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Human Development 2002;45:299306

Culture and Human Development

Frederick Erickson 1

University of California, Los Angeles, Calif., USA

Key Words
Apprenticeship ` Community of practice ` Conflict theory ` Culture ` Culture

Culture used to be thought of as a whole, internally consistent system of
symbols and values held in common by members of bounded social groups, in-
cluding whole societies. That view is changing among anthropologists currently.
This article traces the intellectual history of those changes, across the earlier
perspectives of functionalism and conflict theory, through recent perspectives
on culture as residing in the practices of local communities of practice. Both
those local social groups and the persons within them are presumed currently to
be multicultural rather than monocultural. Implications of this for the study of
human development are that (1) acquisition of culture involves apprentice-like
interaction in specific communities of practice, and that (2) a key unit of analy-
sis in the study of the acquisition of culture is the indiviudal's encounters with
various specific communities of practice in that individual's distinctive daily
round. Patterns of culture in whole societies in relation to those in local commu-
nities of practice are currently undertheorized.
Copyright 2002 S. Karger AG, Basel

My doctoral study was interdisciplinary, including courses in anthropology, sociology, and so-
ciolinguistics in relation to education, and my doctoral thesis was a sociolinguistic analysis of cultural
differences in oral discourse stragegies for argumentation, comparing discourse in small groups of Afri-
can-American teenagers with discourse in small groups of Euro-American teenagers (PhD in education,
Northwestern University, 1969). Currently I am especially interested in video-based sociolinguistic
research on social interaction as a learning environment, in the use of digital multimedia to document
complex teaching and learning practice in classrooms, and in methods of ethnography in modern socie-
ties. I am a past president of the Council on Anthropology and Education of the American Anthropo-
logical Association, and past Vice President for Division G (The Social Context of Education) of the
American Educational Research Association. Currently I am George Kneller Professor of Anthropology
of Education, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, UCLA, where I am also Director
of the Center for Research and Innovation in Elementary Education, Corinne A. Seeds University Ele-
mentary School, the laboratory school at UCLA.

2002 S. Karger AG, Basel Frederick D. Erickson, Graduate School of Education

0018716X/02/04540299$18.50/0 and Information Studies, University of California
Fax + 41 61 306 12 34 Box 951521, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1521 (USA)
E-Mail Accessible online at: Tel. +1 310 230 8300, Fax +1 310 206 6293 E-Mail
It is ironic that as psychologists and others interested in human development
are beginning to take culture seriously in their research the conceptions of culture
they use tend to be those that are being seriously re-thought, and may be becoming
obsolete in those fields of inquiry that had already gotten to a recognition of
culture as a useful foundational construct anthropology, linguistics, and the
emerging interdisciplinary field of cultural studies. So the problem is not only that
culture, when conceived as a holistic entity, does not fit very well with the intellec-
tual tendency to parse the social world into discrete variables, independent and de-
pendent a primal step in research design that is entailed in the attempts at strong
causal analysis which characterize scientific psychology. I believe the basic prob-
lem lies even deeper than that, having to do with the viability of the very notion of
cultural holism itself.
When I was a graduate student taking anthropology courses in the middle
1960s, conceptions of culture as a holistic and integrated system were quite taken
for granted. That was the classic view, considered as authoritative since the late
19th century. At that time the British anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor
[1871/1970, p. 1] had defined culture in a social scientific sense as the sum total of
social inheritance: Culture or Civilization... is that complex whole which includes
knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits
acquired by man as a member of society. Notice that Tylor treated culture as a
whole entity and that in his list of various aspects of culture he included both be-
havior and symbol systems.
To understand the contemporary critique of culture as holistic we need to re-
view briefly some developments in social theory during the 20th century. From the
1920s through the 1950s, the reigning perspectives in social theory in American
and British anthropology and sociology were those of functionalism, in a variety of
kinds. These variants all presumed that the parts of society fit into a unified whole
in which the parts complemented one another and that the basic processes of soci-
ety were homeostatic rather than conflictual. A conception of culture as holistic and
unified, with its various aspects mutually supportive and complementary, is conso-
nant with the basic assumptions of functionalism. Religious beliefs, for example,
would be seen as being consistent with a system of kinship and land tenure, and
with core societal values including basic notions of the nature of persons and of
groups a shared ontological view as well as with a system of technology and
features of language. By the late 1950s and 1960s, there was an increasing ten-
dency to conceive of culture as having to do with symbol systems and ideology
rather than with the behaviors of social action.
In the functionalist perspective socialization was the primary means by which
culture and society were reproduced from generation to generation, and socializa-
tion was also conceived as the primary grounds for social order. Children learned
values, language, and world view in early childhood they learned their societys
rule systems and then as adults they conducted their everyday lives by following
the general societal rules. Different cultures had differing, internally consistent
sets of rules to be learned. This view seemed to be supported empirically by cross-
cultural ethnography. As ethnographic studies, typically based on a year's field-
work, were accumulating, their snapshot view of social process (a synchronic
perspective) seemed to support the presuppositions of functionalism.

