Culture as a Research Challenge

Culture as a Research Challenge
Posted on March 8, 2018 | Yasser Harrak | Written on March 8, 2018
Letter type:

Researching the political influence of culture presents several challenges to scientists especially in the field of comparative politics. Some of the questions that scholars raise are why some cultural ideas remain the same while others change?  Why in certain sociopolitical environments some ideas change while they remain unchanged in simmilar others? 

The institutionalization of ideas is a process that needs not to be merely understood by focusing  on how ideational variables become embedded in organizations like bureaucracies and political parties. Social scientists need to focus on how ideas become embedded in social norms, patterns of discourse, collective identities and intangible institutions characterized by inter-subjective understandings or shared belief system (Berman 2001, 238). The change in ideas and their degree of influence rely on social contextualization.  Berman Sheri states:".. ideas only become truly influential when they are embedded in social contexts or institutionalized in key organizations." (Bernan 2001, 240). Let us apply this to Wahabism and the United States and try to answer the following question. Why is Wahabism pro-American in Saudi Arabia and anti-American in Afghanistan? Based on Berman's maxim, the ideas of pro-Americanism are institutionalized in key organizations in Saudi Arabia while anti-Americanism is institutionalized in key organizations in Afghanistan and this explains the change in the idea and the degree of its influence in both countries. Culture is thereof malleable and not monolithic.

Cultural cleavages present another challenge and leads to this question. Why do some cultural communities wirh comparable collective awareness living under identical circumstances in two different countries respond differently in terms of their political choices?  Daniel Posner, for example, tried to answer this question by studying  why the Chewas and Tumbukas are Allies in Zambia and enemies in Malawi. He proposes a simple answer arguing  that the political salience of a cultural cleavage will depend on the sizes of the groups that it defines relative to the size of the arena in which political competition is taking place. If the cultural cleavage defines groups that are large enough to constitute viable coalitions in the competition for political power, then politicians will mobilize these groups and the cleavage that divides them will become politically salient (Posner 2004, 529). Having politicians as an intervening variable capitalizing on the size of cultural communities shows how cultural cleavages emerge from institutional use of culture as an instrument to achieve political and economic goals or both.

In sum, the issue of culture poses research challenges because of its malleability and inconsistency. If social scientists understand the process of the institutionalization and  instrumentalization of culture, they can better explain and predict the political environment surrounding it. 


Berman, Sheri. 2001. "Ideas, Norms, and Culture in Political Analysis." Comparative Politics 33(2): 231-250.

Posner, Daniel. 2004. “The Political Salience of Cultural Differences: Why Chewas and Tumbukas are Allies in Zambia and Adversaries in Malawi.” American Political Science Review 98: 529–546.

About The Author

Alma mater: American Public University, Concordia University. 


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