Chapter 4: Frames of Reference


Frames of reference are as essential to the analysis of social behavior as they are to the analysis of physical phenomena. They play an integral role in human perception, observation/measurement,[1] evaluation, and actions. Not only do they filter and organize the stream of data that inundates human senses, they also guide responses to it.

Frames of reference have three basic characteristics: (1) they influence observations and behavior, (2) no reference frame is privileged, and (3) the effect of changing a reference frame is not always noticeable. The first applies to any interaction between an observer and the environment. Even a simple action such as changing space-time location, for example, will alter perspectives and influence measurements. The second characteristic means that measurements of an event made from distinct frames of references may each be valid even if they contradict one another. The third characteristic means that a minimum degree of change is often required before the effect of the change will be noticed. For instance, two accurate timepieces remaining at rest relative to each other will continue to keep the same time. But when one is accelerated, its timekeeping will slow down and the two clocks will begin to differ in their timekeeping. The variance between them, however, may be so small that it is not measurable with current instruments. Once there is a sufficient variance between the velocities of the two timepieces or between the gravitational forces acting upon them, the difference in their time keeping will become noticeable. 

A Global Positioning System (GPS) illustrates how measuring time is affected by the reference frame of a timepiece. By comparing the time signals from four or more satellites, a GPS receiver determines its location with a great deal of accuracy. To accomplish this, adjustments are made for the effects of gravity and acceleration upon the satellites. Compared to a clock on the Earth’s surface, a satellite clock will slow down due to its greater velocity and, at the same time, speed up due to the lesser gravitational force it experiences in orbit. The net difference is the satellite clock being a few nanoseconds (billionths of a second) slower than a clock on earth. This difference in time between a satellite clock and its twin on Earth is an important factor in determining the precise location of a GPS receiver. The effect is accumulative and, if not taken into account, the GPS receiver would indicate a position within 24 hours that differs by several miles from its actual position on Earth.

The effects of velocity and gravity on time measurements in a Global Positioning System demonstrate the practical importance of relativistic theory. Today, a scientist does not assume that different measurements of the same event taken from different frames of reference indicate an error in either instrument. Instead, the scientist understands that it is possible for both to be correct and that both measurements are necessary to calculate accurate results.

It is not simply changes in gravity or the velocity of instruments that affect results of measurements. The medium in which events occur is also a frame of reference that must be taken into consideration. In the vacuum of space, for example, light takes one second to travel 299,792.458 kilometers. This speed is the well-known constant (c). When light travels through a denser medium its speed is diminished. The greater the density of the medium, the more time light takes to travel a specific distance. When passing through water, light travels at three-quarters of its speed in space (3c/4) and through a diamond lightspeed is half (c/2) of that through space. Atomic particles under certain conditions travel faster than the speed of light. The blue glow surrounding an underwater nuclear reactor is known as Cherenkov radiation. This results from charged particles moving through the medium faster than light. The speed of light is not an absolute value. It is relative to the medium in which it travels.

In contrast to the speed of light, the speed of sound ordinarily increases when it passes through a denser medium. A sound wave in dry air with a temperature of 680 Fahrenheit moves at 1,126 feet per second. It takes about 5 seconds to travel one mile. Sound travels 4.3 times faster in water and 15 times faster in iron. Thus, in answering questions such as “What is the speed of light?” or “What is the speed of sound?” one needs to specify the medium in which the energy is traveling. In general, if results of observations are to be properly reported, the frame of reference for the results should be noted.

The physical scale of measurements also illustrates how results are affected by frames of reference. If you are trying to measure the permeability of an object, for example, results will depend upon the relative scale of the reference frames involved. An oaken door will have a low permeability if you are measuring it with a fist or a flashlight. In contrast, it will have a high permeability if the frame of reference is a high frequency form of electromagnetic radiation. Gamma rays will easily pass through the door and, if you try to use a wooden door to protect yourself from exposure to this form of radiation, the results can be tragic.

The simple example above of measuring permeability points out an essential fact. There are serious consequences that can occur from selecting a frame of reference. A choice can lead to real benefits or to destruction. Reality is the ultimate arbitrator and it resides in the relationship between the world and a frame of reference. What you believe does not determine truth nor does truth exist independent of your beliefs. It is the relationship between the two that is the “real” world in which truth resides.  