300 Human Development Erickson

But there was a problem with this view how to account for change? If one
assumes that societys parts all fit together smoothly and that socialization is suc-
cessful, there is no way to explain how change happens from one generation to the
next at the level of general social institutions, or of locally associating groups, or
of the social action of particular individuals. If one looks at social processes over
time (i.e., from a diachronic perspective not just during a year of field work but
across the spans of successive generations), some change is always apparent even
as some things stay the same. Language is a good example. We can see the story of
language as one of continuity over time or of change over time.
Especially in anthropology the stories of cultural continuity were the ones with
the most intellectual cachet. There was a sense that social and cultural change was
more negative than positive in its workings and results, and that the proponents of
modernization were naive. Change would upset the homeostatic applecart the
balance and integration of a traditional nonliterate society. Such societies were seen
as losing culture as they encountered modern societies through colonization and
through postcolonial engagement with economic development. Just stay as beauti-
ful as you are now (until we can get there to study you) was the culturally relativist
functionalist view communicated in coursework and at the annual meetings of the
American Anthropological Association, which I first began attending in 1969.
Some of my graduate student cohort literally went off to the New Guinea highlands
or the Amazon River delta to find the last of the relatively untouched nonliterate
human communities before they disappeared.
Contrary to functionalist accounts of the nature of human society were those of
conflict theory. The principal origin of these was in 19th century Marxism, which
viewed social process as the tug of war between factions with competing interests,
social groups that were in conflict for material and ideological sources of power.
That intergroup struggle was seen as the basic engine both of social process and of
social change and, in contrast to functionalist perspectives, change was seen as in-
herent and desirable in social life. When change did not happen across generations,
that was not considered to be due to socialization at the level of the individual but
to perpetuation of previously existing power relationships among the major interest
groups in society. Systems of social rules were not seen as inherently beneficent,
but as conventions imposed by a dominant group in order to maintain its power
relative to other groups. Socialization meant the adoption of beliefs and actions
which would lead the dominated to act in ways that were not in their best interest.
Resistance rather than rule following was the direction for the subordinated
masses to take.
Conflict theory, like functionalism, conceived of society as a whole, but in
conflict theory the various parts were seen as fundamentally antagonistic rather
than complementary. Culture was not seen as inherently unitary, but as the tempo-
rary result of a pattern of domination an unstable equilibrium or force field at a
given historical moment. Cultural differentiation was inherent in society as a
whole, with cultural difference runnig along lines of differential power and privi-
lege among groups, like isobars on a weather map. The connection of culture dif-
ference with power difference was a major contribution of conflict-oriented social
Another corrective to functionalisms overreliance on socialization as an ex-
planation for the existence of social order (specifically, a critique of the structural

