Neil Tambe

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I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

How Cultures Form, Part I - Frameworks for Culture

A few weeks ago, I contested that in the ways that matter most, Detroit doesn't have a "culture." In brief, I argued that Detroit's culture (if it has one) couldn't be articulated uniquely, even if one tried to do so. Moreover, I suggested that at best Detroit may have sub-cultures, but because those sub-cultures did not have common themes / values / artifacts / practices that it would be incorrect to say that there was a culture for Detroit as a whole. While that post was an interesting point, it was obviously reductionist and critical, and I think that's important to do. But now, I'd like to present a few simple ideas on what to do, if we assume two things: 1) Detroit doesn't have a culture, and, 2) Detroit should have a culture.

What is a culture? lt's surprising how difficult and inconsistent definitions of "culture" are. I mean it in the context of organizational culture, and I'll put forth one I found here, which is:

"A set of understandings or meanings shared by a group of people that are largely tacit among members and are clearly relevant and distinctive to the particular group which are also passed on to new members (Louis 1980)."

There's also a widely accepted model from Schein which breaks culture into three levels: artifacts, beliefs / norms, and assumptions. I pulled a nice graphic explaining this from a blogger named Patrick Dunn. You can see his original post here:

But, the more important question here is, how do cultures form?

How Cultures Form I've done a bit of research on the question of how cultures form and have done my own thinking on the matter. How cultures form is surprisingly simple. Generally speaking, it's a three-step process. I use the term cultural idea to include representations of culture at any level of Schein's model - artifact, belief / norm, or assumption. Think of a cultural idea as a value, a physical object, belief, a way of thinking, language, or anything else that represents a's a broad, inclusive term:


  1. Express Cultural Idea - The process starts by someone expressing an idea through some medium...whether it is a belief, an object, an action, a document etc.
  2. Share Cultural Idea - The process continues when cultural ideas are shared within the group where the culture is forming. As more people accept and internalize the cultural idea, the culture grows
  3. Form new Cultural Ideas - Once a cultural idea is expressed, people form new ideas which contest or reinforce other cultural ideas. Once shared, the process starts again. With each cycle, prevailing cultural ideas become reinforced. The ideas that get reinforced the most become part of the culture

Note that this process of Express -> Share -> Form has to be isolated from other cultures. Without some means of isolation or boundary between the group in question and others, cultural ideas wouldn't be able to reinforce each other. In Detroit this is a geographic boundary from say New York, or Chicago. Unless there's some separation from other cultures, no unique culture can form.

Also, note that for cultures to form, there's activity or structure required to move from step to step. I'll call these mechanisms Interaction Channels. These interaction channels provide the human interaction needed for cultures to form. In other words, if culture doesn't form in a vacuum and requires interactions between people, then there has to be different mechanisms to interact with other people. The mechanisms in these channels different types of interactions required for cultural formation: transmission of cultural ideas, dissemination of cultural ideas, and reflection on cultural ideas.


  • Transmission of cultural ideas - ideas have to get out of peoples' heads to be able to form and shape culture. Some example mechanisms for transmission are: blogging, social events, art, conversations, strategic plans, interactions in public spaces, mission statements, etc.
  • Dissemination of cultural ideas - ideas have to be amplified to reach the critical mass of awareness to be able to influence culture. Some example mechanisms for dissemination are: mass media, press events, word-of-mouth, social media, community organizing, etc.
  • Reflection of cultural ideas - ideas have to evolve and refine for some ideas to reinforce the prevailing culture. In other words, people can express ideas that they never reflect on and form in their heads. Some example mechanisms for reflection are: journeys into nature, community dialogue, third spaces, social media, and story telling.

Interaction channels could also take a few forms. Check out a list (e.g., rites, rituals, gestures) here.

How To Form Culture in Detroit - A Teaser So, to form a culture in Detroit (or anywhere) it's is simple and complicated as fostering these expressing, sharing, & forming behaviors, and, building up interaction channels. In the next post in this series I'll diagnose what aspects of the cultural formation framework in Detroit are weak, and which are strong. From there, I'll prescribe specific steps that an be taken to improve Detroit's ability to form a vibrant, common, and distinct culture.

Please do say hello: neil.tambe[at]gmail[dot]com