2003, D. Desjeux, Scales of observation of culture

2003, The two main scales of observation of culture

Dominique Desjeux, anthropologist, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne (Paris Descartes University)


When an engineer from a Paris grande école (engineers’ college) explained to me, during my first stay in China in 1997 lasting 3 months, that a particularity of China is the existence of networks, the famous guanxi, I received this piece of information with a great deal of astonishment: if there is any country which certainly functions on the basis of networks, then it is France. I think particularly of the networks of grandes écoles, and in particular that of the corps des mines (a post-graduate association), on which I worked with Michel Crozier, Erhard Friedberg and Jean Pierre Worms in 1969. This network is formed by the top twelve students who graduate from the Ecole Polytechnique. This network favours links between the Ministry of Industry, the offices of the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister, and companies dealing in non-ferrous metal, nuclear power and oil. I therefore did not see how the existence of networks could be a Chinese cultural particularity.

On reflection, I understood that this French engineer had lobbying problems in China and that without realising it, he missed his network of old friends, the functioning of which he had internalised to the point of forgetting that it existed. I drew a great lesson from this: when somebody attributes the source of a problem of management or daily life to another culture, he informs me first of all about his own culture and what is important for him. He does not teach me much about the Chinese, the Americans, the Africans or the French. Explanation through culture is initially, in the discovery phase, a projective test for the person who uses it. It provides information primarily about the culture which is making an evaluation on the other.

We verified this once again with my colleague and friend Zheng Li Hua, working on French, German and English clothes advertisements which were shown to Chinese students in the framework of an investigation of the image which the Chinese have of the Europeans (Zheng Li Hua, Dominique Desjeux, eds., 2002; 2003, PUF). The French advertisement showed a couple who were not wearing much, and who were “stuck” to each other. In the German advertisement the couple was wearing a little more, and the man and the woman were less close together. The English advertisement showed a couple in a beige suit and raincoat, the man looking in one direction, and the woman in the other, like an old blasé couple, at least from a western projective point of view. For the students, the French advertisement showed a couple of lovers, the German one showed a married couple, and the English advertisement a couple who were engaged.

Here, the European advertisements served to reveal Chinese norms expressing codes which define what belongs to the intimate sphere, the private sphere and the public sphere. In fact, even today in Guangzhou (even if this is in the process of changing in an urban and university setting) it is not considered as appropriate for a couple to express the intimacy of love in public, particularly if the couple is engaged. They need to show their “serious” side. Seriousness is expressed by a considerable bodily distance. This does not mean that this code comes from a nature beyond history, that it has lasted for centuries or that it will last for a long time to come. It is already in the process of change of changing. The second lesson is that culture is not a immutable nature. Culture is a process and is embedded in a certain historical duration.

The scales of observation of culture: an awareness of the limits of knowledge

Culture is at the same time a structure and a process, which is what makes analysing and observing it so difficult. As a structure, it contains stable elements which can give the impression of a nature, while this stability comes primarily from its long historical duration. As a process it is subject to change and to history. The orientation of the interpretation of culture changes depending on the angle of observation. This orientation is in particular relative to the scale of observation and the empirical sectioning realised at a given scale by the researcher (cf. D. Desjeux. 1996).

The issue of scales makes it possible to resolve some of the difficulties linked with the observation of culture: what is observed at the macrosocial level and makes it possible to identify regularities of culture disappears at the microsocial scale, where the diversities of culture and behaviour dominate. The two are true at the same time, and this is what is unsettling, or even difficult to accept, but which makes it possible to understand better the range and the limits of every cultural approach. The theory of scales of observation is an anthropological approach which makes it possible to understand the diversity of approaches, without making any of them lose its identity, and while avoiding an “imperialist” overall approach, favouring mixes, and showing that there are mechanisms which are universal to all cultures. However, not all of these dimensions can be captured at the same time. As a function of his investigations and issues, the researcher will primarily capture difference, stability, universality or change. In physics Heisenberg already showed that it is not possible to capture two dimensions at the same time, the position and the movement of a particle. We encounter the same problem in humanities, at least analogously to physics.

