What is Culture?
A cursory literature search will result in 16 different papers with exactly this same title “What is Culture?”. Much more has been written about culture in general. Culture attracts an apparent interest for obvious reasons as the concept seems to determine how we humans behave. However we are still not sure what “culture” means. The level of confusion resulted in Merriam-Webster’s announcement in 2014 that “culture” is their Word of the Year. Everyone was querying the meaning of this concept. For a concept that is so important, and intuitive, it eludes concrete definition. Culture seems to have different meaning, covering a broad number of social influences that we are trying to describe.
As early as 1952, while attempting to define culture the American anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn ended with 164 different definitions. That was then. Nowadays everyone seems to enjoy the liberty of defining their own unique meaning of culture. Today it would be a daunting task to catalogue all the different definitions. Most definitions are unique while other definitions are amnesiac plagiarism.
Some of the differences in definitions emerge from the different use of the word. By providing an historical perspective Kevin Avruch came up with three basic classes of definitions.
1. There is the culture that defines the ambitions of mankind “high culture” in contrast to “popular culture.” Popular culture being a failed and inferior culture that emerges from the people as apposed to high culture with a set of shared behavior dictated by historical protocol. This has its roots from Matthew Arnolds’ Culture and Anarchy (1867). Having contrasting cultures inevitably leads to conflict as defined in the 19870s by by Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony between dominant and subordinate cultures. Hegemony refers to how one set of cultural rules are imposed and accepted by another group, usually to the detriment of the second group. And giving rise to the concept of “sub” culture as defined early by the Chicago School, who interpreted sub-cultures as forms of deviance and delinquency. Which leads into the earlier interpretation of society by Emil Durkheim, the French Sociologist who in the late 1800s defined how different parts of a society have different functions—cultures—but that society was more than the sum of its parts.
2. In this same vein of thought, culture could also be seen as gauge of how civilized a community is along a continuum. One measure of civilization. The American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan’s influential scheme provided evidence for monogenesis, the theory that all human beings descend from a common source—as opposed to polygenism, with multiple and equally valid development. In monogenesis, cultures evolve on one criterion only: from “savagery” through “barbarism” to “civilization”. Such simplistic determination was of course very popular. Similarly Edward Tylor in Primitive Culture (1870), referred to a quality possessed by all people in all social groups, who nevertheless could be arrayed on a development and evolutionary continuum that assumes that humankind is heading towards an ultimate sophisticated culture. A linear progression where the western culture sits at the pinnacle.
3. The third use of culture reacts to this monogenesis and is best exemplified by Franz Boas. Influenced by the eighteenth-century writings of Johann von Herder, Boaz emphasized the uniqueness of the many and varied cultures of different peoples or societies. Boaz also interjected with relativity—we can only judge another culture from our own. Becoming the champion of post-modernism, which argues for the relativism of how we perceive everything, Boaz undermined the idea of a linear definition of culture. We are not heading to an ultimate goal of the "best" culture. Since cultures emerge from the uniqueness of their environment, one cannot differentiate high from low culture. Moralizing about cultures—“savagery” through “barbarism” to “civilization”—remains only one perspective from “our “ culture and not an inherent feature of cultures.As early as 1948, Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is primarily known for his poetry but he devoted a significant amount of time defining culture. He mused that culture is attached to religion and as a superorganic concept it evolves naturally from a community.
Others have attempted similar categorization of the use of culture. In 1976, the critic Raymond Williams reported that "Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language." His definition of culture in Keywords is similarly based on three uses of the word: educating oneself becoming “cultured”; culture as a group’s shared way of living; and culture as an activity as in doing something cultural. Again the diversity of definitions is primarily based on the utility and use of the word. How the word culture is applied determines its definition.
All of these uses of the term culture refer to a common theme. Culture is a way of living. That there are certain values and traditions that determine religion, beliefs, shared ideas, habits, attitudes, expectations, norms, art, law, morals, customs, that are passed along from one generation to the next. Culture can be as broad as a language, and as specific as a dialect or an inside joke. As a result, culture remains intricately tied to our place of residence. All humans express multiple cultures.
Sometimes the place we reside, and the community we share are distinct enough for a sub-culture to emerge. Culture helps community members avoid misunderstanding and minimizes conflicts within that particular community. Conflict occurs when expectations are not met. When people move into the community from outside and are not aware of the expectations as dictated by the culture.
