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What is Culture? Part Three: Arbitrariness

What is Culture? Part Three: Arbitrariness

In the third part of a seven-part limited series, we look at how arbitrary choices are at the core of culture

Eldridge Cleaver, author of 1960s prison memoir Soul on Ice and Minister of Information for Black Panther Party, grew up in rural Arkansas. There he dressed like his friends. “I wore bangs,” writes Cleaver, “The hair in the front was allowed to grow as long as it would and the rest was cut as short as you could. Then the front was packed with grease and combed back.” But when he moved to Los Angeles as a teenager, Cleaver's bangs became a social liability. “The first day I went to school the other kids poked fun at me,” he writes, “They laughed at my country boy haircut.” And so he cut off the long bangs and put away the hair grease to embrace a more natural California look. Within months, Cleaver was so acclimated to West Coast style that he began to mock the new kids from the countryside for wearing bangs.

Cleaver's story is a clear example of culture in action: competing fashion trends, regional differences, in-groups and out-groups, individual alienation and group dynamics. But what is interesting is that this entire story, like so many other episodes of cultural history, revolves around a particular hairstyle – an aspect of our personal appearance that is ultimately arbitrary.

What do I mean by “arbitrary”? Colloquially we use the word in a negative way, to describe decisions that are unfair, or parts of life that are random and superficial. In the study of language, however, the word “arbitrary” is used to describe the fact that there is no natural relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning. The movements of the lips, tongue, and vocal cords to make the sound /dɒɡ/ in English are arbitrary, because another sound could theoretically also signify the concept of “dog.” The French communicate perfectly well about canines using the word chien instead.

While culture is always more complicated than pure language, we can extend this idea of arbitrariness into explaining our cultural practices. There are always specific historical and environmental circumstances that explain why our culture is our culture, but viewed from the perspective of human life, the specific format of our hairstyles, diets, and alcoholic tipples are more or less arbitrary. Teenagers in Arkansas all felt a sense of belonging by wearing bangs; in L.A. they achieved the same group dynamics with a more natural look. Hairstyles, then, must be arbitrary.

Arbitrary choices are fundamental to culture, because humans must frequently engage in what game theoreticians call coordination problems. A “Tropical tiki party,” for example, requires everyone to coordinate in wearing Hawaiian clothing and the hosts to provide a preset menu of over-the-top fruity cocktails. In Cleaver's classroom, teenagers felt an intense desire to all wear the same hairstyle and mocked anyone who didn't. The reason coordination problems are “problems” is because there are always a near-infinite ways to coordinate. For example: Let's say a woman from the Bronx and a woman from Brooklyn want to meet up in Manhattan. Where they meet doesn't matter as long as they meet up. There are a nearly infinite number of central locations available to them, even if they try to find a place relatively equidistant for both. They will eventually settle on one place, but as long as other choices would have served the same purpose, we can say their choice is arbitrary.

This also plays out in culture as a whole. In fact, when we talk about culture, we're describing the arbitrary aspects of human behavior. To survive, humans need food, shelter, and clothing, but as anthropologist Marshall Sahlins writes, “Men do not merely ‘survive.’ They survive in a definite way.” There are a nearly-infinite number of these “definite ways” for eating, drinking, dressing, singing, dancing, playing, speaking, and thinking. This is not true for agricultural practices. As demonstrated in the film Idiocracy, watering crops with Brawndo sports drink is not an arbitrary choice: Nothing will grow. But for cultural aspects of life, many alternatives can serve the same purpose, and therefore, arbitrary. This is the theme of the Disneyland ride “It’s a Small World”: The arbitrary choices of Irish leprechauns, American cowboys, Hawaiian hula dancers, and Scandinavian reindeer herders allow us to simultaneously celebrate and look past cultural differences to feel the “oneness of humankind.”

The arbitrariness of culture is most obvious when we think about customs. Economist Adam Smith wondered several centuries ago why our customs “though no doubt extremely agreeable, should be the only forms which can suit those proportions, or that there should not be five hundred others, which, antecedent to established custom, would have fitted them equally well.” Not every greeting must be a handshake. Corporations have succeeded with rigid organizational norms (IBM with its strict “men must wear sock garters” dress code) and less parochial rules (Netflix’s “No Vacation Policy”). Humans can get drunk through fermented mares' milk or martinis – or embrace the teetotaler life. Pop culture is the story of interchangeable hits. With high culture, the point is supposed to be that artworks are not arbitrary: They are exemplars meant to enlighten the human race. But viewed from the scale of human civilization, an incredible variety of sounds and sights have provided aesthetic experiences.

This idea of arbitrariness may seem very obvious, but there is a major problem in practice: We hate seeing our own culture as arbitrary. Economist Jon Elster notes, “Human beings have a very strong desire to have reasons for what they do and find indeterminacy hard to accept.” Even when we make arbitrary choices, our brains often provide post facto rationalizations; Cleaver surely felt his new natural L.A. look was easier to maintain than greasy bangs.

As humans, we must eke out an existence (the biological realm) and organize labor and resources to achieve concrete aims (the economic realm). The cultural realm describes the specific way we eke out our existence, how we feel about eking out our existence, and how we explain and understand why we eke out our existence. The Inuit must wear warm clothing to live in the Arctic, yes, but it is cultural to find spirituality in caribou fur.

The prevalence of arbitrariness in culture seems odd for humans who are otherwise driven by biological instincts and economic rationality. Specifically, why do humans in specific communities end up making the same choices when there are always alternative practices that will serve the same purpose? The need to explain this mystery leads us to how culture works at its atomic level: through conventions.

Key Takeaway:
When we talk about culture, we are talking about the arbitrary parts of life: i.e. practices in which alternatives could easily serve the same purpose.

Next time: Part Four: Conventions