The Classification of Cultures

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Culture is a hot topic. Scholars (Fukoyama and Huntington, to mention but two) disagree about whether this is the end of history or the beginning of a particularly nasty chapter of it.

What makes cultures tick and why some of them tick discernibly better than others are the main bones of contention. Cultural interaction is no longer precipitated only via face-to-face encounters, immigration, visits, tourism, and trade. The emergence of radio, television, the Internet, and smartphones has created a virtual and global melting pot. One can benefit from cultural exchanges, be influenced by civilizations foreign and far-away, and react (positively or negatively) to them from the comfort of one’s swivel chair. The need to classify cultures has, therefore, become all that more urgent.

We can view cultures through the prism of their attitude towards their constituents: the individuals they are comprised of. More so, we can classify them in accordance with their approach towards "humanness", the experience of being human.

Some cultures are evidently anthropocentric – others are anthropo-transcendental.

A culture which cherishes the human potential and strives to create the conditions needed for its fullest realization and manifestation is an anthropocentric culture. Such striving is accepted to be the top priority, the crowning achievement, the measuring rod of such a culture’s attainment: its criterion for success or failure.

On the other pole of the dichotomy we find cultures which look beyond humanity. To paraphrase Hanna Arendt, they sacrifice the individual to advance the human species. This "transcendental" outlook has multiple purposes.

Some cultures want to transcend human limitations, others to derive meaning from such transcendence, yet others to leverage it in order to maintain social equilibrium. But what is common to all of them – regardless of purpose – is the subjugation of human endeavour, of human experience, human potential, really of all things human to this attempt at transcendence.

Granted: cultures resemble living organisms. They evolve, they develop, and they procreate. None of them was "created" the way it is today. Cultures go through Differential Phases wherein they re-define and re-invent themselves using varied parameters. Once these phases are over the results are enshrined during the Inertial Phases. The Differential Phases are period of social dislocation and upheaval, of critical, even revolutionary thinking, of new technologies, new methods of achieving set social goals, identity crises, imitation and differentiation. They are followed by phases of a diametrically opposed character: preservation, even stagnation, ritualism, repetition, rigidity, emphasis on structure rather than content.

Anthropocentric cultures have differential phases which are longer than the inertial ones. Anthropotranscendental ones tend to display a reverse pattern.

This still leaves two basic enigmas:

What causes the transition between differential and inertial phases?

Why is it that anthropocentricity coincides with differentiation and progress / evolution while other types of cultures are concomitant with an inertial framework?

We can use a few axes to describe a culture:

Distinguishing versus Consuming Cultures

Some cultures give weight and presence (though not necessarily in equal measures) to each of their constituent elements (the individual and the social structures or institutions). Each such element is considered distinctive, idiosyncratic, and unique. Such cultures accentuate attention to details, private enterprise, initiative, innovation, entrepreneurship, inventiveness, youth, status symbols, consumption, money, creativity, art, science and technology.

These are the things that distinguish one individual from another.

Other cultures engulf their constituents, assimilate and “consume” them. Both individuals and institutions are deemed, a priori, to be subservient to some higher cause or value system, redundant, their worthiness, raison d’etre, and life expectancy mere functions of their actual contributions to an abstract “whole”.

Such cultures emphasize generalizations, stereotypes, conformity, consensus, belonging, social structures, procedures, formalisms, rituals, undertakings involving the labour or other input of the human masses.

Future versus Past Oriented Cultures

Some cultures look to the past – real or imaginary – for inspiration, motivation, sustenance, hope, guidance and direction. These cultures tend to direct their efforts and resources and invest them in what already exists. They are, therefore, bound to be materialistic, figurative, substantive, and earthly.

They are likely to prefer old age to youth, old habits to new, old buildings to modern architecture, etc. This preference of the Elders (a term of veneration) over the Youngsters (a denigrating coinage) typifies them strongly. These cultures are likely to be risk averse.

Other cultures look to the future – always projected – for the same reasons. These cultures invest their efforts and resources in an ephemeral vision (upon the nature or image of which there is no agreement or certainty).

These cultures are, inevitably, more abstract (inhabiting, as they are, the mental space of an eternal Gedankenexperiment), more imaginative, more creative (having to design multiple scenarios just to survive). They are also more likely to have a youth cult: to prefer the young, the new, the revolutionary, the fresh to the old, the habitual, the predictable. They are risk-centered and risk-assuming cultures.

