Culture For Dummies

It’s culture!

Films, books, paintings, operas, museums, ancestral homes, antiques – things that people mundanely associate to culture. India’s annual Festival of Colors (Holi), for instance, reminds us of the vividness of Eastern cultural landscape. The same thing goes when we experience the enthralling lights of Broadway. There’s a sense of intimate allure, yet hauntingly distant. We imagine culture as an exotic, romantic, and fashionable existence out there, far away. But it’s not.

Culture is one of the most ambiguous terms in the English language. In 2014, Merriam-Webster announced ‘culture’ as the Word of Year. They explained that this word saw the highest spike in terms of lookups on their site. “Culture is a word that we seem to be relying on more and more. It allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group with seriousness,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large. We live in a world where the use and abuse culture is widespread. With this in mind, we need to ask, “What is culture?” In his classic work titled Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, anthropologist Edward Tylor defined this concept as the “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society.” This definition is considered as the most popular (and quoted) anthropological conceptualization of this word. The word was originally derived from the archaic Latin colere which means to ‘to tend, to inhabit, to till, to worship.’

Culture is a central but contested concept in anthropology and sociology. It covers a complex range of social realities and phenomena transmitted by means of social learning. It gives people an array of cognitive tools for them to make sense of their world. And unlike the general assumption that it is ‘far away’, culture is actually unfolding right in front of our eyes. It is not always romantic and exotic; but it is practical, repetitive, and a guide to our every day humanity. It is not solely about music, or fashion, or taste, but an intricate combination of all these components weaved together to create multitudes of daily habits and practices. To better understand this point, Conrad Kottak (author of Mirror for Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology) posits that we can examine culture using a number attributes.

Attributes of Culture

1. It is learned. The way children absorb culture is dependent on humans’ biological capacity to learn complex thought. Most of the time, culture is learned unconsciously. Cultural knowledge is transmitted through observation and performance. It is usually passed from one generation to another, a rigid social process called enculturation.

Like Homo sapiens, other animals have the capacity to learn. For example, we can teach our dogs to do a trick or two. Wolves can learn hunting strategies by watching and tagging with other pack members. There are even group of chimpanzees capable of using simple tools to hunt their prey. These are social animals that learn from other members of the group or their environment. And the capacity to learn is important for them to survive. But cultural learning is radically different since it requires the ability of decoding/encoding symbols (signs that have no necessary connection to the things they signify). Humans can learn things despite the absence of actual experience. Students can learn the life of Adolf Hitler even though some were just born twenty years ago! This is possible because we have universe of symbols embedded in our culture. And we retrieve this information whenever necessary. It points us to the next attribute – that culture is fundamentally symbolic.

2. It is symbolic. This implies that social meanings are encoded into symbols such as words, signs, actions, events, objects, etcetera. Symbols are usually linguistic. But there are tons of nonverbal symbols around us. We think of countries when we see flags. Diamond is a symbol of wealth. A double arch may signify a particular fast food chain for many of us. Or we picture a clothing brand when looking at a bold check logo. We can efficiently transfer knowledge to a wider public because of our ability to encode and understand symbols.

(Centuries from now, future archaeologists may study the symbolic value of Star Wars franchise by analyzing artifacts like DVDs and merchandise. Who knows?!)

3. It is shared. An individual cannot simply claim that he/she have his/her own culture. Culture frames individuals as members of groups, sharing, producing, and reproducing practices and meanings together. Ever heard of the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”? It reminds us that behaviors and practices are simply parts of a larger whole – a communitas. Shared ideals, beliefs, values, and memories glue people of the same group. And enculturation makes people closer by providing similar experiences and worldviews.

4. It is all-encompassing. This means that all people are “cultured!” There’s a time in history when the term “culture” can only be associated to individuals with education, sophistication, high socio-economic pedigree, and those who can appreciate arts and letters. That’s just elitism talking! Culture encompasses people and the triviality of life. It includes pop culture, hip hop, and heavy metal music! It is more than the expected refinement – of partaking wine and cheese. Culture is about the grueling monotonous routines that we see unworthy of serious analysis.

5. It can be adaptive (or maladaptive). For 150,000 years, humans survived because we have biological and cultural ways of coping with environmental pressures. Moreover, social and cultural means of adaptation has only increased during the course of human evolution. It is seamlessly embodied by the survival of populations in extreme environmental conditions such as the freezing domains of Siberia and the arid ecology of Kalahari Desert.

The Viliui Sakha of Northeast Siberia is a good example on the resiliency of local communities. They are pastoralists and horticulturalists, well-accustomed to the cold climatic condition of the area. Come winter, the temperature drops to -50 to -60 degrees (they call this hard climate). During its peak, flying birds would usually freeze and die. And whey they spit, it will freeze before hitting the ground. Even though the place is almost freezing all throughout the year, they can still store enough food stuff because they understand what resources they should acquire, use, and maximize during a particular period. In addition, their local knowledge on sowing hides for clothing protects them from the desolate icy winds of Siberia. Winter is a territory of comfort for the Sakha. In this case, culture is a central tool kit to their survival.

Final Thoughts…

I think it is high time for people to recognize the nuances of culture as a conceptual tool. It may be complex but never impossible. Exploring the diversity of culture is a journey in understanding perspectives and voices. In a rapidly globalizing world, culture will eventually serve as bridge in understanding local narratives.