Culture and Perception in International Relations 1

The role pf culture and perception has been neglected by policy makers until recent time. Generally politicians, diplomats and for some extent scholars who dealt with important issues as foreign policy and geopolitics considered cultural issues as unimportant issues. In diplomatic circle, cultural attachés occupy lower rank in comparison let’s say to military attachés. In these writings under title ‘Culture and Perception in International Relations’ I will try to prove that culture and perception are more important than politics and economy.

Firstly, we should underline that Social Sciences are different than Natural Sciences. In natural sciences there is common understanding of things. When a scientist writes H2O, other scientists all over the world understand it as there is consensus on symbols. In contrast, in social sciences there is no such consensus on the naming of the things. In the era of positivism, social scientists tried to use the rules of natural sciences in social sciences. But by the time it was realized that due to different cultural environments things were perceived in different ways by different people. As it was put by one scholar, ‘So long as physical objects are concerned, we agree, but if we turn from physical objects to social facts then our story becomes pertinent and very realistic—in symbolic terms. For what to members of the one ethnic group looks like “aggression,” to members of another group looks like “defense” or “revolt;” what to the one group looks like “liberation,” to the other group looks like “enslavement;” what to the one group looks like “re-education,” to the other group looks like “persecution;” what to the one group looks like “dictatorship;” to the other group looks like “true democracy;” what to the one group looks like a “hero,” to another group looks like a “criminal”—the list could be continued to infinitum.’[1]

This is because a human being, as in anecdote of Hoca Nasreddin, who was asked the center of the world answered that it is under his feet, evaluates the outside world from the place where he or she stands. In academic language, it is called as ego-centric or ethnocentric view which means that outside world is perceived through cultural and cognitive prism of the perceiver. Generally, people tend to think that other people perceive the object in the same way as he or she perceives.

Here we explore that every person has different mindset. According to Fisher, mindsets are to larger issues what words are to the specifics—a means of simplifying the environment and bringing to each new experience or event a pre-established frame of reference for understanding it. Further he argues that the human mind becomes a cognitive system, that is, a framework of mental constructs of the external world and of beliefs, images, assumptions, habits of reasoning, and so forth, by which continuing barrage of stimuli a person receives can be sorted out and given meaning. In simple words, mind’s duty is to give meaning to and interpret things around us on the basis of the information it possesses. Even more, Fisher claims that beliefs and stereotypes can be useful in this regard.[2]

Human being’s mindset is shaped firstly by parents, elder brother and sisters, friends and environment. As summarized by Fisher ‘One’s cognitive system is molded by society and culture, by education and socialization process, social experience, information and knowledge transmitted from other people, and, in specific situations, by suggestion and a sense of group sanction or censure. Through social experience, habit of perceiving and reasoning become, in large degree, those of the groups to which we as individuals belong. Such commonality provides the shared outlooks that make social life possible.’[3]

In fact, what makes a group of people a society is their shared outlook. A person’s perception of external world is framed by this shared outlook of the society. In words of Fisher, the way a person perceives other people, interprets what they are doing and why, and chooses how to respond to them is locked in by socio-cultural circumstances. This phenomenon eventually extends to the way one society perceives another.[4]

The general name of shared outlook, shared values, shared history is culture of people. It is culture which molds cognitive system of people and shapes national identities.

Fisher having noted that people view international issues and events through a cultural lens, define this lens as a more fundamental aspect of thinking and perceiving, the basic resource programming from which mindsets are, in part drawn and with which they tend to be consistent.[5]

In conclusion, due to the different cultural and environmental backgrounds of people, social realties can be perceived differently. It means that every community because of its historical development can possess different values which shape their perceptions. Therefore, in social sciences the problem of perception became an important issue. In international Relations, the problem is twice important as perception, more correctly misperception, can lead to war which is the main subject of the discipline of International Relations. In the next article we will continue discussion on the place of culture and perception in International Relations.


[1] Gustav Ichheiser, ‘Misunderstandings in international relations’, American Sociological Review, June 1, 1951, p. 311.

[2] Glen Fisher, Mindsets: The Role of Culture and Perception in International Relations, Second Edition, Intercultural Press, USA, 1997, p. 23.

[3] Ibid., p. 26.

[4] Ibid., p. 27.

[5] Ibid., p. 42.