Culture, Conceptual Frameworks and Academic Ability: A Biocultural Perspective

Proceedings of the International Conference on The Principles of Multicultural Education, Vaal Triangle Technikon, Vanderbijlpark, South Africa, 5-7 April, 1994.

Author – Raphael Gamaroff

This article overlaps with Multiculturealism in Education – An African View









The two general aims of the South African education system is to regard linguistic/cultural diversity as a resource to be cultivated and to provide a high standard of education that approaches international norms.

Underpinning the whole painful process of the restructuring of education in South Africa is the biocultural commonalities and differences between individuals. In this paper, I emphasise the differences, not in order to undermine the social order nor to provoke those who genuinely suffered under apartheid and/or colonialism, but in order to show some of the problems that have received scant attention in contemporary education theory in South Africa. These problems are closely related to the biocultural variability of individuals.

I describe one of the views expressed in discussions I had with a Xhosa speaking South African educationist at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, where I teach English for academic purposes to second language speakers of English. The discussions occurred during the first few months of 1993. His views are shared by many other black South African academics, some of whom work in the same educational institution as I. I mention the opinion of my informant that is relevant to my topic: conceptual differences between cultures, e.g. western culture versus African culture, one African culture versus another, are a myth (i.e. an exaggeration, fabrication).

The question is whether the view of my informant reflects a grasp of educational realities or is rather a misguided (but understandable) reaction to the injustices of apartheid ideology. In this section I argue that concepts are culturally mediated. This applies not only to cultural groups but also to the “cultural” individual. Individual behaviour is a biocultural phenomenon, i.e. the ramifications of culture have their roots in genetic predispositions. Within the notion of conceptual differences, I make a distinction between ‘”conceptual disparity” and “conceptual relativism” (Wiredu, 1992).


There are many different conceptualisations of culture, which cause wide disagreements within the human sciences. These disagreements need not be incompatible, owing to the fact that they may serve different yet complementary purposes (Van de Vijver and Hutschemaekers, 1990). For example, consider two schools of thought, at opposite extremes. The one school sees culture as a “gestalt”, a “superordinate organiser” (Van de Vijver and Hutschemaekers, 1990:5), where the emphasis is on the conceptual systematisation of behaviour. The other school takes a molecular perspective and regards culture as a summary label of variables such as education, economic and political factors, and so forth (Van de Vijver and Hutschemaekers, 1990:5). Both of these schools should be regarded as complementary, just as in physics (if not in biology) the mole and the molecule are two ways of looking at the same thing.

Bloch (1992:183) defines culture as what needs to be known to operate effectively in a specific environment. Rohner (1984) is more specific than Bloch and defines culture in a non-behaviourist way, as a “system of symbolic meanings”. The emphasis for Rohner is not on social “behaviour” (in the materialist, behaviourist sense; see Johnson-Laird, 1988:17), but rather on how people conceive their behaviour. Rohner’s definition highlights two things:

1. Culture is systematic, i.e. it is concretised in a group;

2. Culture is a way of representing one’s world through thinking.

These definitions resemble museum pieces in that they do not capture the dynamic clashings between cultures. Consider the following definition of culture (from the Curator of the King William’s Town Museum, South Africa, Manton Hirst, 14 June, 1993; personal communication). Hirst remarks: “I tend to opt for a dynamic conception of culture.” Hirst’s definition:

Culture is a mode of communication that expresses and addresses the self and the world, involves both verbal and nonverbal behaviour and not only has logic, but a dialogic of its own.

For my purposes I shall use Rohner’s (1984) definition of culture, (“a system of shared symbolic meanings”) because it is directly related to academic ability.

The emphasis in my definition of culture, as Rohner’s is on thinking. I want to focus on that part of thinking that Cummins and Swain refer to as “cognitive functioning”, which they define as measures involving general intellectual and linguistic skills such as verbal and non-verbal IQ, divergent thinking, academic performance and metalinguistic awareness” (Cummins and Swain, 1996:7). Intelligence, as part of cognitive functioning, tends to be overlooked nowadays in definitions of culture, owing to its links with opinions about racism. But if culture is what people think and do, then surely, how well (intelligently) they do it is also important.


I now want to consider cultural differences (i.e. differences in the way one symbolises and constructs one’s world) in the educational domain. I present one example of how academics who share the same mother tongue (in this case English) can disagree. The example is of lecturers’ judgements in the evaluation of a student’s writing.

