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Unpacking Our Cultural Baggage:
A Workshop Approach to Intercultural Exploration

Wendy L. Schultz
Barcelona, Spain
September 19, 1991
(with thanks to Reed Riner, who made it happen)


This paper reviews three of the activities offered to participants during the 1991 World Futures Studies Federation Futures Workshop, "Inventing Milieux: Cultures of the Future," held at the Inter-University Centre in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. Participants were asked, first, to define their own professional cultures; second, to incast possible futures for Eastern European cultures given three scenarios for international cultural change; and, third, to invent completely new cultures and role-play their contact. Particular attention will be paid to the first exercise in the workshop line-up. In a culturally diverse world, we should all be more self-conscious of all of the cultures of which we are each members: these activities are a means to approach such critical self-awareness.

I. Introduction

Our culturally diverse world offers many challenges. One of the foremost is the difficulty of identifying all the cultures to which one person may belong. Historically, cultures were separated geographically. Now cultures are interlayered: pop culture; scientific culture; corporate cultures; the culture of the international computer networks; medical culture; the media culture. Second, how do we recognize which of those is dominant in what circumstances: out of which of their many cultures do people make decisions in a given situation? Their ethnic culture? Their professional culture? Their political or religious culture? In ambiguous situations, which of an individual's life cultures offers the most political or economic opportunities or advantages? How much of our traditional cultures do we really want to share -- or preserve? Do we need to invent a culture that's a neutral meeting ground, or workplace? Finally, how do we reinscribe or emphasize or give greater voice to traditional cultures as compared to the international mass culture, or highly economically or politically privileged professional cultures?

These were among the questions that participants at the Federation's 1991 Futures Workshop wished to explore. And they are relevant to the questions of democracy and participation under discussion at this XIIth World Conference of the World Futures Studies Federation as well. Democracy must be based on knowledge: it is impossible to achieve in a state of ignorance. Democracy at its best is founded on critical political participation. Understanding the many patterns of culture within which we each work, and how those patterns focus, constrain, and enable our thoughts and decisions, is crucial to critical participation in democracy.

Culture is human software: the patterns of information and the decision channels that allow us to process both inner and outer reality. Its social aspects include human organizations -- how we fit ourselves together; our interpersonal and group relationships. Its material aspects include technology and everything we do to the habitat; it includes innovations when they are put to work locally, and it is embodied in artifacts. Meaning is what underlies the social and the material: the attached values that determine what you select for and against. You learn culture: you are taught culture by your lifelong immersion in it. But it is not often made explicit in modern educational systems which culture you are learning: it is a subtext not often revealed.

II. Three Group Exercises

A. Overview

One of the primary delights of the WFSF Dubrovnik Futures Workshop is the unique opportunity to work fairly intensely with people from a wide range of cultures and philosophies. As coordinators and teachers, Prof. Reed Riner and myself opted to enhance that dimension of the workshop by scheduling as many small group activities as possible during the two weeks of the course. Furthermore, these activities were specifically designed to aid participants in self-critical inventory of their own cultural knowledge and awareness, and to stretch their imaginative and creative skills.

Many of the participants perceived this imaginative process as a risk: when professionally rewarded only for linear, logical responses, people often suspect that participation in free-flowing, unstructured creative activities will make them look fools. Several of the participants resisted the workshop tasks and activities initially. They acknowledged the theoretical usefulness of enhancing imaginative skills, and the need to move beyond the straitjacket of linear thinking patterns. But they had problems granting practical applications of imagination -- especially as applied by them -- any legitimacy. By theoretical arguments, by the explicit enjoyment of the participants who did throw themselves wholeheartedly into the small group tasks, and by working to unite the workshop as a team, we earned complete support from every participant over the course of our two weeks.

At the end of the workshop, one of the most reluctant participants pointed out that her educational system, and many throughout Eastern Europe (and elsewhere in the world), not only discouraged lateral thinking, creativity, and imaginative exploration in the classroom setting, they discouraged discussion and simple questioning of the lecturer. Thus, she pointed out, anyone successful in such critical, rigid environments could not be anything but inhibited in the imaginative, constructive environment we had created. But in reviewing the workshop exercises and their effects on perception and communication, the group as a whole concluded such interactive and imaginative approaches for participatory review and discussion of cultures and possible futures were valuable additions to any curriculum.