Culture and Human Development Human Development 301

functionalism of Talcott Parsons) came from a movement within sociology that
was influenced by phenomenological philosophy. It was called ethnomethod-
ology referring to members methods of making sense in everyday life the
taken-for-granted background assumptions and the routine sense-making practices
of the ordinary social actor, the man (sic) in the street. [The use of ethno to
mean member is actually a mistranslation of the Greek, since ethnekos and ethnoi
refer to those who were not Greeks (ellenoi) but foreigners. Thus literally ethno
refers to nonmembers rather than members. The founders of ethnomethodology
were using the ethno prefix in a nonliteral sense.] Rather than seeing the regulari-
ties of social action as resulting from primary socialization, ethnomethodologists
argued that those regularities were the result of social actors continual work as
active agents, sizing up their immediate social situations and taking tactical action
within them as a result of their intuitive assessments of the ever-changing situation
at hand. This contrasts with the functionalist view of social action as rule following.
A paradigmatic example given by Harold Garfinkel, who coined the term eth-
nomethodology, is the way in which drivers on an expressway adapt their actions
mutually during the course of their driving. There are no rules for how to drive on
the expressway so as not to hit someone else, because the immediate contingencies
of driving are so particular and variable that a general rule cannot provide instruc-
tion for behavior that could be tactically appropriate in the immediate practical situa-
tion at hand. Rather, Garfinkel argues, the flow of traffic (and its occasional halts
and restarts in traffic jams) is better explained as the result of the sum of individual
members local practices of continually sizing up the highway situation as it pre-
sents itself to the driver, the practical social actor, from moment to moment. To use
the terms of the English ordinary language philosopher Grice, practitioners of social
life use maxims rather than follow rules, such as a maxim for auto driving practice
keep going forward but dont hit anybody else [see Garfinkel, 1967, and Heritage,
1984, for elaboration]. Because the emphasis is on the practical social actors mak-
ing sense, ethnomethodology can be thought of as a kind of constructivist explana-
tion for the regularities of social action.
The practices of immediate sense-making and tactical action are undertaken
for the most part without reflection. Bourdieu called this capacity habitus, follow-
ing the terminology of the French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty. He linked a
constructivist perspective on social action to conflict theory, in a synthesis that has
come to be called practice theory [Bourdieu, 1977; Ortner, 1984]. In the view of
Bourdieu and his successors, habitus has a class basis, and thus Bourdieu links an
account of the conduct of local social action with the unequal distribution of power
in society at large. A weakness in Bourdieus attempt to escape from the limitations
of the functionalist notion of social action as rule following is that his conception of
habitus presumes its acquisition through primary socialization in early childhood.
Thus, in his attempt to escape from the limits of structuralist and functionalist ex-
planations of social action, Bourdieu reintroduces the primacy of socialization,
opening the same Pandoras box (that of socialization as a denial of local human
agency, treating the local social actor as an automaton) a few steps further down the
line of explanation in his theory from that place in the overall chain of explanation
which socialization occupies in functionalism. Although Bourdieu allows for the
possibility of new habitus being acquired later in the life course, he still places pri-
mary emphasis on the habitus acquired early in life.

