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  • Writer's pictureThea Le Fevre

What is Cultural Embeddedness? And How to Find Freedom from it

One is Impossible Without the Other

A language is determined by its culture. Likewise, culture can greatly affect our language. It defines and, over long periods, redefines a society's identity.

To accomplish defining a society's identity, it must first define each individual's personhood. Uno es imposible sin el otro (One is impossible without the other.). People comprise society. Fun stuff, right? Just wait. We've got loads more.

Here at ReDefiners World Languages, we open the door to new languages, new-to-you ways of being, and fresh perspectives influenced by different social norms. Learning a new language entails learning a new culture. To understand this new culture, you must first understand how your view has already been influenced.

Similar to how society can't exist without people, language couldn't have developed without a culture. And just like language couldn't have developed without culture, your cultural lens wouldn't exist if you weren't already embedded in your own culture. If you weren't already embedded in your own culture, you would never develop cultural and ethical relativism. If you never developed cultural or ethical relativism then good news! You’re in the clear. If you did develop either of these, you may be at risk of plunging into the nether regions of nationalism or ethnocentrism. Not to say that all people embedded in their own cultures will take the plunge, but there is proof that enough do.

Listed below are all of the things you need to know to unpack the previous paragraphs, make sense of the new culture you're studying, and avoid any mishaps along the way.

This is an image of an infographic that defines five terms. From top to bottom, these terms are "Shared Meaning," "Embeddedness," "Cultural Lens," "Cultural Relativism," and "Nationalism." Shared Meaning is "To use the same language and understand each other's perspectives." Embeddedness "entails that actors' preferences can only be understood and interpreted within relational, institutional, and cultural contexts." Cultural Lens is where "You visualize and interpret the world through the lens of all the meaning you share with other people who come from your culture." Cultural Relativism is where "The values, knowledge, and behavior of people must be understood within their own context." Finally, Nationalism is where "The individual's loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests.
Here are some important terms to keep in mind

Culture: Shared Meaning

Culture is fluid. It spans geographic regions and time. It's a set of religious and social norms, such as a shared language or shared practices. Shared meaning is created by simply being within proximity to one another.

In its simplest terms, “shared meaning” is to use the same language and understand each other's perspectives. We can break down what it means to share meaning with one another as well. "Shared" is something experienced by two or more people. "Meaning," in communicative terms, is a message distributed to a recipient or listener via a common language (verbal or nonverbal).

To have a culture, you must have symbols that represent common or shared meanings. Art, music, and literature are cultural forms of expression specific to a particular area. The souls of the people. Their lives. Their understanding of one another and themselves. Their declaration of who they are and how they perceive the world.

To share culture and common meanings is the general advantage of anyone born and raised in one particular country. Of course, by teaching one another, we can learn the meaning of something until it is shared. Yet you can construct the argument that to be taught is not to know. However, we can counter that thought because to know sometimes prevents you from learning.


What if you only ever ate one thing. Your whole life. Now, imagine eating a second thing for the first time. You wouldn't know what to think! Your palette has only experienced one flavor for the entirety of your existence. The only way to see if you like it is to follow your senses. Within seconds your taste buds will send a positive or negative reaction to your brain, telling your face how to respond. Your mind can barely catch up. That's embeddedness.

In more technical terms, embeddedness means you only have one framework- one way of understanding. Embeddedness entails that actors' preferences can only be understood and interpreted within relational, institutional, and cultural contexts. This means that whatever it is, you are within it.

Cultural Embeddedness and Your Cultural Lens

Your cultural lens has everything to do with your cultural embeddedness. It's the rose-colored glasses you view the world with. It might be more optimistic than realistic. Sadly, that's the only lens you can see. It's attached to your cornea like a contact lens.

You visualize and interpret the world through the lens of all the meaning you share with other people who come from your culture. It's that framework with which you view how something was built, sung, executed. It helps shape how you think of strange new things. Your cultural lens exists because you are embedded within your own culture. You could not have a cultural lens without being culturally embedded.

So, what exactly does this mean for someone who wants to step outside of what they know? Can you share meaning from outside of that culture when you have a completely different lens? Does knowing prevent you from learning? Or can you learn to overcome your cultural lens?

Cultural and Ethical Relativism

Cultural relativism refers to the idea that the values, knowledge, and behavior of people must be understood within their own cultural context. Embeddedness impedes the study of other societies because of cultural relativism. It is difficult to pull oneself outside of one's culture without first working toward seeing beyond one's lens.

Cultural and ethical relativism go hand in hand. Ethical relativism insists that morality is relative to the norms of one's culture. In many countries, it is linked to the various faiths dominating that particular area's moral landscape. It isn't primarily faith-based as many would assume, though. It is culture-based. Your culture defines your social norms.

Nationalism Around the Globe

This is an image of the sky with a pair of hands. The sky is blue and partly cloudy. The palms face the camera, and they have a map of the wrold painted across both of them.
What is Nationalism?

Nationalism is universal. It is defined as believing that the individual's loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests.

All of us who analyzed the media on both sides of the fence during this last US presidential election have heard of White Nationalists. They are mostly considered a hate group - which is only rightfully so - that rejects those with different skin colors or nationalities. They use their voting power and freedom of speech to further racist, extremist agendas. Unfortunately, America is not alone.