Culture is learned in a social setting. It is not inherited. It derives from one’s social environment. The enigma with culture emerged when researchers attempted to segregate it as a distinct body of expectations that we can adopt. Acculturation takes a long time if it can ever be fully complete. Only after acculturation can there be an understanding and acceptance of a different culture. Accepting and following a dominant culture allows for a smoother social engagement. Which is why we see that acculturation has numerous measures of psychological and physical wellbeing (e.g. increased life expectancy) but also inherit negative aspects of the culture we adopt (e.g. obesity in the US).
But culture cannot be distinguished from human nature or an individual’s personality. Culture is what makes us human and a particular kind of human. Feral children that are found living wild have all the mechanics of being human but none of the essence. Andrei Mihai reports that such children never fully integrate into society and have difficulty with basic language and civic protocol. Culture and its socialization is what makes us quintessential human including morals, language and aspirations.
In a culture that honors individuality, our personality will reflect that (e.g. on a continuum extrovert vs introvert). In a culture that honors the common good such a continuum does not make sense and instead people lie along a different continuum (e.g. collectivism vs. individualism). In personality research that are based on the five dimensions : Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism cross-cultural variations exist. Our culture can and does determine our personality. Human nature is not purely biological but social.
How we behave is acquired through learning and interacting with other members of our culture. Even what we eat, how often, how much and with whom is dictated by a set of rules enshrined in our culture. One extreme example is cannibalism. When Marvin Harris wrote Cannibals and Kings in 1977 we had a view that culture was somehow independent of the environment. Harris made that connection with food. For example the development of pork as a taboo food in ancient Egypt comes from the fact that pigs are poor grazers, destroy plants and compete with humans for grain. While cattle, sheep and many other domesticated animals consume grass without digging the roots, they also provide milk, transport, and labor. Harris notes that pigs were taboo in ancient Egypt, then by Israelites and continues to be forbidden by Islam. The culture that dictates what food to eat emerges from environmental considerations. The culture of making food taboo enables a community to maximize its food production. Culture therefore resides as a bridge between environmental pressures and personal preferences. Culture also influences other aspects of our behavior other than food. The emerging understanding about culture is that is allows for a way of moderating environmental demands and community needs across time. A historic template used for future generations on how to behave. Culture succinctly encapsulates a protocol, a set of rules, transmitted to future generations in order to increase their chances of survival. In order for these protocols to be followed, we have developed a system here thee protocols are These protocols are not suggestions but dictates behavior. They are social formed and socially acquiesced and social transmitted.
Gary Ferraro in 1998 exposed the different levels of culture from national, regional, gender, generational, role, social class, employment, ethnicity and many more other spheres. Then there are the cultures among families, tribes or clans; those cultures distinguished by language, ethnicity, or religion; by social classes; by political interest groups; and by elected membership (clubs). No person has a single culture. Cultures are the flippers in a pinball machine, paddles (norms) that direct the ball (behavior) into a desired place (conventional behavior). The volume and depth of these different cultures makes it un-wielding. The conclusion is that no two individuals share the same cultures. Such insight necessitates that instead of addressing cultures as distinct we need to see all these different cultures as sharing a common heritage.
Lets assume that our distinction between an “I” and anything else outside of me is contrived. There is a force that stops me from making this judgment. There is a natural force that pushes me to think about “I”. But even when I try and identify “me” I need a social context.
In 1982, John Turner argued that: “individuals define themselves in terms of their social group memberships and that group-defined self-perception produces psychologically distinctive effects in social behavior.” This socialization is what makes us distinct. If I need the social context to define “me” then culture—being the social area where we define our norms of behavior—must be an integral aspect of who I am. My culture is both deterministic—controls what I do—but also is an expression of who I am within a given environment.
Such analysis is not new. As early as the 1950s, Harry Sullivan argued that: “…human beings are human animals that have been filled with culture—socialized…” (p. 323) Arguing that culture is how we define ourselves as individuals. We seem to have a dual aspect of ourselves. Both a social aspect and a personal self holds together my sense of self. Emil Durkheim proposed that humans are “homo duplex”, where one existence is rooted in biology and one in a social world in our culture. What is surprising is that our biology is also designed to integrate our social environment. There are specialized areas in our brain that “mirror” our environment.
