we need some response to the question if we are to avoid treating group culture as a mysterious, ethereal quality of groups, rather than a concrete aspect of their daily lives.

Group culture exists in the mind of the individual member as his or her theory of the code being followed by the other members, of the nature of the game they are playing together.  Each member’s theory of his or her group’s culture may be largely unconscious.  But it is what members use to interpret events in group interaction, and it is one of the factors that shapes their own decisions on how to behave in return.  They use their group mates’ reactions to their own behaviour to confirm or modify this theory of their group’s culture.

Group culture, then, really comes alive in the interaction  among  the group members.  The behaviour of the members in relation to one another is the place where the culture of the group as a whole actually lives.  When members meet, each with their own theory of the group culture, they enact together their shared symbols, meanings, ideas of themselves and their situation.  Even though the members’ conceptions of their culture are not identical, these shared meanings emerge from their mutual adjustments to one another and the substantial overlap among their views.

The organised system of information that is a group’s culture exists, as a result, in two different places in two slightly different ways.  The culture of the group as a whole exists in its truest sense in the interaction among the members.  During any one interaction sequence, however, only a part of the total group culture is enacted.  For the whole of the group culture to continue, rather than just the part being acted on now, it must be preserved in the knowledge of the individual members.  But, as we have noted, what the individual carries with him or her is not a complete and accurate picture of the group culture, but is a personal theory of it.  So a slightly different version of a group’s culture exists in the minds of the individual members than the version that appears in interaction.  Out of the interplay of these two versions, or faces, of culture, the group’s own unique culture is enacted, modified, and maintained.

For a researcher to describe the culture of a particular small group, he or she must gather information on both these faces of the culture.  The group members must be interviewed for their own understandings of the group and its practices.  In addition, interaction among the group members must be observed and analysed independently by the researcher.  From the two sets of information a composite picture can be constructed.  Necessarily, this composite will be an abstraction rather than a simple reflection of the culture as it exists.  However, it is likely to prove highly useful in understanding the life of the small group.

It is possible to define group culture in such a way that it incorporates all aspects of group life, including the group’s social structure, however, we would like to take a narrower view of culture, one that would allow us to distinguish between culture and social structure.

A group’s social structure is its actual pattern of relationships among the members.  It consists, in other words, of who has higher status than whom, who talks to whom, who likes whom.  Clearly these relationships will reflect in many ways the system of ideas that makes up the group’s culture.  If the culture assumes that certain skills are most important for the group’s goals, perceptions of the distribution of those skills among the members will be an important determinant of the group’s status structure. A group member who seems to embody the group’s values (an aspect of its culture) is likely to gain influence over the other members (an aspect of social structure).  We can conclude, then, that a group’s culture and its social structure are interdependent: a change in one affects the other.  Furthermore, they are deeply intertwined in the actual ongoing flow of behaviour in a real group.  But they nevertheless remain analytically distinct aspects of the group’s total way of life.

Culture is the ordered system of ideas group members use to guide and interpret their interaction together.  Social structure is the pattern of relationships among the members that emerges from that interaction.

Since culture is a system of ideas, it includes the group’s norms, which are, after all, ideas about the way the members should act and what they should believe.  We can distinguish among three classes of norms: procedural, role, and cultural norms.  Procedural and role norms contain the group’s basic rules for behaviour.  Cultural norms are a little different.  They define the beliefs, values, and symbols to which you must adhere to be a group member in good standing.  A radical political group, for instance, will have some basic values that its members must accept, such as socialist ideals, certain beliefs-such as whether revolution is necessary to achieve socialism-and certain symbols, such as a group emblem with a raised fist on it.  These are the group’s cultural norms.  Procedure, role, and cultural norms are all contained in the group culture.  However, it is the cultural norms that outline the most distinctive elements of a group’s cultural system, that is, the beliefs, values, and symbols by which a group expresses its own identity.

Although all the group norms are contained in the culture, most group cultures contain additional information and ideas that members share but which do not have the status of norms.  For example, a group of friends who are not a political group might still share a set of political beliefs.  These beliefs are not group norms for the friends in that adherence to them is not required of the members.  And yet the group members draw upon these beliefs in a daily way, and they are in some sense part of the group culture.  So, although the important beliefs, values, and symbols in a group culture will have the status of norms, the culture may contain some non normative beliefs and information as well.