Canada has struggled through its many wars and international influences to secure its own identity. South America has a long history of similar concerns. Cultural nationalism was associated with conservatives who cherished the Iberian heritage as a shield against corrupting Anglo-Saxon influences.

In the 21st century, Europe's nationalist political landscape has evolved into a forceful love of country – that defies acceptance of multiculturalism.

In the same breath, Asian nationalisms have deployed historical memories and myths, belief in a shared ethnicity, links to a territorial homeland, and shared cultural characteristics … to create a sense of common identity, purpose, and responsibility.

In Africa, identity-based politics was transformed into an often violent politics of belonging, identifying some ethnic and racial groups as more fully national than others. Cultural imperialism has existed in Africa for centuries, though it is hard to tell where it first began.

Australia's political landscape fares no better. The nationalist party leader in Australia is best known for her views against various minority groups over time, including indigenous Australians, Asians, and most recently, Muslims. It should sadden us all how much popularity she's gaining.

Ethnocentrism Vs. Nationalism

Ethnocentrism, as sociologist William Graham Sumner (1906) described the term, involves a belief or attitude that one's own culture is better than all others and should therefore serve as the standard frame of reference. So what is the difference between ethnocentrism and nationalism?

When comparing definitions, some dissimilarities come to mind alongside their immediately recognizable commonalities. Nationalism is focused on one identity that is entirely linked to the nation to which one belongs. It’s where one places their values and norms associated with the society they are embedded in above all others.

Likewise, ethnocentrists believe their culture is above all others. However, they think "my judgment from within a culture is, from my point of view, all there can be, and so must perversely be the grounds of universal judgment." Herein lies the fundamental and defining difference.

So here we are. We have clarified the prevalence of nationalism across the globe and defined its difference from ethnocentrism. It's time to analyze the effects of both on society at large.

The Effects of Ethnocentrism on Society

Many topics demonstrate how polarizing ethnocentrism can be (particularly when one culture analyzes another). Today, we will focus on a discussion with many similarities across a multitude of cultures - modesty. Let's dive right in.

"If it's all the responsibility of the woman to keep the man ‘in check’ through what she wears, then if he crosses the line, doesn't that suggest she's at fault somehow?"

Ah, yes. An assumption from one who cannot understand the other. Read the article further, and you'll see that it's an American woman trying to understand American modesty culture without first examining her lens. Now, this does not make her argument less worthy of consideration. It only reflects that she is embedded in her own modesty culture.

Yet, despite this particular woman's views, there are many more women in America with opposing opinions. In 2019, the store saw sales of midi dresses go up by 152%, as well as a 33% increase in the sale of ankle-length trousers. And that's just America.

Modesty culture extends to every country on the planet, but the one most globally known for its deep feelings toward covering hair, face, and skin is the Middle East. To some Muslim women, headscarves are a sign of religious identity and liberation.

This is a picture of a woman wearing a green scarf with a leaf pattern around her head, with only her eyes and the bridge of her nose visible. She's using the middle finger on her right hand to draw back the scarf, revealing a small amount of brown hair.
People have different views of modesty depending on their culture.

Modesty is often tied to religious values and ideas about femininity and masculinity. Sometimes, those ideas can be challenged as one culture is exposed to another. Cultural globalization, a modern phenomenon, sometimes challenges a faith community's very identity and the culture it's embedded in.

Cultural Globalization

There is now a global and common mono-culture – transmitted and reinforced by the internet, popular entertainment, transnational marketing of particular brands, and international tourism – that transcends local cultural traditions and lifestyles.

American culture has permeated the air. It's your food. Your clothes. Your technology. It doesn't dominate everywhere, but it's certainly tried to. American culture has spanned oceans, airways, radio waves, and the internet. It's difficult to avoid and highly sought after.

As much as embeddedness may tell an American that US culture is the end-all-be-all, it is not. Given the strength of local cultures, it is difficult to argue that an overarching global culture exists.

Each culture, native to a particular region and flourishing, may be influenced by a macro-culture, but it is still itself. There is no one unifying culture at this point in history. This is why recognizing your embeddedness and looking beyond your cultural lens is incredibly important.

This is where ReDefiners can help.

Let's Change the World

Let’s say you're learning a second (or maybe third!) language. You would like to learn Arabic. You want to visit Egypt. You want to meld with the culture. Explore the city. Eat their exciting food and enjoy their ancient monuments.

First, keep in mind that their culture requires a new lens. To change your lens, you must first recognize your embeddedness and strive to find freedom from it. Otherwise, you're getting dangerously close to the previously discussed adverse effects. (That would include cultural relativism and even nationalism in extreme cases.)

Remember, you are exploring their land because it is unfamiliar to you. You can't explore what is already known. The food is exciting because you have yet to taste it. The riches of their culture lay in wait, as long as you approach them respectfully. But how would you know how to do that?

Here at ReDefiners, we emphasize that you learn. We can help you start. Discover the language, and you'll open the door to that community's world.

We offer virtual language classes for kids and adults, after school courses for children, and in-person language classes for adults. Immerse your whole family and dedicate yourselves to this new adventure: inclusivity and mental expansion via education.

Reap the benefits of enlarging your heart to include those of different cultures. Finding the value in other perspectives may enhance what you value within yourself. For more information, please visit the ReDefiners website or email us at

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