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Thread: Re-Imagining Cultures

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    Deus Meumque Jus
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    Re-Imagining Cultures

    I've been reading some Max Weber recently and it's really got my wheels spinning on the Sociology/History paradigm.

    Over time I feel like I'm piecing together human nature and how it intersects with any given culture, and lately I feel like I've come to a stark realization about the topic (assuredly a realization that someone, somewhere has probably already had).

    And the realization is that once institutions become so embedded in any given community that they're taken for granted as they way things are most people don't even think to question them. In an average human life we're born into a world, that world feels normal to us, then we die. Change happens, but generally slowly, and under the assumption that the way things were before is the way things were supposed to be.

    For example, if you look at something like the liberal / conservative paradigm in politics. This feels normal, but why does any given politician need an affiliation at all? If the idea behind democracy is that we make an informed vote, why don't we look at the policies of our specific choices of representative and vote without any party lines? But because we've always experienced this paradigm no one even thinks to question it. It's an embedded institution that is just taken for granted, not even noticed.

    So I think this reality lends itself to a kind of socio-historical paradigm where we're continually building on the old without really questioning or completely re-imagining what was already there. Really a major constraint of human nature on any kind of significant progress.

    Thanks for listening to my rambling.

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    Veteran Member Tharmas's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rousseau View Post
    I've been reading some Max Weber recently and it's really got my wheels spinning on the Sociology/History paradigm.

    Over time I feel like I'm piecing together human nature and how it intersects with any given culture, and lately I feel like I've come to a stark realization about the topic (assuredly a realization that someone, somewhere has probably already had).

    And the realization is that once institutions become so embedded in any given community that they're taken for granted as they way things are most people don't even think to question them. In an average human life we're born into a world, that world feels normal to us, then we die. Change happens, but generally slowly, and under the assumption that the way things were before is the way things were supposed to be.

    For example, if you look at something like the liberal / conservative paradigm in politics. This feels normal, but why does any given politician need an affiliation at all? If the idea behind democracy is that we make an informed vote, why don't we look at the policies of our specific choices of representative and vote without any party lines? But because we've always experienced this paradigm no one even thinks to question it. It's an embedded institution that is just taken for granted, not even noticed.

    So I think this reality lends itself to a kind of socio-historical paradigm where we're continually building on the old without really questioning or completely re-imagining what was already there. Really a major constraint of human nature on any kind of significant progress.

    Thanks for listening to my rambling.
    Seems like you’re wandering a little bit into the land of postmodernism. If you don’t watch out, soon you’ll be unpacking and deconstructing all over the place.

    Seriously, I agree with your musings. Keep rambling.

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    Weber a postmodernist?

    The world really has regressed...
    "Banish me from Eden when you will, but first let me eat of the tree of knowledge."

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    Veteran Member Tharmas's Avatar
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    No, not Weber for goodness sake. That's not what I meant by a long shot.

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    the baby-eater
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    Quote Originally Posted by rousseau View Post
    For example, if you look at something like the liberal / conservative paradigm in politics. This feels normal, but why does any given politician need an affiliation at all? If the idea behind democracy is that we make an informed vote, why don't we look at the policies of our specific choices of representative and vote without any party lines? But because we've always experienced this paradigm no one even thinks to question it. It's an embedded institution that is just taken for granted, not even noticed.
    A little while ago I was reading about the Roman Republic, and the power struggle between the Optimates and the Populares seems to have some parallels with modern left-right politics. The left-right convention itself originated over 200 years ago with the French Revolution. There's a pattern that goes back further than the modern political divide, and I think this is a clue to a more fundamental political phenomenon: people gain power by collecting allies, and the biggest alliance is often the most powerful. Chances are this is going to lead to a state of affairs where you have two big alliances: the incumbent power and a single viable contender.

    A parliament full of independents just isn't a stable system. It would last only until some parliamentarians realised they could have more power if they allied with others and formed a party. If a bunch of people agree in advance to act in concert, they will be more effective at getting (some of) their legislation passed than if they each negotiated independently. In that way, a political party is greater than the sum of its parts.

