Acorn Ideas

Issue No. 45, June 2016

Culture – Understanding its Impact on Business and Community Engagement

Making the distinctive “Local Content – Global Content” brand of consulting work requires understanding the importance of culture to business ventures in emerging markets. So it’s fitting for us to reflect briefly on how culture influences both business and social systems, what recent trends we are seeing in integrating cultural considerations in emerging good practices for social performance, and how we can strengthen our own knowledge to better manage social risks.

Let’s start with a definition or two. An early observer of the social aspects of culture, 19th century sociologist Edward Tylor, wrote that “Culture is that complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by a human being as a member of society”1. Sociologists such as Karl Marx (more on him later), and more recently, Wendy Griswold, popularized a view that no such capabilities or habits are cultural unless and until they are applied in a social context. Griswold noted that an object is not a "cultural" object until it enters "the circuit of human discourse2" (Griswold 2013).

The notion that culture needs social interaction to give it meaning is proving helpful to us in understanding how culture influences business ventures at a fundamental level. Even writers with polarized perspectives on business share complementary views of how culture impacts enterprise. While Marx asserted 150 years ago that culture in the work place is constructed by the ruling class to repress workers, many of today’s leading management authors highlight the importance of building corporate culture to driving strong business performance3.

A deeper appreciation for the importance of culture to business ventures helps us at Acorn International better understand the importance of culture to more personal and social dynamics. As we learn more about the successes and failures of engaging host communities for development projects, we’re seeing how the socialization of culture influences community behavior just as it influences behavior in a business setting. Specifically, we’re developing a greater appreciation for how culture, as expressed through the “circuit of human discourse”:

  • shapes common beliefs and patterns of behavior,
  • produces constructs for understanding how to value and preserve what those communities hold dear, and
  • illuminates pathways for turning potential conflict into consensus.

And fortunately, we are seeing emerging examples of good practice guidance for integrating the concept of culture in the social context into methods to better understand and manage challenging social performance issues for investors and industries entering emerging markets worldwide.

Here are three recent examples:

  • Culture in Defining Indigeneity – The International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standard (Number 7) defines indigenous peoples as social groups with identities (cultures) that are distinct from mainstream groups in national societies, and who are often marginalized and vulnerable segments of the population. Their cultures and social systems are also closely linked to specific lands. The United Nation’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples also recognizes the right of groups to declare themselves as indigenous, and maintains that accepted criteria for what defines indigeneity can help preserve the integrity of the most traditional and vulnerable groups. In addition to language and links to land, a community’s propensity to maintain its distinct, traditional culture is an important part of what makes a people ‘Indigenous’. The social construct of culture defines indigeneity distinctly from the biological constructs of race and ethnicity.
  • Biocultural Heritage – Appreciation and guidance is emerging for the need to preserve cultural value that is tied to the connection of a community with the biological / ecological resources on which it depends. In this sense, respecting and avoiding harm to a host community’s culture requires understanding and preserving its ability to interact with the ecosystem services (water supply, soil, fauna, for example) on which that community depends. This is particularly important in indigenous or traditional communities whose identities are closely linked with the physical environment in which they reside. (See:
  • Fourth Leg of Sustainability – The Johannesburg statement on sustainable development in 2001 called for the recognition of culture as a fourth leg of sustainability (Walton & Wood 2013). Elevating culture as a fundamental element of sustainability has become increasingly popular in recent years. This reflects a greater appreciation for how people use land and resources and how they think about landscapes in a broad cultural sense.

Too often we think of ‘culture’ as human intellectual manifestations in the arts or similar fields. More fundamentally, though, it is something that is all around us, taking form and having meaning through the social interactions on which it depends. We all ‘think’ it, we behave within its constraints and we interpret others’ behavior according to how we define it. Culture in this sense entails the collective beliefs, values and ways of behaving that define one group of people against another. We take it for granted; we expect others to align with it; and we are surprised when people from other groups behave in different ways.

