Biologically speaking, we humans are social beings. We need our parents to be born, and once that happens; even though we are considered single individuals with a brain and mind that let us think and learn, we do not isolate ourselves from the rest of the people. On the contrary, all we do is to follow our peers.
We gather in groups, and these groups constitute subgroups again. This is the basic method we follow to successfully organise and build up our social structure to satisfy our several needs.
The first of these groups is our family, and from here we span to neighbourhoods; communities of different kinds, that we joined based on a particular interest, such as: religious, sports, academic, musical, labour, political, ideological, etc. These groups grow in number to form states and then countries or nations.
All these people together establish a society. Societies differ from one another and every single one of them is unique, particular and characterised for a distinctive feature that we call “culture”.
Culture is that complex absoluteness that we learn day by day. It is everything with which we fill and give sense to our existence. The way we wear, think, believe, act, speak, perceive are all framed and shaped by the ideas, concepts, values that are part of a specific culture.
Through culture we learn to adapt ourselves in this physical world, manipulating the available resources for our own welfare and we also shape our behaviour to avoid a social chaos.
Concepts of Culture
Culture is neither natural nor artificial. It stems from neither genetics nor rational thought, for it is made up of rules of conduct, which were not invented and whose function is generally not understood by the people who obey them. Some of these rules are residues of traditions acquired in the different types of social structure through which each human group has passed. Other rules have been consciously accepted or modified for the sake of specific goals. Yet there is no doubt that, between the instincts inherited from our genotype and the rules inspired by reason, the mass of unconscious rules remains more important and more effective; because reason itself is a product rather than a cause of cultural evolution. – Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1983.
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Culture means the whole complex of traditional behavior which has been developed by the human race and is successively learnt by each generation. A culture is less precise. It can mean the forms of traditional behavior which are characteristic of a given society, or of a group of societies, or of a certain race, or of a certain area, or of a certain period of time. – Margaret Mead, 1937.
Culture is the integral whole consisting of implements and consumer’s goods, of constitutional charters for the various social groupings, of human ideas and crafts, beliefs and customs. Whether we consider a very simple or primitive culture or an extremely complex and developed one, we are confronted by a vast apparatus, partly material, partly human, and partly spiritual, by which man is able to cope with the concrete specific problems that face him. – Bronislaw Malinowski, 1944.
Culture embraces all the manifestations of social behavior of a community, the reactions of the individual as affected by the habits of the groups in which he lives, and the product of human activities as determined by these habits. – Franz Boas, 1930.
Characteristics of Culture
Culture is learnt: as soon as we are in contact with other members of our culture, we start learning all about it; therefore, we can assume that culture is learnt rather than inherited biologically. A human being will learn the culture of the society where he is raised; thus, a person that is born in Australia would not practise the same culture if he had been born in Poland. In this context we are different from animals since they are biologically built in a way that they will know how to behave and act naturally even if they grew in isolation.
Culture is shared: if culture is learnt, we can state that it is also shared. We share all knowledge among the members of the same society. This way we pass on the standards of our culture along years keeping it alive. As we are social beings, we have a high tendency of sharing and this feature let us improve as a whole. By sharing we provide the necessary tools that are used for a gentle adaptation in all stages and environments we go through in our lives.
Culture is integrated: culture itself is not a single unit. It is a complex whole in which every feature that characterizes it has an important role that makes that culture distinctive and peculiar. All these features function integrated and not separately from one another. This way when a feature changes, it affects to the whole system making it also swift.
Culture is dynamic: there are some reasons such as: population growth, technological innovation, environmental crisis, intrusion of outsiders, modification of behaviour, etc; that have made cultures change. That is why cultures must be flexible and dynamic in order to adapt constantly to the new changes and avoid repression of his members.
Culture is based on symbols: culture has been transmitted among its members along the years through a set of different symbols. Symbols are then the instrument used to pass on culture and keep it alive from generation to generation, and language is the most important one.
Functions of Culture
According to Bronislaw Malinowski (1884 – 1942) the function of culture is to fulfill certain biological and psychological needs people share.
Cultures are expected to fulfill certain functions in order to lead a society successfully and some of them might me:
Guarantee the biological continuity of its members.
Provide practical means to pass on knowledge among members.
Meet the psychological and emotional needs of its members.
Being flexible enough in order to survive the increasing shifting conditions.
Offer strategies for the rational production and distribution of goods and services considered necessary for life.
Provide an organised and diverse social structure so that all its members can fit in it and also understand the world in their own means.
