The Myth of Old European Feminism: The Importance of Socio-Cultural Contextual Analysis

Article excerpt

Almost from the inception of social science, it has been noted that the prevailing myths of a culture or sub-culture have a profound influence on individuals' understanding and interpretation of experience. By myth we mean a socially constructed paradigm of how to interpret reality (Blazina, 2003). Johannes Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) (Berlin, 1976) maintained that each culture and sub-culture develops its own "Volkgeist" or "similar conscious" that shapes how people live, strive toward goals, think, and feel. Wilhelm Wundt, considered by many to be the father of psychology, helped develop the concept of "Volkerpsychologie," which he defined as "investigations concerning the intellectual, moral, and other mental characteristics people use to sustain one another" (Kim & Berry, 1993, p. 2). Wundt believed that the Volkerpsychologie infuses all experience, including socio-political experience, with meaning (Danziger, 1983).

The cultural/mythical system to which one subscribes colors and influences the subsequent interpretation of every human experience. For example, myths can govern various aspects of one's socially constructed reality about religious beliefs, social structure, cultural consciousness, and even beliefs about gender roles (Blazina, 2003). Thus, mythical systems provide the social and intellectual paradigms we use to interpret and understand the world. These socially constructed paradigms/myths are templates that provide the values and standards under which a society or social group functions. For instance, we use myths to instruct us about how to resolve conflicts and about what the culture deems as appropriate and/or taboo behavior. Further, because of their very nature, the interpretation of myths ultimately determines how we interpret ambiguous situations. By providing ultimate "truths, our mythic paradigms provide answers as to how we make sense of situations that are not clear. These "truths" provide "ultimate guidance," and, when we are wedded to these paradigms without giving careful consideration to objectivity, all evidence can be interpreted in light of the underlying assumptions of these myths and the subsequent directions to which they point. Thus, myths can act as guides for the construction and interpretation of reality, sometimes at the expense of objectivity.

While a cultural myth provides a comprehensive explanatory paradigm, it is ultimately not heuristic. Rather, it is a closed system, and for its subscriber it provides an unquestioning set of irrefutable beliefs. Because myths represent an unquestioned system for constructing our underlying sociological, political, psychological, and even spiritual beliefs, there is a tendency to interpret all evidence as confirming the basic underlying tenets of the myths we construct. That is, we can be tempted to loose scientific objectivity. That is why Blazina (2003) stressed the importance of employing contextual analysis when we interpret a culture's mythic paradigms. This means that we must examine these mythic paradigms, in the context of socio-cultural research, from the perspective of the specific timeframe and culture in which they were created.

Going outside the bounds of contextual analysis (i.e., failing to understand a culture in terms of its own value systems created by its own mythos) leads to potential bias in interpretation. For instance, an unfortunately common use of myth is to make contemporary interpretations of ancient cultures out of their original context. A salient example is the use of mythic paradigms about Greek gods and goddesses to draw implications for contemporary gender roles. The use of these myths is found in abundance in contemporary bookstores. This approach interprets myths from more than 2000 years ago as if they carry the same meaning they did when they were created. While such use of myth may be legitimate in terms of giving guidance to those who subscribe to that mythical system, it misses the mark if we wish to study the socio-cultural forces that led to its original creation. …