03 January 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Differences in cultural mentalities

Dear friends,

This Sunday will be the first meeting for the new year. Expressions like
these, of course, are the result of tradition and, most of all, culture.
It is therefore apt that we should be discussing "differences in
cultural mentalities." I have managed to write a short essay for this
meeting which you find at the end of this email.

I hope you will find the time to come next Sunday. And during the coming
few Sundays there are outings to plan and Christmas lunch to organise,
of course everything in good time.

Take care



The flat is in Usera near the underground , totally furnished and 60 m2,
3º floor.

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Differences in cultural mentalities

Differences in cultural mentalities implies comparing cultures and
assessing beliefs and mental dispositions. But can we really compare
cultures? And what are cultural mentalities?

We can assume that at face value cultures are different. And although we
are individuals we can accept that when we tend to have the same
publicly expressed thoughts we can speak of a collective cultural
mentality; or mind set to use a different term. However, beyond the
differences of cultures and common mentality, we find the common scope
of survival in all the senses of the word: genetic, social, physical,
psychological and all the other ways we have to survive, including I
must add, ethical survival. It is evident that culture and ethical
systems are closely linked maybe through religion, legal system or

We can also assume that cultures are influenced by geographical
circumstance followed by other cultures. Geographical circumstance gives
rise to some specific characteristics of a culture (e.g. food, dialect,
costumes..) which in turn give rises to the differences we are
interested. Island communities, in a tropical latitude, might develop
differently than say mountain communities in northern latitudes. This,
of course, despite the similarity that both communities have that they
are isolated to a certain extent.

One very important element for mentality and culture which should be
mentioned is the family. Families, peers and guardians are probably the
most influential group of people in our formative years. Usually we see
this group as a source of personal education and knowledge transfer
which, in theory, ought to serve us in good stead for the rest of our
life. We do not call the early years of our life as the formative years
for nothing. However, the discussion on this topic usually centres on
the adult "forming" the child.

What the same discussions often fail to mention is that the formative
years are also the same time we learn how to learn; how we process and
make sense of the information, knowledge and communication we come into
contact with. Learning how to learn is as important, in my opinion, as
learning about things. To give a real life and practical example, in
western society we have developed and adopted the scientific method as a
means of learning how to learn about things. Other societies might have
opted for spiritualism or mythology for the same purpose.

Of course, the situation is not that clear cut, since in most cultures
and societies we would find different degrees of methodologies being
employed as a way to learn how to learn about things. We might even
employ different methodologies ourselves from time to time. For example,
scientific values, ethical values aesthetic values and so on.
Furthermore, different groups within the same society might employ
different methods of learning. What is, however, clear, is that the
scientific method does have a good stronghold on all relevant learning
about the world around us. To put this in a context, most people, today,
would probably go to a hospital for serious medical treatment and not a
place of worship. Having said that, given the wide range of nosocomial
infections and the haphazard hygiene standards of some hospitals, a
place of worship might be a good proposition.

If our way of learning is compatible with the way the world around us
generally functions, the more able we are to function ourselves within
that world. Of course, there are many activities that human beings get
involved with, so the issue is not that simple, but it is nevertheless,

The relevance of the family on culture and cultural mentalities is an
issue which Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza mentions in his book Genes,
Peoples and Languages (Penguin Books 2001). What I think is relevant
here is the study Sforza refers to by Hervé Le Bras and Emmanuel Todd
(1981) who studied the three major types of families in France. Le Bras
identified the following family structures (my summary; pp 184-185): 1)
The family with the head of the household having absolute patriarchal
authority. This type of family is found in the northwest of France and
may have been inherited from the Celts. This might explain why in the
northwest of France monarchies and authoritarian systems are popular. 2)
Another type of family group is a more relaxed form of the patriarchal
system and where the family will provide a home for those members who
need help. This system in found in the southwest area of France. This
area also has a strong socialist support. 3) "The strict nuclear family
frequent in the northeast, in which children can marry and have children
only if they have the ability to live independently." This is also the
area with most influence from the Franks which were barbarians of
Germanic origin. This family structure was also found in Germany and
England after the Anglo-Saxon conquest.

The strict nuclear family that, as Sforza writes, "encourages youth to
relocate in the search for employment probably favored industrial
development." This is a very interesting observation which I am sure you
will agree. And if this is any reflection of reality, it might also
explain some very important cultural differences within Europe.
Differences that might not always have had good consequences. But this
might still be classified as theory.

Let us take a more practical example. Last week, 28th December, the
department of health in the UK issued the news (see e.g. The Guardian on
line, Rickets makes return in ethnic minorities) that rickets, a bone
disease, is becoming increasingly common amongst children from certain
ethnic minority communities. This disease is associated with poverty and
malnutrition, no surprises there, but the disease is caused by vitamin D
deficiency. One cause of this deficiency, apart from not eating the
right food, which can be fixed with modern medicine, is lack of
sunshine. The Guardian reports from the briefing by the department of
health: "Dark-skinned people do not absorb as much sunlight through the
skin and may also wear clothing that limits exposure to the sun for
cultural reasons." Furthermore, in winter, the sunshine north of
Birmingham is not of the right wavelength for the body to make vitamin D.

Surely this might be a good example of differences in cultural
mentalities. Luckily, in this case, the situation can be solved by some
pills, even if communicating this fact might have to breach their own
barriers for this to happen.

Maybe we cannot compare the face value of cultures, and maybe the pomp
and pageant aspect of cultures might even prejudice our beliefs about
cultures. But it certainly seems clear that cultures have a place and
time, and whist places don't change that fast, we do change. Sometimes,
it might even make sense to change.

Take care


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Differences in
cultural mentalities

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