Can icebergs, concentric circles, and onions explain culture?

Three analogies of culture

Culture is like an iceberg

Culture is more deeply-rooted and interconnected with our sense of identity and self- understanding than people often imagine. Thinking about what we can see and understand of a culture not our own is somewhat similar to the way we perceive an iceberg. Indeed, the same thing may be true even of what we understand to be our own culture. We may not even be aware how our specific culture dominates our value system and shapes our view of life, our interpersonal relationships and other aspects of daily life.

Think of the iceberg. Though logic tells us we are only seeing a very small portion of an iceberg above water, it's still hard to imagine that we are seeing such a small part of it. Indeed, almost 92% of an iceberg lies below the surface of the water. The first known use of an iceberg as an analogy to explain the concept of culture was by Edward T. Hall in 1976.

Drawing of a large iceberg showing
how much of it is below the waterline

Other analogies or metaphors for culture have included an onion, a pot of flower plants and even a fish swimming in water

Iceberg image modified from Gary R. Weaver, "Understanding and Coping with Cross-cultural Adjustment Stress" in Gary R. Weaver, editor, Culture, Communication and Conflict: Readings in Intercultural Relations, second edition (Simon & Schuster Publishing)

Culture is like a set of concentric circles

A concentric circle diagram illustrates how worldview is foundational to beliefs and how beliefs are then foundational to values and how values drive behavior. Lloyd Kwast explains his diagram:

One helpful method to view a culture [is to visualize] several successive layers or levels of understanding, as one [moves from observable behavior] into the real heart of the culture.

Values in a culture are not selected arbitrarily, but invariably reflect an underlying system of beliefs. . .

At the very heart of any culture is its world view. . . Sometimes people who share the gospel cross-culturally fail to take the problem of world view into account and are therefore disappointed by the lack of genuine change their efforts produce.

of concentric circles labeled with cultural elements such as behavior, beliefs, values, and

Diagram and quotes taken from "Understanding Culture" by Lloyd Kwast, published in the second edition of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, © by William Carey Library

To be sure, Lloyd Kwast's model of culture is, as Kwast himself admits, "far too simple to explain the multitude of complex components and relationships that exist in every culture." It can, however, be a beginning point.

Culture is like onion

The image of an onion is often used to describe the different layers of culture. ... The next layer encompasses the beliefs, norms and attitudes of that culture. The middle of the onion represents the underlying cultural assumptions and values.

Gerard Hendrik Hofstede created the model of the Cultural Onion. It is made of layers around a core like an onion. The core stands for the values of a certain culture, which is not moving a lot. It mostly remains the same. Even if something seems to be outdated, it still can subconsciously play a role in the present. The first layer around the core is that of rituals or patterns wedded to that culture. Those rituals change only slowly. On another layer are the "heroes." These can be either real or fictional people. They both reflect and influence the beliefs, norms and attitudes of that culture. On the outside are the symbols and actions in momentary fashion in the culture. All the layers can be modified, re-trained and re-learned. The core -- the inner values and assumptions of the culture -- is different.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

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