The Culture Bump Approach to differences (ethnic, cultural, age, etc) offers a different understanding of the phenomenon of encountering differences. Hans Goerg Gadamer seems to be describing a culture bump when he writes the following in Truth and Method (1975)
In the field of semantics, in particular, we’re confronted with the problem of the unconscious nature of our own use of language. How do we discover that there is a difference between our own customary usage and that of the text? I think we must say that it is generally the experience of being pulled up short by the text. Either it does not yield any meaning or its meaning is not comparable with what we had expected.
Archer (1988) defines a culture bump as a phenomenon that occurs when an individual has expectations about another person’s behavior within a particular situation, but encounters a different behavior in that situation when interacting with an individual from a different culture. Culture bump theory is concerned with how cultural knowledge is acquired and its effect on intercultural relationships. Gadamer refers to these incidents as “apparent absurdities” (p. 237. The definition of a culture bump as a behavior that one encounters that is different from the behavior that one expects within one’s own cultural parameters fits perfectly with Gadamer’s description of this phenomenon in texts. He also provides a very clear understanding of the cause of being “pulled up short” when he speaks of “fore-meanings that determine my own understanding” (p. 237) In other words, the fore-meanings are comparable to the parameters of expected normative behavior within any one culture. They refer to not only the overt behavior but also the implicit assumptions about why one should behave in a particular manner. Gadamer also provides a basis for considering culture bump analysis to be a window through which individuals may begin to understand their own cultural expectations when he says, “we can break the spell of our own fore-meanings…how can misunderstandings of a text be recognised at all if there is nothing else to contradict” (p. 237-238).
He gives a very clear idea of what is necessary to “break the spell” or intervene on the normal process when he says,
That is why a hermeneutically trained mind must be, from the start, sensitive…but this kind of sensitivity involves neither ‘neutrality’ in the matter of the object nor the extinction of one’s self, but the conscious assimilation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text may present itself in all its newness and thus be able to assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings (p. 238).
Gadamer seems to be saying that in attempting to understand something, one must be aware of one’s own prejudices and that a hermeneutically trained ind does precisely that. However, he does not delineate how a mind can be hermeneutically trained. It is the very process of analyzing one’s own culture bumps that trains one’s mind hermeneutically.
This can be better understood by examining Gadamer’s description of the hermeneutic circle. Gadamer says we must remember
…the hermeneutical rule that we must understand the whole in terms of the detail and the detail in terms of the whole…It is a circular relationship in both cases. The anticipation of meaning in which the whole is envisaged becomes explicit understanding that the parts, that are determined by the whole, themselves also determine the whole (p. 258-259).
This circle is inherent in the culture bump analysis process. The culture bump begins with a specific incident (detail) and proceeds to extrapolate a universal situation out of it (whole). It then moves on to examine one individual’s expectations of a specific cultural behavior (detail) and relates that to a world view norm (whole). The whole process is repeated by questioning an individual from the other culture as to how he or she perceives the universal quality (whole). It can thus be seen that this secondary process then again begins with a whole and moves to a detail or the second individual’s expectations of a specific cultural behavior.
Perhaps one of the most important insights that Gadamer offers pertains to prejudice. He says,
And there is one prejudice of the Enlightenment that is essential to it: the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself, which deprives tradition of its power (p. 238).
Gadamer seems to be saying that the Enlightenment’s reaction against authority led to a general prejudice against accepting any authority’s interpretation and to a reliance on one’s own reasoning. He goes on to ask,
What distinguishes legitimate prejudices from all the countless ones which it is the undeniable task of the critical reason to overcome? If the prestige of authority takes the place of one’s own judgment, then authority is in fact a source of prejudices. But this does not exclude the possibility that it can also sbe a source of truth, and this is what the Enlightenment failed to see when it denigrated all authority (p. 246-247).
Gadamer compares tradition to authority in the same way by saying that the Enlightenment denigrated tradition just as it did authority. He then asks,
Does understanding in the human sciences understand itself correctly when it relegates the whole of its own historicality to the position of prejudices from which we must free ourselves? That there is an element of tradition active in the human sciences, despite the methodological nature of its procedures, an element that constitutes its real nature and is its distinguishing mark, is immediately clear…(p. 251).
The anticipation of meaning that governs our understanding of a text is not an act of subjectivity, but proceeds from the communality that binds us to the tradition (p. 261).
Therefore, if we ask what are the sources of our prejudices, and especially those prejudices which open us to experience, then we must turn to the past, to tradition, and to the proper authority (based on knowledge) which implants these prejudices (p. 130).
Using this definition, culture can be considered to be a proper authority which implants our prejudices. From this perspective, it can be seen that it is unrealistic to attempt to study human sciences from a prejudice-free perspective. In fact, it is by looking to the tradition, or in the culture bump, to one’s own culture, that something traditional or universal can be found with which to relate to the Other.
Therefore, according to Gadamer, it is impossible for a human being to bracket his or her prejudices when trying to investigate in the human sciences, because as he explains in Truth and Method, Man is constitutive of his prejudices. Furthermore, Man’s attempt to be purely objective would be undesirable even if this were possible in as much as it is those prejudices that allow for the possibility of understanding another human being. This can be compared to the process of translating from one language to another. Because an individual has a language (or rather a language is constitutive of who the individual is), he or she is able to translate, i.e. “understand” another language. Thus in translating from English to Spanish, English speakers need to be cognizant of the ways in which their multiple vowel system interferes with their understanding of the five vowel system in Spanish, in the same way that Gadamer (1975) says that an hermeneutical understanding requires that an individual become so conscious of his or her own prejudices that he or she actually assimilates them. Therefore, according to Gadamer, it is necessary that prejudice be rehabilitated. The culture bump reflects this perspective on prejudice in that the process is viewed not as a way of eliminating prejudices, but rather as a way of identifying them, and acknowledging them and thereby removing them from the intersubjective, unconscious status in which they normally exist.
Another aspect of Gadamer’s theory provides an understanding of the culture bump theory’s definition of cultures as the repositories as well as manifestations of tradition. According to Gadamer,
Tradition is not simply a precondition into which we come, but we produce it ourselves, inasmuch as we understand, participate in the evolution of tradition and hence further determine it ourselves. Thus the circle of understanding is not a methodological circle, but instead describes an ontological structural element in understanding. (p. 161).
This understanding is the ultimate goal of culture bump methodology. The intention is for individuals to achieve an ontological understanding not only of themselves, but also of the other person from the contrast culture. The culture bump steps lead the individual who is taken aback by a difference from focusing on the individual from the contrast culture to focusing on his or her own expectations The insights that result from that self-reflective process are then reflected back to the Other. That individual then goes through the same circular reflection process. This process mirrors the hermeneutic circle described earlier.
Archer, C.M. (1991) Living with strangers in the USA: Communicating beyond culture. Englewood Cliffs, NG: Prentice-Hall.
Gadamer, H. G. (1975). Truth and method. London, UK: Sheed and Ward.