Can We Make Our Own Decisions?


Some of you may know that a few years ago I attempted a podcast where I interviewed professors from different universities on topics of history, philosophy, and other academic areas of interest. I was working on my Master's degree at the time, and while it was fun...it was time consuming. I have only ever published a few of the interviews.

In one specific interview, I discussed the idea of determinism. I wasn't talking about the theological belief called Calvinism (where God determines all) but a more secular, societal determinism—a determinism based on our genetics, our moral upbringing, out interactions, etc. Why do you dress how you do? Because you like the style? Why? Why do we name our children as we do? Because we like the names? Why? Oddly enough, I named all five of my children based on the meaning of the names and in the order of Greek, Hebrew, Greek, Hebrew, Hebrew. Besides our last child, Hadassah, all of the other names appear in the top twenty or so names of their birth years. How did this happen? How did I happen to choose the names that many others were choosing?

Two Views

Two things have thoroughly impressed me over the years of studying anthropology/history: the Braudelian approach to historiography and the idea of cultural translation/adaptation as discussed by Mark Smith and others. These two have helped to shape my view of this question of determinism.

As I have written about before, Ferdinand Braudel discussed four different tiers of history, only three of which are applicable here, sometimes called the Annales approach: the long duration or geographical time, social time, and personal time; one can envision three concentric circles. When we think of history, typically, we think of names and dates (Caesar, Napoleon, 1776, etc.). We may even think of events such as WWII or the Iraq War. What many don't often perceive, though, is that these are really just points on the timeline of history...personal time. There are still two other tiers that are often neglected in school.

Social Time...a deterministic phenomena

Social time is one of the most important for our purposes here (as geographical time mainly deals with the changing of the globe over centuries, but also includes the use of metals like bronze, iron, steel, etc.). Social time is somewhere in between the using of clay vs. plastic and a single blip on the radar of the past. Social time would include such things as governing principles, general clothing patterns, economic beliefs, and even religious ideals. In social time, one could think of what made a Roman and Roman and not a barbarian. One could think of what makes an American and American—probably more than anything else it is a stubbornness! Seriously, if you ever travel abroad, you will find that non-Americans have a certain air about them...a certain arrogance. And we do! We are rebels by nature! The more you travel into the heart of the country, you find this more and more. This is an example of social time. Then...if all Americans are inherently rebellious...can we not be? Is this trait determined upon us?

Social time can be broken down even farther into subgroups. Have you ever heard of Southern Hospitality? This, too, is an example of social time in action. There is a Texan social time and a Chicagoan social time and a SoCal social time. Each of these subgroups have personality traits that are very much different from others, and none of these can truly escape from those traits...can they? You can take the man out of Kentucky, but can you ever take the Kentucky out of the man?

Because of these social organizations and because of these possibly deterministic ideas found within each of us, the question of determinism grows ever stronger. This isn't to mean that an individual shouldn't suffer for his actions, but can we really blame them for living up to the expectations of their own culture? The culture in which a man lives is going to be the culture in which he is, and the actions and thoughts of that culture will become so ingrained in his being that it is seemingly impossible for that individual to actually make a decision outside of his frame of reference! Determinism.

Cultural translation

Of course, the other idea that thoroughly impressed me while studying anthropology/history is the idea of cultural translation/adaptation. Historically speaking, we can see this taking place anywhere and everywhere. When the Roman's (before they were the Romans) came into contact with the Greeks, they saw in the Greeks advantages that they (the Romans) did not have. What did they do? They adapted them. Hey! If you have been using an axe for years to cut wood, and then you are introduced to a chainsaw...are you not going to start using that chainsaw?! Of course you are. You might not use it in the exact same way, and maybe not for the exact same purpose, but you are going to adapt its use to your purposes. This is cultural translation.

Cultural Translation is the adoption and adaptation of tools, language, customs, etc., but it also happens without our even knowing it is happening. When two cultures collide, even if they are enemies, each of the two cultures begin to slowly adapt things from the other. Why is it that the pure American North and the pure American South never really has clear boundaries? I can say I'm a northerner because I live in Ohio, but I have many southern traits because my family comes from Kentucky. Even if I hated the South, there is no escaping the cultural translation that has taken place in my life and the adaptations to which have become me. Why is it that those who travel to Europe tend to pick up European customs and beliefs? Because there was a cultural collision!

Determinism? Is it real?

What then of determinism? Does it exist? My answer: yes...and no. Yes, there is a sense in which our actions and even our thoughts are determined by our surroundings, but our surroundings and our interactions are so vast that a truly deterministic society just can't exist. I would say that there was a time in which the anthropologist can look at a culture, say a prehistoric culture, and pretty much determine exactly what those individuals would do, and we may even determine a limit to what they are thinking, but in our day and age with so many interconnections and so many subcultures within subcultures, can we really determine every action of an individual? Has fate sealed us all? I just don't think it has. Of course...maybe you knew I would say that?

#crosscultural #adaptation #determinism #decision #braudel #annales

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© 2013  Justin Singleton 

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