Group culture, then, is best thought of as a group’s store of shared information that it uses to guide and interpret its actions.  It contains the group’s norms but is distinct from its social structure.  It is made up of four general types of information

1.         Agreed-upon rules for behaviour-what we have called procedural and role norms

2.         Values-assumptions or statements that rank goals and behaviour in terms of their importance to the group

3.         Beliefs- statements about the world and the way the group operates in it that often serve to justify the group’s values and behavioural rules

4.         Symbols-ideasor objects the group uses to represent its beliefs, values, and basic identity, and which usually have an emotional meaning for the members

The members of virtually any group in our society are also members of other social entities.  As a result, small groups exist within an extensive network of interconnecting relationships, which link them to the beliefs and practices that define the culture of society as a whole, as well as to the cultures of surrounding large organisations and neighbouring small groups.  It is in relation to this larger social network that small groups develop their own distinctive cultures

This background network of relationships has several important implications for group culture.  First of all, it provides pathways along which cultural information flows from the outside society into the group.  Just as importantly, the cultural creations of small groups are carried by their members back along these pathways to other small groups and to the larger society.  This two-way flow of cultural information is called a diffusion process.  It allows small groups and the larger society to influence one another’s norms, beliefs, and values.

Each of us, as socialised members of other cultural groups, bring normative blueprints with us when we form any common group, a committee, a family, a romantic relationship, a friendship group, a work group, a teenage gang, or the like.

Fine (1979) called the distinctive culture of a group its idioculture.  Because groups create their idioculture in relation to other groups/social networks of which their members are a part, and to a normative blueprint from the outside, they are in a position to evolve interesting variations on, and responses to, the larger cultural tradition within which they exist.  Indeed much of what people seek from their groups is a kind of reaction to, and help in coping with, the surrounding social context.  Students turn to one another to deal with university life and the problems of youth, and they create through their efforts a distinctive student culture that both adopts the values of the larger society and satirises them.  This process illustrates for us how small groups play their roles as the linking mechanism between individuals and large-scale organisations, both maintaining the connection between the two and providing a buffer zone to absorb conflicts.

It is in the face-to-face encounters of cuiltural groups that people actually evolve new habits of speech, shared beliefs, and ways of doing things.  The members of these groups then carry these idiocultural practices out to other groups, and occasionally they catch on quite widely throughout society.  Virtually all social movements, for instance, the women’s movement and the antinuclear movement, began as small groups, a collection of like-minded people meeting in somebody’s living room.  The same is true of religious cults.  The beliefs and attitudes shaped or created by these groups have spread to varying, sometimes large, segments of the population.

The fact that the idiocultural creations of small groups occasionally diffuse outward into the surrounding society brings home the point that group culture influences the larger cultural tradition as well as vice versa.

How does a group create its culture? Why do certain bits of information become part of the group culture and not others?

For a cultural item to be created and continue to be used by a group it has to meet five different criteria:

1.         The cultural “item,” or the basic information out of which it was created, has to be known to the group members.

2.         It has to be useable in the group context, in the sense that it did not violate any norms of acceptable, proper behaviour.

3.         It tends to be functional for the group in that it supported the group’s goals or the individual needs of the members.

4.         The item itself, or the manner in which it was introduced to the group, has to be appropriate in that it supported the group’s status hierarchy.

5.         It needs to be triggered-that is, introduced into the group-by some event or occurrence in group interaction.

These criteria move through as progressively smaller filters through which information must pass before it is adopted into the group’s idioculture.  At each level more and more information is strained out so that, in the end, only information that is rather well matched to the group’s circumstances survives to become an ongoing part of the group culture.  In this way, the members of a small group select from the vast amount of information available to them a small sample from which they create a distinctive group culture.


2 thoughts on “Understanding Group Culture

  1. What I think is most fascinating about group culture is that we all likely belong to several, the fact that the group cultures may not be compatible if brought together, and how individuals internally reconcile these incongruities.

    • Thanks for the comment mtietbohl. Very interesting. I think most groups will be broadly compatible. If the person has one that is not compatible there will be cognative dissonance – perhaps strong enough to be a psychological/behavioural problem.

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