A Map Of Culture - Poem by Nyein Way
What is Culture?
The Importance of Culture
Culture is Critical
The Sociobiology Debate
Values, Norms, and Social Control
Signs and Symbols
Terms and Definitions
Approaches to the Study of Culture
Are We Prisoners of Our Culture?
What is Culture?
I prefer the definition used by Ian Robertson: 'all the shared products of society: material and nonmaterial' (Our text defines it in somewhat more ponderous terms- 'The totality of learned, socially transmitted behavior. It includes ideas, values, and customs (as well as the sailboats, comic books, and birth control devices) of groups of people' (p.32) .
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The Importance of Culture
The concepts, culture and society are closely related. Culture is defined as all the products of society- material and nonmaterial; Society consists of interacting people living in the same territory who share a common culture. We really can't have one without the other (unless you want to call archaeological remains and historical records 'culture') . People in society create culture; culture shapes the way people interact and understand the world around them.
Culture determines what we know- the sum of all the angles in a triangle; what a screw driver is used for; how to use a computer to find out where Peloponnesians are...
Culture also determines what we don't know- how to catch a fish by hand; how to build a dugout canoe and navigate the South Seas without chart or compass.
Culture determines what we want to be- lawyer; dairy farmer; computer programmer; doctor; shaman; pearl diver
It varies with the physical setting or geography: (A good example here is music. Think of all the differences in music that are related to geography. We're a mixed society in the United States, but think of the regional origins of much of our our music: Clogging in Tennessee; Cajun music (Zydeko) in Louisiana; City music vs. Country/Western Music, etc.)
It also varies with time: Have you ever tried to read Beowulf; Shakespeare; work a slide rule; drive a buggy; understand Victorian morality and ethics? I asked my young daughter if she wanted to go to a record store. 'What's a record? ', she asked. (Her generation has been exposed only to tapes and CDs) .
Think of culture as a stream flowing down through the centuries from one generation to another. Each generation contributes something to this stream, but in each generation something is left behind, some sediment drops to the bottom and is lost to society, (Bierstedt) . Examples of things lost to society the art of stained glass window making, violin making (The greatest violins ever produced by man were made in Cremona, Northern Italy in the mid 16th century) . (Science 84 5: 2 pp 3643) .
Culture is Critical to the Survival of Human Race
Because of the nature of the animal that we are. Unlike most animals that are specially adapted to the environment in which they live, we lack special physical characteristics such as long fangs, sharp teeth, claws, fur, feathers, or scales; or even physiological behavior patterns such as hibernation, to enable us to survive in a hostile environment. But, like the higher primates, (which we are one type of) , we share a number of important characteristics:
Characteristics of all primates:
Sociable: (Primates are gregarious and like to be in groups)
Smart: (large brain/body weight ratio) Humans' brains are most complex.
Sensitive hands: (All primates have an opposing thumb) .
Sound: (Primates are extremely vocal) .
Stand: (All primates can assume an erect posture which frees the hands):
Biological characteristics possessed by humans, alone:
Sex and Mating: (Year around mating- Unlike other primates, we lack a special breeding season. This, has important implications for gender roles) .
Schooling: (The young have a long period of dependence on adults. This also has implications for gender roles) .
Symbolic Speech: (Although there are numerous examples of chimpanzees being taught to use symbols to communicate, humans alone have developed a highly complex system of symbolic speech) .
Locomotion: (Humans alone, walk erect) .
Humans possess a highly developed, complex brain, which allows us to communicate symbolically, to learn quickly, and to innovate. We lack instincts (or if they do exist they are not readily apparent) . It is our culture that enables us to survive as a species. Culture provides answers to such basic problems as finding shelter, food, and clothing. Culture provides guidance for our every day lives; social organization which keeps us from tearing each other apart.
Every generation has to learn from scratch the culture of its society or it will perish. All the basic institutions of society that we discussed earlier; the economy, education, religion, recreation, politics represent needs that society must meet. Ways of meeting these needs are handed down from one generation to the next. They represent our culture. What we lack in physical attributes and strength, we make up for in our ability to communicate and learn culture from one generation to the next.
This, in my opinion, is precisely why Sociology is so important. It's humankind's almost total reliance upon socially transmitted patterns of behavior that enable it to survive. Society and culture are the subject matter of Sociology.