The search for cultural stabilities in the world and in organisations

At the macroscopic scale, stabilities are sought for: those of cultural domains, religions and values. These are approaches which most often favour a long historical duration, which is the equivalent in time of the macrosocial scale, which is synchronic (dealing with a particular moment in time). They are reductionist, and this is their quality and their advantage, as they capture very vast overall complexes by simplifying them, as is the case for cultural areas in geopolitics. They are partially deterministic, which makes it possible to see the tendencies and to erase the anomalies which are observed on the microsocial scale, and this is their limitation: they cannot take into account the contingent side of concrete situations. At the same time they show the importance of structures in the explanation of human behaviours, and therefore that action in society is not played out in an indeterminate social vacuum. They simultaneously show the impossibility of predicting the future, due to the effects of contingency and of the situation beyond effects of structure.

The case of cultural areas is a good example. There is a debate about the number of cultural areas in the world. Their number can vary from around ten to thirty, or indeed infinitely, depending on the classification criteria chosen. Emmanuel Todd (1983) takes an anthropological hypothesis as a point of departure: it is not politics which fashion the values of a society, but the family hearth. This family melting pot is itself organised by practices and values which are determined by the rules of descent, alliance and residence. Hence descent, i.e. whose descendants’ people are, fixes the rules of heritage. Heritage may be equal or unequal among brothers and sisters. These rules vary depending on gender and age, particularly the birthright of the firstborn. This is why, according to Emmanuel Todd, unequal inheritance seems to favour the social production of unequal values. The value attached to authority and to freedom seems to be linked to rules of residence, living together for a long time or quickly leaving the family home. Long cohabitation, as for the Tanguy family in the film of the same name, is seen as favouring authoritarian values. Liberty is linked with the rules of alliance, of marriage: by favouring endogamy, marrying within the family, people favour dependence; exogamy, marrying outside the family, leads people to become autonomous. On the basis of these values he distinguishes 7 great political models based on 7 family models, the most significant of which is what he calls the “exogamous community” family, which favours authority and equality in the family. It represents 41% of the world population, and it is in these places that communist political systems have developed. According to Emmanuel Todd, it is family culture which explains political culture and hence the great cultural areas.

Others, such as Inglehart and Huntington, use religious criteria as a point of departure in order to understand global geopolitics. The investigation of R. Inglehart, cited by Jean-Claude Ruano-Borbaland (March 2000, p. 18), which has to do with religious areas in the world, empirically more or less confirms the categorisation of Samuel Huntington into 9 large cultural areas (Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Chinese, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese, 1997, p. 21).

What varies is their interpretation of the conflict to come: according to Huntington this division of the world into cultural, religious and ethnic areas transcends political divisions, and is a source of fundamental tension between the West and Islam in particular. For Inglehart, according to J.-C. Ruano, in the long term globalisation seems to translate into a greater acceptance of differences, and hence risks of conflict should become progressively lower. Emmanuel Todd (2002) also shows that a scenario of pacification is plausible, based on the drop in birth rate combined with the increase in rate of education. He aims to show that the development of these two rates goes in the direction of greater democratisation, and therefore towards an end to history and to conflicts, at least in terms of tendencies, and hence that the hypothesis of Fukuyama on the end of history should not be rejected.

In organisations, still at the macrosocial scale, socioanthropologists try to understand the effects of “cultural programming” (Daniel Bollinger, Geert Hofstede 1987). In a famous statistical survey, carried out in 72 IBM subsidiaries worldwide and published in 1980, Geert Hofstede shows that contrary to appearances he does not observe a convergence of cultures, or a homogenising effect of globalisation as people would say today, but on the contrary a maintenance of the diversity of national cultures. In particular, he shows that some countries, such as Latin American, Muslim or Subsaharan Africa countries value hierarchical distance, unlike Scandinavian countries such as Denmark. Here we can see a good example of a macrocultural regularity, the value attached to hierarchical distance, which is true as a statistical regularity, but may prove not to be relevant at the microsocial scale, that of interactions, power relations and effects of the situation.

