Cultural attractors – Dan Sperber on the Edge

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 30, 2005
Filed in Culture

If you love reading essays by some of the world’s top thinkers, then get onto the Edge mailing list ( This month’s set of essays included one by the French anthropologist, Dan Sperber who is known for his work on a naturalistic approach to culture.

While Dan’s essay on culture was short (I would have loved to read more), he made me stop and think a number of times and I kept on say, “man, that makes a lot of sense.” For example, we are probably all guilty of thinking of culture as if it floated in the background affecting our every decision. Here is what Dan said:

“I find it unrealistic to think of culture as something hovering somehow above individuals — culture goes through them, and through their minds and their bodies and that is, in good part, where culture is being made.”

Most of Dan’s essay argued against memes as a mechanisms for cultural evolution. The meme mechanism relies on people imitating one another and attempting to replicate content. Dan believes we don’t do this at all, rather we listen to what people say as an indicator (evidence) of their meaning and then we construct our own meaning. The process is about meaning construction, not replication.

“understanding involves a lot of construction, and not just reconstruction, and very little by way of simple replication”

The construction view has a massive impact on how we attempt to create communications in organisations. This view suggests that communicators should move away from a focus ensuring people understood (and replicated) the meaning of the communication and move to creating an environment where a beneficial meaning might be constructed. This might explain why so many communication efforts are failures.

“… words don’t encode the speaker meaning, they just give you evidence of the speaker’s meaning.”

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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