The Sociobiology Debate
There is a school of thought, Sociobiology, which sees much of human behavior as being instinctual. Sociologists generally hold that culture evolved (or developed) due to the influence of values (ideas) or due to changes in the material base of society (technology fire, the wheel, the computer) . They usually argue that biology (genetic programming) has a limited role. Sociobiologists, claim that human culture and social behavior derive from a process of natural selection and genetic transmission. Our genes predispose us to certain patterns of behavior unique from other animals. Sociobiologists support their argument by citing a number of 'cultural universals' found in all societies. They say that this is evidence of the influence of genetic factors. Examples have been drawn from the work of anthropologist, George Murdock (1945) who argued that all societies demonstrated some form of the following:
cooking (meal preparation)
Sociobiologists argue that human behavior ultimately is derived from our biology rather than learning. According to Murdock, all societies have incest taboos. Why? One biological argument would be that in-breeding can produce genetic defects, or that it may reinforce undesirable traits (such as hemophilia or mental instability) . Incest taboos force a group to broaden its gene pool which reduces the probability of passing along 'dysfunctional' traits. One could apply this argument to the Catholic Church: By forbidding priests and nuns to marry, it forced the recruitment of individuals from outside the church to keep the gene pool fresh. (This would prevent the formation of 'religious royal families' and the decline of the faith when a feeble minded monarch emerged) .
But there are problems with this argument. Referring to incest: Why is incest defined differently from one society to another? The range of variation is tremendous! Some societies have allowed marriage between brothers and sisters. Others forbid it between relatives closer than first cousins. Still others have restrictions going out even further; requiring individuals to marry outside the tribe. If there is a genetic basis for the incest taboo, why is there so much variation? Another point is that just as 'dysfunctional traits' can be reinforced through inbreeding; so can 'desirable' characteristics. (Dog breeders and horse breeders do this very thing) .
If everything were programmed genetically, we would expect to see little variation across societies in the way people handled the affairs of their everyday lives. But there are tremendous differences in...
the sports that we play and the way we play them
the families that we form and the ways we form them
the various ways in which we court our spouses
the friends we make and the way we make them
the tools we make and how we use them
the languages we invent and the way we speak them
the food we eat and how we eat it
the religions we form and how we practice them
the laws and customs we make and how we observe them.
The key point is that this behavior is learned. Humans can change culture without changing genes. Biology sets the stage by giving us unique capabilities that distinguish us from other species; culture determines how we use those unique capabilities.
Values, Norms, and Social Control
Values are socially shared ideas about what is 'right' and 'wrong; ' 'good' and 'bad' in society. Values are general ideas- broad and abstract. They vary from one society to another and one way to study society is to examine the values held by its members. Values are important because it is from them that we derive the norms or rules that govern our everyday lives. Values help guide conduct in unfamiliar situations and may lead to the formation of specific norms. Generally speaking, we tend to hold on to our values and are unlikely to compromise them. American values have been intensively studied by numerous scholars:
American values (Robin Williams) :
achievement and success
activity and work
American values (Talcott Parsons) :
maximization of opportunity for individuals and sub collectives
pragmatic acceptance of authority
objection to pretensions of generalized superiority of status
technology and science
Individuals as well as entire societies may experience value conflict. A great example of value conflict at the individual level is provided by the 1941 movie, 'Sergeant York, ' (starring Gary Cooper) . The movie tells the story of Alvin Cullum York, regarded as one of the outstanding heroes of World War I, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for killing 20 enemy soldiers and capturing over 100 prisoners. At first, York was a conscientious objector who held deep religions convictions against killing. The value conflict in this case involved the Sixth Commandment's prohibition against killing and what he felt were his duties as a patriotic American- to answer his country's call. Cooper, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Sgt. York, did a wonderful job showing how individuals 'freeze up' and are unable to do anything until they resolve these kinds of internal value conflicts.
One very powerful example of a value conflict at the societal level is the current debate over abortion. Values are not readily compromised and it is often impossible to find 'common ground' in these kinds of disputes. The debate over slavery and states' rights in the 1850s is an example of a value conflict that was eventually resolved through war- the bloodiest war in this nation's history. The deplorable state of affairs we are now observing in what was formerly Yugoslavia, is essentially another value conflict.
Norms are derived from a society's overall values. Values determine norms. Remember, norms are classified into several types.
