RE: Geertz and the production/existence of culture

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Sam Ladner

Jun 16, 2006, 2:42:42 PM6/16/06
to User Research Theory Study Group Planning
Hi all,

Further to this thread, I note the similarities between Geertz and
Berger and Luckman's "The Social Construction of Knowledge."

As Mick rightly notes, Geertz argues that culture is essentially a
shared system meaning. Berger and Luckman also argue this in their book
(a classic). They argue that much of what we consider to be "invisible"
or "inside people's heads" I guess, is actually public, shared and
becomes embedded into social institutions.

Very often people say, "Well that's just the way it is," when referring
to certain cultural practices. Berger and Luckman point out that, for
example, there were cultures that celebrated homosexuality as the height
of masculinity (e.g., Roman army). So what we perceive to be universal
ideals are in fact socially constructed.

Gathering thick description is the methodological approach of
discovering and revealing these shared systems of meaning. Meaning is
socially constructed AND socially understood. The implication for user
research for interface design is this: we must understand where cultural
symbols intersect.

When it comes to technology design, for example, there is a distinct
gender component in seemingly innocuous choices for interfaces. I
personally see gender deeply embedded, or as Bijker argues, "baked in"
to many technologies. Linear notions of design (as opposed to iterative,
ongoing and never-ending) evokes a "masculinized" notion of time. Simone
de Beauvoir argued that women's sense of time is mostly circular, based
on ongoing tasks of housework, childbirth and rearing, etc.

Thick description from women may reveal how they perceive their
interaction with an interface, one that may paint the interface as
falsely "complete" when a person may expect it to learn or redesign

Sam Ladner
Account Planner
12th Floor
11 King Street West
Toronto, ON
M5H 4C7
v: 416.673.5275 ext. 3244

> -----Original Message-----
> From:
[] On
> Behalf Of Steve Portigal
> Sent: Friday, June 16, 2006 11:56 AM
> To: Mick Khoo; User Research Theory Study Group Planning
> Subject: Re: Geertz, Wittgenstein, and the impossibility of a private
> Mick Khoo wrote:
> >
> >Wittgenstein only published one book during his life, the Tractatus
> >Logico-Philosophicus, which was short (100+ pages), and which he
> >disowned. This is the book from which Steve's summary below refers
> >
> >A second book, Philosophical Investigations, was compiled from notes
> >and published after his death in 1951. This is the book that people
> >often refer to, when they refer to Wittgenstein, and concepts of
> >such as 'language-games.' Geertz credits Philosophical
> >with giving him the inspiration for his ideas about culture. The
> >specific idea of Wittgenstein's that Geertz draws on, is his theory
> >the impossibility of a private language. I'm probably going to
> >this a bit, but as I understand it, what Wittgenstein pointed out
> >that while we think that it is possible to have a private language
> >to ourselves - one that just plays in our head and which only we can
> >understand - in fact such a language is always built on, and always
> >maps to (dictionary/phrase book style) previously available public
> >meaning. So if I stub my toe and think, "Wuurhg blapooble
> >nitryqwgjghj##,' and also think, "This is my private language,"
> >this may appear to be a 'private' language, in that only I can
> >understand it, invariably I also understand it in terms of "Aaargh
> >toe!" or something similar, which is a prior, public meaning. That
> >I can't help but think "Aaargh my toe!" as well as "Wuurhg blapooble
> >nitryqwgjghj##."
> >
> >Anyway this lead Geertz to speculate that the locus of culture is
> >therefore mentally internal in people's individual heads, but rather
> >publicly shared meaning, and it's this which led him to look at the
> >thick description and interpretation of publicly available meaning
as a
> >route to describing what (a) culture might be about. From Geertz'
> >of view, it's these prior public meanings that can help us to
> >local cultural particularities.
> Mick - this is fantastic! Thanks for the detail and interpretation -
> the guy published one book and I referenced the wrong one :)
> Steve Portigal --
> blog --

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