German Bight, 3 or 4, Becoming Cyclonic: What is Culture?

People often ask me regarding drug use in other countries (e.g., Iraq), “Is there something about the culture that makes people use drugs?”. I typically answer something like “No, drug taking is a behavior found in almost every society, cultural variables only shape how often it happens, in what way, and how people feel about it”. Indeed, it’s a fun anthropological challenge to come up with a behavior that can truly be called a cultural one.

My favorite example is listening to the Shipping Forecast. Only culture could explain why, for example, a person born in Wolverhampton, who lives his or her life in Wolverhampton and who will die in Wolverhampton — all without ever even seeing the ocean — will faithfully listen each evening to an account of storms in the Dogger and gales in Trafalgar. Given the lack of practical utility of the information for many listeners, it might as well be read as “ish ka bibble bibble bubble”: Soothing, strangely reassuring nonsense syllables just before bedtime. To quote Sean Street’s perfect description, it’s “cold poetry of information”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “German Bight, 3 or 4, Becoming Cyclonic: What is Culture?”

  1. I like it too. There’s a spare elegance to the stlyised professional format that shows up the talking-down matiness of ordinary forecasts. And you appreciate more the warmth and security of your own bed when you are reminded of the filthy weather faced routinely by “those in peril on the sea”.

  2. Find a copy of “Weather Forecast” sung by the Master Singers around 1966. Weather and shipping forecast performed as an Anglican chant. Oddly soothing.

  3. I, too, am skeptical of the cult of culture and the tendency to provide just-so stories as if they were cultural explanations. But note that even your smallish claim about cultural explanation here seems false. You write:

    “Only culture could explain why, for example, a person born in Wolverhampton, who lives his or her life in Wolverhampton and who will die in Wolverhampton — all without ever even seeing the ocean — will faithfully listen each evening to an account of storms in the Dogger and gales in Trafalgar.”

    Such a person might, of course, have seen a big storm elsewhere or read an account of such a storm and become fascinated by them, or have been caught in a storm as a child or whatever. In such a case, the required explanation would be psychological, not cultural (unless, of course, we were to have such an expansive definition of culture that the claim became uninteresting). Cultural explanations are typically called for when a phenomenon is *widespread.*

    This is not to suggest that cultural and psychological explanations exhaust the possibilities, of course.

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