Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Think You Know Culture?

So, you think you know how to observe and interpret culture? You think you're a budding anthropologist? Then check out this little exercise. It is a helpful, interactive parable that teaches would-be culture critics an important lesson about evaluating other cultures.

Your task is to discover the pattern in the following numbers. I'll provide three examples. Ready?

4, 8, 9
7, 14, 15
12, 24, 25

OK. Did you notice a pattern? If you guessed "N, 2N, +1" then you are correct. That is, you take the number, multiply by two, and then add one. This is a correct pattern. You must feel pretty smart. If you were an anthropologist you could spread the news that the culture you observed has a "N, 2N, +1" pattern. Maybe you'd even receive scholarly acclaim. Woo!

But hold on just a minute. The pattern that you observed is actually not correct of this culture. While it may be a correct pattern to you, it is not to the culture you are observing. In fact, the only real pattern in this culture is that numbers ascend rather than descend. That's it. Had you been able to observe more numbers, you might have noticed that 5,8,11 also fits this "culture." *

The simple anthropology lesson is that this is often how we interpret other cultures when we're intentionally observing and looking for trends. Our intelligence often gets the best of us and yields false positives. Sometimes we see things about other cultures just because we want to see them, but not because they're true. But with something as complex as human culture, we must be patient and thorough before drawing conclusions.

Try this little exercise out on your friends or your class, it's sure to generate a great discussion.  

*When doing this exercise live rather than in writing you may take the opportunity to invite participants to also guess what patterns will NOT work. By learning to look for both answers and non-answers, we can learn more about a culture's patterns. Thus, a participant who believe the pattern is "N, 2N, +1" might suggest that 4,5,6 is a non-answer, but it is, in fact, a viable answer. This teaches us to look for negatives as well as positives.

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