How Anthropology and Our Travel Experiences Can Help Us Understand the US Election

United States Activism
by Mary Ellen Dingley Dec 16, 2016

When you travel, you are open to differences. You are seeking them. You want that food that you’ve never tasted and those photos of a landscape you’ve never seen. And if you travel a bit anthropologically, then you realize that there are deeper differences below the spices you taste on your tongue — differences in beliefs about how the world should work, how society should form, how you perceive reality. Those differences are harder to dig into and sometimes, we don’t like what we find.

It’s been awhile since I’ve traveled. I live in DC and while sitting in a coffee shop about a week after the US election, I overheard a group of friends discussing the outcome. One of them said, “People don’t agree on the central facts anymore. They used to have the same facts but different ideas of what to do — now they don’t have the same facts at all.”

As an anthropologist, I would argue that it’s deeper than that — people in the United States don’t agree on the cultural framework that the facts should go into. That is, their foundational worldviews are so different they can’t even have a conversation on which facts are correct. They talk over and around each other, using the same words but with different meanings, each word hinging on what framework it hangs upon. It all comes down to frameworks.

Frameworks are bigger than one cultural habit, and they allow you to see how ideas and habits connect. It’s more than, “In some parts of the U.S. they enjoy country music and in others, they enjoy indie rock.” It’s about the connections between music and priorities, values and job choices, voting and worldview — frameworks are foundational beliefs that inform cultural habits and the threads that connect them all. In the US, we are operating in different frameworks.

The US has always been a nation of many cultures. And in the liberal vs. conservative camps, research shows our moral foundations are quite different (TED Talk here!) as well as the language we use and the models they are based on.

I’m not the first person to point this out — many have published articles and books about cultural differences in the USA. People have argued that the differences are educational, generational, economic, racial or geographical. Rural vs City. Proxemics. Desperation. All of the above. Culture is made of many things. And here we are here, living in a nation of various frameworks, aghast at each other.

So what do we do about it?

Let’s try to have a traveler’s mindset. Let’s try some anthropology. Let’s use frameworks as tools. Thinking about culture differences in the context of frameworks has helped me a lot — maybe it can help others.

I say this with a giant caveat — I am not asking anyone to “hear someone out” who doesn’t recognize your full humanity. I’m not saying, “Go make friendship bracelets with someone who disrespects you.” I’m not saying “let’s legitimize and give a microphone to hateful beliefs”. And I’m not even asking anyone to change their minds or to go try to change other people’s minds.

I’m saying if you *are* curious about why people act and talk and vote like they do, if you are asking questions about who the United States is right now, it could help to learn this skill — the skill of using multiple cultural frameworks, without necessarily accepting them. Use them as a tool, like 3D glasses. Take them off and on. Find these frameworks in books and articles and ethnographies and interviews and stash them away in your mental toolbox.

Using frameworks as tools means looking at the same situation and say, in one framework that means X and logically leads to Y and from another framework that would mean A and logically lead me to conclude B. Let me emphasize, you do not have to agree with a framework to be able to use it as a tool. If you disagree with the foundation of X, of course you disagree with Y, but you can disagree and still see the logical reasoning in how X leads to Y.

It’s about being able to read the inner logic of a culture, not putting our outer logic on it. For the most part, humans aren’t making illogical decisions, they are making decisions that make sense within their framework. If we can find out the larger foundational belief, and then how beliefs and habits and traditions connect with each other, we can trace the logic. We can understand.

As travelers, we do this all the time to a degree. We take off and put on little cultural habits about things like:

“What is an appropriate way to ride public transportation?” That’s part of a proximity framework, within the overarching cultural framework.

“How do I politely interact in this country with strangers?” That’s a relational framework.

People who live in multiple cultures, immigrants, minorities, wanderers, third-culture kids, they switch between frameworks all the time, maybe automatically. The rest of us have to learn. For example, I’ve learned to, at the same time, view the world through a lens of small town religious conservatism (the culture I grew up in), and via a non-religious East Coast city liberal lens (the culture I’ve studied and worked in as an adult). Not until after horribly embarrassing myself in both contexts, or getting in arguments based on misunderstandings, however.

Being able to switch frameworks allows me to understand and be empathetic even when I don’t agree. Maybe this sounds pretentious or obvious, but I had a hard time moving between two home cultures, even just regional American ones. Thinking about it as frameworks helped me then, and has helped me now, post-election. (I recognize that as a white person, the various frameworks of American culture do not discriminate against me, and thus I can move between them without danger to myself.)

One example of a cultural framework — I’m from the American South and get asked why Southerners are so “fake” by some Northern friends. The Southern relationship framework is one of the wide nets of loose relationships and “positive politeness” (talking to people is polite) a framework which leads to X (talking at length to a semi-stranger) as logically leading to Y (a friendly acquaintanceship). No one’s faking anyone out within that framework. In parts of the North the relationship framework is more about close-knit small groups of friends and “negative politeness” (leaving people alone is polite) which means that X (talking extensively to a semi-stranger) doesn’t usually make sense and would logically lead to Z (assuming they are trying to weirdly become your best friend). The Northerner feels faked out when the Southerner doesn’t want to be their best friend, and the Southerner doesn’t understand why the Northerner isn’t feeling welcomed by their polite manners.

In the USA, a framework could also be used to do something like look at how conservatives and liberals conceptualize sexism. Does it exist? If so, is it a cultural belief that is learned and taught? Is it individuals who are bad, some people are sexist people just because they are bad people? Some people see society as a web, with issues like sexism interconnected with many parts of society, passed down and learned and unlearned, affecting us all. Others see society as made up of small groups of people rather than one large web, where individual responsibility rules, and one’s actions and values don’t necessarily affect one another or get passed on. Thus sexism wouldn’t be a systemic, society-wide problem, but a problem of a few bad individuals.

Knowing the larger cultural frameworks at play could help us understand how different people conceptualize these important issues. The regional cultures of the US may never agree with each other, but frameworks can be a useful starting point. At least, for this traveling nerd, it’s been vital to understanding where I come from and where I’m headed.

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