302 Human Development Erickson

In the literary theory of Bakhtin [e.g., 1981], we find a corrective to the em-
phasis on early learning that is a problem in Bourdieus model. Bakhtin links cul-
tural difference to differences in power in society, as does Bourdieu. He identifies
stylistically differing social languages or speech genres which vary across social
positions within society [and in that, he parallels the sociolinguistics of Hymes,
1974, and Bernstein, 1971]. For Bakhtin, however, the acquisition of variant ways
of speaking (those that are akin to what Bourdieu calls habitus) happens throughout
the life course. Thus the acquisition of culture (and its invention) is not simply a
matter of intergenerational transmission. Rather cultural learning can be done anew
again and again within a single generation.
Bakhtin, in his theoretical account of the uttering of speech, also allows for a
kind of tactical adaptation to the situation at hand that is akin to the ethnomethod-
ologists notion of practice. Thus Bakhtins formulation connects power to culture
without entirely sacrificing individual human agency. In addition, his diversity of
tongues(heteroglossia) can be seen as residing within the person as well as within
society as a whole. Speakers acquire different speech genres differing voices
through their participation in differing speech situations and then they are able to
mix those voices in hybrid ways, as tactically appropriate.
The current neo-Vygotskyan perspective on learning in practice is consonant
with Bakhtins formulation [see Lave and Wenger, 1991, Rogoff, 1990, Rogoff et
al., 2001, and Wenger, 1998; see also Holland, 1997, and Holland et al., 2001, for a
synthesis of Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and Bourdieu]. As persons engage as more or less
peripheral participants in social groups local communities of practice they
acquire diverse subsets of cultural knowledge. We can thus say that everyone is
multicultural, as Goodenough [1974] observed some time ago in an article titled
Multiculturalism as the normal human experience.
Normal socialization, then, is not best seen as a process of acquiring a unitary
culture, but it is better conceived as involving the development of capacities for the
conduct of diverse cultural/linguistic practices through a succession of apprentice-
ships across the entire lifecourse as individuals join in a variety of local and discrete
communities of practice, participating recurrently in the practices of those communi-
ties. The initial community of practice is the nuclear family, but then the extended
family, the experiences of schooling, of peer groups, of religious congregations, of
work situations, of adult avocations, of retirement situations, and of vicarious so-
cialization through the various popular communications media (cinema, television,
music, fashion in consumer goods) all provide exposure to differing cultures and
subcultures. Human development, indeed, can be seen as the acquisition throughout
the life cycle of diverse sets of cultural knowledge and performance capacities.
Having concluded our brief excursion through recent social theory we can now
return to consider the problem of connecting old-fashioned cultural holism with an
understanding of human development. For the reasons reviewed above (and more)
the pendulum in culture theory has swung far from conceiving of it as a unitary
phenomenon, characteristic of large-scale social groups a given ethnic/linguistic
group, social class, or nation. Interestingly, however, as we have moved away from
unitary and essentialist notions of culture, the behavioral and symbolic aspects of
culture have been recombined in the synthesis of practice theory. The locus of
culture is seen as being in the practices the behaviors and actions of local
communities of practice. It then becomes inappropriate to speak of a culture or of

Culture and Human Development Human Development 303

African-American culture, of American culture, or of womens culture. Not all
African-Americans are culturally similar, nor are all Americans or all women. What
ones personal culture is depends on where one shows up repeatedly which local
communities of practice one encounters and how one engages within them in ap-
prentice-like learning of certain patterns of conducting everyday life. (It should be
noted that in the politics of intergroup conflict over scarce resources, interest
groups may invoke essentialist notions of culture such as our culture, Native
American culture, the culture of the African diaspora, womens culture even
as these essentialist conceptions are being criticized by some of the academics who
study and theorize culture.
If we accept the proposition that everybody is multicultural (and that therefore
every human group, on whatever scale, is also multicultural) then we cannot simply
identify culture with particular social aggregates or named social categories. In
consequence, the units of analysis in cultural research change from those traditional
in anthropology and sociology the very ones which psychology has begun to bor-
row. One fruitful new kind of unit of analysis is the individuals multicultural rep-
ertoire what Goodenough called the individual cultural idiolect (by analogy with
language) or propriospect. We can ask empirically of a given individual, How
many primary and secondary community of practice memberships does this person
have? What are the practices (and learnings) associated with each?
A related unit of analysis is the individuals daily round. We can observe and
document the entire succession of social situations engaged in by an individual on a
daily basis the full cycle of differing communities of practice that the individual
encounters. In finer grained analysis we can study the person in a particular situa-
tion, identifying the specific interactional practices in which the person participates
in specific interactional events in a specific local community of practice. We can
identify the practices themselves, considered as real-time, continuous social action,
and we can also identify the social participation structures the configurations of
social roles in interaction within the group (that is, what listeners do while speakers
are speaking, how attention is shown by a speaker to various audiences within the
group, and how the disparate audiences point themselves out, contextualize them-
selves, as distinct subgroups).
When from this point of view we want to study learning, we look closely over
time at a given person in a given, recurrent social situation. As Rogoff and others
have argued, when we identify specific changes in the activity of a person interact-
ing within the same situation over time we have shown learning taking place. We
can report these biographies of learning in and through participation in daily social
life and social interaction.
Before closing, let me make one disclaimer as to how we might think about
big-pattern notions of culture. After having spent some years arguing against the
unitary, global, and essentializing notions of culture, such as ethnic culture, gender
culture, and national culture, I became engaged in a study of the learning of cultural
communication practices by foreign medical graduates (FMGs) in American medi-
cal residencies. These physicians (having studied in a medical school abroad and
usually also being a native of another country and a native speaker of a language
other than English) were receiving clinical supervision by American physicians in a
first year of clinical education called residency [for elaboration see Erickson and
Rittenberg, 1987].