Static versus Dynamic (Emergent) Cultures; Consensus (Synoptic or Synergetic) versus Conflictual (Distributive) Cultures

Some cultures are more cohesive, coherent, rigid and well-bounded and constrained. As a result, they maintain an unchanging nature and are static. They discourage anything which could unbalance them or perturb their equilibrium and homeostasis. These cultures encourage consensus-building, teamwork, togetherness and we-ness, mass experiences, social sanctions and social regulation, structured socialization, peer loyalty, belonging, homogeneity, identity formation through allegiance to a group. These cultures employ numerous self-preservation mechanisms and strict hierarchy, obedience, discipline, discrimination (by sex, by race, above all, by age and familial affiliation).

Other cultures seem more "ruffled", "arbitrary", or disturbed. They are pluralistic, heterogeneous and torn. These are the dynamic or the emergent cultures. They encourage conflict as the main arbiter in the social and economic spheres ("the invisible hand of the market" or "checks and balances"), contractual and transactional relationships, partisanship, utilitarianism, heterogeneity, self fulfilment, fluidity of the social structures, democracy.

Indeed, the structure and functioning of government itself reflect these dichotomies. Where a basic distrust of human nature prevails (such as in the United States), founding fathers and pioneers have created systems of checks and balances that intentionally rend asunder the very fabric of cohesive governance. This paranoia and belief in original, primal sin led to the formation of distributive, conflict-driven branches of government; turf wars; walled gardens of information; and, finally, pernicious partisanship, culminating in a civil war and followed by decades of strife to this very day.

The alternative is a synoptic-synergetic form of government where all societal institutions – ruling parties, opposition parties, the military, the judiciary, the legislature, the civil service and public administration, non-governmental organizations, and even the private sector – collaborate in sharing resources and information; in setting common goals; and in striving to accomplish them. One should not confuse this – largely European – model with authoritarian regimes where all the stakeholders are coerced into apparently similar – but in truth hollow - behaviors.

Exogenic-Extrinsic Meaning Cultures Versus Endogenic-Intrinsic Meaning Cultures

Some cultures derive their sense of meaning, of direction and of the resulting wish-fulfilment by referring to outside frameworks which are perceived as bigger, or more significant than they are. They derive meaning only through incorporation in or reference to these frameworks.

The encompassing framework could be God, History, the Nation, a Calling or a Mission, a larger Social Structure, a Doctrine, an Ideology, or a Value or Belief System, an Enemy, a Friend, the Future: any thing which is bigger and outside the meaning-seeking culture.

Other cultures derive their sense of meaning, of direction and of the resulting wish fulfilment by referring to themselves – and to themselves only. It is not that these cultures ignore the past – they just do not re-live it. It is not that they do not possess a values or a belief system or even an ideology – it is that they are open to the possibility of revising it.

While in the first type of cultures, Man is meaningless were it not for the outside systems which endow him with meaning – in the second type of cultures these very outside systems are meaningless but for Man who endows them with meaning.

Virtually Revolutionary Cultures Versus Structurally-Paradigmatically Revolutionary Cultures

All cultures – no matter how inert and conservative – go through the differential phases. These phases are transitory and, therefore, revolutionary in nature.

Still, there are two types of revolution:

The Virtual Revolution is a change (sometimes, radical) of the structure while the content is mostly preserved. It is very much like changing the hardware without changing any of the software in a computer.

The other kind of revolution is more profound. It usually involves the transformation or metamorphosis of both structure and content. In other cases, the structures remain intact but they are hollowed out, their previous content replaced with new one. This is a change of paradigm (superbly described by the late Thomas Kuhn in his masterpiece: "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions").

The Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome Differentiating Factor

As a result of all the above, cultures react with shock either to change or to its absence.

A taxonomy of cultures can be established along these lines:

Those cultures which regard change as a trauma versus those cultures who react with traumatic shock to the absence of change, to paralysis and stagnation.

This reactive pattern is discernible in every sphere of life: the economic, the social, in the arts, the sciences.

Neurotically Adaptive versus Normally Adaptive Cultures

This is the dividing line:

Some cultures feed off fear and trauma. To adapt, they develop neuroses. Other cultures feed off hope and love – they undergo normal adaptation.

Neurotic Cultures

Normal Cultures



Past Oriented

Future Oriented


Dynamic (Emergent)





Virtual Revolutionary

Structurally-Paradigmatically Revolutionary

PTSS reaction to change

PTSS reaction to stagnation

So, are these types of cultures doomed to clash, as the current fad goes – or can they cohabitate?