What has been said above about frames of reference influencing the results of observations is recognized in the International Judges Manual for sailing events. The manual is a guide for officials in the world of competitive sailing and it points out that culture plays an important role in the description of an event by sailors. In racing events, when two boats collide, for example, the judges at an event are often called upon to decide which party is responsible for the incident. To come to a decision, the judges rely upon the testimony of witnesses; both the parties involved and others who may have observed the incident. These testimonies often vary because of the different perspectives of the participants. The Judges Manual recognizes this fact and notes that “Human perception begins with expectation based on prior knowledge and not on sensations of what was there to see or hear” (International Judges Manual K.11). In other words, the Manual recognizes that the description of an event or object is grounded in a frame of reference provided by the observer’s culture.

Racing sailors incorporate a body of knowledge, the culture of sailing, influencing their reactions to their environment. Without this knowledge, it would be impossible for sailors to achieve success in world competitions. For one, the culture allows them to gain an advantage from important changes in wind speed and direction. Even though the wind itself is invisible to n observer, it affects a sailboat in concrete ways that require quick decisions from the sailor about the best way to respond. To become a top competitive sailor, one learns how to “see” changes in the wind, in spite of it being invisible, and respond quickly to the changes in a way that benefits their chances of winning a race. In contrast, an inexperienced sailor is often surprised by changes in the wind and, if sailing in relatively small, light sailboat, may unexpectedly end up in the water with the boat on its side or upside down. The experienced racing sailor has learned to anticipate a puff of wind, for example, respond quickly to it when it reaches the boat, and gain an increase in speed. Experienced sailors sense the approach of the puff of wind and anticipate its rate of approach plus the extent of its increased force. Thus, instead of being dumped into the water, these sailors will keep the boat in control and benefit from the change in the wind. This ability to recognize and react appropriately to changes in wind velocity is an important part of sailing. There is nothing mysterious about it. The well-trained sailor has internalized the sailing culture necessary to sail well.

            Wind may not be visible, but its impact is. Wind affects the surface of a body of water and the change in the light reflected from the surface can be clearly seen and understood by the experienced sailor. When a gust of wind strikes the water, ripples appear that reflect light differently than from the surface of calm, flat water. Gusts reveal their presence often as darker ripples moving across the surface. Both the neophyte and the experienced sailor have the physical capability to perceive them, but inexperienced sailors who have not incorporated this aspect of sailing culture, do not recognize the change in the surface of the water. Especially when there are already waves, the neophyte will not distinguish or recognize the gust patterns in the complex of wave motions on the water surface. In essence, a neophyte doesn’t “see” them. Consequently, any sudden increase in wind speed comes as a surprise when it arrives and may cause problems for the neophyte sailor. Experienced sailors, in contrast, recognize the significant information provided by the subtle movements of water. They can “see” the gust of wind coming even though they may not be consciously aware of their ability to do so. Furthermore, they react with the appropriate response to the gust without being consciously aware of what they must do. This is an important part of sailing culture. If a sailor is dependent upon conscious deliberation of appropriate actions when there is a sudden increase of wind velocity, there will be a delay in response to it and the reaction can be too late to take full advantage of the gust or, in the worst case, avoid capsizing. 

            That winning sailors know what to do when wind conditions change doesn’t mean they are aware of their actions or the reasons they react the way they do. Having internalized the culture, their reactions are immediate responses to environmental changes without their conscious minds playing a role. This kind of subconscious reaction to stimuli is characteristic of the influence of culture upon human behavior.     

            A person trying to learn an unfamiliar language has the same problem as the neophyte sailor trying to learn how to sail well. At first, the sounds of the language are a flood of meaningless sounds. The listener hasn’t yet learned to distinguish the essential elements in the stream of data and, consequently, it appears to be without a pattern. Like the sailor, who must learn what to look for in the motion of the waves, the listener unfamiliar with a language must learn to recognize the meaningful patterns in the sounds of speech. Eventually, the student learns the essential data in the flow of sounds, learns their meanings, and how to control their vocal chords respond meaningfully to a native speaker. To become a winning sailor or a competent speaker of a language requires the ability to: 1. recognize the essential information, 2. develop the appropriate responses, 3. eventually do both at a subconscious level. The sailor or speaker of a language must learn to use a frame of reference without being consciously aware of it.

