How to recognize culture

Karen Engel, Jeroen Warner (Wageningen University)

  • Cultural aspects are relevant and common to a particular group and subsequently binds the group members together;
  • Culture is meaningful and highly valued by a particular group;
  • Culture is profoundly implicated in motivating people to think, interpret and judge the world and do the way they do;
  • Culture is learned. It is transmitted from generation to generation and internalized to such an extent that it becomes ‘second nature’ and is largely taken for granted;
  • Culture is arbitrary and not ‘natural’. The actual nature of a group’s culture is the result of their decision-making processes. It could have been completely different;
  • Culture encompasses ‘problem-solving tool[s] that enable individuals to survive in a particular, environment’ (Schein…);
  • People can belong to different cultural groups;
  • Culture and power are intimately linked. (Inglis 2005:9-10)

Different cultural elements can be differentiated:

  • Manifestations, such as art, ideas, communication, artifacts, tools, rules, and laws;
  • Beliefs, values, and worldviews, such as ideologies, assumptions, and attitudes;
  • Knowledge, such as scientific knowledge, local knowledge, and indigenous knowledge;
  • Social structure, such as agency, relationships, social networks, social control and power;
  • Behavior and practice, such as customs and norms, rituals, and traditions. (Thomalla et a. 2015: 9).

Some of these elements are more visible than others. Most are invisible and so fundamental to people that they are difficult to negotiate about.

to find culture, look below the surface

While useful, these definitions are from the outsider view. From an insider perspective, culture is ‘that what which is considered „normal“; ‘the way it’s done ‘round here’. Much of culture is hard to identify and explain to others, because it has been internalized, comes naturally, and this self-evidence facilitates routines and social organization.

This is particularly difficult for newcomers who are not socialized into the culture and will have to discover it most likely through a process of trial and error. Generally, cultural differences come to the surface most frequently when two cultures come together and collide. In case of a collision, there will most likely be a class (‘ouch!’) moment accompanied by friction and possibly even more overt conflict. This is because we inevitably see and judge our environment, our fellow human beings and ourselves through the lens of our own cultural background. When for instance, two aid workers work together on a case but learn that they interpret the risks of the situation completely different. Is one wrong and the other right? Or are they interpreting the situation in accordance to different norms and values.

To meaningfully recognize culture it is therefore key to be continuously aware of one’s own reactions towards others and in particular the question marks that appear when interacting with others. One functions, interprets and more importantly judges surroundings and others in accordance to one’s own culture. However, what may be normal to one might not be to the other. So when interacting with others, be alert to feelings of perplexity and shock and before escalating the situation to hostile confrontation, wonder what it is that puzzles you and engage in an inquiring fashion with the other. Are there cultural assumptions underlying their act and/ or your reaction?

Such question marks generally point at a possible cultural difference. Why don’t Dutchmen wear helmets when cycling through heavy traffic? Why do many Byzantine and Ottoman buildings have beams placed intermittently around walls of buildings (Bankoff 2014: 58)? Are they decorative or might they even have a seismic function? Such observations and questions allow one to learn about the environment one is in. One could, for instance, learn that when a community has areas where homes are built on stilts that flooding is a relevant phenomenon for the people of the community. In other words, recognizing culture will not just enable one to increasingly cooperate or understand why cooperation with others is maybe difficult, but it will also open the door to learn more about the environment one is in and the way people interpret and deal with that environment.

Beware: introspection can be confrontational. You will be looking into your most inner self and possibly have to question fundamental assumptions which have been, up and till that day, the basis of your essence, while realizing that they are arbitrary and can, if you want to, be different. The key is then to identify and reflect on the cultural differences and then find a way to move forward that is acceptable to both parties. That is when it gets difficult, especially when such inner elements as values and norms are being questioned.

There are various social interactions that require thoughtfulness in light of the possible cultural implications they could entail.

Firstly, one has to be aware that people are generally part of different cultures. As a result, even though you are part of the same organization and share the organization’s culture, you might still experience culture clashes because competing cultural values or norms take the upper hand. For instance, families can have their own cultures and in a specific situation this culture’s elements might be considered more weighty than for instance the organization’s. In situations in which the organization’s culture does not provide sufficient guidance a member may resort to his or her own cultural values that would.

Part of these types of cultural interactions are interactions between people with different ethnic or religious backgrounds within one organization. However, people with the same religious and ethnic background can be part of quite different cultural groups. Secondly, cultures can interact between groups when working with different organizations. Civil and military organizations for instance can have very different cultures. A mission for a military unit, for instance, starts when you leave your home and ends when you get back home. For a civil organization, a mission is when you leave your quarters in the host country to, for example, do search and rescue activities and ends when you get back to your quarters. This different interpretation of a mission can cause friction. Similarly, there can be serious cultural clashes between a professional organization and a community one.

