This is a very interesting article in many ways.
Kristin Newton


I was thinking about David’s post, then your post made me think a bit more: the problem of how “culture” shapes perception. It is easy to take “culture” as obvious things that exist among people…but after some years of experiences and disappointments, I’ve come to the conclusion that “culture” is something much harder to conceptualize than people think, let alone put in a box. Rather than thinking about “culture” as conventionally defined, I came up with a bit of toy model to explain how I think about culture:

One conceit that people came up with in the past couple of decades, with the changes in technologies of beer-production, is that different groups of people who want particular taste of beer can be offered the beer that they like for a high price: that is, everyone can have exactly the taste that they want, provided that they would pay for it — and, of course, people would pay for their “culture.” But while a lot of people do — and craft brew industry is making huge profits in the process — many people do not. The best selling beer brands, in many if not most countries, remain those that are not particularly known for their outstanding “tastes.”

The answer to this is that many people really don’t have such well-developed taste for beer that they are willing to pay so much money for beer. Perhaps it is related to their wealth — maybe they just can’t afford to pay so much for beer. Or, it could be that they really can’t tell different tastes of beer apart — one might say that they have “no culture” but, the lack of a “culture,” at least as defined by outsiders, is itself a culture. Or, their culture might be defined on dimensions other than taste — of which there are many candidates. As the saying goes, beer-drinking, including the choice of what to drink, is a social event for many — although not all or even most — people. In the beer context, the successful approach to selling beer would not be the same for all audiences — that is, finding the right taste that they want and the price that they will pay for that taste. For some, taste is not particularly relevant. Entire approaches need to be crafted differently for different audiences, not simply variations on the same approach.

So this gets us back to something that has been eating at me a long time: “culture,” along with all its corollaries, including how people perceive things, is itself a not very obvious thing, something that we need to theorize a great deal about. But this gets to be a dangerous territory, where one needs to tread carefully. At the very minimum, the word “culture” itself seems to carry too much baggage. In the realm of education, “learning style” seems to fit the description fairly well. Going outside the education realm, it gets to be a bit tricky, though.

PS. The idea about trading off between different components of “culture” is something where I’m leveraging off the concept of elasticities of substitution from economics. In economics, elasticities of substitution is how much a consumer is willing to give up on good A for more of good B. Simple enough in the abstract, but real life examples can throw a bit of curveball at people (could have been part of my undoing in the past as a political science academic.) The example that I liked to throw at people in my past life is how one might think about elasticity of substitution between a Republican and a Democrat. To many people, they are polar opposites: these people would be happy to get rid of one for the other since their taste in favor over the other is clearly defined. To many others, however, they are all politicians and are more or less the same. To the latter, they need something extra to buy into why one would be different from the other, and being reminded that one is a Republican and the other is a Democrat makes no sense. The perceptions of what these political labels mean differ sharply, in other words. But, if left in purely “political” context, the distinctions are unbridgeable: if you define Republicans and Democrats, as per the usual convention, as opposing tribes that are fundamentally different, you have just lost the entire latter group of audience who don’t have the same “cultural” perceptual baggage.

What really impressed me about David’s approach to teaching science and math is his recognition that these cultural perceptual baggages exist, and that insisting on one set of baggages as the “right” approach is fundamentally wrong, both in the sense of not producing results and morally dubious.

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