In English there are two distinct sounds that are written with the single letter ‘k’. The ‘k’ in ‘kin’ is different from the ‘k’ in ‘skin’. But the two sounds are interchangeable in English. If one is substituted for the other in a word, the meaning of the word does not change. Thus, an English speaker will not ordinarily pay attention to the physical difference between the sounds and will subconsciously treat them as the same. But a clear physical difference exists between the two sounds due to the use or nonuse of a subtle puff of air. This puff normally occurs in English when the ‘k’ appears as an initial or a final sound in a word. The ‘k’ in the word ‘kin’, for example, is aspirated; that is, appearing with a puff of air. When the ‘k’ appears in the middle of a word, there will be no aspiration; i.e., no puff of air. The ‘k’ in the word ‘skin’, for example, is non-aspirated. You can clearly notice the difference in aspiration by placing your hand in front of your mouth and then saying the two words. If English is your first language, it is likely that you will feel a puff of air when you say ‘kin’ and there won’t be a puff when you say ‘skin’. You can also notice the difference by gently holding a sheet of paper vertically close to the front of your mouth and saying the two words. When you say, ‘skin’, the paper will remain still and when you say, ‘kin’, the paper will flap. It does not matter how loudly the two words are said. Now, try to switch the sounds in the words so that the puff appears when you say ‘skin’ and doesn’t appear when you say ‘kin’. If you are a native English speaker, you will probably find it somewhat difficult to do this and it will take a bit of practice. This is just one simple example of how language acts as a frame of reference subconsciously affecting perception and behavior.

Because of the influence of a culture upon one’s perceptions, it is common for someone to mishear the sounds of an unfamiliar language. If you are speaking English and substitute the non-aspirated ‘k’ for the aspirated ‘k’ in the word ‘kin’ or the aspirated ‘k’ for the non-aspirated ‘k’ in the word ‘skin’, friends may think your speech is a little odd but they will still be able to understand what you are saying. In English, the meaning of a word does not change when one of these sounds is substituted for the other. In other languages, however, these sounds are not interchangeable and, if one is substituted for the other in a word, the meaning of the word will change. Such is the case in Shinzwani, the primary language spoken on one island in the Comorian archipelago. Shinzwani speakers use the aspirated and the non-aspirated ‘k’ to change the meaning of words. If the word, ‘komba’, is said with the initial sound aspirated, the meaning of the word is “lemur”. But, when the initial sound is non-aspirated, the meaning of the word is “a drawing”. As a native English speaker, I was accustomed to using the aspirated sound at the beginning of a word and expected to hear it when a word beginning with a ‘k’ was spoken. Thus, when learning Shinzwani I had difficulty, at first, with words beginning with a non-aspirated ‘k’. I just didn’t ‘hear’ the non-aspirated ‘k’ at the beginning of the word, ‘komba’. Physically, I heard it but it didn’t register in my mind and I kept using the aspirated ‘k’ thinking I was saying ‘a drawing’ when what was heard was ‘a lemur’. This was the case even when people took the time to speak very s l o w l y trying to make clear the correct pronunciation of the word. It took a conscious effort on my part to learn to recognize the non-aspirated ‘k’ as the initial sound in the word fir ‘drawing’ so that I could properly communicate. This is not an unusual phenomenon since one’s native language influences perception of the sounds in other languages and one is sometimes forced to consciously listen for the correct sound and train one’s vocal apparatus to speak correctly. 

It is physically possible for an English speaker to learn to say the non-aspirated ‘k’ at the beginning of a word like ‘komba’ but that doesn’t mean it is easily done. As you might imagine, the English speaker trying to use the Shinzwani word for “drawing” amuses or, sometimes, offends Shinzwani speakers when the wrong aspiration is used for ‘k’ in the word ‘komba’. Picture the situation in a school in the Comoros in which a Comorian student presents a drawing of her mother to the teacher. The teacher, an English speaking volunteer just learning the local language, wants to thank the student for the drawing. Instead, by using the incorrect ‘k’ the teacher says in Shinzwani, “What a nice lemur you have.”

