A Theory Of Culture As A Framework For The Ragged Project

As a social education project, Ragged University is built upon a foundation of a theory of culture as a framework for directing activity which supports civic involvement.  Over time the model is evolving as it comes into contact with new thinkers and is added to, changed and evolved to fit the spaces and people which animate it.


At the beginning of the project it needed a conceptual map as a guide to give structure to its aims and the areas of life into which it fits.  After some thinking and exploring, taking a framework from the field of anthropology seemed pragmatic, as this is the ‘study of humankind, past and present’.  It felt logical to draw on a study of human culture to foster and build learning communities.


Umberto Eco is a thinker who caught my attention.  He has written a lot on semiotics – ‘the study of meaning-making’.  In all things that the project does, I want the Ragged University to be meaningful, understandable and communicable. As a model of informal education, I felt it needed to connect with culture in a powerful and significant way so that it might take root like the Ragged Schools movement did in Victorian times, and like it, propagate many positive effects.


Umberto Eco’s analysis suggests that if the term ‘culture’ is accepted in its correct anthropological sense, then we are immediately confronted with four elementary cultural phenomena. These phenomena were not chosen by accident: not only are they the consistent phenomena of every culture but they have been singled out as the objects of various semi-anthropological studies in order to show that the whole of culture is ‘signification and communication’ and that humanity and society exist only when ‘communicative and significative relationships’ are established.


In semiotics, a sign is “something that stands for something, to someone, in some capacity”.  It can be thought of as a discrete unit of meaning, and signs include words, images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds.  Essentially all of the ways in which information can be communicated as a message by any sentient, reasoning person to another.


In dictionary terms signification refers to the established meaning of a word; to the act of signifying; to something that is signified; to meaning or sense; to the act of signifying; to meaning – import – sense; to the act of signifying and indication. I wanted to map out the signs and significations which would give definition to the core of the evolving Ragged intellectual experiment.


So it happened that I took the four elementary cultural phenomena which Umberto Eco produced (page 15 of A Theory of Semiotics) in his analysis of human culture as key signs which acted as a way of moving into and forming the study of Ragged University.  Starting from the premiss which set the whole project off – “how would you bring people together in community and improve everyone’s lives?” – it made sense to structure it around peoples natural behaviours…


The four elementary phenomena are:

  • Kinship relations as the primary nucleus of institutionalised social relations
  • The birth of articulated language
  • The economic exchange of goods
  • The production and employment of objects used for transforming the relationship between man and nature


Categorical thought is both helpful and problematic.  Helpful in as much as it gives a plan to anchor around, but problematic in that the design you take on is always at the expense of other ways of conceptualising the things you are looking at.  This intellectual planning was only a rough guide, a way into studying the evolving experiment. It was not intended as a blueprint of human culture, but a stimulus to thought which tapped into large collections of thinkers to draw upon in trying to achieve a goal and synthesis a successful working model.


So, through meditating on these four ‘elementary phenomena’, four key theses were initiated as studies to inform the methods and practices of the Ragged project.  These were theses with loose boundaries and ones which deliberately employed interdisciplinary tactics.  For the complex problems which are involved in doing something like an informal social educational project, a holistic and flexible approach is essential.  This involves moving away from the clan-like mentalities of strict subject demarcation, and the hyperspecialisation of linguistic pedantry.  This necessitates a negotiative stance that includes, rather than excludes, new thinking, new ways of expressing and new ways of seeing and new ways of doing.




I related “Kinship relations as the primary nucleus of institutionalised social relations” to a broad study of education. Education in the largest sense is any act or experience that has a formative effect on the mind, character or physical ability of an individual. In its technical sense, education is the process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills and values from one generation to another. Etymologically, the word education is derived from educare (Latin) “bring up”, which is related to educere “bring out”, “bring forth what is within”, “bring out potential” and ducere, “to lead”.


Education has been described as an institution involved in replicating the existing structures of society, however it also includes a whole lot more. I liked the phenomenon Umberto Eco described as it places the human at the centre of society’s institutions and speaks of purpose of which we should all be able to relate.  Pick an institution, any institution, and I believe that we should not only be able to understand its function intimately but also feel that it represents us.


Thus the relationship that I might have with my parents, whereby they teach me how to create fire; this teaching/learning dynamic – in this conception of things – is typically held at the noble core of the educational institution.  Similarly, looking at an educational institution, we should be able to see within it a reflection of the whole of society – a microcosm of a macrocosm.




In pondering on what “The birth of articulated language” might have significance of, first I thought of communication, and then – in a much larger sense – it came to mean the histories of human behaviour and communication to me.  Publishing and literature was an obvious starting point, but I thought through what is contained in language and writing and it obviously encompassed so much more than the word ‘literature’ suggests.


Literature (from Latin litterae (plural); letter) is the art of written works, and is not bound to published sources. Literally translated, the word literature means “acquaintance with letters” (as in the “arts and letters”). The two most basic written literary categories are fiction and non fiction. Reading books enhances not only the grammar and diction of a person, but also broadens the horizons of knowledge, thereby enriching the inner world of a person. As a result, good readers can easily and effectively communicate with others.


I eventually arrived at contentedly stretching the bounds of sociology as this thesis.  The study of human social behavior, its origins, development, organizations, and institutions instinctively felt like the flesh of language. Sociology as a body of knowledge about human social actions, social structure and functions seemed like an important part of the study which should form the Ragged project.




In “The economic exchange of goods” I wanted to include and push beyond the reduced, flattened, financialised conceptions of what economics – or political economy – has come to mean for so many.  Economics is a social science that analyzes the production, distribution, and consumption of goods. The term economics comes from the Ancient Greek meaning “management of a household, administration”, from a conjugation of the Greek for “house” and “custom” or “law” resulting in “rules of the household”.


Economics aims to explain how economies work and how economic agents interact. Economic analysis is applied throughout society, in business, finance and government, but also in education, social institutions, and science. The focus in the context of the Ragged project is much to do with exchange, and the relationship between the reciprocal peoples involved.


The economist Alfred Marshall describes it as the “study of mankind in the ordinary business of life”; it is this idea of a humanised economy – a social ecology – which will sit at the centre of the thesis.  Essential to this view is the exploration of sustainable systems and existing sustainably within systems that support us.


art symbol


The production and employment of objects used for transforming the relationship between man and nature” I have related to the field of art.  Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and acts one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, and paintings. Traditionally, the term art was used to refer to any skill or mastery.


Generally, art is made with the intention of stimulating thoughts and emotions, however a much expanded perspective is being forged in the developing thesis – one which includes range in terms of education, sociology and economics.  Art speaks of production and is a special area of life which touches everyone.  The multiple roots of the word helpfully open out the sense which I want to employ it in the Ragged project:


…”skill as a result of learning or practice,” from Old French art (10c.), from Latin artem (nominative ars) “work of art; practical skill; a business, craft, from Proto-Indo-European language ar-ti- (cognates: Sanskrit rtih “manner, mode;” Greek arti “just,” artios “complete, suitable,” artizein “to prepare;” Latin artus “joint;” Armenian arnam “make;” German art “manner, mode”), from root *ar- “fit together, join”. In Middle English usually with a sense of “skill in scholarship and learning” (c.1300), especially in the seven sciences, or liberal arts. This sense remains in Bachelor of Arts, etc. Meaning “human workmanship”…


So this hopefully explains some of the way in which the research side of the project has developed a structure.  These studies all make some contribution to exploring the usefulness of the term social capital and contextualise the practicalities of the Ragged University project in broad areas of established thinking.