    As I understand it, Australia is has unusually disciplined political parties. MPs rarely rebel. So when we are offered a list of candidates at election time, the representatives are offering their party's policies, not necessarily their own. And by offering party policy, they also offer a great likelihood that they might actually realise those policies, whereas independents can only implement their policies if they find themselves controlling the balance of power in parliament. (Even then, they still form impromptu coalitions and make compromises in order to actually get something they want.)

    In any political system dominated by two major parties or alliances, voters don't get the choice to pick and choose between policies; each party offers an indivisible suite of policies intended to maximise appeal, and voters can only choose one or the other. The same is basically true even if you add a couple of extra parties like a green party or the NDP; it's just a couple of extra package deals to choose from. It's basically impossible to vote for your preferred suite of policies if you can't find a party that offers it.

    I think some people are well aware of this structure and want things to change. Some people run as independent candidates or start new political parties, some people abstain from voting because they don't like any of the offerings.

    I also think there are a lot of people whose views don't align with the mainstream left or right, and consider themselves to be centrists because they agree with some left wing policies and some right wing ones. I expect these people to be less vocal because at least some of their opinions are going to be unpopular on the left while others will be unpopular on the right; they can't just assume their opinions will be welcome among their social (media) circles.

    Quote Originally Posted by rousseau View Post
    So I think this reality lends itself to a kind of socio-historical paradigm where we're continually building on the old without really questioning or completely re-imagining what was already there. Really a major constraint of human nature on any kind of significant progress.
    Perhaps that's why human history shows cyclical patterns of civilisation rising and falling; in order to progress, society needs to go through a constant process of collapse and renewal, and each iteration re-imagines the institutions of the previous cycle. We also see this is on a smaller scale, with the rise and fall of industries and social norms as technology advances.

    It's also worth noting that progress isn't universally beneficial. Some people are doing very well right now and have an incentive to resist changes that might be good for other people. I'm not saying that politics is necessarily a zero-sum game, but the equation isn't all...um...addition of positive numbers? Not all progress is a win-win? Or to put it another way, you have pointed out that our stagnant political institutions stop a lot of people from getting what they want, but those institutions are doing a very good job of ensuring that some people get what they want.

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    Baboons can solve the problem of aggressive males. Can humans?

    Nature vs Nurture. Is behavior instinctive, or learned from a culture?

    Common wisdom was that only humans have culture; the behavior of "lesser" animals is all instinctive. However this 2004 article in the N.Y. Times explains how one troop of baboons solved its problem with male violence. Culture overcomes genetic predisposition. (I posted this 2 days ago in another thread, but it belongs in this thread.)

    Among a troop of savanna baboons in Kenya, a terrible outbreak of tuberculosis 20 years ago selectively killed off the biggest, nastiest and most despotic males, setting the stage for a social and behavioral transformation unlike any seen in this notoriously truculent primate.

    In a study appearing today in the journal PloS Biology (online at www.plosbiology.org), researchers describe the drastic temperamental and tonal shift that occurred in a troop of 62 baboons when its most belligerent members vanished from the scene. The victims were all dominant adult males that had been strong and snarly enough to fight with a neighboring baboon troop over the spoils at a tourist lodge garbage dump, and were exposed there to meat tainted with bovine tuberculosis, which soon killed them. Left behind in the troop, designated the Forest Troop, were the 50 percent of males that had been too subordinate to try dump brawling, as well as all the females and their young. With that change in demographics came a cultural swing toward pacifism, a relaxing of the usually parlous baboon hierarchy, and a willingness to use affection and mutual grooming rather than threats, swipes and bites to foster a patriotic spirit.

    Remarkably, the Forest Troop has maintained its genial style over two decades, even though the male survivors of the epidemic have since died or disappeared and been replaced by males from the outside.... The persistence of communal comity suggests that the resident baboons must somehow be instructing the immigrants in the unusual customs of the tribe.

    Dr. Sapolsky, who is renowned for his study of the physiology of stress, said that the Forest Troop baboons probably felt as good as they acted. Hormone samples from the monkeys showed far less evidence of stress in even the lowest-ranking individuals, when contrasted with baboons living in more rancorous societies.

    The new work vividly demonstrates that, Putumayo records notwithstanding, humans hold no patent on multiculturalism. As a growing body of research indicates, many social animals learn from one another and cultivate regional variants in skills, conventions and fashions. Some chimpanzees crack open their nuts with a stone hammer on a stone anvil; others prefer wood hammers on wood anvils. The chimpanzees of the Tai forest rain-dance; those of the Gombe tickle themselves. Dr. Jane Goodall reported a fad in one chimpanzee group: a young female started wiggling her hands, and before long, every teen chimp was doing likewise.