It seems that the Neurotic cultures are less adapted to win the battle to survive. The fittest are those cultures flexible enough to respond to an ever changing world and at an ever increasing pace. The neurotic cultures are slow to respond, rigid and convulsive. Being past-orientated means that they emulate and imitate the normal cultures of the past. Alternatively, they assimilate and adopt some of the attributes of the past of normal cultures. This is why a sojourner who visits a neurotic culture (and is coming from a normal one) often has the feeling that he has been thrust into the past, that he is experiencing a form of time travel.

A War of Cultures is, therefore, not very plausible. The neurotic cultures need the normal cultures. Normal cultures are the generators and progenitors of neurotic cultures. A normal culture’s past is often the neurotic culture’s future.

Deep inside, the neurotic cultures know that something is wrong with them, that they are ill-adapted. That is why members of these cultural spheres entertain overt emotions of envy, hostility, or even hatred coupled with explicit sensations of inferiority, inadequacy, disappointment, disillusionment and despair. The eruptive nature (the neurotic rage) of these cultures is exactly the result of this inner turmoil. To forgo the benefits of learning from the experience of normal cultures as to how to survive would be suicidal, indeed.

All societies, collectives, and social units use shame, guilt, and fear to regulate the conduct of their members. Ruth Benedict got it partly wrong.

Societies differ from each other only in:

1. The locus of these three emotions: are they externally enforced and based on social coercion (such as ostracism and incarceration) - or are they internalized (in one's conscience and aspirations, cognitions and emotions, for example)?

2. Are these emotions acknowledged and codified (in law and traditions) - or are they implicit and open to idiosyncratic interpretation by role models and authority figures?

3. Some societies offer routes, rituals, and mechanisms for recovery from inappropriate conduct and rehabilitation - while others enshrine in one's reputation the actions, behaviors, and choices that led to the shame, guilt, and fear and render them a permanent part of one's identity.

Nietzsche taught us that societies are either rational and rule-based (Apollonian) or hedonistic and ostentatious (Dionysian). This is true to some extent. Every society has groups and collectives which are either and there is no type-constancy: societies pendulate between the two poles of this dichotomy. A much better distinction is between collectivist and individualistic societies.

At some point, cultural and societal mores BECOME a personality disorder (Durkheim).  

Narcissism is now NORMATIVE, the social NORM. We are seeing the fruits of this new normal mainstreaming of narcissism now, and women are catching up to men:

No delayed gratification

No impulse control

Malignant personal autonomy (antisocial defiance)

Total lack of empathy

An emotionless existence (e.g., sex as a mechanical meaningless act)



Explosive grandiosity


And so on.

We are now transitioning from the age of pathological grandiose narcissism to the age of malignant (antisocial) narcissism.

Add to this Negative identity formation:

Deriving a sense of identity by aggressively and proactively confronting or opposing The Other.


The tidal wave of narcissism has infected all and sundry. Everyone I know now has either evolved pronounced narcissistic traits or has become an outright grandiose narcissist, devoid of empathy, delusional, and exploitative.


Malignant egalitarianism: the virulent hatred of experts, scholars, intellectuals, learning, academe, and books. Everything I have worked for all my life, everything that I am is now despised, decried, and derided.


The unigender revolution: there are no women left. We are all men now, only with disparate genitalia. Forced by a perfect storm of social trends to become men, women are now as aggressive, promiscuous, drunk, unfaithful, and dysempathic as the worst of men.

Note about Adolescent Cultures

The tripling of the world's population in the last century or so fostered a rift between the majority of industrial nations (with the exception of the United States) and all the developing and less developing countries (the "third world"). The populace in places like Western Europe and Japan (and even Russia) is ageing and dwindling. These are middle-aged, sedate, cultures with a middle-class, mature outlook on life. They are mostly liberal, consensual, pragmatic, inert, and compassionate.

The denizens of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are still multiplying. The "baby boom" in the USA - and subsequent waves of immigration - kept its population young and growing. Together they form the "adolescent block" of cultures and societies.

In the Adolescent Block, tastes and preferences (in film, music, the Internet, fashion, literature) are juvenile because most of its citizens are under the age of 21. Adolescent cultures are ideological, mobilized, confrontational, dynamic, inventive, and narcissistic.

