The cultural iceberg

In the winter of 2011 I spent an evening commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, the organization that first brought me to Mali 15 years ago. That night I joined a panel of former Volunteers — including a woman who’d taught biology in Mozambique, a man who’d taught tractor repair in Burkina Faso, and a woman who’d advised entrepreneurs in Moldova — in which we reflected on what our experience has meant to us. I shared some thoughts (an audio rendering of which is available here) on how living in Mali had changed me, and expressed a feeling of deep kinship with my fellow Volunteers, the notion that despite our different postings and duties we could instantly relate to one another. What was it, I wondered aloud, that we had in common? The woman who’d served in Mozambique spoke up: “It’s the understanding that people everywhere are the same.”

I didn’t say so at the time, but her response was not at all what I was trying to get at. Yes, in many ways we Homo sapiens are the same the world over. We love our children, we seek human fellowship, we struggle with our dreams, our limitations and our relationships. Yet what had truly marked me as a Peace Corps Volunteer was the discovery of just how differently we can perceive and experience the world we inhabit together. This discovery later led me to a career in anthropology and to the study of culture.

Last week in a conversation with some fellow expats in Bamako about Malian culture, I trotted out a trusty analogy likening culture to an iceberg: the part that’s readily apparent to the observer (e.g. dress, foodways, religious rituals, the arts) is dwarfed by the part that’s unapparent (e.g. attitudes, beliefs, obligations, the ordering of time, notions of logic and why things happen). This metaphor is a favorite of cultural anthropologists and cross-cultural trainers; if you Google “culture iceberg” you can find dozens of variations on the graphic at right.

Since first coming to Mali, I’ve dedicated my life to studying culture here, to mapping out the cultural landscape in hopes of better understanding it and helping others to do the same. And what I’ve learned is that I will never finish the task: the more I uncover, the more I realize remains to be uncovered. The “cultural iceberg” just goes deeper and deeper. I see culture not as a veneer stretched thinly over our common humanity, but as a deep-seated force causing us to see, think and feel fundamentally differently from one another.

There’s a risk whenever we talk about culture of over-generalizing and exaggerating. Anthropologists are wary of casting culture as static or timeless; three of the dirtiest words I know in the professional lexicon are essentialism, primordialism, and yes, “culturalism.” Cultural difference may be ever-present but is never all-powerful. It is shaped by humans even as it shapes us. It cannot explain things like warfare or poverty. I see far too many deterministic analyses identifying culture as the culprit behind social ills, divorced from political and economic considerations. [The book Why Nations Fail, published earlier this year by economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist James Robinson, offers a refreshing rebuttal to such analyses.]

At the same time, it would be a mistake to write culture out of the equation too quickly when thinking about issues of governance and economic development. Here I want to call attention to four areas of cultural difference that have been especially striking since I began my Bamako fieldwork ten months ago. Let me first add the disclaimer that there’s no such thing as “Bamako culture,” let alone “Malian culture”: there are too many distinctions of language, ethnicity and regional origin for such labels to make sense. But I do think there are certain common denominators which, while not necessarily unique to this setting, must be taken into account by anyone seeking to understand events and society here.

  • In the realm of politics, as I wrote in March, a leader’s legitimacy with the population may not derive from any constitutional mandate. Even though Captain Amadou Sanogo, head of the junta that toppled democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Touré from power, has officially renounced his claim as head of state, there are a good many people in Bamako who still consider him “their” president, international opinion and Mali’s constitution notwithstanding.
  • Where gender relations are concerned, popular perceptions tend to portray sex differences as both sweeping and essential, and even portray women as vastly outnumbering men, as I wrote in January. Such perceptions can seem immune to scientific evidence. It’s not clear to me, moreover, that many people here of either sex share international donors’ stated goals pertaining to gender equality. The unprecedented backlash against President Touré’s bid to reform Mali’s family law in 2009 speaks to this fact (even if the backlash also stemmed from a cynical campaign of misinformation by leading Muslim organizations).
  • In terms of interpersonal relations, you cannot ignore the dynamic I’ll gloss as “collectivity”: people here often act and see themselves as members of groups before acting and seeing themselves as autonomous individuals. Family and caste membership have powerful influence over personal behavior. This has a lot to do with the problem of corruption, as I wrote in May. It affects relations between employers and employees, between teachers and students, and between leaders and ordinary citizens. It also had a tremendous impact on marriage, the phenomenon I’ve been researching in Bamako. When everything from one’s choice of spouse to one’s régime matrimonial (i.e., whether one’s marriage is officially monogamous or polygamous) is subject to intense discussion and negotiation not only with one’s parents but with one’s entire extended family, it becomes apparent that marriage is much more about the union of two kin groups than two individuals.
  • Finally, there’s the matter of causation — basically, what makes things happen. Success in business, politics or warfare may be attributed more to supernatural causes than natural ones. There is a whole sector of the local economy — you could think of it as the “spiritual economy” — dedicated to helping people prepare spiritually for future events, from finding the right marriage partner to getting a job or a promotion to winning an election. Politically speaking, if Malians recognize that their country’s current ills result from regional and global factors, many also wonder whether unappeased spirits could be responsible for Mali’s woes. (See the latter half of my post from late May for more on this.)

