The Cultural Puzzle

What does it take to understand culture? What aspects should we consider when talking about culture? Culture is a loose term, a term that I once thought only pertained to each specific race. However, culture can be thought of as in any given location. It could be a country, a city, a neighborhood, or even a building. And what determines the culture in an area is a complex combination of history, politics, power, and social interactions.

The history of the area can tell us a lot about what and why we see a certain culture in a given area. For example, Marcy-Holmes, a neighborhood in Minnesota, had a history of Native Americans until an explorer talked of how the area was beautiful. It soon became a sought after oasis, and colonization of white European-Americans in the 1800s ensued (Marcy-Holmes). That small glimpse into history gives us an understanding of how the area changed, drastically I might add.

The exampled history is just a piece of the puzzle though when it comes to history. The history of the area can influence other things like how the area is perceived, either by its own community or the outsides communities. Staying with the Minnesota examples, West Minneapolis is known by the outside community to be a place filled with crime. However, most of West Minneapolis’s community doesn’t see it that way. They view it as perfectly safe, a growing cultural paradise with a few rotten seeds.

But just to extrapolate further on history. History governs every area from a small neighborhood to an individual country to a continent to the world. The culture of each area can be studied through its own history, on whatever scale, and that alone will give a piece of the puzzle for the understanding of the culture in an area.

Another piece of the puzzle to understanding culture in an area is power. Power is an idea that determines how much voice, how much sway an individual or group may have on the population. Power could be determined by a number of things like money, education, race, political placement, etc. Anything that can possibly give a person power over others is power for that individual. But how does power play into the cultural identity of an area?

Judith Martin and Thomas Nakayama, writers of Intercultural Communication in Contexts, wrote:

“Power is the central dynamic in the writing of history. It influences the content of the history we know and the way it is delivered. Power dictates what is taught and what is silenced, what is available and what is erased.”

As you can see, power is closely linked to history in that the people that are in power determine the history of now and what will be told of from the past.

A significant time in history, in this country, is the ruling of Plessy versus Ferguson. The Supreme Court, in 1896, a bunch of judges with power, ruled that state sponsored segregation of public facilities was constitutional. The idea was “separate but equal.” This one instance in U.S. history started a cultural fire. It separated people based on race, which of course would have its own cultural implications.

Later on in 1954, the famous case of Brown versus the Board of Education ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” And of course, this again started a cultural fire. I won’t go into the details because most of you reading this know these cases from history classes, but for those of you that don’t, I would suggest reading up on it. Anyway, this demonstrates how power can influence an area and in this case the power of the Supreme Court Justices influenced the entire United States.

Let’s talk about power on a smaller scale. During the late 1800s, Marcy-Holmes started to develop businesses along the Mississippi River in which the running the water was used to power the industry. The most famous business was the Pillsbury A-Mill. It turned the city of Minneapolis into the “flour capitol of the world” for over forty years. In this case, power was dictated by money, an economic status. Pillsbury had sway in the community because it was a source of mass revenue in the area. It has changed since the mill has closed down, but it is another example of how power can change over time in an area.

Another piece of this cultural puzzle is how social interactions and the differences between interactions of differing groups of people in a given area. Let us think about the differences in gratitude across cultures.  Park and Lee write:

“Although the use of a gratitude statement is universal, cultures can vary with regard to the types of behaviors and situational characteristics that elicit a gratitude statement and also the functions that the gratitude statement fulfills.” 

Saying “Thank You,” that simple statement, has just become complicated when you may be in a multidimensional community. When I would say thank you, and when a person of a different culture would say thank you can be similar in some situations, but largely different in others. But it is those differences, those idiosyncrasies that can change an area’s culture. In my opinion, it is those small differences, but also the large differences, that make traveling to different cultures all that more interesting. 

I have given hints throughout that culture is a puzzle. A puzzle with pieces that fit together in a specific and meaningful way. I have called it “The Cultural Puzzle.” I am sorry to tell you, I have lead you astray. Culture is more of an interlocking web of history, power, social interactions, and other aspects that can’t really be fully pulled apart from each other but never seem to be able to give the full picture. Understanding the culture of an area is complicated, but with more knowledge of the area, the more you will get out of the culture of that area. Peter S. Alder once wrote: 

“Increasing interaction across interpersonal, social, ethnic, national, and cultural barriers necessitates new understandings of the dynamics, the problems, and the implications of cross-cultural experiences.”


Works Cited:

Adler, P. S. “The Transitional Experience: An Alternative View of Culture Shock.” The Journal of humanistic psychology 15.4 (1975): 13. Web.

“Cultural Differences in “Thank You”.” Journal of language and social psychology 31.2 (2012): 138. Web.


Martin, Judith N., and Nakayama, Thomas K. Intercultural Communication In Contexts. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.: New York, 2010. (p. 128).


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