The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

The Pokey Finger of God header image 2

Cultural Congruity

March 13th, 2008 · No Comments · Uncategorized

Cultural congruity is a relative measure of the cultural distinctiveness between two organizations and /or individuals. Cultural congruity is noted by a person when another person or group makes them feel “at home”. Conversely, cultures are considered incongruous when the customs or habits of others are perceived as being very different.

Cultural congruity is highly sensitive to context: groups congruous in one context may be incongruous in another. Age-based cultures may clash in peacetime, but in the event of invasion, both groups could come together to fight a common enemy.

The concept of cultural congruity is useful when trying to rationalize the choices people make. People tend to make decisions based on the ideals of whatever cultures they most identify with. People who simultaneously identify with incongruous cultures often have difficulty with decisions as each represents fresh opportunities to “present” as a member of a specific culture by being seen as having made a specific choice.

We can represent an arbitrary group as containing members of a finite number of overlapping cultures, and can further estimate the percentage coverage of each culture within the group. The group as a whole would have a statically relevant predictability based on predominant cultural ideals, but any one person within this group would have an arbitrary proportion of cultures and would therefore be unpredictable.

In times of difficulty and trouble, people tend to retreat into congruous cultures and away from incongruous cultures. While they may still seek answers or direction from other cultures, these would be ones already closely associated with those with which they are already familiar. We can, therefore, make some basic predictions about culture growth and death and the general movements of people between cultures.

However, in times of abandonment or betrayal, catastrophe or disillusionment, people will seek out the “truth” of incongruous cultures and avoid the “lies” of congruous cultures. People in this state are highly susceptible to suggestion and are biased to presume that the “other” has better “truth”. Attaching these people into incongruous cultures (conversion) is simply a matter of having well placed “guides” to help those looking to move into the “truth” of the unfamiliar. The recognition that crisis drives this perturbation of behavior allows for both another bellweather of crisis, but also anticipates a fixed percentage of crossover in nearly every context.

In modern times, we have seen the “conservative” movement create a culture designed to attract some, but not all, of what was the dominant political culture — but converting its members in such a way as to force their previous culture to become incongruous. The “Liberals are bad” meme will be floating around for many generations, thanks to the concerted effort of neo-con think tanks and lobbyist groups. (More interesting details about how the neo-cons distorted language and culture in this essay by my new favorite AlterNet writer, Sara Robinson.) This modern example of cultures being actively directed and changed is instructive.

The concept of cultural congruity is also very important in understanding the process by which the Roman Empire was Christianized. (I know you’re shocked that I’m using this as an example.) It’s clear that there were still many people, up until the late 5th century, who were still invested in the old-school pagan system and who apparently still received social (and presumably spiritual) benefit therefrom — and it was exceedingly rare for these folks to throw down their gods and join with the Christians because their cultures were so adamantly incongruous.

Instead, Christianity traveled through lines of congruous cultures. It started with alienated, disenfranchised Jews, for whom it was a “more pure” Jewish cult. It was picked up by disenfranchised Greeks in the East, for whom it was a “more ancient” monotheistic cult, and by Greeks in the West, for whom Judaism was already considered a “morally pure” and philosophically acceptable Eastern cult. It was adopted by the Romans as a “moral society” with all the elements of popular, Hellenized Savior cults and Graeco-Syrian monotheism — two great tastes favored by the religiously profligate Roman society. Few converts needed to venture far outside well established Greek or Latin cultures. The notion of cultural congruity in this case may even allow the for development of a detailed and accurate model for how Rome was Christianized.

Cultural congruity allows us to speculate on the motivations of people en mass — how they make decisions, build social networks, or solve problems — from the example of a few. The concept of cultural congruity helps define the perceptions and motivations of the collective based on the limited information we have, and can even allow for a very rough sort of mathematical analysis of human behavior. As a mechanism to understand history, we are given the opportunity to know in a general sense what we cannot about specific individuals. By the same token, the same mechanism can be used to project the behavior of people today into the future. Hari Seldon, are you writing this down?

(If any psychologist types reading happen to know other, perhaps more clinical, terms for cultural congruity, I’d appreciate the info. I’m not finding a lot of direct information about this and would like to do more research.)