304 Human Development Erickson

As Rittenberg and I studied FMGs from South Asia, East Asia, South Amer-
ica, and Eastern Europe we noticed specific national differences in their cultural
ways of practicing medicine. We also noticed pan-national differences from cus-
tomary ways of American medical practice that were so routine they were totally
taken for granted by the Americans, as if they were in fact universal. I will mention
here only two of these differences. One was that, regardless of their own national
origin, the FMGs tended to treat the American nurses with unmasked authority.
There was no mitigation of giving orders to subordinates by framing the orders as
requests, or giving directives in a joking or self-mocking manner no role distanc-
ing in the exercise of authority, in Goffmans terms.
In contrast, American physicians especially the clinically inexperienced resi-
dents tended to mitigate their exercise of authority over nurses by the use of role
distancing. They often put some sugar on their directives, not always but often. A
consequence was that nurses on hospital wards in the residencies often came to see
the FMG interns as overbearing and arrogant, in contrast to the American interns.
This behavior pattern was not true for every FMG or even for every encounter be-
tween an FMG and a nurse. But if one looked at the full set of FMGs in the residen-
cies, in contrast to the full set of American-born and American-educated junior
physicians, the incidence of reported interactional trouble with nurses around the
exercise of authority was much higher in the FMG set than in the non-FMG one,
and many if not most of the FMGs were involved in repeated occurrences of such
Another difference was more specific to a particular foreign community of
medical practice. I coached a Vietnamese refugee physician who at the time was
working as a phlebotomist (blood-drawer) in a hospital and who intended to enroll
in a residency as an FMG. I showed him videotapes of American physicians with
American patients and he was intrigued by the ways those clinic visits began. The
patient would tell a story of the presenting complaint and then the physician would
begin asking questions about the complaint, followed by questions about the pa-
tients general medical history, and finally would proceed to conduct a physical
The Vietnamese physician said that when working in the countryside of Viet-
nam as he had done, physicians never expected the patient to articulate a presenting
complaint to the physician. He said it could not be assumed that the patient would
understand anything about Western medicine. Rather, the encounter with the doctor
began with the physicians asking a long series of close-ended questions in order to
identify and begin to treat a presenting complaint. Do American patients always
tell a story of their complaint at the beginning of their visit with a physician? he
asked. I said that usually they did. Then if I began with a set of questions before
the patient could tell his or her story, might the American patient be offended? I
think so, I said.
As I ruminated on instances like these I became persuaded that there was such
a thing as an American way of practicing medicine, in contrast to some other na-
tional ways of doing so. Accordingly I should mention a caveat while essentialist,
unitary, big-pattern notions of culture have gone rather out of fashion there may
still be some utility in them. We do not yet know how the practices that occur in the
congeries of local communities of practice add up, beyond particular local subsets
of culture, to form larger patterns of culture. Some big-pattern aspects of culture

Culture and Human Development Human Development 305

may not simply be the invention of the cultural analyst but they may actually exist
in the social world. Moreover, we can think of general patterns of culture without
presuming that those broadly distributed patterns necessarily add up to a single
whole: one culture for each whole society, or even one culture for each major
social group within a society.
To conclude, a clear theoretical understanding remains to be developed con-
cerning the relations of mutual influence that might obtain between the local cul-
tures of specific local communities of practice and of general cultures at the level
of whole societies. In the meantime, as we consider how culture relates to human
development, it can be helpful in empirical research to get specific about the work-
ing of local culture in local communities of practice, and also to consider the diver-
sity of cultures (and of speech genres of voices) at the level of the individual, as
the individual encounters differing subcultures in his or her daily round of partici-
pation in multiple communities of practice.


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