Cultural Impact on Politics

Cultural Impact on Politics

Political action does not take place in a separate realm and so is always influenced by cultural concerns, forces, developments, history, and so on. Political activity is intended to gain a consensus on what action government should take, which involves the arts of education, persuasion, and compromise. The form of the society shapes the way politics is pursued in that society, and this occurs at several levels. A social order can be matriarchal or patriarchal, which would represent how gender is manifested in political action. The form of government has an influence, with political action being different for a democracy as opposed to a more authoritative system. The prevalent religion may affect politics, more so in a theocratic system than one that tries to separate politics and religion, though even in the latter case religion has an influence. Leadership style affects politics, with some styles being more authoritative and so restrictive of political action, while others are more freewheeling and so encouraging to political action. Indeed, arguably the leadership style that is found in a society is one of the best indicators of what sort of politics the society will manifest, for a democratic leader emerges from a very different sort of political structure than a dictator. Different types of leadership and different social structures will be considered as they impact politics.


Gender identifies certain types of leadership within certain specific types of social order. A female-dominated social order is a matriarchy, and a male-dominated order is a patriarchy. The patriarchy is the dominant form of society in most of the world, and usually this calls for an aggressive style of leadership, often with war-like tendencies, and usually in a social order in which women are relegated to a secondary status and may be treated as property more than as fellow citizens. History shows many such societies, including our own, with a trend over time in the West toward increased equality, though without altering the basically male competitive political structure.

For instance, early America derived from the patriarchal form prevalent in Europe, and though this would change over time as women achieved greater degrees of equality, the political structures of the time were largely patriarchal and would remain so in some ways until the granting of women's suffrage:

Patriarchy was the organizing principle of family life. Parents, ministers, and magistrates instructed young people that they had a duty to marry and multiply. Sometimes parents arranged pairings; increasingly, young people chose their own spouses. Either way, the vast majority of young men and women consented to enter into a fixed marriage contract that granted a husband nearly absolute authority over his wife's body, behavior, and property. A husband's authority was supported by the law of coverture, which specified that a husband legally "covered" or subsumed his wife's identity: he ruled her in private and spoke for her in public. Ideally, a husband treated his wife as a partner but, clearly, he was the senior partner. He governed family morality, managed family property and labor, and supervised children's upbringing and education as well as represented female family members and other dependents in counting houses, courts, and government offices (Kann, 1999, p. 4).

Starrat (1993) notes that there is a biological component to this sort of social order as the "underpinnings of patriarchy are buttressed by biological metaphors which culturally sanction male dominance because of inherent biological differences where males are superior biologically" (p. 72). One reading of patriarchy suggests that it emerges as a natural consequence of supposed male biological superiority in terms of size and strength, while another reading shows that patriarchy is dependent on achieving the oppression of females by making females inferior and keeping them from advancing. The elevation of the male is usually accompanied by the suppression of the female in any case.

Certainly, this colors the concept of politics by making the male the natural participant in politics and by denying that role to the female, a theme repeated in society after society. In our own society, for instance, women were treated as chattel and were not given the right to vote or even to participate in most commerce outside the home. Many see this as a universal situation, while others raise doubts. Harris (1983) considers the issue of whether male supremacy is universal. This question is at the heart of the gender-role shifts taking place in Western societies, with the view that the traditional social structure saw male supremacy as a given while contemporary Western society is at least questioning that idea if not becoming openly antithetical to it. Harris cautions that it is not possible to go from the statement that women are subordinate as regards political authority in most societies to the statement that women are subordinate in all respects in all societies (Harris, 1983, p. 252). Leacock (1978) further notes that the very concepts of equality and inequality may be an ethnocentric misunderstanding Westerners bring to an analysis of sex roles in non-Western societies (p. 247).

One of the most important ethnographic researcher offering data on sex roles and gender socialization was Margaret Mead, who conducted research in Samoa in the 1930s and further research later in New Guinea. Mead carried her research over into Western civilization and could write in 1949:

There has long been a habit in Western civilization of men to have a picture of womanhood to which women reluctantly conformed, and for women to make demands on man to which men adjusted even more reluctantly. This has been an accurate picture of the way in which we have structured our society, with women as keepers of the house who insist that men wipe their feet on the door-mat, and men as keepers of women in the house who insist that their wives should stay modestly within-doors (Mead, 1949, p. 296).

Mead in 1950 reported on three New Guinea tribes existing within a one-hundred-mile area. She found that the ideologies concerning sex roles were quite different among the three in spite of their relative proximity. The Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tschambuli showed in their attitudes that how people think about being masculine or feminine is highly variable and is determined by culture rather than by some absolute of biology. The Arapesh showed gender role differences, but no basic temperamental differences were thought to exist between males and females. Neither men nor women were found to be driven by spontaneous sexuality, and while violence was tolerated, it was not linked with either sex. Men were expected to be gentle, unacquisitive, and cooperative, and women were taught to accept anything out of the ordinary without showing curiosity. From childhood, women were discouraged from asking questions about anything unusual and from engaging in speculative thought. Boys, on the other hand, were encouraged to think speculatively. Among the Mundugumor, very different attitudes concerning sex and gender were found. This tribe consisted of headhunters and cannibals. The life of the male was a life of fighting, characterized by the competitive acquisition of women through warfare. The people thought that there was a natural hostility between members of the same sex, so the inheritance of most property crossed sex boundaries in each generation, from father to daughter and mother to son. Both males and females were raised to have violent social personalities and to place no value on sensuality. This began at birth -- breastfeeding of infants was performed in a utilitarian way, with no hint of pleasure, and nursing was only to give out food and never to comfort the child from fright or pain. The third group in the region, the Tschambuli, made a distinction for personality differences between men and women. These expectations differed from role expectations such as would be found in North America, but they also differed from the Arapesh and Mundugumor. This tribe preferred marriages in which a man had many wives, and ancestry was traced through the men of the family exclusively. Men owned property and officially "owned" their wives, but at the same time women in practice held the main power in society, made most of the economic decisions, and took the initiative in social life. For instance, the women were socialized to be sexually aggressive, while the men were not (Crapo, 1993, p. 197).

It should not be assumed that a matriarchy would simply be an inversion of the patriarchy, for this is not generally the case. One definition offered for a matriarchy is that it is "that form of social organization in which descent is reckoned through the female line, where the mother is the head of the household and the children belong to the maternal clan" (Fluehr-Lobban, 1979, p. 341). Others se this definition as referring only to a matrilineal society, while they state that a matriarchy also requires "that power and authority be exercised by the women in decisions concerning community and foreign relations, social standards and values, including the sexual conduct of the men" (Jay, 1996, para. 3). At…