Academic journal article The International Schools Journal

A New Language for Culture, Identity and Values

Academic journal article The International Schools Journal

A New Language for Culture, Identity and Values

Article excerpt

The reason for this article is that recent research in the areas of neurobiology, cognitive science and related disciplines has provided understandings about culture in terms of process rather than content. With our new conceptualisation of how we think, rather than merely what we think, it is possible to speak of the process in dynamic rather than structural ways, reflecting more usefully how these factors relate to human behaviour. To do this we need to use new words.

Words give us mental images with which we can exchange ideas, expressed in terms that are shared. When new conceptualisations are made they can only be presented using existing words; but in fact these words, taken from our previous experience in a variety of fields, come with many conflicting and confusing associations. As Wittgenstein (1922) wrote: 'whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.' 'Culture', 'Identity' and 'Values' are now muddied with ambiguities.

None of these three entities is an existent; they have no material existence. They offer models for abstract concepts, or at least metaphors, but are in fact merely reifications. Nisbett notes that in the West there is a fondness for using nouns (Nisbett, 2003), and this equips us well to describe a static, structural world with essential properties, but less well their dynamic interactions. If we are able to think about these three as processes this may help us to promote learning.

How are the words currently used?

'Values' is a word used in connection with judgment. Values are standards of what we think is good or bad, or normal or abnormal, or strange or familiar, and as an abstract noun it is used to express the quantity of positive evaluation. We apply values to the world as we look at it. They govern what we do as virtuous people, and what we think about the actions of others. But sometimes we differentiate between moral values, which are what we feel we ought to do, and norms, which are what we customarily happen to do. We may apply 'values' particularly to the moral, and see them as taking some kind of priority over norms. In economics 'value' has implications of measures of demand, and of some intrinsic property by which diverse objects can be compared.

There is often talk in international schools of 'universal values', which all people are supposed to share. By contrast there is commonly reference to distinctive 'cultural values' which are shown by a particular group of people. It is noteworthy that cultural values are more often referred to in others than in our own group. It is possible (Schwarz and Bilsky, 1987, Haidt, 2012) to list topics on which all societies hold preferred values, but within those topics particular preferred values are not universally shared, nor is their priority universally agreed.

Everyone has some loyalty to the groups of which they are members, but as literature repeatedly reminds us, clashes of duties may be resolved in a variety of ways. 'International values' have been nominated, either as empirically observed properties of 'international' people, or as properties thought to be desirable by the speaker for specific 'international' purposes (Cambridge, 2003, Pearce, 2003, Cambridge and Thompson, 2000, Cambridge and Carthew, 2006, Roberts, 2009).

'Valuing' implies that we care about something; that our judgment involves feelings. Emotion is central to the activity of values.

We use the word 'Identity' about who we are, or who we feel we are, or we ought to be. It is something that is the same about us, over time, yet we also develop it over time (Erikson, 1968). Even then, Erikson could say (ibid, p.19): 'The more one writes about this subject, the more the word becomes a term for something as unfathomable as it is all-pervasive. One can only explore it by establishing its indispensability in various contexts.'

We sometimes speak of identity-building from a basis of identity diffusion, as a task to be completed or a role to be developed (Marcia, 1966), interrupted or facilitated by periodic 'identity crises' (Erikson, 1968). …

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