Can icebergs, concentric circles, or 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 we often imagine. Thinking about what we can see and understand of a culture that is different from ours is 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 of how our 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. Similarly, the bulk of cultural elements, including beliefs, values, and underlying assumptions, remain hidden beneath the surface. 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

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, 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 worldview 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 are 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." However, it can be a beginning point.

Culture is like an onion

Drawing of am onion cut to show its

The image of an onion is often used to describe the different layers of culture. The outer layers are the artifacts and products as well as patterns of behavior. 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,

Reflection questions

  1. How does the iceberg analogy help us demonstrate understand the depth and hidden aspects of culture? What values and assumptions of our own culture shape us even though they go unnoticed?
  2. Why does the concentric circles analogy put worldview at the heart of a culture? Why can it be said that do beliefs, values, and behavior all stem from this core element?
  3. In what ways does the onion analogy capture concept of culture as various layers? Why is it said that core of the onion, representing values and assumptions, differ in some important ways from the outer layers?
  4. What are the limitations of using analogies like the iceberg, concentric circles, and onion to explain culture? How might these analogies be oversimplifying the complexity and diversity of cultural components?
  5. How can understanding the hidden aspects of culture, as depicted by these analogies, impact cross-cultural interactions and communication? What are some practical implications for individuals seeking to navigate cultural differences effectively?

Afterword: More Analogies of Culture

Culture, being a complex and multifaceted concept, has been described through various analogies to capture its richness and diversity. Here are several analogies that have been used to describe culture:

These analogies offer different perspectives on the dynamic complexity of culture. Each helps highlight a different dimension. Together they enhance our undersanding of culture and the the ways in which it shapes our individual and collective experiences.

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