When speakers of Chinese learn English as a second language, they often encounter difficulty in using the sounds ‘l’ and ‘r’ properly. The words in the following pairs, ‘lot’ and ‘rot’, ‘led’ and ‘red’, ‘lair’ and ‘rare’, etc. have very distinctive meanings in English. It is the initial ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds that change the meanings of the sounds that make up the two words. The differences are easily and clearly heard by English speakers and they use the correct sound in conversations without having to make any conscious decision about which sound to use. In contrast, the two sounds are interchangeable in Chinese. If one is substituted for the other in a Chinese word, the meaning of the word does not change. Thus, a Chinese speaker will not ordinarily pay attention to the physical difference between the sounds and will subconsciously treat them as one. Consequently, when trying to learn English the unprepared Chinese student will have some difficulty hearing the difference and, although it is physically possible for a Chinese speaker to distinguish the sounds, the difference will not be noticed. It will take an extra effort by the learner to separate the sounds use them properly when speaking English. Chinese speakers learning English will often say “rots of ruck” for the phrase, “lots of luck.” This occurred often enough that Chinese roles in American movies in the past were caricatured by having actors commit this error.

The degree of difficulty in learning a second language and learning to speak it correctly depends upon the historical relationship between the two languages and the abilities of the learner. But difficulties in learning a language are universal, since no matter what languages one speaks, a person will be influenced in both perception and behavior by their linguistic background. All hearing-abled individuals have the ability to recognize the sounds of any human language, can make the sounds, and use them properly but it is easier for the child to learn its first language(s) than it is for an adult to learn a second language. One reason is that the young child has not yet completely internalized the framework of a language and thus having it interfere with the learning of another language.

When a person learns to speak in a monolingual environment, it is more difficult to learn a second language than for a person who has been raised in a multilingual environment. Also, learning a second language is made more difficult if the person has an imperial view of their language. If the native language is thought to be superior or the only proper or “true” language, it becomes a privileged frame of reference and an obstacle to learning other languages. This is true for any language and, in general, for any cultural frame of reference.  

            The axioms of Euclidean geometry have been transmitted for many centuries in the belief that they express absolute spatial measurements. Familiar to most American school children, for example, is that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to the sum of two right angles (180̊). It was not until relatively recently did it become recognized that a spatial dimension is a framework affecting the results of measurements. Thus, a triangle’s characteristics will vary depending upon whether the triangle is on a curved surface or a Euclidean plane. In non-Euclidean space, the sum of the angles of a triangle is not always 180˚. The effect of a curved surface may not be noticeable, however, when relatively small triangles are measured. Measuring the angles of a triangle with sides of 12 inches inscribed on the surface of the Earth, for example, will appear to have the dimensions identical to triangles measured on a flat, two-dimensional plane. The sum of the angles will be 180̊ and the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle will be equal to the square root of the sum of the squares of the sides. But when relatively large triangles are measured on the surface of the Earth, significant differences appear. As noted in Chapter 2, when the angles of the triangle created by the intersection of three great circles on the Earth’s surface are measured their sum will be greater than the 180̊ of a triangle measured on a Euclidean plane. The effect of the curved two-dimensional surface upon the sum of the angles only begins to appear when the triangle is much larger than those familiar to us in ordinary experience. It is when large triangles measured on the sphere of the Earth that it becomes apparent that the familiar constants of Euclidean geometry are not absolute measurements of geometric configurations. The familiar results are true relative to the flat two-dimensional space of traditional geometry. When more than two dimensions are involved, the measurements of a relatively large triangle can be noticeably different.

For centuries, plane geometry was a means to communicate the idea of absolute space and absolute time as the basic nature of reality. These were at the foundation of Newton’s Laws. This changed in the past century when it became evident to many that the axioms and laws about the fundamental features of the universe were not absolute but relative to different frames of reference. With this awareness, physicists developed mathematical languages to provide an effective, realistic framework for communicating their thinking about the new results of research. Today, the creation of loop theory and string theory with their mathematical languages remind one that language, although a powerful influence upon perception and behavior, does not completely dominate the human imagination. Learning and creating new languages provide means to communicate new ideas that can overcome the limited experiences of the past. 