I don’t believe these or other cultural phenomena keep Mali poor, or that they make its government corrupt. But they are vital features of the local landscape that outsiders ignore at their peril. The cultural iceberg, to go back to the old metaphor, has sunk a great many ships over the years, and will continue doing so in Mali as long as people unfamiliar with this society fail to mind the iceberg’s hidden depths.

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14 Responses to The cultural iceberg

  1. Kalao says:

    Hi Bruce, thank you for rounding up and nuancing the issue of culture in Malian society!

  2. Sebastien says:

    The thing is to be conscious that there are some deep, unknown factors at work, and the cultural bridge can, in most cases, be crossed. I (North American man) married a Guinean woman 7 years ago, and we still sometimes need to sit down and explain some things that seem so obvious, but not to the other!

    Some cultural divides seem harder to overcome depending on sex. For example, I’ve seen many Black Man / White Women marriages fail, but most White Man / Black Women unions I’ve seen have succeed. (I use the terms “black” and “white” to simplify things). This may have to do with the cultural backrgound an African male grows up with (polygamy, the “inferiority” of women, etc.) that makes it hard for a white female to cope with, according to her own cultural background (monogamy, equality of men and women).

  3. Sankofa says:

    Thank you for the insightful article. It is good to hear this kind of analysis. Born and raised in Mali to Western parents, this idea of the motivating forces behind actions has intrigued me. Those closest to me have remarked that I think like an African. I have found this to be true in many ways, though I must say, tongue- in- cheek, that you can never think like a Malian unless you grew up sleeping with all your siblings on the same mat. It was my observation early on in life that what Western cultures were attempting to do in Mali, with good intentions, was highly influenced by the lower part of the cultural iceberg from western conceptions, seemed obvious to me. Over the years I have seen some of these Western imposed ideals take hold, though very slowly and often pushed by economic conditions.

    I can easily see how the population can accept a junta leader as president and disregard the constitution and democratic ideas. From experience “consensus” seemed to be the way governance was done on a micro level, rather than a vote, and if there was no consensus, then things hung in limbo until there was. Perhaps that is what is going on now?

    Thanks again for the insights.

  4. Somine says:

    Hi Bruce, very interesting post, but I have to disagree with some of the things you say, or maybe were you trying to stay cautious and politically correct (?).

    “I don’t believe these or other cultural phenomena keep Mali poor, or that they make its government corrupt.”
    “[Cultural difference…] cannot explain things like warfare or poverty”.

    How to you reconcile that statement with your admission that family and caste membership has a lot to do with the problem of corruption in Mali?
    Isn’t it established that corruption renders ineffective a lot of the actions against poverty?

    “Success in business, politics or warfare may be attributed more to supernatural causes than natural ones.”
    When success is seen as the result of supernatural causes, rather than the (general though not guaranteed) outcome of talent, efforts, perseverance, of the acquisition of knowledge and its application in human activities, does that not seem like a recipe for continued poverty?

    Let me make clear that I am deeply attached to, and proud of, many of our “Malian” values. But as much as we cannot blame culture for all social ills, so should we not pretend it has no role in them.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Be careful not to put words into my mouth, Somine: there’s a difference between saying “cultural difference cannot explain war/poverty” and “cultural difference has no role in war/poverty.” My position is the former. As I argue in this post, culture does play a role, it is a variable in the equation. But I don’t believe it’s a dependent variable. (Sorry if that sounds too scientific.) There are other societies that are similarly “collectivist” in their cultural orientation, and which not long ago were believed to be too culturally backward to change — China comes to mind — but which have managed to transform their economies and governments. So I am indeed trying to stay cautious, but political correctness has nothing to do with it. A vast social scientific literature has challenged the notion that culture is primarily responsible for social problems.