When I asked some of my Practical English students at Fort Hare to write a definition of culture, they invariably came up with rote textbook descriptions culled from their other subjects: “Culture refers to the norms and values…” etc. Now, norms and values are the kind of “objective” things that do indeed belong to specific groups, which an individual has to conform to. But let us for a while suspend this traditional definition of culture and consider it anew.

Here is an (uncorrected) extract from an essay of one of my more imaginative Practical English students. The title was “Home is where the hope is”. I have substituted “culture” for “home” in the student’s text:

In a universal perspective home [culture] may be defined as an individual continent or world, where its inner circumstances is perfumed and gorgeoused by the sounding existence of happiness created by freedom of religion, personal custom, uncramped dignity, norms and values. The happiness which permits its development, a compounded feeling which proves itself to be only love which is strong as death, that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually by called by the name is evanescent as a dream.

I asked (separately) two Practical English lecturers and one philosophy lecturer for their judgements. I quote:

First Practical English lecturer: “What a lot of nonsense. It does not make sense.”

Philosophy lecturer: “I like it. I would give it a good mark. A bit flowery

Second Practical English lecturer: “He has imagination. Creative. A good effort.”

(One other lecturer’s comment on the text was “celebration” – it seems that from these lecturers’ comments above that there are two broad ways of looking at text (and life): celebral or cerebral).

I discussed the above student’s passage with the first Practical English lecturer and the philosophy lecturer together. Here are two quotes, one from each of them:

First Practical English lecturer (addressing the philosopher and me): Both of you are philosophers. You are used to extending boundaries. I like to impose them. My training is in the legal field. It is different to yours. I look for the limits of things. You look beyond the limits of things.

Philosophy lecturer: If you think this passage is meaningless you should try Derrida for size.

The first practical English lecturer’s “limits of things” needs closer inspection. According to Popper (1977:268), creative thinking is characterised by the ability to break through the limits of the range – or to vary the range. . This ability, which is critical ability, may be described as critical imagination. It is often the result of culture clash, that is a clash between ideas, of frameworks of ideas. [Original underlining].

Perhaps “clash” is too strong a word, because it connotes not only intensity and passion, but also confrontation, agitation, frenzy. However, a term like the “meeting (of cultures”) suggests that all that is required is a cordial invitation to enter into another’s cultural space (see ” African spaces of culture”, Mudimbe, 1992:382). Unfortunately people (and cultures) not only do not sing the same tune; they very often dislike or are contemptible of songs that differ from theirs. So, I settle for clash.

What I am going to argue is that much thinking-and-talking, especially in the academic domain, involves a clash of cultures, namely different ways of 1. perceiving (“receiving”) the world or 2. constructing the world.

What part of reality is received, i.e. what is “out there”, and what part is constructed, is the big epistemological question. Whatever our assumptions, the fact is that the way we (assume to) know the world is the way we accept it to be.


What I would like to do now is examine some of the translation problems that arise between different language-cultures. Consider Van Niekerk’s (1993:32) view on the translation of conceptual frameworks.

Isn’t the ease with which different cultures and languages seem to be conceivable and expressible in the other’s conceptual framework remarkable? And does not that reveal something of a type of conceptual commonality or constant that is ab initio denied by social relativists?

There are many who would disagree with Van Niekerk’s view that “conceptual frameworks” are easily translatable. One of these is John Sallis (1992:30) who maintains that it “goes without saying, translation is anything but a smooth and efficient circulation between signifiers and signifieds”. According to Verster (1986:15) “some, if not most executive processes may be culturally relative and hence not represented in all populations”. Millar (198H: 157) goes further than Verster by claiming that courses in skills development (e.g. the development of executive processes) pursue the “impossible” because processes such as classifying and hypothesising cannot be taught, but can only develop (i.e. they are part of inborn intelligence). The upshot: 1. Van Niekerk maintains that cultures can adapt with ease to one another’s conceptual frameworks; 2. Verster maintains that many cultures find it difficult to enter into one another’s conceptual space; and 3. Millar’s view is that concepts can only be developed, not acquired (the emphasis in Miller is on the cultural individual).

