Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Culture as Imitation

Think back for a moment on all the things you have done in the course of your lifetime. How many of them did you come up with on your own, and how many of them did you learn to do through imitating others? Initially, I would guess that you're inclined to put the majority of your past activities in the former category of the self-invented, with only a few simple behaviors defined as imitations. But I'd like to encourage you to rethink that assumption, and to recognize the overwhelming role that imitation actually plays in shaping the way you—and all other humans—behave.

First of all, consider language. Admittedly it's true that as we emerge from infancy our specific utterances cease to be mere copycat repetitions of whatever we're hearing (say "ma-ma") and become (for the most part) novel constructions uniquely appropriate to our immediate circumstances (whether those involve writing a blog post, proposing marriage, or begging our mom for another cookie). But the words from which we compose these constructions (in addition to the grammatical rules which structure their composition, and indeed the very notion of using speech—rather than gesture, drawing, or other means—to communicate) were learned through imitation of others, who in turn learned these things through imitating others who came before them. In addition, our speech is littered with pre-fabricated phrases we have collected through observation and repetition, which range from common figures of speech ("it's just a hop, skip, and a jump away") to the formulaic terms of transition with which even this paragraph itself teems (like "first of all" and "in addition," neither of which, I hate to break it to you (and there's another!) I came up with on the spot).

But the list of imitated activities extends far beyond our use of language. Take a moment to ask yourself why you wear the clothes you do and not garments in any number of alternate forms of equal (or even greater) comfort and functionality—or, for that matter, why you wear clothes at all. Did you wake up one morning, naked and slightly chilly, and decide, "Hm, I think I'll go weave myself some fabric and sew it into a sweatshirt"? My guess is that the answer is no. Rather, people began dressing you before you had any say in the matter, and then as you grew up you noted that people around you generally wore clothes of a particular sort, and you chose particular models of clothing-wearing to imitate.

Using these two examples, reconsider your previous assessment of the proportion of self-invented to imitated behaviors within your own personal repertoire. In fact, try to think of even one thing you have done which was entirely initiated by you, and in no way based on anything you have observed or heard of someone else doing. If you can come up with something, please leave it as a comment—it will be my anthropological challenge to find an element of imitation hidden within whatever you propose.

Note that when I talk about imitation, I am including not only things you learned to do by watching others unconscientiously perform these activities in your presence, but also things that you were actively taught—teaching being, in my opinion, merely a mechanism humans have developed in order to facilitate improved imitation. Any scenario in which the idea to do something comes, not from your own independent and spontaneous invention, but from some recreation or recombination of behavioral elements you have become acquainted with through the activities of others, falls under "the imitated" in my current definition.

I am not arguing that humans are not creative, nor that there is not something impressive, exciting, and meaningful in the ways that humans recombine what they have observed in others into constructions novel in content if not in concept. All I am pointing out is that the majority of what we do, as humans, comes from copying (and then building upon) what others before us have already done. This is not a weakness or failure of humanity. Rather, I consider it one of our species' greatest strengths. (And in saying that I am not denying that other species possess such imitative abilities, though some would like to call that claim into question. I am merely noting that human behavior happens to be strongly characterized by the impulse to imitate.)

This ubiquitous inclination to imitate serves as the first of the two definitions of "culture" which I will employ in my discussions of the anthropology of the everyday. Anything humans do because some other human showed them how is a "cultural" activity. Given your newfound awareness of just how many of the things we do involve some element of imitation, you may at this point be objecting, "But that means that almost everything anybody does is cultural!" That is precisely my point, and the reason that I find the anthropology of the everyday to be such a fascinating subject of study.

For those wondering about the purpose of creating a definition broad enough to encompass practically every aspect of human behavior, my justification involves two claims, which I will merely state at the moment, but hope to more concretely illustrate as I make use of the definition in subsequent articles. Claim 1: Even if this definition applies to almost everything we do, it highlights an aspect of those activities which is often hidden. And claim 2: The fact that much of what we do is learned or imitated from others has important implications and ramifications, which it will benefit us to recognize more overtly.