History is the record of the clashes between and within adolescent civilizations. As societies age and mature, they generate "less history". The conflict between the Muslim world and the USA is no exception. It is a global confrontation between two cultures and societies made up mostly of youngsters. It will end only when either or both ages (chronologically) or matures (psychologically).

Societies age naturally, as the birth rate drops, life expectancy increases, pension schemes are introduced, wealth is effectively redistributed, income and education levels grow, and women are liberated. The transition from adolescent to adult societies is not painless (witness the 1960s in Europe and the USA). It is bound to be protracted, complicated by such factors as the AIDS epidemic. But it is inevitable - and so, in the end, is world peace and prosperity.

Note about Founding Fathers and The Character of States

Even mega-states are typically founded by a small nucleus of pioneers, visionaries, and activists. The United States is a relatively recent example. The character of the collective of Founding Fathers has a profound effect on the nature of the polity that they create: nations spawned by warriors tend to be belligerent and to nurture and cherish military might throughout their history (e.g., Rome); When traders and businessman establish a country, it is likely to cultivate capitalistic values and thrive on commerce and shipping (e.g., Netherlands); The denizens of countries formed by lawyers are likely to be litigious.

The influence of the Founding Fathers does not wane with time. On the very contrary: the mold that they have forged for their successors tends to rigidify and be sanctified. It is buttressed by an appropriate ethos, code of conduct, and set of values. Subsequent and massive waves of immigrants conform with these norms and adapt themselves to local traditions, lores, and mores.

Back to the United States:

Thinkers and scholars as diverse as Christopher Lasch in "The Cultural Narcissist" and Theodore Millon in "Personality Disorders of Everyday Life" have singled out the United States as the quintessential narcissistic society.

The "American Dream" in itself is benign. It involves materialistic self-realization, the belief in the ideal of equal opportunities and equal access to the system, and in just rewards for hard work, merit, and natural gifts. But the Dream has been rendered nightmarish by the confluence with America's narcissistic traits.

America's internal ethos is universally-accepted by all Americans. It incorporates the American Dream and the conviction that America stands for everything that is good and right. Consequently, as the reification of goodness, the United States is in constant battle with evil and its ever-changing demonic emissaries - from Hitler to Saddam Hussein.

There is no national consensus about America's external ethos. Some Americans are isolationists, others interventionists. Both groups are hypervigilant, paranoid, and self-righteous - but isolationists are introverted and schizoid. Theirs is  siege mentality. Interventionists are missionary. They feel omnipotent and invincible. They are extroverted and psychopathic.

Read the article Collective Narcissism

Read about Christopher Lasch HERE.

This pathology can be traced back and attributed to a confluence of historical events and processes, the equivalents of trauma and abuse in an individual's early childhood.

The United States of America started out as a series of loosely connected, remote, savage, and negligible colonial outposts. The denizens of these settlements were former victims of religious persecution, indentured servants, lapsed nobility, and other refugees. Their Declaration of Independence reads like a maudlin list of grievances coupled with desperate protestations of love and loyalty to their abuser, the King of Britain.

The inhabitants of the colonies defended against their perceived helplessness and very real inferiority with compensatory, imagined, and feigned superiority and fantasies of omnipotence. Victims frequently internalize their abusers and themselves become bullies. Hence the rough, immutable kernel of American narcissism.

The United States was (until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s) and still is, in some important respects, a pre-Enlightenment, white supremacist society. It is rife with superstition, prejudice, conspicuous religiosity, intolerance, philistinism, and lack of social solidarity. Its religiosity is overt, aggressive, virulent and ubiquitous. It is replete with an eschatology, which involves a changing cast of demonized "enemies", both political and cultural.

The Civil War was fought between 2 America's: the South, a perverted rendition of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the North, a harbinger of modern, multicultural immigrant societies. The North and the American Dream prevailed, the slaves were freed, and the Southern way of life, that of "gentlemen with leisure", was replaced by a workaholic society where everyone is a slave to money and leisure is an ever rarer commodity.

Read about American eschatology HERE

Americans' religion is a manifestation of their "Chosen People Syndrome". They are missionary, messianic, zealous, fanatical, and nauseatingly self-righteous, bigoted, and hypocritical. This is especially discernible in the double-speak and double-standard that underlies American foreign policy.

Read the articles For the Love of God and In God We Trust

American altruism is misanthropic and compulsive. They often give merely in order to control, manipulate, and sadistically humiliate the recipients.