    But in the baboon study, the culture being conveyed is less a specific behavior or skill than a global code of conduct. ''You can more accurately describe it as the social ethos of group,'' said Dr. Andrew Whiten, a professor of evolutionary and developmental psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who has studied chimpanzee culture. ''It's an attitude that's being transmitted.''

    The report also offers real-world proof of a principle first demonstrated in captive populations of monkeys: that with the right upbringing, diplomacy is infectious. Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal, the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University in Atlanta, has shown that if the normally pugilistic rhesus monkeys are reared with the more conciliatory stumptailed monkeys, the rhesus monkeys learn the value of tolerance, peacemaking and mutual hip-hugging.

    Dr. de Waal, who wrote an essay to accompany the new baboon study, said in a telephone interview, ''The good news for humans is that it looks like peaceful conditions, once established, can be maintained,'' he said.

    ''And if baboons can do it,'' he said, ''why not us? The bad news is that you might have to first knock out all the most aggressive males to get there.''
    If baboons could find a cultural solution to the problem of bullying males, maybe Americans can also.

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    Fair dinkum thinkum bilby's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rousseau View Post
    I've been reading some Max Weber recently and it's really got my wheels spinning on the Sociology/History paradigm.

    Over time I feel like I'm piecing together human nature and how it intersects with any given culture, and lately I feel like I've come to a stark realization about the topic (assuredly a realization that someone, somewhere has probably already had).

    And the realization is that once institutions become so embedded in any given community that they're taken for granted as they way things are most people don't even think to question them. In an average human life we're born into a world, that world feels normal to us, then we die. Change happens, but generally slowly, and under the assumption that the way things were before is the way things were supposed to be.

    For example, if you look at something like the liberal / conservative paradigm in politics. This feels normal, but why does any given politician need an affiliation at all? If the idea behind democracy is that we make an informed vote, why don't we look at the policies of our specific choices of representative and vote without any party lines? But because we've always experienced this paradigm no one even thinks to question it. It's an embedded institution that is just taken for granted, not even noticed.

    So I think this reality lends itself to a kind of socio-historical paradigm where we're continually building on the old without really questioning or completely re-imagining what was already there. Really a major constraint of human nature on any kind of significant progress.

    Thanks for listening to my rambling.
    1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
    2. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
    3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
    - Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

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    Senior Member OLDMAN's Avatar
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    Well, without the obvious reference, Trump avoided war with Iran, even though having a foreign enemy to war with has always been beneficial to term presidents.

  9. Top | #9
    Deus Meumque Jus
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tharmas View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by rousseau View Post
    I've been reading some Max Weber recently and it's really got my wheels spinning on the Sociology/History paradigm.

    Over time I feel like I'm piecing together human nature and how it intersects with any given culture, and lately I feel like I've come to a stark realization about the topic (assuredly a realization that someone, somewhere has probably already had).

    And the realization is that once institutions become so embedded in any given community that they're taken for granted as they way things are most people don't even think to question them. In an average human life we're born into a world, that world feels normal to us, then we die. Change happens, but generally slowly, and under the assumption that the way things were before is the way things were supposed to be.

    For example, if you look at something like the liberal / conservative paradigm in politics. This feels normal, but why does any given politician need an affiliation at all? If the idea behind democracy is that we make an informed vote, why don't we look at the policies of our specific choices of representative and vote without any party lines? But because we've always experienced this paradigm no one even thinks to question it. It's an embedded institution that is just taken for granted, not even noticed.

    So I think this reality lends itself to a kind of socio-historical paradigm where we're continually building on the old without really questioning or completely re-imagining what was already there. Really a major constraint of human nature on any kind of significant progress.

    Thanks for listening to my rambling.
    Seems like you’re wandering a little bit into the land of postmodernism. If you don’t watch out, soon you’ll be unpacking and deconstructing all over the place. ������

    Seriously, I agree with your musings. Keep rambling.
    It's funny you mention postmodernism. I've been interested in seeking out some of that recently but haven't had the time to really see what's out there. The current plan is to finish with Weber, and then move on to more recent stuff.

