Monday, January 17, 2011

The Ecosystem of Culture – Reading Response #1

Culture is an ever changing, ever growing and developing system, much like that of an ecosystem. Ecosystems are described by the balance that is maintained to support them; the ever changing relationships between species, the global “catastrophes” such as earthquakes or tsunamis, and the impact from a dominant species are all triggers of change. The delicate balance of an ecosystem can be easily upset, and sometimes with what is thought to be a small impact can cause some of the largest changes within the ecosystem. Culture can be described as an ecosystem: it continues to change and adapt to these impacts, both good and bad. Hess supports this ever changing ideology when he states “It is therefore unlikely that the world is becoming “more homogeneous”: there are both centripetal and centrifugal tendencies, merging cultures and emergent cultures.” Many ecosystems have been misunderstood and misinterpreted by us humans. We expect a strength and stability that is not always present – and are surprised when the ecosystem begins to fall apart. How is this any different than the human expectation of a stable cultural environment?

According to the second law of thermodynamics, entropy (the chaos of a system) is always increasing – meaning that the overall trend of the world is toward chaos. Hess continues to support the idea of change and chaos when he states, “the phenomena of overlap and miscegenation will likely lead to such radical changes in the classification system that the very concepts of ethnic majority and minority are likely to undergo radical changes as well.” So many people expect and work towards cultural and social change, but the impacts they introduce to the cultures “break” the ecosystem of that culture causing a result not anticipated. It can be hard to understand how something as pesky as an aphid can have such an impact on an entire ecosystem. Consider a field-type ecosystem: if we removed the aphids from these fields, our goal being to remove them in order to allow the plant life to flourish (as the aphids continue to destroy the plant life – suppressing its growth), what would happen to the ladybugs who eat the aphids? Their source of food would be gone, their positive impact on the ecosystem removed. Next, the small birds and lizards would suffer, without a food source, they too would die out. As these smaller species continue to die, the plant life is taking over the landscape, this time however, the weeds have begun to flourish and are killing the beautiful flowers we had set out to save. Weeds are more durable and require less water and less transfer of seeds – they are tough. By now the entire ecosystem has changed, and for the worse. By trying to eliminate a small “problem” we undermined our own efforts. And in reality, were the aphids really such a problem? It is a matter of perspective, by looking at them and respecting the role they play in the existing ecosystem we can see their value.

The efforts to change social and cultural norms can be thought of in the same regard. Everything plays a role in the dynamics of culture, by making one small change, such as removing a well as a water source and providing running water in homes, as we discussed in class, the entire dynamic of the culture has changed – both for the better and the worse – and it cannot be changed back. Once a habit is learned, it is hard to loose that habit. Such as having the convenience of running water – imagine having to shower with a bucket. Buchanan touches on the idea of learned characteristics that build a culture. He discusses the culture of British Engineers, “Many of the engineers came from social and family backgrounds in which hard work was a prerequisite of survival, and the habit, once formed, lasted a professional lifetime.” These learned traits stayed with the young engineers their entire lives – and were the reason that the engineering culture in Britain is the way it is today – a unique ecosystem of its own.

Quotes from:

Hess “Culture and Society” + “Power and Politics”

Buchanan “The Life-Style of the Victorian Engineers”

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