Journal of Professional Nursing

The Evolving Meaning of ‘Culture’ in New Zealand Nursing

Deb Spence, RGON, RM, PhD, Principal Lecturer, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland

Reference:  Spence, D. (2001). The evolving meaning of 'culture' in New Zealand nursing. Nursing Praxis in New Zealand, (17)3, 51-61.


In a retrospective analysis of the concept of culture, Hagey (1988) suggested that nursing’s definition of culture had changed from associations with physicality to interpretations based on anthropological understandings. Although this statement describes early understandings of the term culture in New Zealand, examination of nursing literature demonstrates that the meaning of culture has evolved beyond an anthropological meaning. It is abundantly clear that within nursing awareness of cultural issues has changed significantly over time. This article traces the evolving meaning of ‘culture’ within the context of New Zealand nursing.   

Culture, New Zealand, nursing history   

The ideas presented in this article are derived from research (Spence, 1999) that used a philosophical hermeneutic framework to explore the experience of registered nurses caring for people from cultures other than one’s own. Hermeneutic methodology recognises that all meanings are culturally and historically embedded and open to change (Gadamer, 1996). Thus the term ‘culture’ was purposefully not pre-defined. Its meaning emerged during the course of the research, unfolding in a way that is well described by Ritchie (1992, p.99) who stated “the real stuff of culture in any of its meanings is messy, confusing, paradoxical ... unclear ... allowing alternatives and interpretations on some occasions and not on others.” This article begins by exploring the colonial meanings of ‘culture’ in New Zealand nursing literature. It discusses the relative invisibility of this notion during the middle of the 20th century and then traces the emergence of a sociopolitical meaning that has created uncertainty and tension both within nursing and between nursing and the wider community.     

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