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What is Culture? Part Four: Conventions

What is Culture? Part Four: Conventions

If culture describes the arbitrary aspects of life, conventions explain why communities repeatedly make the same arbitrary choices over so many alternatives

Last time we noted that culture describes the arbitrary choices of human life — i.e. behaviors where alternatives could serve the same purpose. But this fact is confusing on its own: If our behaviors are so arbitrary, why aren't we constantly alternating between different ways of doing things. We could greet people with handshakes one day, bows the next, and high-fives every third Thursday. By contrast, most cultural phenomena – habits, customs, traditions, and even fashions – demonstrate the repetition and consistency only possible when individuals are attached to a particular choice and reject its equally-plausible alternatives.

There is one additional concept that we need to explain culture: conventions. This word is unfortunately a bit clinical, and mostly only used to discuss stylistic and artistic conventions. But conventions are the atomic units of culture, and to understand culture as a macro-phenomenon, we must understand the mechanism that pushes humans into conventions.

So what is a convention? Following philosopher David Lewis, conventions are (1) regular (2) well-known, and (3) socially accepted behaviors that individuals follow and expect others to follow. Eldridge Cleaver’s Southern bangs hairstyle from last time was a convention, but so was his more natural L.A. style. Hi-hat rolls are a convention of trap music. Investment bankers dressing up and software engineers dressing down are conventions. In all of these cases, individuals regularly embrace an arbitrary behavior that they know is the accepted way to do things and know others in their community will recognize it as the accepted way to do things.

Conventions explain many of the components of culture we discussed in Part Two. Customs are long-standing conventions that become so invisible that communities only notice alternatives upon contact with outsiders. We tend to be more cognizant of conventions when they're manners – how to set silverware for a formal dinner, etc. – because they take effort to follow. Traditions are conventions anchored in historical precedence that serve as explicit symbols of the community. Eating grits is not just conventional as a dietary staple in the South but a way to be Southern. Superstitions are conventional beliefs. In the U.S., the number 13 is unlucky; in Italy, it's lucky.

Modern life is full of short-term conventions we call fads, such as hula hoops or the Atkins diet. Fashions are conventions that appear in stylized areas of life and change on a regular basis. All artistic styles are conventions. To paint like a “cubist” means following a particular set of artistic decisions intended to represent three-dimensions in a two-dimensional plane. Musical scales and musical notation styles are conventional. Whenever we see people repeating a practice and rejecting its equally plausible alternative, there is likely a convention guiding them into making the same choice.

Arbitrariness and conventions go hand in hand. Humans don’t need conventions to breathe, nor do desert dwellers need a convention to draw water from the only functioning well. So why do conventions form around arbitrary behaviors?

David Lewis's now canonical idea is that conventions form in the process of trying to solve coordination problems. If we return to our Bronx resident and Brooklyn resident looking to meet in Manhattan, they may decide on Union Square because they can both get there on the D. If they regularly know to go to Union Square to meet each week, it will soon become a convention that both follow.

But why do we follow these rules that develop? In the previous case, both want to coordinate in an efficient way. In cases where we are born into a society with pre-existing conventions, it's more complicated. Conventions draw their power from our emotional responses to expectations. Our brains prefer when other people meet our expectations, because this means we don’t have to expend extra mental energy on thinking through alternatives. When others disappoint our expectations, we become frustrated and angry — even in times when the underlying behavior has no material impact on us. We then convert these emotional responses, either positive or negative, into outward expressions. Meeting expectations elicits smiles and cheers; failing to meet expectations creates ill-will. Eldridge Cleaver's classmates openly mocked him only for wearing the wrong haircut, and so he won their favor by switching over to the dominant convention. Conventions start as coordination problem solutions but are quick to become social norms. And as everyone follows them to some degree, they create the behavioral patterns we associate with those groups.

Over time we internalize the conventions of our society – i.e. we follow them without even considering alternatives. Conventions become habits. More importantly they form the very perceptual framework in which we understand the world. A clear example is how we perceive color. Even though humans without color-blindness can distinguish between 7.5 to 10 million different shades, our linguistic conventions determine how we divide that spectrum into specific chromatic units. Russians understand Americans’ single color “blue” as two distinct shades – light blue and dark blue.

So if culture describes arbitrary behaviors, and cultural patterns involve conforming to conventions, all cultural behavior can be explained through conventions. To go back to our four sub-definitions of culture, we find conventions across high culture, communal culture, pop culture, and corporate culture: e.g. photorealism, snap bracelets, the Dab, the Millennial Whoop, ghost riding the whip, E-Boys and E-Girls, ad infinitum. Conventions also explain how culture can be both conscious (the intentional following of conventions for social coordination) and unconscious (the habitual following of internalized conventions). The function of art is also clear: Artists propose new ways of doing things and perceiving the world, which if successful, become conventional.

Even in times when certain behaviors offer clear practical advantages over alternatives, conventions may still form. The reason we eat kale and quinoa as health foods is not because we've all done our own detailed nutritional research in a laboratory; they're just conventionalized as “superfoods.” The expectations and habits that form from conventions also explain why culture can be “sticky” even when a particular behavior is revealed to be detrimental.

Now that we understand conventions, we can see how coordination and the expectations of others push us to continually choose the same arbitrary behaviors. But culture is not only the stuff we own and the stuff we do: Culture is also rich in differential meanings and values. Conventions also explain these – our topic for next time.

Key Takeaway:
Conventions are the atomic unit of culture that explain customs, traditions, fashions, fads, and artistic styles.

Next time: Part Five: Cultural meanings and values

Illustration by Shoko Kawai