Tag Archives: anthropology

lost in translation – social media and hamlet

“One can easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular.”♦

You probably remember reading it in Intro to Anthropology: Shakespeare in the Bush by Laura Bohannon. It’s the story of a young anthropologist’s attempt to prove the universal nature of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, by introducing the story to the elders of the Tiv in West Africa.

(It’s short, funny, and really worth a re-read — or a first read! Go ahead! I’ll wait!)

I’ve been thinking about how the task of introducing (and evangelizing) social media to the non-engaged population is at heart an attempt to translate the values and mores of one culture to another.

Social media practitioners try to explain the value of blogging, or podcasting, or social networking, to traditional media types, and are met with a number of cultural barriers.

I protested that human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over; …although some details of custom might have to be explained and difficulties of translation might produce other slight changes.♦

Then, when traditional media types try to engage in social media, they carry with them the values and mores of their culture.

“But a chief must have many wives! How else can he brew beer and prepare food for all his guests?”♦

Hilarity ensues.

When I went to re-read the essay I remembered from Anthro 101, I also came across this insightful thought-piece on Shakespeare in the Bush by Kerim Friedman on the group anthropology blog Savage Minds.

In it, Kerim wonders if the author’s failure to translate Hamlet to the Tiv was really due to insurmountable cultural differences, or did it have more to do with the specific audience she was addressing: the respected elders of the tribe.

Kerim speculates that Bohannon might have found a more receptive audience had she first addressed the younger members of the tribe, or those of lower status:

In other words, I don’t think it is simply a case of the Tiv failing to understand Hamlet. Rather, I suspect that these elders perceive Bohannon’s narrative as a threat and are eager to “correct” her in order to neutralize that threat, whereas children or other members of the society less threatened by narratives suggesting alternative social structures would have had considerably less trouble understanding Bohannon’s retelling of Hamlet.

…there is nothing specific about Tiv society which prevents them from understanding Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but her storytelling is frustrated by the “will to ignorance” of the elders. Sure, even Tiv children would have been confused by many aspects of the story, just as American children are, but I’m simply suggesting that they might not have rejected the very premise of the story in the way that the elders did.

Are some CEOs and other corporate decision-makers, reluctant to embrace social media, like the Tiv elders? Threatened by an alternative social structure? Too hasty to dismiss or “correct” ambassadors from a foreign nation bearing strange tales of murder and intrigue? Perhaps a little.

“Sometime,” concluded the old man, gathering his ragged toga about him, “you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.”♦

Are social media enthusiasts, eager to persuade and even evangelize their audience, like the young anthropologist Laura Bohannon? Underestimating or even misidentifying the differences in cultural idiom between her world and theirs? Perhaps a little.

I was quite sure that Hamlet had only one possible interpretation, and that one universally obvious.♦

What’s important, I think, is that we remember that we, as promoters of social media, are essentially anthropologists and translators. Or rather, we should be. We need to be very conscious of what the (vast and growing) cultural differences are between the (open, transparent) blogosphere and social networking world and the traditional (closed, careful) business and nonprofit world.

“You should sit and drink with us more often. Your servants tell me that when you are not with us, you sit inside your hut looking at a paper.”♦

What do you do to try to bridge the cultural gap?

Bohannon, Laura (1971), from Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, eds. James P. Spradley and David W. McCurdy Boston: Little Brown and Company.