In order to try and clarify the problem of the translatability of conceptual frameworks, I introduce Wiredu’s distinction between “cultural relativism” and “cultural disparities”. Wiredu (1992: 331) in his description of cultural differences points out that

no sort of conceptual relativism is intended… Conceptual disparities among peoples and cultures, even among individuals in limited environs, is a brute fact of the human situation. Doubtless, this is the source of all sorts of complications in translation, particularly across cultures… But overriding all such problems is the fact, which is surely one of the most remarkable facts about language, that we can understand even what we cannot translate. This is due to the fact that we can learn languages other than that (or those) in which we were brought up. The fundamental fact here is that, because of the biological unity of mankind, any human being can participate or imaginatively enter into any human life form, however initially strange.

By “relativism” Wiredu means that one culture is impermeable to another, and thus never the twain can meet. By cultural “disparity”, Wiredu means that differences exist between cultures. He argues that owing to the biological unity of mankind, it is possible for members of any culture to enter into the space of another culture, no matter how disparate the cultures involved.

Let us now turn to Wiredu’s (to me remarkable) statement that “we can understand even what we cannot translate” (see his description above). The point is that in order to understand another person or culture, one has to have the ability to move from one conceptual framework to another (Van Niekerk above). And this ability means in fact the ability to translate one conceptual framework into another.

I understand translation to mean the (criss-)crossing from one conceptual framework/language to another, which means that translation and understanding hang to together. But for Wiredu, whose understanding of English makes the crossing over from his African language-culture to English language-culture an easy affair, translation has nothing to do with understanding. What Wiredu seems to mean by “translation” is not the entry into, i.e. interpretation of, a different culture/language, but something else, which is not clear to me; perhaps he means the production of a translated text.

Wiredu, a West African, finds It easy to understand “English”, namely because he learnt it (well), and thus presumably from am early age. With Wiredu in mind, we may now be able to understand a little better the Xhosa informant from Fort Hare mentioned earlier, who was opposed to the idea that conceptual differences exist between cultures. My informant, I learnt at a later stage, was educated from early childhood through the medium of English. Therefore, in Wiredu’s terms, his early entry into English makes it (relatively) easy to “participate or imaginatively enter into [the] human life form [of English culture], however initially strange” (Wiredu above). Unfortunately, the children in South Africa, unlike my informant, have not been able to acquire their early childhood education through the medium of English. Therefore, the problem of overcoming conceptual “disparities” looms large in a society like South Africa, where it was an immoral [ity] act for ONE to inseminate the conceptual spaces of the OTHER. I have met many intellectuals in South Africa like my informant whose abhorrence of apartheid blinded him to the sound educational principle of mother tongue instruction, which was encouraged under apartheid. The result: the scientific baby gets thrown out with the political bath water.

What conclusions can I come to in this discussion of cultural relativism versus cultural disparities? I think it is correct to say that certain individuals, no matter what culture they belong to – providing conditions are right – are able to enter into and feel at home in another culture, as Wiredu has done with “Western” culture. However, there are many who have not had the opportunity to enter at an early age (early age is the key in most instances) into a culture that is (radically?) different from their own. Consequently they will not be able to adjust to it, and certainly not be able to thrive in it.

For this reason I find the following passage by Appiah (1992:230) unrealistic:

we have reason to hope that a conversation among discourses, between occupants of this position that, offers the best hope that we shall create as a species the rich intellectual landscape that is essential if we are to understand our universe and our place in it. The multiple discourses of mankind, brought, now by history into mutual consciousness, are not Babel but a chorus (Appiah, 1992:230).

Appiah seems to be talking to and on behalf of his philosophical/literary colleagues, certainly not on behalf of the majority of the children in Africa.

Appiah’s “as a species” implies the same causal connection between Wiredu’s biological unity of mankind (above) and the ability to enter into the conceptual space of any other culture, and to feel at home in it.

Appiah’s comment above elicits the following question: why are some individuals better choristers than babblers? Here we are touching, what I think is a neglected because a sensitive issues in multicultural studies, namely, the biocultural reality of intellectual (academic) variability.


What many religions and Marxism have in common is the belief that all men are equal. However equality is not the same thing as egalitarianism, Christian equality, for example, does not mean that all humans are born with equal intellectual gifts. It means that people should be given the opportunity to develop the specific intellectual gifts they are born with. Marxists believe that humans are born with equal intellectual gifts (Marx himself did not preach this). This dreamworld view explains the reasoning behind the nonsense of the Soviet psychologist Lysenko (prodded on by the politician, Stalin) who claimed that all men are born with equal intelligence. Watson and Dewey (and I would think Wiredu, who follows closely Dewey’s system of thought) have a similar view (Pearson, 1991:96-100). For Lysenko and Stalin it is the environment (economic injustices) – manifested in the class struggle – that determines the degree of development of intelligence. And Stalin (‘s environment) exterminated anyone who disagreed with him.


