Sunday, November 14, 2010

Entropy and High Context Culture

     This one is nerdy, but it is necessary.  In previous essays (here & here) I discussed different aspects of High Context (HC) and Low Context (LC) Culture.  Here, I offer commentary as to why LC cultures are “cold” and HC cultures are “hot” but only from the perspective of cold Modernism. The discussion runs along the order/disorder spectrum.  To do that I’ll switch to the term Entropy, defined as, with my edits as the dictionary needs help:

1.: a measure of the unavailable energy in a closed thermodynamic system that is also usually considered to be a measure of the system's disorder, that is a property of the system's state, and that varies directly with any reversible change in heat in the system and inversely with the temperature of the system; broadly: the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a [closed] system
2 a: the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe [believed to be a closed system] to an ultimate state of inert uniformity b: a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder
3. Chaos, disorganization, randomness [in any system]

Culture and entropy are reflexively tied together.  Culture is "the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behavior" [1], and, HC and LC cultures have different perspectives on entropy.

     Modernist academia and governmental social science generally views culture as an open system that “continuously interacts with its environment. The interaction can take the form of information, energy, or material transfers into or out of the system boundary.” For example, in Anthropology it has been common to hear people argue that non complex cultures adapt to their environment whereas complex cultures create their own environment. The basic idea here is that the environment (nature) and culture are separate variables.  Under this scenario, version 3 of entropy applies to culture but not 1 and 2.

     Much Western academic and governmental social science also uses zero sum game theory because it is a common problem in everyday life.  If a household is on a fixed income, if a manager in a government agency has a rigid budget, then both are likely to view their little system, their universe, as being closed.  Running out of money too soon before the next allotment increases entropy in their little systems.

     Human systems are fractal.  An open system will have within it contexts and situations that are perceived to be either open or closed. The same is true for closed systems.  It is important to recognize the meta level (for example: meta, macro, micro, mini) as being a dominant organizing force of the world view. The meta level is the cognitive framework that other metaphors fall into.

     In Apollonian LC cultures the meta perspective is:  order must be imposed on disorder.  In the Enlightenment/Modernist tradition it is variously called self discipline, domestication, working from the known to the unknown, or simply, being in control. Generally, you start small and build outward.

     In the Modernist LC tradition, additional meta level beliefs are that the pie can always be expanded, growth is valued, and progress is expected because the system is viewed to be generally open.  Nature, within itself, may have order; but, in relation to mankind, it is disorderly.  Thus, Nature and Culture are viewed as separate, and often as competitors. Mankind can defeat nature, forcing it to adapt to culture. The Fed can print money forever, defeating entropy.

     LC cultures entail a need for structure, organization, and predictability; they want to reduce entropy, tame it. The phrases “a place for everything and everything in its place” and “all things in moderation” and “think before you act” are examples of old fashioned American LC values.  

     LC cultures dislike entropy because they intuitively know they can’t really control it.  That doesn’t mean they can’t try.  Puebloan cultures do everything possible to make it rain.  Mid 20th century Modernists disliked anything that was non-normal; they hated “crazy” “irrational” and “emotional” people because of their “disorder” and spent decades trying to determine what “normal behavior” was so that they could lock all the crazy ones into psycho wards, insane asylums.  The desire to institutionalize “insane” people peaked in the mid twentieth century. And, well into the 1980s going to a shrink was to be avoided or kept secret due to the stigma of being called “crazy.”  (Today, in our new HC culture, these issues are generally diminished although the stigma of mental illness lingers). 

     In HC cultures the basic meta value is harmony between order and disorder.  HC cultures start from a much larger Context, and work to ensure that all the parts are either working well together, or at least, not conflicting with one another. Mankind is a part of nature and there needs to be harmony within the whole. HC cultures are sometimes described as zero sum cultures because they focus so much on larger universal issues. All versions of entropy are fully engaged.