The macrosocial scale is also that of permanent features, as for Jack Goody in The East in the West (1996), a book in which he relativises over a long duration (5000 years) the differences in historical development between the oriental and occidental cultures. In particular, he criticises the assertion of “Chinese lateness” since the 18th century, comparing it with the European stagnation between the 4th and the 10th century. The approach using a long duration relativises diversity. It reduces the diversity of behaviours to broad symbolic representations. It is this reductionist character which is the advantage of this approach in geopolitics, but also its limitation when it is to be applied to the microsocial scale, and to change outside of the effect of situation.

The problematic link between the effect of macrosocial culture and the effect of microsocial situation

This is certainly the problem which Michel Crozier encountered in the sixties in The Bureaucratic Phenomenon (published in French in 1963; English translation published in 1964) when he tried to explain the link between the functioning of French bureaucracy and the “cultural traits which are relatively well established in France” (p. 265) in order to demonstrate that the difficulty of the French in changing was linked to their strong inability to cooperate positively, which itself was linked to the school system. At school, according to the American Pitts, cited by M. Crozier, the only moment of collective action was a moment of negative cooperation, that of heckling the professor. However, using French culture, here that of heckling (even if we know that since then the nature of the heckling has been able to change in France and become anomic) as an explanation for resistance to change in the French administration makes it difficult to account for the subsequent changes in this same administration. As the investigation by Claude Giraud (1987) into France Télécom showed for the eighties, public companies have abilities to change. France Télécom has perhaps even changed too much today, but that is another story…

Faced with this difficulty of showing a concrete empirical link between static macroculture and the behaviours of actors faced with change, Michel Crozier was to abandon this culturalist approach, which was later to be picked up once again by Philippe d’Iribarne and his team, and in particular by Sylvie Chevrier. In her work Le management des équipes interculturelles [Management of intercultural teams] (2000) she shows that several strategic games are possible in the management of a intercultural situation: a diplomatic model producing a third culture, which is different from the cultures present, a hierarchic model which imposes a culture, and a laisser-faire model. In more strategic and microsocial terms, these examples show that between the macro and the micro there is an effect of the situation, with constraints which mean that culture can play a part as a context, but not as an independent explanatory variable.

It must therefore be accepted that some macrocultural observations are correct at this scale, but that their explanatory relevance disappears when the scale is changed, and therefore that the link between a macrocultural explanatory model and microsocial practices is not automatic.

Socioeconomists encountered difficulty of another kind, no longer between two scales but at the same scale: how culture can explain both growth and crisis. In South East Asia before 1997, the economic growth and success of the “five dragons” had been explained by Confucianism and the morality of order which it involved in companies, and hence the pressure which it placed on the employees. Then when the crisis came, since Confucianism stayed, it was necessary to face up to the evidence that Confucianism, from an essentialist point of view, could not explain success and the economic crisis at the same time, unless a “situationist” point of view was adopted, as it was by Peter L. Berger and Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao (1993). Berger had already shown that culture could not be grasped as a static variable (p. 11), but as a strategic variable, the explanatory force of which varied depending on historical situation. The same morality or the same religion could become a cause of success or failure depending on the circumstances. The same religion, Christianity, was able to give rise to the Inquisition and to the liberation movements in the South American third world eight centuries later. Protestantism may have been positive with respect to the development of capitalism in the 16th century, but Catholicism was more favourable to it in other more recent periods, as economists show for North Italy at the end of the 20th century.

Culture does have an explanatory capacity, but above all in a situation which relativises its explanatory force. This amounts to saying that the values, the cultural models, the habitus or worldviews are only partial explanations of forms of human behaviour. On the one hand they structure our behaviours, and on the other hand material, social or symbolic constraints mean that these cultural models cannot apply in an unaltered form. They are transformed by the effects of the situation. This is one of the sources of explanation of the gap between what people say, what they think and what they do. This is what I observe when I move to the microsocial scale.