Today’s rapid changes in technology, the spreading global economy, increasing networks of information exchange, and growing cross-cultural interaction are producing an escalating awareness of the impact of different frameworks upon all areas of knowledge. This awareness, in turn, is leading to the growing realization that only tautologies represent absolute truths. 

In a recent discussion at a university concerning relativity, a professor argued that absolute truths about the natural world are easy to prove. To make his point, the professor asserted that the everyday occurrence of the sun rising in the east is clearly an absolute truth. No matter what one believed, he continued, the empirical evidence of the daily rising of the sun in the East is incontrovertible proof that there are absolutes and not everything is relative. Many members in the audience nodded their heads in agreement. Their experiences certainly corroborated his conclusion. What could be more obvious? How could anyone doubt it?

According to recent surveys, four out of five persons in the United States maintain a heliocentric view of the solar system. But, if anyone listening to the professor maintained this perspective, they raised no criticism of the professor’s assertions. No one countered his “absolute truth” with the assertion that the sun rising in the East is relative to his frame of reference. Perhaps they were just being polite. But I think there is another reason.

Even if most people in the United States claim they accept the heliocentric view of the solar system it is still difficult for them to accept that the sun passing across the sky each day is not due to the sun’s movement but, instead, is due to the planet spinning on its axis. If you stand on a beach facing eastward and watch the dawn breaking, as the Earth turns you have the feeling that the sun is rising through the sky. Thus, even if someone states that they believe in the heliocentric view of the solar system, they will still have the “gut” feeling the Earth is an immovable, privileged reference frame with the sun moving overhead. This strong feeling about the motion of the sun is rooted in ordinary experience and reinforced through the ages, in prose, poetry, and song. Simply put, the geocentric view of the solar system with the sun circling the Earth is an emotionally maintained privileged reference frame, not a rational one. For most educated people today, it exists along with the rational heliocentric framework. Both are capable of anchoring oneself in the universe. 

            Emotional attachment to the geocentric view of the solar system assures some people of the absolute truth of their view. Then, the acceptance of the absolute truth of a view leads then to denigrate alternative perspectives, to being inhibited from changing perspectives, and to reject multiple perspectives. Thus, those committed to a “true” view of the world are less likely to choose viable alternative ideas and behaviors when faced with danger and disaster. This intransience has become a serious liability in today’s rapidly changing world. Relatively few people nowadays live in self-sustaining isolation where absolute frames of reference reaffirmed by many generations of forebears will continue to sustain a successful way of life. While there are some that are isolated both physically and mentally from the modern world, most humans are facing rapid technological, ecological, biological, etc. changes that pose different challenges from those of the past. If humanity is to successfully deal with the transformations occurring today, profound cultural adjustments are required. Two adjustments are essential: (1) the recognition that absolutes are counterproductive and (2) widespread acceptance of relativistic frames of reference for understanding and guiding social behavior.  

Myths are basic reference frames for human experience; important for providing coherence and stability in human life. They have a useful half-life, however, and throughout history, evolving societies have transformed their myths through revitalization movements. These have led to new revelations in many societies about the world and the role humans play in it. These new perspectives have led to advances in technology, better understanding of reality, and improved ways of life. Today, it has become more important than ever to transform some mythic reference frames and avoid unwanted consequences but as long as many remain committed to absolute frames of references it is very difficult to successfully transform a society. Those emotionally attached to their myths of privileged frames of reference and absolute truths see transformations as threatening and frightening events that must be denied even if it means self-destruction. For them, the possibility of advancing human understanding and improving the quality of life through the transformation of myths is of little concern.

Ordinary experience has been the primary source of information about the physical world for most of human history and this information has been very limited. For one, visual information was received from a small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum while, today, scientists aided by technological innovations “see” information well beyond the abilities of our unaided senses. Modern technology has made it possible to record traces of short-lived subatomic particles, examine details of galaxies light-years away, and document cosmological events from the very distant past. From fundamental particles previously not even imagined to black holes our picture of the universe has drastically changed from one based on ordinary experience. For many it has become a bewildering world we live in. But relativistic frameworks have made it possible to make sense of the physical world.