Chapter 4.4: The armed forces and civil-military interaction

Culture is quite functional: it enables people to interpret and judge the world around them, i.e. order, and function more effectively without continuously having to cognitively engage with one’s surroundings. It prevents one from being taunted by hyper-reflection like the centipede in the following poem:

‘The Centipede was happy quite,
Until a Toad in fun
Said, ‘Pray, which leg goes after which?’
And worked her mind to such a pitch,
She lay distracted in a ditch
Considering how to run‘

(Katherine Craster 1841-74)

Cultural elements have a cultural logic and function. In case of hazards for instance, communities tend to cultivate elements that will enable them to understand and deal with the events and prevent, as much as possible, dismay. As a result, culture affects how people understand risks and guide the way they act in light of these. A collection of cultural elements cultivated to deal with a recurrent hazard is known as a disaster subculture. Disaster subcultures emerge when communities are repeatedly affected by potentially disastrous hazards and members take each disastrous occasion to learn and improve their capabilities to deal with these phenomena so that they will be less disastrous in the future. Since these elements have meaning and are valued by communities experiencing disaster risk, they have to be taken into account when concerned with Disaster Risk Reduction.
They can be valuable resources, but they could also be the cause for strenuous relationships. They can for instance be the reason why a certain community does not want to implement some solution experts have come up with.

Since it is known that cultural interactions will be an important part of one’s work in DRR and the success of one’s interventions will stand or fall by the way they are dealt with it is worthwhile looking into cultural implications in ‘peacetime’. As such, one can determine to what extent culture can be an opportunity or is rather a challenge to be dealt with and identify ways to deal with these. When you have to do this during an emergency, you are too late. In an emergency there is no room for hyper-reflection and the possible immobilization this might entail. People have to largely turn to automated behavior, particularly also to have enough cognitive space to deal with unexpected situations. This means one should focus on encountering and dealing with different cultures in the preparation phase. This can be done in different ways. For instance, one could include in every after-action report an appraisal of cultural matters. Also one could make it part of the preparation phase by including a cultural appraisal when doing for instance a network analysis. Key tools are generally, qualitative in-depth and group interviews and continuous interaction and reflection with relevant people. It is also recommended to not just think of potential ‘problem groups’ when it comes to planning and preparing for disaster. There are cultural groups networks that could contribute to one’s DRR efforts. Take for instance, boy and girls scouts, voluntary rescue brigades and hobby groups like electrical clubs or radio aficionados. Such groups might have certain knowledge and technical skills that can prove really helpful during a disaster.


Complex technological systems tend to be seen as the most optimal way of dealing with various natural hazard related problems. While these can be of help, a sole dependence on them can have adverse effects. In Dordrecht, for instance, the decreasing exposure to flooding has brought complacency and forgetfulness. In the South of the Netherlands, however, (non-life threatening) flooding used to be frequent and as a result relevant risk awareness, knowledge and capacities tends to be more widespread there than in the west of the Netherlands that has already been fully diked up. Today embankments have been installed in the southern province of Limburg and communities there are being told flooding will no longer be part of their lives. This will most likely lead to a reduction of flood preparedness, even though the possibility of flooding remains. The probability might be small, but is still above zero (Engel et al 2014).

Unnecessarily exposing people to disaster risk is not an option. However, believing that one can master nature is not either. A middle road would be to cultivate an intelligent mix of technical and human capacities that will enable not just lead to higher levels of resistance, but also significant levels of resilience. Also, to ensure technical systems are properly embedded in a community and do not force communities into highly dependence relationships with for instance experts, especially when it comes to early warning systems. In light of DRR it worthwhile that people can interpret their environment and in particular threats that might be imminent. Often time is of the essence and it is thus disadvantageous for people to have to wait for vast complex socio-technical systems to inform them. Such systems generally require time that is unavailable and in addition often encompass numerous linkages that can fail. Better to make tools or facilitation availability for community members to be actively involved in their own safety and prevent a false sense of security from arising, for example, Dutch dike teams (trained to put metal sheets in front of vulnerable buildings) and ‘dike armies’ (patrolling the defences when the weather gets rough).

Further reading

It is recommended to map local skills and repertoires, as well as the ‘risk landscape people perceive. There are good guides to particulatory action research

You may find the handbook useful.

A Swiss example.


Bankoff G (2015) Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction (Routledge Studies in Hazards, Disaster Risk and Climate Change) (p. 58). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Engel, K.E. , Frerks, G. , Velotti, L. , Warner, J.F. , Weijs, B. (2014) Flood Disaster Subcultures in the Netherlands: the Parishes of Borgharen and ItterenNatural Hazards 73 (2014)2. - ISSN 0921-030X - p. 859-882.

Inglis D (2005) Culture and everyday life. Routledge: New York

Schein, E. H. “The Corporate Culture”, John Wiley and Sons, 1999.

Thomalla F, Smith R, and Schipper LF (2015) Cultural Aspects of Risk to Environmental Changes and Hazards: A Review of Perspectives. In Disaster’s Impact on Livelihood and Cultural Survival: Losses, Opportunities, and Mitigation. Edited by Michèle Companion. CRC Press. Kindle Edition. (Page 9). CRC Press. Kindle Edition: 9-18