Folkways (weak norms customs, etiquette; three meals a day, wearing shoes to class, tipping after a meal, taking same seat in class)
Mores (strong norms considered vital to our well-being, values, morals; cheating on spouse, child abuse and murder)
Laws (Norms established and punished by the state with punishments fixed in advance: written or encoded mores, folkways, and taboos; from traffic laws to laws against rape and murder) .
Taboos (Very strong norms whose violation is considered loathsome and disgusting)
Social Control is the means by which society ensures that its members follow approved norms. Norms are supported by sanctions- positive and negative; formal and informal; which are used to bring people into line.
Positive (informal) sanction: give child a candy bar for behaving
Negative (informal) sanction: give a child a stern look for talking in church
Positive (formal) sanction: combat soldier gets Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism
Negative (formal) sanction: person gets speeding ticket for doing 56 mph in a 55 mph zone
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Signs and Symbols
There is an important difference between signs and symbols that you should know. Symbols set man apart from animals. Animals use signs.
Signs are representational: There is a direct connection between the sign and the reality it refers to. The meaning is clear and unambiguous. Sort of like stimulus and response. There is no need to interpret meanings.
Smoke indicates that fire is present (or will soon be present)
The family dog scratches the door to the back yard- It wants to go outside. It gets its bowl- It wants food. (The bowl is directly related to food) . It lays down belly-up- It displays submission.
Symbols are interpretative:
A symbol is an object, gesture, sound, color, or design which stands for something other than itself. We humans give meaning to these things. Examples- wedding band; leather jacket; sports car; the length and color of a person's hair; (punk rockers; T.V. ministries where people are neatly dressed; flag burnings) . Symbols may have multiple meanings. Example- the cross on a church steeple; a burning cross; a red cross on the side of an ambulance. (A smile can take on many different meanings) . Symbols can change meaning over time. Example- 'V' sign was once obscene. It stood for victory in World War II. During the Vietnam War it meant peace. Symbols are capable of stirring up deep emotions. In the debate over abortion, individuals don't classify themselves as 'pro' or 'anti' abortion. Rather, they use the terms 'pro-choice', or 'pro-life'- 'choice' and 'life' are two important values in U.S. society. People often disagree over whether or not a symbol is appropriate for a given place or circumstance. Several years ago, there was much debate over whether or not McDonalds' 'golden arches, ' an internationally recognized symbol in its own right, should be displayed so prominently over the VCU Student Commons' entrances. Eventually, the arches were taken down.
Most people feel that language is unique to human beings. Other species use signs with genetically fixed meanings and can learn to respond to specified stimuli- (Pavlov's dogs salivating at the ring of a bell) - but only humans can be said to have language. Language consists primarily of verbal and written symbols with rules for putting them together. (Language also consists of the nonverbal expressions which accompany speech in face-to-face interaction. Raising an eyebrow or winking an eye often relays more meaning than a hundred words. We can therefore modify our definition to include 'verbal, visual, and written symbols and their associated rules for putting them together.'
Is language really unique to humans? There are a number of very interesting studies that suggest that certain animals have a highly developed capacity for language. Click on the links, below for some serious and scholarly references on animal communication.
This next site has some interesting material on
§ Dolphins and Whales
Language is truly the 'keystone to culture' for without it, we could not pass on the collective experience of society and the lessons it teaches for survival. It is the primary way that we pass on our culture from one generation to the next. It enables us to store meanings so we don't have to relearn everything with each generation.
Language allows us to create worlds we've never seen and develop new ideas to explain the world around us. A good example is atomic theory. Before the advent of the scanning electron microscope men had predicted the existence of atoms and molecules using the symbols of language. Language also allows us to develop new ideas to apply to the future.
George Orwell realized the importance of language in his epic work,1984. Why did the rulers of Oceania develop 'Newspeak'? They wanted to restrict the creative ability of humankind so they wouldn't have the concepts of freedom, free enterprise, individuality. 'The purpose of newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper to devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.' (Orwell, p.246)
The SapirWhorf Hypothesis states that language not only reproduces our ideas, but it also shapes the way we think. It orders our reality. It may prevent people from being aware of things in the environment and focuses our attention on certain things. Examples:
Sexist language shapes our thinking about women. Coaches who ridiculed male players when they weren't playing well by calling them ladies? Language that treats women as objects; 'chick, fox, babe, hot cakes, skirts, etc. will tend to make us think of women as objects, not people.