    And yea, I'm already deconstructing all over the place . It's funny, lately I only seem to get any type of kick from pretty heavy concepts. My friends and family are sitting there watching Friends while I'm using words like 'socio-historical'. The rabbit hole just keeps getting deeper.

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    Deus Meumque Jus
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    Quote Originally Posted by bigfield View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by rousseau View Post
    For example, if you look at something like the liberal / conservative paradigm in politics. This feels normal, but why does any given politician need an affiliation at all? If the idea behind democracy is that we make an informed vote, why don't we look at the policies of our specific choices of representative and vote without any party lines? But because we've always experienced this paradigm no one even thinks to question it. It's an embedded institution that is just taken for granted, not even noticed.
    A little while ago I was reading about the Roman Republic, and the power struggle between the Optimates and the Populares seems to have some parallels with modern left-right politics. The left-right convention itself originated over 200 years ago with the French Revolution. There's a pattern that goes back further than the modern political divide, and I think this is a clue to a more fundamental political phenomenon: people gain power by collecting allies, and the biggest alliance is often the most powerful. Chances are this is going to lead to a state of affairs where you have two big alliances: the incumbent power and a single viable contender.

    A parliament full of independents just isn't a stable system. It would last only until some parliamentarians realised they could have more power if they allied with others and formed a party. If a bunch of people agree in advance to act in concert, they will be more effective at getting (some of) their legislation passed than if they each negotiated independently. In that way, a political party is greater than the sum of its parts.

    As I understand it, Australia is has unusually disciplined political parties. MPs rarely rebel. So when we are offered a list of candidates at election time, the representatives are offering their party's policies, not necessarily their own. And by offering party policy, they also offer a great likelihood that they might actually realise those policies, whereas independents can only implement their policies if they find themselves controlling the balance of power in parliament. (Even then, they still form impromptu coalitions and make compromises in order to actually get something they want.)

    In any political system dominated by two major parties or alliances, voters don't get the choice to pick and choose between policies; each party offers an indivisible suite of policies intended to maximise appeal, and voters can only choose one or the other. The same is basically true even if you add a couple of extra parties like a green party or the NDP; it's just a couple of extra package deals to choose from. It's basically impossible to vote for your preferred suite of policies if you can't find a party that offers it.

    I think some people are well aware of this structure and want things to change. Some people run as independent candidates or start new political parties, some people abstain from voting because they don't like any of the offerings.

    I also think there are a lot of people whose views don't align with the mainstream left or right, and consider themselves to be centrists because they agree with some left wing policies and some right wing ones. I expect these people to be less vocal because at least some of their opinions are going to be unpopular on the left while others will be unpopular on the right; they can't just assume their opinions will be welcome among their social (media) circles.

    Quote Originally Posted by rousseau View Post
    So I think this reality lends itself to a kind of socio-historical paradigm where we're continually building on the old without really questioning or completely re-imagining what was already there. Really a major constraint of human nature on any kind of significant progress.
    Perhaps that's why human history shows cyclical patterns of civilisation rising and falling; in order to progress, society needs to go through a constant process of collapse and renewal, and each iteration re-imagines the institutions of the previous cycle. We also see this is on a smaller scale, with the rise and fall of industries and social norms as technology advances.

    It's also worth noting that progress isn't universally beneficial. Some people are doing very well right now and have an incentive to resist changes that might be good for other people. I'm not saying that politics is necessarily a zero-sum game, but the equation isn't all...um...addition of positive numbers? Not all progress is a win-win? Or to put it another way, you have pointed out that our stagnant political institutions stop a lot of people from getting what they want, but those institutions are doing a very good job of ensuring that some people get what they want.
    I figured there'd be something to say about the left/right paradigm I mentioned. It's also worth mentioning that for the overwhelming brunt of human history it wasn't even really possible to re-imagine culture. I wonder how many people even had a realistic conception of what the word 'culture' meant until after the printing press? How many even now?

    You also make a good point re: progress. I'd add that I'm not so much interested in promoting progress per se, but rather just understanding historical trends and forces. I believe what you mention could be seen as another, distinct paradigm, or historical force: the idea that a unitary vision of progress doesn't exist. So even if most people didn't find culture normalized, there would still be an inherent power struggle.

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