 Relativity can also be useful for making sense of illusions. In M. C. Escher’s 1953 lithographic print, Relativity, there are seven stairways with persons simultaneously climbing and descending upon them. On one stairway are two individuals nearly side-by-side moving in the same direction but it appears that one is ascending the stairway while the other is descending it. By taking an overall view of the picture, spatial orientation is confused by the apparent contradictions to one’s ordinary sense of reality. By shifting perspective from the overall picture and focusing upon one or other of the persons on the stairway, the climbing of the stairs and the descending of the stairs each become real and the confusion in the spatial orientation is removed. Many optical illusions depend upon this relativistic feature. By shifting frameworks, the observer can perceive different realities that appear contradictory and confusing from a single, overall perspective.

Relativity has replaced the Newtonian notions of absolute space and time to explain phenomena outside the purview of common experience and has provided insights about quantum phenomena. To explain how light can behave like a wave when it passes through two pinholes and acts like a stream of particles when passing through a single pinhole, scientists wonder whether there is an instantaneous transference of information between two spacetime locations. Photons passing through two pinholes appear to communicate instantaneously over a distance to produce an interference pattern on a surface that is characteristic of a wave rather than the scattering of photons seen when light passes through a single pinhole. Since there appears to be distance between the pinholes, any information should take some time between photons as they pass through them. But information being transmitted instantaneously would violate the assumption that the speed of light represents an upper limit for transporting information. This violation does not occur when one considers that it is the use of an absolute spacetime framework with the assumption that there is physical distance between the photons passing through the pinholes. If one recognizes that photons travel at the speed of light where time intervals are equal to zero, from their frame of reference the distance between photons passing through the two slits is also zero. The principle that no information can be transmitted at a speed greater than light is not violated since there is no distance between the photons. When photons are involved in communication, the absolute spacetime framework must be ignored much as the notions of absolute space and absolute time are ignored when dealing with other phenomena involving rapidly moving objects. This provides a different framework for the modern scientist analyzing phenomena at the quantum level of reality. Understanding the role of reference frames is essential to solving the “Quantum Enigma.”[2]

Ordinary experience presents individuals today with many phenomena and, if they are limited to the use of only one framework, they are restricted to a very narrow pathway through life. This results in perplexity, fear, and anger when they have to deal with the modern world with its multiple realities brought into their consciousness by modern technology. If one can make use of different frameworks, the individual gains an ability to shift perspectives, bring different realities into focus, avoid being confused by the overall pattern, and have access to a variety of appropriate behaviors. 

A culture filters sense data and organizes information to provide the individual with a meaningful picture of the world. Different cultures provide multiple perspectives that are each “true” to their relative reference frames. Individuals need not limit themselves to only one and neglect or eliminate others. Instead, by learning to utilize different frames of reference they can benefit from all of them. By using two or more languages effectively, for example, one widens one’s horizons and possibilities. All that is necessary is to learn the language and use it in the appropriate situation. Children in multilingual households easily develop the facility to use two or more languages and become comfortable using multiple cultural frames of reference.

            Cultural frames of reference subconsciously affect all the senses. Influencing what people see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and their reactions to them provides individuals with an emotional framework for reality that is often treated as the one, “true” reality. This belief then makes it difficult for learning other cultures. In extreme cases, furthermore, those individuals with their “true” view of their world expect others to accept it as the only “real” one. This commitment to a privileged frame of reference has often led to serious problems. At the very least, it has interfered with cross-cultural communication. The consequence of this has been a history of miscommunications, misunderstandings, and conflicts between societies. Unfortunately, the commitment to a privileged reference frame in the near future will lead to disastrous global consequences.

The unfortunate consequences of a commitment to privileged frames of reference occurred between North Vietnam and the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1960s, the North Vietnamese viewed the U.S. as a colonial power attempting to impose its will upon its people while the U.S. saw the North Vietnamese as agents in the Cold War attempting to spread world communism. Each held their view of the other as certain and acted upon it as a privileged reference frame. This unfortunate circumstance eventually led to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 in which U.S. naval personnel misinterpreted data. This led to a declaration of war by President Lyndon Johnson of the United States. Only much later afterwards, did then Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, come to recognize that the war was precipitated by the different cultural perspectives held by the leadership of the two countries.[3] In the failure to overcome their different biases and establish meaningful cross cultural communication, the deaths of as many as two million people was the result. 