Read the article To Give with Grace

Narcissism is frequently comorbid with paranoia. Americans cultivate and nurture a siege mentality which leads to violent acting out and unbridled jingoism. Their persecutory delusions sit well with their adherence to social Darwinism (natural selection of the fittest, let the weaker fall by the wayside, might is right, etc.).

Consequently, the United States always finds itself in company with the least palatable regimes in the world: together with Nazi Germany it had a working eugenics program (the 1935 anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws and the Nazi sterilization law were modeled after American anti-miscegenation and sterilization statutes), together with the likes of Saudi Arabia it executes its prisoners, it was the last developed nation to abolish slavery, alone with South Africa it had instituted official apartheid in a vast swathe of its territory.

Add to this volatile mix an ethos of malignant individualism, racism both latent and overt, a trampling, "no holds barred" ambitiousness, competitiveness, frontier violence-based morality, and proud simple-mindedness - and an ominous portrait of the United States as a deeply disturbed polity emerges.

The Second Iron Curtain (Brussels Morning)

Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi Foreign Minister Count Schwerin-Krosigk– not Churchill – coined the evocative phrase “iron curtain” in a last ditch attempt to drive a wedge between the allies during World War II.


Today, a second iron curtain has descended between the West and the rest. The overwhelming majority of humanity – and the bulk of the world’s GDP – are on one side and beleaguered liberal-democracy is on the other.


This is a startling turn of events. Only 30 years ago, the values of the West were winning everywhere. Communism crumbled like the house of cards that it has always been. What went wrong?


Three things: nationalism, instability, and inequality.


The long-suffering denizens of the USSR and its east European satellites loathed the moribund system they inhabited and sought to undermine it passive-aggressively. Nowadays, the likes of Putin enjoy stratospheric approval ratings among their subjects.


This counterintuitive reversal is due to a rise in the virulent kind of nationalism that we erroneously believed to have been extinct in the wake of Nazi horrors. It is a compensatory variant founded on reactance: defiance and contumaciousness. 


“Strong men” authoritarians provide the illusion of public safety and stability. It is illusory because, in the absence of power transition mechanisms, such regimes devolve into interregnum civil wars and rampant criminality.


Growing inequality in the West, its divergence from traditional values, atomization, the baleful rejection of authority and expertise, and rampant anomie rendered the Occident an unappealing alternative.


This unholy confluence of disillusionment and grandiosity among the disenfranchised and underprivileged led to the resurgence of ugly phenomena such as xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, misogynistic sexism, and state-sanctioned oppressive violence.


The lurid tide of populist ochlocratic oligarchies is sweeping across the world and has reached into the USA, UK, and the EU. But it is not too late to stem it.


First, we need to deny the enemies of freedom access to our liberties and the ability to subvert and leverage them. Free speech is not the same as anarchic speech and should never be permitted to degenerate into an instrument of warfare against the truth and our most cherished values. The same applies to other rights such as the freedom of assembly and the free press.


It is a fine balancing act, but we need to realize that we are at war and that we are not on the winning side hitherto. At stake are exactly the very human rights that are being molested by our adversaries.


Second, we must starve those who do not adhere to the values of liberal democracy: create a firewall to keep them out of our systems, first and foremost the financial and banking infrastructure.


Third, we must aspire to autarky. We are way too dependent on tainted fossil fuels and bloodied minerals. Alternative energy sources are a good place to start as well as reviving our mining industries. We need to wean ourselves off our unseemly dependency on our axiological adversaries.


Above all, we must redouble our efforts to gain minds and souls in the blighted territories of autocracy.


It would be wrong to go about it by promoting our values over the local brands. To claim such superiority smacks of patronizing colonialism.


We need to focus on unbridled access to information, on the plurality and diversity of voices, and on the freedom to make decisions as inalienable human rights. We also need to respect all choices once they are freely made, unencumbered by nescience, corruption, and intimidation by any party.


The transition from authoritarianism to democracy is never easy because it involves cultural and societal determinants which are often irrational or traditional or both. We need to respect such collective histories and predilections, not disparage or ridicule them.


The West is highly suspect in many corners of the globe. A history of abusive imperialism and exploitative mercantilism left the majority of humanity resentful and cynical.


At the same time, the divergence of Western values from beliefs and faiths held dear for millennia make it onerous to settle on a lingua franca of cultural exchange. We need to overcome this legacy if we are to get anywhere in this quest for a better, liberated world.



Also Read


Islam and Liberalism


Narcissistic Collectives


The Cultural Narcissist


The Roots of anti-Americanism


And Then There Were Too Many


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