The Big Idea
In shorthand, this paper is both WEIRD and weird. In longhand, it is about the impact of cultural constraints on motor habits. In a sentence: It is weird that the scientific community regularly assumes that Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) peoples are solely representative of humankind.
This paper by Blandine Bril was published in Kinesiology Review in 2018. Bril’s question is a simple one: Are there “motor styles” common to members of a given cultural group? Her answer is “Yes.” She argues that as our perspective shifts from WEIRD to worldwide cultural people markers, we see that similar motoric constraints generate widely diverse adaptations and strategies.
- There is a kind of widespread blindness toward the impact of culture on human movement possibilities.
- Much of the blame for this Western-leaning situation is a lack of collaboration between cultural anthropologists and other research communities.
- While the anthropologists show little interest in motor skills as instrumental human action, kinesiology researchers show little interest in the cultural diversity of human movement.
- The question then is to what extent culture shapes movement?
- If culture does impact daily life skills and proficiencies, it follows that our adult athletic performance abilities can be influenced by culture-specific daily life skills in childhood.
- Four illustrations of culture-specific daily life skills are discussed to represent variations in human movement behavior.
- They include: pottery making, pivot turns in dancing, load carrying, and posture.
- Given the remarkable diversity between cultures on problem solving such movement life skills, Bril’s conclusion is that Western motor skills do not represent the full potential for humankind motor skills.
- The implication is that when it comes to facing the myriad of environmental constraints in sports performance, cross-cultural movement patterns add significantly to the degrees of freedom in constraint problem solving for players and coaches of sports.
If we want to solve a motor task, there is more to it than morphological and biomechanical factors. For example, in one classical anthropological study, G. H. Hewes (1955) classified different postural habits from 480 different cultural groups. At the time Hewes called out “physiologists, anatomists and orthopedists, to say nothing of specialists in physical education, (to) have dealt exhaustively with a few ‘ideal’ postures—principally the fairly rigid attention stance beloved of the drill-master, and student’s and stenographer’s habits of sitting at desks.” Regrettably, says Bril, among non-anthropologists, cross-cultural studies of postures and movements continues to be neglected today.
Why the weird neglect?
Why is there so little collaboration between anthropologists and the larger scientific community? For the most part, anthropologists look at bodily human movement primarily as having primarily only cultural significance. Hence these researchers focus mostly on dance, communicative gestures, and gestural language within and between cultures. They give little attention to broader and everyday motor skills in the play of instrumental action.
In kinesiology, on the other hand, movement science researchers are primarily focused on the way human beings use and control their bodies in goal-oriented actions, including the popular determination to understand the mechanisms of these actions. They are less interested in the cultural diversity of bodily movement, posture, and tool use in everyday living.
Like two ships passing in the night, Bril laments that questions of culture are referred to the anthropologists; questions of movement are taken up by the specializations in kinesiology: psychology, physiology, physiology, and neuroscience. Her overall aim is to get these two research populations to start talk to one another.
Real life proficient skills
Bril, citing the pioneering work of A. van der Niet (in Sierra Leone), argues that there is a remedy for this radical split in research directions. It is van der Niet’s view that culture shapes daily life skills and proficiencies “in a rhythm and timing of bodily movement specific to the culture.” The significance of this position is that our adult athletic skill acquisition is quite possibly influenced by the culture-specific learning of daily life skills, many of which are acquired in childhood.
In other words, if we look at cultural variations in movements and postures, it is useful to study how it is that the same goal-directed actions are performed differently in different cultural circumstances. For instance, the human (excluding mechanical or motorized) problem solving action of carrying loads from one location to another is culturally quite diverse. Depending on the culture, we carry loads on our heads; or on our backs with a strap around our forehead; or with a strap on the shoulders as we carry backpacks; or by using a long piece of wood on our shoulders supporting loads balanced at each end. The constraints on the body differ with each load-carrying solution.
Illustrative cases of cultural variations in motor behavior
Four cases are discussed illustrating that the ways we perform real-life tasks are linked directly to both the physical and cultural environments in which they occur.
- Operational equivalence: This just means that the same outcome can result from variable motor behaviors. Pottery making is the example, for it is the case that shaping a pot from a lump of clay can be quite successful in a variety of ways. For example, Indian Multani potters use a kick wheel to shape a pot, while French potters shape the clay with an electric wheel. In both cases the mechanical constraints the potters must satisfy are the same: controlling rotational kinetic energy in association with finger pressure. In a study of potters from these two cultures, while the hand positions and movements of the potters differed widely, both groups successfully produced pots of spherical shape from two different amounts of clay.
- Variation in weighting of different action/movement parameters: In dance, the pivot turn is a near universal figure, even a central component of ice skating. In one study, classical dancers in France were compared to traditional dancers in Korea. Differences in the particular movement’s aesthetic resulted from different weighting of the constraints imposed by the pivot turn. Same action; different presentation.
- Metabolic adaption to surrounding conditions: When it comes to load-carrying, there are some dramatic differences in the metabolic processes between cultures. African women, for example, carry loads up to 60% of their body weight much more economically than American army recruits. They were found to conserve their mechanical energy more efficiently. Nepalese porters, who can carry loads greater than their body weight, have adapted to their cultural environment. They have significantly lower metabolic cost uphill as well as downhill.
- Adoptive benefit of postural habits: When it comes to posture research, the bulk of the studies are focused on standing and sitting. Deep-squatting, on the other hand, while favored in cultures world-wide, rarely attracts attention from the human sciences or biomechanics/physiology researchers. This WEIRD bias is weird given that the deep-squat has for centuries been a worldly postural position. It has been used over time for toilet use, birth delivery, stationary work, religious acts, socializing, and resting. While often perceived to be an unusual posture causing likely joint stress, injuries, and osteoarthritis, it turns out deep-squatting is the reverse. It is extensively favored because it is stable, comfortable, and is advantaged with lower metabolic cost.
The primary conclusion of Bril’s research discussion on motor habits is this: Western motor habits do not reflect the full potential for human motor skills. What Bril is pushing for is a re-evaluation of the “enormous capacity of adaptation to environmental constraints, culture being one multifaceted constraint that overlaps with others.” In brief, and regarding mechanical constraints needed to solve a problem to reach a goal, there are many more motor strategies to satisfy these constraints when the cultural context is diversified beyond WEIRD.
Bril argues that the incredible degrees of bodily freedom available when world-wide cultures are included appear “as a blessing.” When real-life activities are the focus of cross-cultural study—whether everyday or skilled—the possible range of study is seemingly limitless.
Bril is on the verge of suggesting a sort of gene-mapping analogy for finding and describing the entire range of action and movement in world-wide cultures. Such a catalog would most certainly have immediate impact on sports performance movement possibilities never before considered. When WEIRD peoples dominate the research and practice protocols of what humankind is capable of, we arbitrarily limit the ways the whole of humankind adapts to environmental constraints.
Bril closes her discussion of this self-imposed Western ignorance of cultural motor skills with an example of how such ignorance becomes over-generalized to human beings as such. Just think, she says, of prosthesis design. Knee and hip replacements are largely derived from Western lifestyles. Consequently, they are not designed with the increased range of motion appropriate for Eastern ways of life.
Surely, we are better as a people than to perpetuate such unforgivable cultural blindness. After all, the bodily and movement habits on one culture, if known, can become the performance opportunities of other cultures. And all the world moves forward as a result.