An excerpt from Statement on the Concept of Premises Underlying Our Efforts to Develop Personal Networks

George Foster, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Berkely

To help people of diverse cultural backgrounds appreciate their differences, and to understand the reasons for these differences, we in the Institute are making increasing use of the concept of basic cultural premises, of assumptions, of postulates that underlie all behavior. Since 1980, we have been applying our understanding of cultural behavior to the development of collaborative tools to help people to understand and to appreciate the underlying cultural premises of one another.

Half a century ago the Chinese anthropologists Hsiao-Tung Fei and Chih-I- Chang in their book Earthbound China: A Study of Rural Economy in Yunnan, wrote that “Human behavior is always motivated by certain purposes, and these purposes grow out of sets of assumptions which are not usually recognized by those who hold them. The basic premises of a particular culture are unconsciously accepted by the individual through his constant and exclusive participation in that culture. It is these assumptions – the essence of all the culturally conditioned purposes, motives, and principles – which determine the behavior of a people, underlie all the institutions of a community, and give them unity. This, unfortunately, is the most elusive aspect of culture. Since it is taken for granted by the people, the student will not find it formulated verbally. On the contrary, it must usually be inferred from concrete behavior, a process which requires a certain insight on the part of the observer” (l945:8l-82).

The important distinction between conscious premises that are recognized and that can be verbalized by most members of a society, and the unconscious premises that lie at a deeper level, is emphasized by the Mexican psychiatrist Rogelio Diaz-Guerrero: “A socio-cultural premise,” he writes, “may be a clearly conscious assumption upon which a given group bases its thinking, feeling and behavior and it may also be unconscious, i.e., a not clearly verbalized assumption which may still – or perhaps because of this – be even more powerful in its effects upon the thinking, feeling and action of the individuals of a given group. As a matter of fact much of what goes on as very natural and unquestioned behavior in a given culture, may be described by its members as ‘just the way we are’ or ‘just the way we do things’ without any clear ability to refer it to a more powerful but unverbalized socio-cultural assumption or premise that may command it. It may also be that these more powerful socio-cultural premises of a given group are altered and turned into caricatured stereotypes by members of other cultural groups, who perceive them from their own over-powering and unconscious socio-cultural context” (l967:263).

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