  1. Breathing, it seems to me, is something that humans do without learning or imitating.

  2. Yes, you point to what is probably the most common category of potentially non-cultural activities: instinctive physiological processes. I agree that these exist. At the same time, even these physiological processes are often subject to cultural influence. For instance, people may be taught whether to breathe through their mouth or their nose. And there are certain emotion-conveying breath patterns, like sighs and laughter, that are sometimes learned through imitation.

  3. I know that the act of expressing, such as writing, painting, and so on are actions that have been learned but isn't the actual substance invented? Of course it depends on what the outcome is, but there are things created that are completely new.

  4. The question of creativity... Yes, the content of creative works is invented, in that most such creations are not mere facsimiles of previous works. But in addition to the mode of creation (writing, painting, and so on) being learned/imitated, as you point out, the substance itself is rarely wholly new. The plays of Euripedes and Shakespeare were mostly retellings of well-known stories, which the dramatic master in question altered by applying a new perspective, masterful poetic flair, perhaps an unexpected ending, and the like. I would argue that creativity is rarely if ever about creating something new out of thin air, and much more frequently involves the thoughtful recombination of previously encountered elements.

  5. I thought the suggestion of breathing was an interesting one, as was your response that how one breaths can be culturally taught.

    It inspired me to try to come up with something that is not as socially acceptable as breathing. I finally came up with nose-picking, something that is widely done[1], but taboo. Where do children learn this from (other than a possible evolutionary instinct[2]) if it is not practiced (by adults anyway) when others are around?

    It could be argued that they learn it from entertainment, where nose picking is depicted. However, it is usually done by "the disgusting person or the bully"[3] and being caught is considered humiliating(ibid.). Is seeing the act sufficient for a child to learn it and want to emulate it, or would the act need to be performed by one the child considers worth learning from?

    So my question isn't, "Has nose picking been influenced by culture?" (because it has), but "How does a child learn to nose-pick by learning/imitating others?" I guess a secondary question is, "Are we/children willing to learn from or imitate anyone (including "the disgusting person or the bully") or only those we/they consider worthy to learn from?"

    1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7852253
    2 http://www.calflora.net/primatenooz/nosepicking.html
    3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nose-picking

  6. you going to mention that research they did where they were teaching kids and chimps to do some task to get a reward out of some stupidly complex container. And along with necessary steps the teachers included steps that didn't actually contribute to getting the thing out of the container.

    And the human children and the chimp children were fundamentally different in one simple respect, the human children followed the sequence they were shown exactly, imitating it perfectly, whereas the chimp children only did those parts of the sequence that were actually necessary to the task.

  7. Mike:

    You bring up a very interesting example! And one that I'm sure would merit from further ethnographic examination. I'll present some hypotheses on the basis of incidental observations and (yes, I'll admit it) personal experience.

    (1) In my experience, for the first few years of life mothers (and I'm sure certain fathers as well, although I think such concerns are, in my own society at least, less likely to be transmitted [and I mean culturally, not genetically, transmitted] to males) are particularly concerned with the state / contents of their children's noses. So, parents do actually pick their children's noses, or at least clear them of blockage, which I would argue leads to the children learning to be concerned for the clearness of their own nasal passages as time goes on.

    (2) I have also noted that many people seem to perceive especially young children as not quite counting when it comes to certain social taboos. In the same way that many people who would not pick their nose when a colleague was in the room would be willing to do so if alone with their dachshund, I would be willing to bet that a lot of people would not be particularly deterred in the pursuit in the presence of an infant. And I am guessing that a child's ability to perceive and imitate an adult's action precedes the moment at which they are perceived to be valid social entities worthy of full conformity to the expectations of non-private behavior.

    Those are my thoughts, but as I said, this is definitely a topic worthy of further—um, dare I say?—exploration.

  8. AminoAcid:

    I haven't come across that study—do you have a reference for it? It sounds intriguing, though I'm inclined to be skeptical of anything claiming to find such stark and definitive differences between such closely related species. But I'd love to look into it further.


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