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Culture Iceberg: Theory & Model

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  • 0:04 The Culture Iceberg
  • 0:57 The Top 10%
  • 1:53 Unspoken Rules
  • 2:47 The Core
  • 3:45 Relationship Between the Parts
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Culture is a very complex topic, but there is at least one model to make this a lot easier to understand. In this lesson, we'll examine the iceberg model of culture and see what it can teach us.

The Culture Iceberg

How can a culture be like an iceberg? Is it because cultures are cool? Is it because culture can feel isolated and adrift in a sea of human experiences? It is because culture sank the Titanic?

No. The similarity is that icebergs are famously disproportionate in terms of visibility. You can see the top 10%, but 90% of its mass is below the surface. Culture is similar. In what is known as the iceberg model of understanding culture, you can observe about 10% of culture, but to comprehend the rest, you have to go deeper. It was developed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in the 1970s, the same guy who defined many of our fundamental ideas about culture today. Hall's model has provided a great way for us to envision the breadth and complexity of human cultures. So, like icebergs themselves, this model is pretty darn cool.

Cultures, like icebergs, are defined more by what is unseen than seen
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The Top 10%

Let's start with the top 10% of the culture iceberg. When you first interact with a new culture, maybe through travel or other experiences, this is the part of culture that is immediately evident to you. This is the part you can see, taste, smell, hear, and touch. It includes things like food, music, visual arts, language, celebrations, and games.

These things matter. The visible aspects of culture are important parts of how cultures interact and maintain their sense of unity. However, they also tend to be fluid. Recipes and games and arts can all change over time. Even language shifts with each generation. Therefore, we can say that the cultural facets of the top 10% of the culture iceberg have a relatively low emotional load. They matter to people, but they can also be changed and altered without fundamentally challenging the existence of a culture or people's ideas about who they are.

Unspoken Rules

That above-surface culture is what we see when we're introduced to a new group of people, but it's literally just the tip of the iceberg. The minute we dip below the surface, things get more intense. In Hall's model, the 90% of culture that's below the surface can be divided into two categories. The first of these we can think of as the unspoken rules of a society.

Unspoken rules are those parts of culture that are just under the surface, but still hidden. They include things like nonverbal communication, how we interact with or show our emotions, our concepts of personal space, our definitions of beauty, and our basic ideas about manners and contextual behavior. This part of society takes more time for an outsider to understand because it's not as obviously visible. It also carries a heavier emotional load. Once you begin to change these values, people begin to feel like their cultural identity is being threatened.

The Core

Finally, we go even deeper and get to the core of the iceberg. This is where the vast majority of the things that define a culture can be found. At the core of a culture we find what is often the subconscious parts of culture which people adhere to and believe in without conscious thought. We find things like ideas about childrearing, definitions of adulthood, concepts of self, roles of gender/sex/age/class, kinship and family networks, pace of work, and the tempo of society.

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