Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Iceberg Model Of Culture

Cultural Iceberg opengecko

Image: Creative Commons License (details and further references here)

The idea of culture as an iceberg reminds us that only a smaller proportion of cultural aspects are more ‘visible’ and therefore more obvious than many other facets of culture which, while far less tangible and visible, are just as essential to our understanding of how cultures work. In fact, the sub-surface aspects shown above will directly influence those on the ‘tip’ of the iceberg. For example, religious beliefs influence holiday customs and notions of beauty influence the arts.

In terms of intercultural education at an International School such as ours, the relevance of this analogy is that we need to take care to focus our learning opportunities on the less visible aspects if it is to be genuinely meaningful. That is not to say that celebrating and learning about the more obvious aspects of culture (such as the three Fs - food, flags, and festivals) is not important – far from it. However, without embracing the important stuff beneath the surface, there is a risk that learning events claiming to raise intercultural understanding do not go deep enough on their own.

To quote from an article I have recently written for our Term 2 magazine:

Visible and obvious cultural aspects – such as clothing, flags, food, performing and visual arts - are often essential to culture and are well worth celebrating, as happens during International Day and other school festivals. However, there are also many cultural aspects of any community which may not be so visible. We need to continually provide our students with chances to reflect on the many beliefs, values, assumptions and expectations which they and those around them hold. Similarly, we should explore various attitudes towards gender, age, social status, time, space and more. What notions of beauty, courtesy, friendship and ‘self’ do we hold? And how do these reflect our own cultural heritages?

To facilitate deep reflection on these vital but less tangible aspects of culture we need to embed such opportunities across the full range of age groups and learning activities, both curricular and extra-curricular.

The iceberg analogy of culture is very common. Below are some links to sites that explain the concept further and in some cases offer a related activity.

  • An alternative version of the iceberg on a pdf file can be found here. A simplified but nicely animated version is here. Another pdf version here divides the aspects in to three parts (doing, thinking and feeling)
  • An exercise asking you to identify where different cultural aspects might be located on the iceberg is here.
  • A good summary of the concept as applied to a school’s planning of a Year 4 unit on understanding other cultures is here. There is a useful point  on turning the iceberg upside down.
  • This impressive cross-cultural training guide by the Peace Corps gives an iceberg activity on page 10 – click here.


  1. A great article. I am going to have my EAL students (M4/5) read this and write a reflection.

  2. Great article! Am doing a blog on cultural competency for an occupational therapy assignment. Was wondering if I could utilise your iceberg and if so how would you like me to reference it?


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