Fragments: Decoding culture — how context shapes meaning
by Marguerite Coetzee. Culture is broadly defined as ‘learned behaviour’. It is the language we speak, the values we uphold, the way we dress, the experiences we have, and so much more. Culture is also a context, a world in which messages are communicated. We can decode these meanings if we first understand the context.
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning” —Clifford Geertz & Max Weber
Level one: The symbols
When we try to make sense of something that we see, we first do so by drawing on our existing knowledge. We compare it to what we know; we try to understand it in the framework of our own experiences, memories, thoughts. What comes to mind when you think of the colours red, white and blue? An American flag perhaps? What does this flag represent or mean to you? Do you think of the promise of freedom, devastation of war, 4th of July celebrations, the country on a map?
Level two: The context
Context shapes meaning. It impacts how we communicate and how we decode meanings from symbols. Someone in America looking at an image of the American flag would interpret it differently from someone in other parts of the world. For someone in America, it might be a symbol of pride, a feeling of home, a sense of familiarity. For someone elsewhere in the world, it might represent ‘the west’, entertainment, the American dream, politics. What would be associated with the flag for an American in the 1950s vs an American youth of today? Our context — our experiences, views, cultural make-up — shapes meaning.
Castle Milk Stout, a South African beer associated with discernment and savouring tradition, recently released a powerful communication, driven by a movement: #GetItBack. What do you suppose red, white and blue represent in the context of Africa?
Level three: The meaning
The Marvel film, Black Panther, is regarded a significant milestone — not just in the entertainment world but in our lives. Addressing issues of identity, representation, development and politics, the film paints a different kind of picture of an African country. What comes to mind when you think of Africa? The answer would vary vastly if you live in Africa, have first-hand experience of Africa, or if you’ve only experienced it vicariously through images, news, music, stories, and other media.
Black Panther imagines an African country neither colonised nor influenced by the rest of the world. It communicates this not only in the plot, the dialogue, the characters — it incorporates specific symbols, for specific reasons. Did you notice the BaSotho blankets? The Zulu shields and iklwa? The ritual scarification of Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda? Did you notice that the women warriors wore clothing similar to that of the Kenyan Maasai? Did you know that for the Maasai red represents bravery, ferocity and unity?
Our context (our environment) along with our minds (our knowledge) shape meaning. It is when these two connect and inform one another that we can truly make sense of the symbols that we see.
Marguerite Coetzee is an anthropologist at strategic marketing consultancy, Kantar Consulting. Fragments, the latest series in her regular column on MarkLives, explores the application of symbolism and production of meaning in a consumer’s world, inspired by semiotics and semiology (the scientific study of signs, symbols, and communication systems within sociocultural contexts).
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