B. Progressive Explorations: Fitting the Exercises Together

So much for an evaluative look at what we attempted; in substance, we organized three major group exercises. The first asked participants to define their own professional cultures; the second asked them to incast possible futures for Eastern European cultures given three scenarios for international cultural change; and the third to invent completely new cultures and role-play their contact. Conceptually and structurally, we moved from the individual, personally experienced and articulated view of culture, to a wider focus that looked at communities, nations, and cross-cultural impacts, out to a macro-telescopic perspective that asked participants to consider human culture as a planetary gestalt, or perhaps as biologically inscribed, and to imagine a sentience with a different biology and an entirely different worldview. The exercises also moved us from considering the cultures we are carrying now, and their current transformations in the face of change, to considering the futures possible for our cultures, to consider finally the challenge of inventing a preferred culture for the future.

The first exercise, defining our individual professional cultures, I will describe in greater detail in a moment. Let me briefly review the background, structure, and outcome of the second and third exercises. The second exercise was designed to help people explore how international trends of cultural change might play out in their home culture. Based on the three possible futures for cultural change suggested by Sam Cole in his article, "Cultural Diversity and Sustainable Futures," this exercise asked people to imagine how their home cultures would change given the assumptions of one of Cole's scenarios. The three possible scenarios were "cultural assimilation," "cultural polarization," and "cultural pluralism." The first portrayed an international mass culture: traditional cultures blended into a base of Western media culture resulting in a universal, undifferentiated global culture. The second offered a future where a myriad of traditional cultures retained their viability, but only by jealously safeguarding cultural purity with intolerance. The third and final scenario described an international democracy of old and new cultures, characterized by tolerance and delight in diversity.

To begin this second exercise, two of the participants formally discussed Cole's article, and reviewed the three scenarios in detail. Everyone then adjourned to three working groups, each of which took one of Cole's scenarios and attempted to answer the question, "how would the cultures of Eastern Europe adapt to the conditions existing in this scenario?" Each group had a recorder/reporter who presented results to the group as a whole; these presentations were the base for a wider discussion on the political and economic frameworks which cultures flow through and sometimes around.

The third, most complex, and most time-consuming of the workshop exercises was orchestrated by Dr. Reed Riner of Northern Arizona University: a three-day Bateson project. Riner and Dr. James Funaro devised Bateson projects as anthropological excursions into futures/scenario design. Also called "Cultures of the Imagination (CotI)" workshops, they present a structured approach to envisioning future cultures -- of both human and alien intelligences. Team assignments focus on creating and evolving a culture as an exercise in cultural structure, dynamics, and adaptation. The abbreviated version offered during the Dubrovnik Workshop included an introduction to the elements of culture (requiring a five-page"cheat sheet" list), a briefing on the ground rules of group process and group confidentiality, a review of the available resource material (imaginative texts on human cultures in space and possible alien life forms), and division of participants into two working groups: one to design an alien culture, and one to design a workable culture for humans living in space.

The "aliens" were to devise a truly alien culture appropriate to the assigned alien physiology and environment. The human space travellers were to devise a community culture for a group of 300 humans on an extended, peaceful deep-space exploratory voyage. The human team were allowed to design their own technological environment, plausibly extrapolating from current technology. Due to time limitations, the aliens were given a previously designed planet, ecology, and a choice of three possible physical forms for which they might elaborate a culture. Participants chose to be "skitters:" highly intelligent, six-limbed, hermaphroditic herbivores. After two days of cultural design, the space travellers discovered themselves to be near an inhabited planet, sent scout ships to explore, and the human team and the alien team role-played the resulting first contact (much to the amusement of anyone who chanced to be looking into the IUC courtyard). The group then met as a whole to debrief on our impressions and misimpressions.

C. A Closer Look: Defining Our Professional Cultures

The first exercise shouldered the heaviest burden. It had to function as a warm-up, an introduction, and a relatively safe first step. It also had to be fairly easy to explain, and needed furthermore to act as a template for constructive group process in the exercises that followed. What colored the exercises throughout the two weeks more than anything else was the fact that the Futures Workshop "adopted" the participants from two other cancelled seminars: one focussing on medical innovations, and the other focussing on research in journalism. Thus in addition to the usual crowd of philosophers, social scientists, and natural scientists, our numbers included two very distinct professional communities. While this brought both greater breadth and depth to our discussions, it also necessitated a clear introduction to the concepts and terms both of futures studies and of cultural anthropology.

Thus the set-up for our first exercise was a background presentation on futures studies, including its history; key concepts such as alternative futures, possible, probable, and preferable futures; and finally, creating preferable futures as a critical political activity. This was followed by an introductory lecture on the development of, and key concepts in, cultural anthropology, including the components of culture, the transmittal of cultural patterns, and the function of culture in social, political, and economic relations. A question-and-answer discussion period followed these presentations. Two hours were reserved for the actual group exercise.