Facilitate social interactions among its members and offer reasonable ways to avoid or resolve conflicts that might rise within the group as well as with outsiders.
Allow human beings to adapt the environment to their own purposes. Social interactions do not refer to only relationships among human beings but also and deeply with nature. The survival of all cultures depends on the way they use and treat nature.
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A well-working culture is the one that satisfies the different groups within the society as equally as possible; thus, its individual members can all have access to the resources available in the community and achieve their personal and collective goals. This will avoid the members to feel unsafe and unattached; therefore, they will not easily fall into anti-social behaviours, such as: violence, crime, suicide, depression, abuse of drugs, etc.
Enculturation and Acculturation
Every single culture is learnt by their members and transmitted from person to person and from generation to generation to avoid its absolute disappearance. The most important instrument used to carry this out is language. The process of passing on knowledge among people is what we call enculturation. This process is vital to guarantee the survival of the culture, but it is also significant to do it in the most smoothly manner to avoid any disruption among members and also among the features of the culture being transmitted.
Enculturation let us understand the past so that we can make a better sense of the present and therefore plan a more sustainable future for the welfare of our species. This process also gives us the opportunity to find out more about ourselves; our ancestors and origin; where the way we think and perceive the world, our values and beliefs come from.
When enculturation is carried out in the proper manner, the members of all cultures grow up closer to their past, revitalizing the core values that make their cultures unique and distinct from all others. They also grow up in an environment characterized by the deep pride of belonging to one particular culture and behave with strong ideas of maintaining their culture alive; albeit the irrevocable changes they must go through.
There is also another phenomenon that cultures might experience, consisting on the absorption of one culture over another one, called acculturation. This usually happens when industrialized or capital societies influence highly over traditional small societies to the point of modifying them completely. Once they are in contact, the former shapes and converts the latter one. The small society adopts the culture of the powerful one as the final outcome. This process is similar to that of colonization. It is especially more noticeable now that we live in a globalized world; where the small societies are usually the most affected ones.
Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism
There is generally a bad habit of criticising other people’s behaviour but most of all to judge the way other cultures function. When we find ourselves interacting with people from other cultures, or simply see it on the media; we get surprised by the different manners they behave, think and express in similar situations. There is nothing wrong with comparing cultures, in fact, this way we learn more about others and value ours, too. We must keep in mind that when comparing, we should adopt an unbiased position in order to understand the best way possible why other people do things in the way they do, and avoid unsupported preconceptions.
The term that refers to what it is mentioned in the paragraph above is ethnocentrism: the belief that the way that one’s own culture functions is the only proper and correct one, while all others are wrong.
In order to avoid making fast judgements or simply incorrect conclusions; anthropologists, when studying cultures, always put into practice what they call cultural relativism which is the idea that we must suspend or postpone judgement of other people’s practices until we acquire a full understanding of the culture in which we are interested; so as to understand them in their own cultural terms. It is important to clarify that in this process what it is done is to put off one’s judgement towards another culture, it is neither precipitated nor cancelled. Through cultural relativism it is possible to hold our judgements and perceptions about the culture being observed to the last stage; in order to take down accurate data and keep valid records; furthermore, avoid preconceptions influenced by ethnocentrism.
Along history not only humans have changed, but also the way we live. In our search for a better and more comfortable world for us to inhabit; we have made an irrational and abusive use of natural resources. We have damaged nature to such extreme points to threaten our own survival. Most of the societies around the world, influenced by the western fashion have turned into very consumerist ones; the ideas and values that used to grasp societies together are now stirring political discomfort and creating social inequality because the leaders and members of our societies are more tented to achieve personal and individual profits at any cost to work collectively so that every member can accomplish his personal and collective needs.
The process of changing is unstoppable; everything needs to keep changing constantly to stay alive; therefore a culture that does not adjust its features simple disappears. The most important affected feature of a culture is its language. Language is that particular faculty that differentiates us from animals and makes us a unique and rational species.
Through language we humans are able to express our feelings, thoughts, ideas and most importantly to transmit our culture from one generation into another one, assuring its survival along years. Many languages have already disappeared, mainly as a result of the process of acculturation; and with the languages, also ways of thinking, expressing, seeing, perceiving are gone. This way the world becomes small and intrinsic, losing authenticity and variety provided for the distinct and diverse manners of receiving, understanding, analyzing, shaping and living this world.
For a culture to survive is not enough to shift. It should do it in a way that it can guarantee that its members will satisfy their biological and social needs; thus, the whole society will feel competent and safe; therefore, it will behave proudly and mutually to keep it alive.