Racist language, ethnic language; Micks, Spicks, Whops, Pollocks, Degos, Ollies, etc. tend to lower our image of people.
Color: The human eye can discern thousands of different shades of color, yet in our society we identify only 6 to 8 particular ones. A tribe in New Guinea breaks colors into categories of 'warm' and 'cold' (so much for the science of spectroscopy in that society) !
The Eskimos have many different words for snow. Unless we ski a lot, most of us use one- 'snow.'
Christian missionaries in Hawaii were shocked to find no word or concept for sin.
In (North) American society, we tend to treat physical objects as if they had wills of their own. If a pen rolls off a table, we'll say 'It fell off.' or 'It rolled off the table and fell on the floor.' The Russian culture works differently. Their response would be something like 'They did it.' or 'They caused it to fall on the floor.'
Are we slaves to our language? The language we speak predisposes us to see the world in certain ways, but language is extremely flexible. As we find ourselves lacking words to describe new ideas, machines, processes, and technologies, we coin new terms and phrases. 'Black holes, ' 'Quarks, ' and even 'Supply side economics, ' are all creations of the mind and examples showing where language has lagged behind conceptual ideas in the mind.
Terms and Definitions
Related terms and definitions:
Cultural universals: These imply practices common to every culture. We've already discussed the Anthropologist, George Murdock's proposed list of general traits found in every culture. It seems that there are a large number of very general traits common to all cultures, but no specific ones like what, exactly, defines murder, incest, etc. in a society?
Ethnocentrism: This is the tendency to judge other cultures by the standards of our own. ('Body Ritual Among the Nacirema') .
Cultural relativism: The recognition that one culture cannot be arbitrarily judged by the standards of another. We need to adopt this stance when studying other cultures.
Cultural Integration: Culture is not a random assemblage of skills, customs, values, and beliefs. These elements are woven into a definite pattern and are somehow related to one another.
Cultural Diversity: Common culture gives us a sense of identity but there is a great deal of variation among groups. We witness cultural diversity on both the international and national levels. We've already talked about regional differences when we compared the North with the South in the United States.
Subcultures: Within a culture there may exist groups of people who have their own distinct sets of values, customs, and lifestyles. (Italian Americans, African Americans, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, the young, the middle-aged, the old, etc.) . We can even say that there is a subculture of college life.
Countercultures: a counterculture that is fundamentally at odds with the dominant culture. (The youth movement of the 1960's, for example) .
Real and Ideal culture: Ideal culture is what the values say we believe in, what we should practice, while real culture is what actually exists. Often there is a discrepancy between the two resulting in cultural strain.
Approaches to the Study of Culture
There are several approaches to the study of culture. Here are two examples:
Functionalism looks at the roles that components of culture play in maintaining the social order as a whole. What are the consequences for a society if we remove or change one element of its culture? (i.e. in America, the computer) . The problem with this approach is that it tends to overlook change when stressing the functional relationships between variables. It also has a pejorative or negative view of unbalance in the system, even when such unbalance may mean social improvement.
The Ecological approach examines the culture of a given society in relation to the total environment in which it exists. For example, why do people in India let sacred cows roam the streets by the millions (100 million) when so many people are hungry? One reason is that cows are needed to produce the oxen which Indian farmers must have to plow the fields. Without them, even more people will starve. Also, the cows produce over 700 million tons of manure each year. Half of it is used for fertilizer; the other half is used for fuel. When the cows die, they are eaten by the untouchables or outcasts who are the hungriest people in the population. The cows' hides are used in the leather industry.
Are we prisoners of our Culture?
No. Culture does make humans what they are, but humans also make culture. We constantly make changes to our culture. It guides us through life, but we also change and modify it to our needs and desires. If we could not do this, everything would be the same from generation to generation just like the bees and termites. It's hard for 2. Processes of cultural change: Cultural change is usually slow and deliberate. When changes occur in one cultural element (the economy) changes can be expected elsewhere (politics) . Things generally tend to be linked together.
There are three mechanisms by which cultural change occurs:
Discovery the perception or recognition of something that already exists- fire, the New World.
Invention combining old knowledge to produce something that did not exist before, the compass, for example.
Diffusion the spread of cultural elements from one culture to another. i.e. gun powder from China to the West. Most cultural change occurs in this manner- (Linton's 'One hundred Percent American' article) .
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