  5. Sankofa says:

    Enjoyed your exchange Bruce and Somine. I love the term “dependant variable,” known in the non-scientific world as an oxymoron. Just joking… I think that much of our actions come from very deep seated beliefs, that do not always translate into action. A Malian may have a deep seated belief in the power of the spirit world to influence their present activity, but not willing to commit whole heartedly to its influence. A good Muslim may believe that do to his faithfulness, his business prospers from God’s blessing, but that will not stop him from working very hard at making it a success. I once watched a Bozo boat race in which a man was placed in the very front of the boat with an elaborate head piece with horns. It appeared that his sole job was to stab the side of the pirogue, and pray to encourage the powers that be to give their team success. However when they were being passed by the competition, he gave up the effort, grabbed a paddle and started rowing like the race depended on it. No one chided him afterwards for occupying space on the boat or threw him overboard to lighten the load. Every one assumed it was a worthy effort and the powers that be just weren’t in that day.

    Bruce noted, “A vast social scientific literature has challenged the notion that culture is primarily responsible for social problems.” I have wondered if culture is in response to social problems. Huge generality there I know. I once asked a group of young Muslim men, which was greater Shariya law or “mogoya”, (the way of man.) There response was the law of course. I then asked why a known thief from a family of thieves in the village were still running around with there hands on. They could not answer. When this individual thief came into a concession, he would be invited to sit down, but not before all valuables were removed from the immediate vicinity. Even his habit of stealing was kept a secret by the other villagers. In effect he had more standing in the community than I did as a one year stranger. I was not a “dugulen” (one of the village.) “Mogoya” is highly respected as a cultural virtue,

  6. Sebastien says:

    I always wondered about the difference I have perceived between the Christian and Muslim intervention of God, in relation to human efforts. In the Christian way (“Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera” i.e. “help yourself, and Heaven will help you”), humans must make the first step in order to succeed. Before appealing to God, we must produce some effort. In other words, before complaining, we must examine and try all possible solutions. Once the efforts have been made, we can then rely on Providence.

    In the Muslim way (or at least, the way I perceived the logic of many Muslims in Guinea), it was the opposite: if God wanted something to happen, it would occur whether or not humans made an effort. So it did not make much difference if one tried or not, success would only happen if God willed it.

    For example, I knew a driver who had a 2-year gap in his CV. When I asked him about it, he said that he had been waiting for God to provide him a job. He had spent that time drinking tea with his friends, convinced that there was no point in making efforts, because anyways God would decide.

  7. Sanjay says:

    Great blog and great comments… It makes me think of a Bambara proverb (Bougouni area): dunan nye ka bon; nga a te yeli ke; “the stranger’s eyes are big, but they do not see.” This, of course, said by those “in the group.” As explained to me two decades ago when I was a PCV, the outsider’s eyes are big because he is amazed and in wonderment at what he sees; but he does not see the hidden relationships or meanings, and therefore he does not understand what he sees. A Bambara proverb for the “Cultural Iceberg”, if you will… I have thought of the proverb wherever I am and found that it has universal meaning.

  8. Allan MacLeod says:

    Thank you for your articles and insights! It is a pleasure today to have someone in Mali–a Westerner–and see how he feels and experiences Mali and Malian culture!
    For myself, my wife and I spent more than 20 years in Mali and Ivory Coast. We arrived in Mali from a year of French study in Lausanne, Switzerland on Feb 14, 1957. Our son was born at Point G later that year, and our daughter in a Drs office at 3:00 am later on. We did medical work, teaching and construction under a Christian organization that was responsible for most of the church ministry in the Bamako area and central Mali. It was a wonderful experience, and we made many friends among the Muslim and secular and Christian community. We went through the hickups of the Independence of Mali in 1960–of which I still have photos of the French flag coming down and the Mali flag going up for the first time–and the coups later on, after socialism wore out!
    I taught several years in Bambara–and watched those graduate students become fine teachers and pastors of integrity and honesty and loving and serving their own people. We wept with them when their children died, or a loved one died. After years of working together, I cried more when a pastor/friend died than when my own father died!
    Yet a Westerner never fully becomes a Malien–no matter how long one lives there, and how much one loves them! As the Bamanans say, “Dyiri kouroun mena dyi ro, tyoko o tyoko, a te ke bama ye!” I think you know Bambara enough to know what that means. For others who haven’t been as long in Mali as you have, it means, “No matter how long a tree trunk remains in the water, it never becomes a crocodile!”
    If you’d like to chat, email me at:
    With pleasure, and thanks for your blogs! By the way, we lived in Bamako before there were ANY bridges!
    Allan MacLeod (Canada)

  9. Charis says:

    I have enjoyed reading this particular post and the ensuing discussions. I was wondering, would you be willing to share some of the readings from your research on marriage and its socioultural links in Mali.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Once I analyze my data I plan to publish the marriage research, but it will be at least a year before any of it will be in print! Maybe even longer. Stay tuned….

  10. Pingback: The Long Road Home…

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