Action, Movement, and Culture: Does Culture Shape Movement?

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What any traveler can definitely notice is the incredible diversity of everyday skills due to the cultural diversity of tools, raw materials, physical environments, or local postural habits that set up the conditions for performing tasks. Do cultural environments influence motor skills? Are there “motor styles” common to members of a given cultural group? Focusing on instrumental everyday actions from a functional perspective, we propose four cases to illustrate in detail cultural variations in motor behavior. The first example explores the movement repertoire of expert potters from two cultural backgrounds when asked to produce pots of the same shape. A second example analyzes how a dance figure based on the same mechanical principles gives rise to different cultural aesthetics. The third example questions the adaptation of metabolic processes while performing the same load-carrying task in various physical environments. The last example brings up the issue of cultural choices of working and resting postures. Each case refers to a critical dimension of what generates the cultural diversity of motor skills: operational equivalence of movements, variation in the “weighing” of the parameters of the action, adaptation of metabolic processes, and adaptive benefit of specific posture. We conclude that if the countless diversity of cultural contexts and tasks give rise to an enormous diversity of movements and postures, this diversity is anchored in the many degrees of freedom of the organism. It is this profusion of degrees of freedom that sustains the endless variations of cultural motor skills giving ways to infinite manners of using one’s own body.

Bril is with Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales - PSL, Paris, France. Bril is also with the Laboratoire EDA, Université Paris Descartes, Paris, France.

Address author correspondence to Blandine Bril at Blandine.bril@ehess.fr.
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