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How Culture Shapes Perception

Culture has a significant impact on the personality and on the development of an individual’s perceptions. How does culture impact modern science? Do specific features of traditional culture affect the lives of individuals in today’s society? TSU Professor Lali Surmanidze answers some of these questions from her research from the last 20 years in the interdisciplinary fields of psychology and anthropology.

The human individual is at the center of modern scientific research on society, necessitated by changes in human consciousness and concepts, as well as by dramatic modifications of social and personal values. Thus the study of socio-cultural contexts, as well as everyday life—including perception, psychological states, behavior, needs and cultural diversity—are all as critical to understanding modern society as the study of political, economic and other disciplines.  Today the interdisciplinary field called psychological anthropology brings together classic psychology as well as cognitive psychology and cultural anthropology, and studies the processes of psychological functions within a cultural context.

A study entitled Stereotypes in the light of cultural constructs of personal characteristics was published in Russian and English in the international peer-reviewed journal Vestnik by the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia.  , series – sociology; 2010, № 2 Moscow, 41-51; http://www.rudn.ru/?pagec=3271; http://elibrary.ru/query_results.asp

Cultural codes dictate psycho-cultural orientations. Most important is the impact of language, which is deeply engraved as folklore in the everyday lives and psychology of a culture, and can be termed “meta-morphological”. Using materials of linguistic folklore in the research allowed us to examine psychological characteristics as cultural characteristics, and not just abstract concepts without any historical context.

The research examined aspects of modern Georgian lifestyles as they are connected with cultural-historical facts and events. Personality assessment criteria were defined by  experiments comparing Georgian folk idioms (figurative expressions) and attitudes towards stereotypes, or so-called cultural universals. Only the very typical stereotypes characteristic of Western countries were chosen for the study.

Both research subjects-–personality assessment criteria and stereotypes--are very topical in social science research today. The first subject relates to worldwide scientific discussions on the universality or the cultural-specificity of personality assessment criteria.  The second topic,  stereotypes, is considered one of the most optimal ways to explore everyday consciousness, since not only are stereotypes salient to the study process but to entire sets of events with their diversity and functions in socio-cultural life.

A psycho-semantic experimental method was applied in the research, made up of a variety of psycho-linguistic techniques.  In terms of research results, it permits representation in the form of semantic space, and is interdisciplinary as well, used for the study of consciousness in many socio-cultural fields, from politics to methods of child rearing. This method implies complicated mathematical processing of the data and inferential statistics, thus accuracy is high.  The research was ‘emic’, or from the ‘inside’ (instead of ‘etic’ from the exterior), and selected concepts included Georgian folk figurative expressions.

Fifty Georgian native speakers of both sexes, aged 25-45 participated in the study. They evaluated historical-archetypal stereotypes: artisan, philosopher, moneylender, warrior, prostitute, builder, invader, spiritual teachers, executioner and judge according to 90 Georgian folk figurative expressions (e.g. ‘skinning the flea’, ‘getting on the donkey’, ‘neither burning barbecue nor spit’, ‘dancing to somebody else’s duduk’.) on a scale of 1-6 points. After processing the data, four sets of criteria were identified: worldliness-spirituality, demonstrativeness, flexibility and activity-passivity. Accordingly, participants implicitly (unintentionally) used these four criteria for evaluating stereotypes.

The study explored a number of interesting orientations in Georgians’ consciousness. For instance, respondents perceive that a builder has to carry the heaviest burden, an invader has the best ability to lie, and a philosopher and a spiritual teacher are best at getting into trouble and creating problems for themselves. In general, the philosopher, builder, spiritual teacher and judge are reflected positively in Georgian semantic space, stemming from historical contexts, since representatives of all four stereotypes were highly esteemed and appreciated figures in Georgia.

The representation of the stereotype of a builder in the resulting data is given special attention. It appears that there is a strong association made between the stereotype of a builder and David the Builder. King David is seen as a symbol of intelligence, wisdom and development in Georgia. The description of a stereotype of builder in the research proves the above-mentioned assumption, which is close to the historical descriptions of King David. A builder is held only slightly lower in esteem than a spiritual teacher according to the spirituality criterion, and is more reserved than the latter in the criterion of demonstrativeness. Interestingly, the builder is one of the leading stereotypes in respect to the flexibility criterion and has the highest rating in terms of the activity criterion. Consequently, it would be fair to conclude that the stereotype of a builder has its canonized image in David the Builder with its characteristics of spirituality, reserve, activity and flexibility.

The research had multidimensional results, including the fact that in a semantic space, for instance, the stereotype of judge is positively defined. These attitudes were formed by the specificity of justice in feudal Georgia, on one hand, and the semantic connection of this word with the supreme judge – God, on the other. The stereotype of a judge is one of being vigorous and inclined towards inflexibility and rigidity. The builder, moneylender, warrior, prostitute, invader and executioner are considered terrestrial characters.  The executioner is perceived as the antithesis of a spiritual teacher, is very reserved and non-expressive in his behaviour, as well as passive and inflexible. By being disagreeable, the stereotype of an executioner gives the impression of implementer of somebody else’s wishes. Old Georgian legal monuments do not mention the executioner, i.e. the person who was assigned to carry out a death penalty (beginning with the reign of King Tamar, the death penalty was banned). It appears that executioners were invited to carry out the death penalty and that the institution of executioners did not exist.

The executioner stereotype seems to be associated with the brutal invader in the minds of Georgians and has little to do with knowledge of this category in general. According to our study other worldly characters stand out by their demonstrativeness. The most active character is thought to be the moneylender, similar to the prostitute. According to their semantic space, the research participants describe the latter negatively. However, this traditional feminine stereotype has a powerful influence--and despite the nature of a prostitute’s job, this stereotype is still the most passive character of all the worldly ones.

In conclusion, our lives include mental perceptions represented as an element of system-building network of cultural perceptions.  Other research activities reinforced the results of the study, still considering the fact that common differences and social changes are occurring, and there are intercultural variations in these processes.



Vestnik by the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. series – Sociology; 2010, № 2 Moscow, 41-51; http://www.rudn.ru/?pagec=3271; http://elibrary.ru/query_results.asp.