At the microsocial scale culture disappears in favour of the effect of the situation

Indeed, when changing the scale of observation in order to work on interactions between the actors in an organisation, a district or a domestic space, it is more difficult to distinguish between effects of culture, effects of the situation and effects of power relations. This is why at this scale the place of culture as an explanatory variable of human behaviours and intercultural differences is very ambiguous.

Very often, at this scale, I observe that in a conflictive interaction reference is made to culture in order to eliminate the most conflictive sources of the problem, whether it is by declaring that the Americans are “big children” (astonishingly, like the Africans), that the French are “arrogant” or that the Chinese “do not follow contracts” and are “suspicious”, instead of elucidating the differences in logic in the ways of resolving technical problems or management problems, differences in interests or in power relations for the control of a particular professional space. Explanation with reference to cultural values, which are said to determine the behaviours of the actors with whom people have to work, becomes a way of denying the other and concealing power relations. Making reference to culture here does not have a function of knowledge. It has a function of security: attributing to the other the source of our problems. This is often psychologically useful in order to tolerate a difficult intercultural situation. Under these conditions, the cultural explanation is a belief. Explanation in terms of culture allows people to liberate themselves in their imagination (and why not?) from a real situation of contact between two cultures in which there is no simple solution.

Nonetheless, the microsocial scale allows comparison between cultures and practices. It makes it possible to show at the same time that general or even universal mechanisms exist, but that their forms may be specific depending on groups, societies or periods. Hence, in most societies today there is an oral and a written component in the management of organisations, there are power relations everywhere, and each society attaches importance to games of face, as Goffman showed for the USA, seemingly inspired by China, and Zheng Li Hua showed for the Chinese. I have found this concept of face with other names elsewhere, with nif for the Arabs or the expression faire perdre la face (cause [someone] to lose face) in France.

What may vary is the importance attached to games of face, to oral and written communication, to power stakes, and to shame, depending on the areas of application. As Zheng Li Hua (2002) shows, the French use writing when the Chinese do not expect it. They make working notes which are much too long, when verbal interaction would suffice and be more effective than a written text.

It is also at this scale, comparing the itineraries of food consumption practices, at a very microsocial scale, between France, the USA, China and Denmark, that I noticed that all cultures attach importance to eating, and that even the Americans can speak for a long time at the table about the dishes of their home region, as the French do, but that depending on cultures more or less importance is attached to cooking time, the duration of the meal, and the leftovers (on the itineraries in photos cf. consommations-et-societes.fr; and Dominique Desjeux, Isabelle Garbuau-Moussaoui, Elise Palomares (eds.). 2002)

In the same way, when I return to a more macrosocial level, it seems that in all societies an explanatory principle of life is found which surpasses individual wills, whether it is called fatum by the Greeks, mektoub by the Arabs, Shi by the Chinese, the magico-religious power linked with sorcery in Africa, grace for the Christians or scientific determinism in western societies. This principle may be immanent or transcendent. Everyone can adhere to it or dispute it, and it is certainly here that the analysis of cultural differences becomes relevant once again, in order to look for anthropological invariables and at the same time infinite cultural variations, in particular at the macrocultural level.


The tool of scales of observation makes it possible to display a common confusion between two scales. One scale is macrosocial, and makes it possible to observe the large-scale variables and the great cultural stabilities which structure the field of action in society, but before being passed through the sieve of the effect of the situation and constraints, which have the effect that actors in fact do not act according to the values described through a macrosocial approach. The other is microsocial or mesosocial and here values and culture partly disappear and are replaced by the effect of the situation and the constraints of action. The important thing is to retain the ambivalence of “culture” as a device and the tension which underlies its use. Culture can just as easily be the key to functioning better with the other or a way to deny it.