In the 1980s, the Italian Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma, first observed mirror neurons in monkeys. Although mirror neurons exist in most animals, in humans as much as 10 percent of neural cells are devoted to mirroring. A mirror neuron fires both when a person acts and also while observing the same action performed by another person. Such mirror neurons respond directly to what is observed outside. Our brain responds and mimics the activation of another person’s behavior and activity. Culture is automatically transferred through our brain.
The accumulating evidence suggests that the body is a meeting place of interaction, a venue with the outside world—the geography, the community and significant others interact with the idea of self. Culture is how we explain this interaction—social influence—to ourselves.
Psychologist have long known this. Especially with developmental psychology looking at how children develop and learn.
The Russian Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) founded cultural-historical psychology. He believed that children learn through play and interacting with their environment. At the time there were three theories of how we learn: Constructivism, Behaviorism and Gestalism.
Constructivism: We need to mature first to be able to learn. Development always precedes learning. Championed by Jean Piaget who referred to this as genetic epistemology, the theory proposes that we cannot learn unless we are developmentally ready to learn.
Behaviorism: Where both learning and development go hand in hand and occur simultaneously but where learning is development.
Gestalism: A symbiotic relationship between learning and development where development influences learning and learning promotes development.
Vygotsky argued the opposite to Piaget’s concept of genetic epistemology. Learning precedes development. In this sense he is more of a Behaviorist. He argued that, “We do not learn because we develop, we develop because we learn." Vygotsky's "Zone of proximal development" (ZPD) describes the interaction that a child has with their culture. By interacting with their culture in the ZPD a child learns skills that go beyond the child’s actual developmental or maturational level.
Learning in the ZPD is accomplished through both informal conversations and formal schooling. Adults pass on to children the ways to interpret the world. As children and adults interact with each other—later defined as scaffolding, supporting children to learn and then by taking away the scaffolding they learn the skills by themselves—adults share meanings about objects, events and human experiences. Adults are able to mediate and transmit meanings through language, math, art, music, and behavior (e.g. religion).
In The Ecology of Human Development, another Russian-born developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner transformed Vygotsky views on culture to one based on the environment. Vygotsky’s ZPD has been expanded to four zones or spheres. Whereas Vygotsky ZPD sphere is cultural, Bronfenbrenner calls these spheres environmental, and extended their influence. Bronfenbrenner was the co-founder of the Head Start program, a social program that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. This social program is based on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model. This ecological model expands Vygotsky's ZPD to four spheres of influence on the child’s development to include global environment of the child.
From a microsystem which defines the family and school; Mesosystem that describes the interaction of the family with social structures; Exosystem which involve interaction with less frequent visitors like relatives, friends, parent’s work colleagues, religious leaders, and neighbors and lastly; the Macrosystem which defines the broader culture of economy, customs and bodies of knowledge.
Bronfenbrenner argues that: “No society can long sustain itself unless its members have learned the sensitivities, motivations , and skills involved in assisting and caring for other human beings.” (p.53) Both Vygotsky and Brofenbrenner’s theories talk about spheres if influence that are equally important. Culture in this context both defines us and determines how and what we learn. We, in-turn, pass on this body of knowledge, this culture to younger cohorts. There is a symbiotic relationship and the central theme that makes culture humanistic is a caring curriculum.
Accepting that there is not just a "me" inside us but also a "we" then there is a more concise understanding how the culture determines behavior and outcomes. My individuality is no longer solely about me but about my culture. Emil Durkheim argued that there will be a conflict between the biological and the cultural aspect of the homo duplex. That the cultural aspect of “me” will conflict with my own impression of “self.”
This is all esoteric stuff. But it leads to some very practical conclusions. We can never know the culture of another person. The culture of a group of people is tied to a time and a place. We can never know that culture unless we also experienced it ourselves. That becoming cultural attuned remains elusive. A more radical awareness being that we learn through "scaffolding" a network of cultural interaction that might no longer be evident in the present day.
Studying culture as a psychological feature might result in a better understanding of ourselves as a product of our environment. Sometimes culture is a visible expression of that relationship, but it is mostly hidden and a historic event that cannot be traced back.
© USA Copyrighted 2018 Mario D. Garrett