When Culture Is Passed Forward Like the Telephone Game

BlogHer Original Post

Is it possible to find a cultural truth? Will a day come when we accept the good and bad things about our cultural influences? Can we accept our various ancestors without hurt and rancor? Judging from the past year or so probably not. Perhaps learning about our past is much like the Telephone game many of us experienced in a school classroom.

Culturally we pass messages to each other and the next generation. Messages of proper behavior, obedience and morality. The more people that attempt to encode or transmit their contribution of information the more distorted the original message becomes.

Details become lost and nuance is shaved down into vague impressions. The facts that remains might be a “truth” but the intended meaning could be totally transformed. Anthropologists try to collect the artifacts that represent features of a particular culture. Using research, technology and hopefully parking their pre-conceptions at the door these scientists can help us understand how we are alike and why differences can lead to long term misunderstandings.

Here is an example. I visited the Death The Last Taboo website from the Australian Museum. I wanted to find out information about the practice of photographing dead people. In the 19th century it was popular to request a photograph of the recently departed. Apparently Americans, Brits and Australians included it as part of the funeral ceremony.

I might have accepted the information as a fact. Except that I also visited an Aboriginal library website where I learned that for certain native communities it is a cultural taboo to view images or even speak of the deceased. It may have been true for Europeans Australians but not for a portion of the native population.

It might have been totally unintentional but you can’t ignore other segments of your country's population or only designate one group as being the true representation of an entire country. It doesn't work very well in the long run.

Yet this is what humans do. We tend to bring forward what we know and what we believe to be important. This is why we need historical and scientific research to help bring all of our stories forward.

In Observation Mode

Sometimes you need to take a look at what is before you. Melissa at Mundane Ethnography looks at food as culture, social necessity and as a cultural identifier as she asked the question “What Is American Cuisine?” Although there haven’t been recent posts I think that these are not mundane matters. I hope she find the time to write more.

At the NYU Material World blog I found a fascinating post by Social Anthropologist Claudia Liebelt on Filipina workers who bring their culture with them to Israel and bring back items back to their homes that reflect their Israeli experience. This was part of a project to study the migration of Filipina women to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

A good place to hang out is Savage Minds, a group blog that want to reach beyond the academic anthropology audience. I cruised through Florence Chee’s blog Constructing Amusements where she looks at culture and technology and Jan Chipchase and Future Perfect which snagged me with this question:

Who benefits more from the introduction of mobile money services - a white-collar worker in New York City or a migrant manual labourer living out of a dormitory in Xi'an?

Who do we include? Who do we leave out?

Gena Haskett is a Contributing Editor at BlogHer and writes at Out On The Stoop and Create Video Notebook.

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