     As American culture shifted from LC to HC during the tumultuous Fourth Awakening (circa 1960-1990) new HC sayings came about as well:

Just do it = act without thinking
No rules = the situation/context is unstructured
Think outside the box = be unique, break existing rules to do it
Push the envelope = get out of your comfort zone; be extreme
It’s a no brainer = the action is intuitively profitable, you don’t have to analyze it
To infinity and beyond = ironic humor about extremism
Nothing succeeds like excess = see here; from romanticist Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

All of these HC sayings have come about or been revived since the 1980s.  They reflect our move away from rigid structure, the use of formal logic, and moderation in general—away from being a narrow minded and Text oriented culture, towards a broad minded and Context oriented one.  It also means embracing all the disorder of life, its excesses, and the new fuzzy rules that must come with it.  And, eventually, there must be a quest for harmony, at least at the individual level.  It’s no wonder that the traditionalists are being decoupled from the new Romanticism, the growing part of society.

     Descartes separated mind and body, and then, the Enlightenment thinkers went on to separate culture and nature.  As a rejection of most of that, the romantic scientists of the early nineteenth century tried to describe man within nature but they blurred into the various forms of anti-modernism and existentialism of the late 19th century.  As positivism and progressivism merged into Modernism in the Third Awakening (ca. 1890-1920) Apollo again strode forth, this time as the Age of Scientism. 
     The concept of HC and LC cultures is, thus, a product of an LC culture under stress from an Awakening.  E. T. Hall [2] was, early on, a modernist who began shifting to a hybrid stance about culture as he worked on these concepts in the 1960s and 1970s, the Awakening years.  The main point of Beyond Culture was to encourage scientists and policy makers to be more HC.  As it was first described to me in a class room lecture, circa 1982, cold Apollo needed to be a little warmer (but don’t become excessively hot like those hot cultures).

     To consider culture generically as a closed system you have to think high context.  Today, we have post-modernism, anti-positivism and other eclectic ideas, all of which speak Dionysian.  Entropy is a becoming a full partner in the process of understanding culture. Here is one example:

“Culture can be viewed as the means by which a society can live in its surroundings by acquiring and consuming free energy. This naturalistic notion assumes that everything can be valued in terms of energy; hence also social changes can be described as natural processes that are influenced by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This universal law, when formulated as an equation of motion, reveals that societies emerge, evolve and eventually extinguish after tapping, exploiting and finally depleting their resources, which we can say are ultimately valued in energetic terms” [3].

     Not sure I’ll buy into all that energy stuff but I do appreciate the man-is-part-of-nature perspective, typical romantic science. 

     To sum up.  Modernism, a LC cultural pattern, views culture as an open system.  Thus, from that perspective, LC cultures are low entropy (cold) and HC cultures are high entropy (hot). 

     Post Modernism, a HC cultural pattern, views culture as a closed system in which variations in entropy ocure. For example, the HC Hindu perspective has not been overly damaged by LC science:

“The survival of mankind on the matrix of the cherished values of life…is dependent upon its adoption of sustainable low-entropy living patterns fortified by harmonious and symbiotic relationship with the environment” [4].

     And there you go.  Even a “hot” culture can aspire for low entropy (requiring a theoretical perspective that starts as HC). And, such a view is counter intuitive to LC modernists.

1.  James P. Spradley, Participant Observation, New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1980, pg. 6.
2.  E. T. Hall, Beyond Culture, New York: Doubleday, 1976.
3.  Arto Annila and Stanley Salthe, "Cultural NaturalismEntropy 12, 2010, no. 6: 1325-1343.  Not to be confused with the Cultural Naturalism Report that supports Kantian rationalism.
4.  B. V. Subbarayappa, “Spirituality and low-entropy culture” in Cons-Ciências: actas do Fórum Internacional Ciência, Religião e Consciência. Porto. ISSN 1645-6564. 2 (2005) 103-116. Here.

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