The social application of culture in this sense extends into everything: the language we speak, the way we dress, the food we eat, our relations with others, kin and non-kin, who and how we marry, how we raise children. It defines how we view our worlds and how we make decisions about what is of value to us. Understanding the social context of culture helps us engage with communities worldwide in deeper, more meaningful and more successful dialogues that yield sustainable relationships and alignments. And that’s a goal for which we’ll continue to strive.


1 See Tylor, Edward B. Primitive Culture. 1871.

2 See Grisold, Wendy. Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. 2013.

3 See, for example, Coleman, John. “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture.” Harvard Business Review. May 6, 2013. Accessed at


Issue 44 -Not Too Technical
Issue 43 -Myanmar - Another step in the transition
Issue 42 -Meeting expectations in human rights reporting - a delicate balance
Issue 41 -FPIC Is Here To Stay
Issue 40 -A Multi-Stakeholder Partnership in Ghana: Marine and Fisheries Management
Issue 39 -The Colombian Social Responsibility Framework: An Evolving Model
Issue 38 -Social Network
Issue 37 -A Community Look-back on Ebola
Issue 36 -Ghana and the Voluntary Principles: Implementing the Human Rights Protection Framework
Issue 35 -Inundation
Issue 34 -Colombia: Local Hiring Requirement for O&G Industry
Issue 33 -Mature and Frontier Mining Geographies: Where does Greater Risk (and Reward) Reside?
Issue 32 -Local Content in Mining: Increasing Expectations and Potential Solutions
Issue 31 -Fast Money Beware: Non-Technical Risk Due Diligence
Issue 30 -Social and Environmental Performance - Considerations for Difficult Commodity Price Environments
Issue 29 -A Window into the Opposing View - Stakeholder Concerns about Oil and Gas in Mexico
Issue 28 -Why Non-Technical Risks Matter to the Mexican Apertura
Issue 27 -Equator Principles:Drivers of Sustainability in the Oil and Gas Industry?
Issue 26 -The Transparency Tightrope: Examining UNEP’s New Access to Information Policy
Issue 25 -July 2014: Bouston
Issue 24 - July 2014: Land Tenure and Property Rights - Where Legal Compliance May Not Be Enough
Issue 23 - May 2014: 3 Things I Learned in Mexico - Non-technical Risks in the Oil Industry
Issue 22 - April 2014: Capacity Building on Stakeholder Engagement
Issue 21 - March 2014: Above-ground Facilities and Stakeholder Engagement: Deploying the 'CAC'
Issue 20 - March 2014: A Starting Point for Shared Equity
Issue 19 - March 2014: What It Takes to Run a Great Consulting Firm
Issue 18 - February 2014: Considering Human Rights - Trends and Lessons in Oil and Gas Impact Assessments
Issue 17 - June 2013: Managing Environmental Health in International Development Projects
Issue 16 - January 2013: Integrating Environmental and Social Performance throughout the Project Lifecycle
Issue 15 - January 2013: The State of Shale Play in 2013
Issue 14 - August 2012: Building Environmental and Social Governance in Host Countries
Issue 13 - May 2012: Human Rights and Business: A New Era
Issue 12 - February 2012: Extractive Industries Confront Pressure for Greater Transparency
Issue 11 - January 2012: Key Updates to the IFC Sustainability Policy and Performance Standards
Issue 10 - June 2011: Oil & Gas and NGOs: New Rules of Engagement?
Issue 9 - February 2010: Annual Study of Sustainable Development Priorities
Issue 8 - January 2009: Annual Study of Sustainable Development Priorities
Issue 7 - May 2008: Top Ten Lessons Learned About Health Impact Assessment
Issue 6 - January 2008: Annual Study of Sustainable Development Priorities
Issue 5 - September 2007: Results of web forum with our International Partners
Issue 4 - January 2007: Annual Study of Sustainable Development Priorities
Issue 3 - May 2006: Suggestions and tips for safe international travel
Issue 2 - January 2006: Annual Study of Sustainable Development Priorities
Issue 1 - November 2005: The Top 10 “unspoken" criteria for determining the success of EIAs


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