Harmony among people/s is an ideal that many are striving for. One of the factors that make the achievement of this goal so difficult is the biological and cultural variability of individuals.

Wiredu believes in the biological unity of humankind. And it is because of this biological unity that he believes that anyone can enter into any other cultural space. From the educational point of view, the problem is how to explain the large disparities in academic ability between individuals belonging to the same culture. Are these disparities merely environmental? Millar maintains that one can develop concepts, but cannot acquire them. This seems to mean that there are innate capacities that must have something to do with biology. One of these innate capacities is intelligence. Exactly how intelligence, biology and environment work together is not clear, but there is no doubt that ability is related to inborn capacities, which are different in each person (I’m talking about individuals, not about groups, ethnic or racial). I am not suggesting a (purely) deterministic order, but merely that each individual is “set up” in different ways. And if culture has to do with what one thinks, then culture and intelligence must be built on biological foundations, because the brain and the mind are two sides of the same coin.

Finally, if the new South African order were to reject the reality of the biocultural reality of intellectual (academic) variability, it would be merely cutting off its logical rose to spite somebody else’s political face. Under such conditions the future of South African education, and of social life in general, looks bleak. I hope but must admit that I am very doubtful whether politicians will heed the following warning from the academic Itzkoff (1991:246):

The inability of intellectuals (and politicians] today to think adventurously, thence objectively and dispassionately about the reality of intellectual variability in our world, and about the biocultural implications of this variability for the future lives of innocents yet to be born in our world spells tragedy for the future. (My brackets]. Which reminds me of a political leader from the Eastern Cape who said recently on the television programme “Agenda” concerning the views of his party: “(The party] is only interested in politics, not academics.”


APPIAH, K.A. 1992. Inventing an African practice in philosophy: Epistemological issues. In Mudimbe, V.Y. The surreptitious speech: Presence Africaine and the politics of Otherness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

BLOCH, M. 1991. Language, anthropology and cognitive science. Man, 26:2:183-198.

PEARSON, R. 1991. Race, intelligence and bias in academe. Washington: D.C. Scott-Townsend Publishers.

POPPER, K. 1977. On hypotheses. In: Johnson, P.N. and Wason, P.C. Thinking: Readings in cognitive science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ROHNER, R.P. 1984. Toward a conception of culture. Journal of Cross-cultural psychology, 15(2):111-138.

RORTY, R. 1991. Objectivity, relativism, and truth. Cambridge (New York): Cambridge University Press.

CUMMINS, J. and SWAIN, M. 1986. Bilingualism in education. London: Longman.

SALLIS, J. 1992. Babylonian captivity. Research in Phenomenology, 22:23-31.

GRACE, G.W. 1987. The linguistic construction of reality. London: Croom Helm.

GREGORY, R.L., ed. 1987. Intelligence: The art of good guesswork. In: The Oxford companion to the mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ITZKOFF, S.W. 1991. Human intelligence and national power. New York: Peter Lang.

JOHNSON-LAIRD, P.N. 1988. The computer and the mind: An introduction to cognitive science. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.MILLAR, R. 1988. The pursuit of the impossible. Physical Education. 23:156-159).

MUDIMBE, V.Y. 1992. The surreptitious speech: Presence Africaine and the politics of Otherness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

VAN DE VIJVER, F.J.R. and HUTSCHEMAEKERS, G.J.M. 1990. The investigation of culture: Current issues in cultural psychology. Tilburg: Tilburg University Press.

VAN NIEKERK, A.1993. Relativism versus ethnocentrism. South African Journal of philosophy, 12(2):31-37.VERSTER, 3.M. 1986. Cognitive competence in Africa and models of information processing. Pretoria. HSRC Report NIPR PERS 411.WIREDU, K. 1992. Formulating modern thought in African languages: Some theoretical considerations. (In: Mudimbe, V.Y. The surreptitious speech: Presence Africaine and the politics of Otherness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.)

2 responses to “Culture, Conceptual Frameworks and Academic Ability: A Biocultural Perspective

  1. Pingback: The Warp and the Woof Hypothesis: Translation, transflation and betrayal « OneDaringJew

  2. Pingback: Translation, transflation and betrayal: Plato’s Gorg(i)as « OneDaringJew

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