When ordinary experience confirms a group of individuals’ expectations, they will accept their cultural frames of reference as "absolute truths." If the individuals live in relative peaceful isolation, furthermore, their privileged frameworks will be maintained over many generations. If no significant environmental changes occur, the group’s frameworks will rarely be questioned or challenged and, when individuals within the group do criticize a privileged frame of reference, they are likely to be ignored, ridiculed, ostracized, or killed. But no matter how great the isolation or the constancy of the environment, the normal process of social evolution guarantees that the privileged frameworks of a group will be modified. The rate and degree of change in their frames of reference play an important role in the collapse of civilizations and in the emergence of revitalization movements. A revitalization movement is a “deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture" (Wallace 1956).

Population growth and worldwide economic networks combined with modern transportation and communication systems have significantly increased multicultural interactions. These have led to numerous translations of texts from one language to another but in the increasing complexity of modern social interactions there is a further need for interpretations and translations of cultures. Just as the Lorentz transformations in Physics translate basic measurements from one frame of reference to another, there is a need in Social Science for translations of cultural information from one cultural complex to another.[4] Cultural translation, in this case, goes beyond descriptions of etiquette, body language, dress codes, eating habits, etc. of a group of people. To be truly meaningful, these translations must communicate social perceptions of reality. The result would be better understanding of the social world, improved communication between peoples of different cultural complexes, and progress in the development of modern social organizations. The alternative is continued misunderstanding, miscommunication, and mass destruction.

In ordinary experience, the child adopts frames of reference through personal experience, parental education, and non-familial social interactions. Its early life includes learning to distinguish itself from the rest of the world and defining a reality in which it functions. Normally, the child first establishes egocentric, non-relativistic perceptions about the world and acquires myths supporting its perceptions that reality is objective and absolute. These myths provide an immature individual the guidance for its early interactions with the environment. Social pressures during socialization often help to eliminate uncertainties about the myths but as the child matures it may be confronted with contradictions leading to an uncertainty about the veracity of their frames of reference provided by the myths. Reactions to this situation will vary. Some individuals will deny the validity of the contradictory information and continue to hold faith in their myths, some will accommodate by amending their myths, and others will go through a transformation by creating new myths with new frames of reference.

When members of a society retain an ancient frame of reference in the face of changing sociopolitical, economic, or environmental conditions, the ability to provide workable solutions to the new conditions decreases significantly and the frequency of self-destructive behaviors increases dramatically. This is the "tribalism effect" that has occurred numerous times around the world and continues to occur today. It can lead to the collapse of a civilization via internal strife or external conquest. The process is discussed in more detail in Chapter Six.

Relativistic theory avoids disputes about which frame of reference “really” reflects reality. It also diminishes the destructive tendency caused by individual steadfastness and willingness to sacrifice in the name of “the truth.” But interpreting ‘reality’ as an external, objective world can no longer be accepted by those aware of the results of modern scientific research. Reality is a complex interaction of frames of reference with a world consisting of probabilistic waves and quanta. It varies with the frame of reference used.

That reality is a multifaceted phenomenon with different frames of reference having the ability to provide a realistic representation of the world is not something easy to accept. Emotional attachments and devotion to one’s traditional frame of reference are powerful human forces that continue to influence most individuals today. Even if relativistic theory offers a better understanding of the social world and can lead to improvements in the quality of life, relativistic explanations of human behavior will remain difficult for many to accept. One hopes that social scientists will recognize the value of relativistic principles, incorporate the fundamental concept of culture into their description of human nature, develop the ability to translate frames of reference, and provide the guidance necessary for humanity to progress and survive the difficulties of our changing times. The next chapter moves towards these goals with a discussion of cultural complexes and cultural transformations.

Version: August 13, 2017

Martin Ottenheimer, PhD

Emeritus Professor of Anthropology

K-State University

Please do not quote without permission!


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[1] ‘Measurement’ and ‘observation’ are used interchangeably in this chapter. A measurement is essentially an observation with a value attached.

[2] For an excellent discussion of the issues involved, see Rosenblum and Kuttner, Quantum Enigma, Oxford University Press, 2011.

[3] “We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why." (Robert S. McNamara (1995) in the Preface to In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam)

[4] Read about the increasing demand today for cultural translators in “Legal Language”, The Economist, November 10th, 2012.