To begin, the participants were divided into groups according to professional affiliation: journalists, medical professionals, computer scientists/data analysts, and "mixed fish" (this latter category was loosely comprised of various academics). Drawing on their own knowledge of their professional communities, and on the presentations just completed, we asked them to answer these three questions: 1) can you describe your "professional culture"? 2) what cultural/technical/political changes do you imagine will most affect it? 3) can you identify any emerging cultures that might intrude on it?

Participants were asked to supply as much detail as they could. As probes to enhance the depth of their cultural description, we posed the following questions: 1) what are the material components of your professional culture? what technologies and systems does it use to manipulate the environment? 2) what are the social components of your professional culture? what is the typical organizational structure or template? 3) on what does your professional culture focus for meaning? why do it? what myths are attached to it?

Initially, we had planned on having the groups report back at the end of the day. However, all participants found the exercise so engrossing they continued their discussions an hour past the scheduled end of class. Consequently, we spent three hours the next morning listening to group presentations and discussing their implications for change within professional communities and in the wider national and international context.

Common themes emerged, which will sound familiar to those monitoring emerging issues and patterns of social change. In fact, these themes echoed Toffler's trends of macro-change identified in The Third Wave. It was interesting to see specifically how each thread played out within a different cultural context. The seven themes common across the groups follow:

  1. User-tailored products and services;
    (example: more variety in news delivery, more journals, newspapers, newsletters -- offering variety of formats to meet the needs of different individual readers; increased tailoring of treatments in medicine to fit individual patient's lifestyle rather than cookbook approach to symptom moderation; generally, the increased ability, arising from computerization, roboticization, advanced telecommunications networking, to tailor a product OR a service to a micro-market, or very small demand niche.)
  2. Decentralization; greater variety of components and players; de-institutionalization;
  3. Re-inventing relationships between providers and users, between A & B, between all roles;
  4. Breakdown of frontiers/borders between cultures, disciplines, roles (multi-"X"): end of "one and only one" or exclusive approaches;
  5. Influence of professionals' cultures increasing on the wider population;
  6. Generation gap within professional cultures;
  7. Moving from reductionism to wholism.

This list is not exhaustive: only a full transcript of the wallnotes from each group, and from the subsequent discussion, really conveys how well participants were able to articulate the major cultural components of their professional community, and connect their group's explorations with the preceding presentations on futures and anthropology. What followed was an afternoon spent exploring wider issues of change as connected to these seven broad themes, which enabled us all to re-examine professional development and training as well as more general issues of cultural transmittal. This in turn led logically to the shifts in political and economic structures rooted in cultural re-inscription and re-emphasis that we witnessed all around us in Yugoslavia, May 1991.

Participants commented on the personal usefulness of consciously externalizing much that they internalize about their profession, their professional community, and the pervasiveness of their professional worldview. It was particularly revealing in the multi-cultural and multi-professional cultural forum the IUC and the Futures Workshop offered. The resulting discussion examined not only similarities and differences among the professional cultures represented, but how a single professional culture varied across national borders with different indigenous cultures.

III. Conclusion: A Structured, Critical Approach to Delighting in Diversity

Like many workshop activities, ours lived better than it reads. It is the experience of thinking beyond ordinary channels, and observing and recording while wearing an unaccustomed set of lenses, that is so mentally refreshing and invigorating. But the structure of this particular set of exercises also let us engage in re-examining our assumptions and internalized processes in a comparative arena: the group was so rich in the range of cultures each individual represented that we could all gently prod the others to consider statements, questions, and observations using a very wide variety of lenses indeed. The process enabled us to achieve criticism, admiration, aesthetic appreciation, and even, occasionally, consensus.

The various professional, indigenous, political, religious, and other cultures offer different strengths and weaknesses in worldview and perspective across different situations and problem-sets. Such workshop approaches to cross-cultural exploration might prove an interesting beginning to cultural inventories: explorations of what different cultures have to offer different problems -- conflict resolution, disaster management, space and ocean exploration, environmental stewardship, etc. The myriad cultures -- traditional, modern, and future; organic and artificial -- of this planet are a rich resource. They are a complex, sophisticated tool with which we may solve future problems and act on future opportunities. An experiential understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and differences can enhance every individual's ability to enjoy and benefit from our multi-cultural reality.


> Essays > Futures Studies > Virtuous Circles and Variety
>> Imagination/Innovation: Innovations | Science Fiction | Archetypes
>> Education/Outreach: Plausibility | Details | Overview
>> Articles/Presentations: Strengths and Weaknesses | Scanning | Scenario Analysis | Good for You | Essential Visioning |
>> A/P continued: Words, Dreams, and Action | Unpacking Our Cultural Baggage | Visions R Us | Sidling (Creativity/Critique)

15 February 2003. Email IF.
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