Week 1: Thinking about culture and communication
This OpenLearn course is an adapted extract from the Open University short course. This course was written for the Open Centre for Languages and Cultures and consists of 10 Units, which add up to an overall study time of 40 hours. This taster course introduces you to Units 1 and 3. Unit 1 explores how culture can be understood in non-reductionist terms, and outlines crucial properties of human communication. Unit 3 zooms in on another integral part of intercultural communication: different notions of identity, and how our own idea of who we are and who ‘the others’ are influence our attitudes and how we behave with each other.
To get you attuned to the topic, have a look at the excerpt below.
In his global bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari argues that language is one of the key reasons why homo sapiens came out on top, as this allowed our species to create the glue that would hold large groups together. Can you tell what this glue is? The answer to this question is in the text below.
Read the following extract from Sapiens and deduce which term is used in the original text but left blank here. Type your answer in the box below the text.
Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers.
Any large-scale human cooperation—whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common ________ that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national ________. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland, and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal _________. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they all believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights—and the money paid out in fees.
What term is missing?
The word we were looking for here is ‘myth’. The term ‘myth’ doesn’t imply that religion or nation states are not real. Harari’s version of reality aligns with those of famous linguists like Noam Chomsky, who argue that our world exists because we created words and meaning for it. While the extent to which this is true is controversial in science, you should definitely take away from this excerpt how powerful language is, and that it is central to each culture or society. Verbalising ideas, beliefs and values helps to unite individuals into groups. You can study how this grouping is achieved, and thereby learn to understand how others see the world.