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Lecture 10. Culture and Society

1.The concept of culture

2. Cultural diversity.

3 Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.

4. Culture as a symbolic system. The language and its role in society

5. A sociological study of different forms of culture


1.The simplest way to think about culture is to think about the distinction between nature (our biology and genetics) and nurture (our environment and surroundings that also shape our identities). Because of our biology and genetics, we have a particular form and we have certain abilities. But our biological nature does not exclusively determine who we are. For that, we need culture. Culture is the non-biological or social aspects of human life, basically anything that is learned by humans is part of culture.

Generally speaking, the following elements of social life are considered to be representative of human culture: "stories, beliefs, media, ideas, works of art, religious practices, fashions, rituals, specialized knowledge, and common sense" (p. xvi). Yet, examples of culture do not, in themselves, present a clear understanding of the concept of culture; culture is more than the object or behavior. Culture also includes,…norms, values, beliefs, or expressive symbols. Roughly, norms are the way people behave in a given society, values are what they hold dear, beliefs are how they think the universe operates, and expressive symbols are representations, often representations of social norms, values, and beliefs themselves.

To summarize, culture encompasses objects and symbols, the meaning given to those objects and symbols, and the norms, values, and beliefs that pervade social life. "The definition is understood to include two elements - that which differentiates one group or society from others and the concept of acquired or learned behavior". Keep in mind that, in any given society, culture is not necessarily rigid and totally uniform. As is the case with most elements of social life, culture is relatively stable (thus it is functional in the structural-functionalist sense) but at the same time contested (in the conflict sense).

1. Many people today think of culture in the way that it was thought of in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries. This concept of culture reflected inequalities within European societies and their colonies around the world. This understanding of culture equates culture with civilization and contrasts both with nature or non-civilization. According to this understanding of culture, some countries are more civilized than others, and some people are more cultured than others. Theorists like Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) believed that culture is simply that which is created by "the best that has been thought and said in the world". Anything that doesn't fit into this category is labeled as chaos or anarchy. From this perspective, culture is closely tied to cultivation, which is the progressive refinement of human behavior.

In practice, culture referred to elite goods and activities such as haute cuisine, high fashion or haute couture, museum-caliber art and classical music. The word cultured referred to people who knew about and took part in these activities. For example, someone who used culture in this sense might argue that classical music is more refined than music by working-class people, such as jazz or the indigenous music traditions of aboriginal peoples.

People who use culture in this way tend not to use it in the plural. They believe that there are not distinct cultures, each with their own internal logic and values, but rather only a single standard of refinement to which all groups are held accountable. Thus people who differ from those who believe themselves to be cultured in this sense are not usually understood as having a different culture; they are understood as being uncultured.

2. During the Romantic Era, scholars in Germany, especially those concerned with nationalism, developed a more inclusive notion of culture as worldview. That is, each ethnic group is characterized by a distinct and incommensurable world view. Although more inclusive, this approach to culture still allowed for distinctions between civilized and primitive or tribal cultures.

By the late 19th century, anthropologists had changed the concept of culture to include a wider variety of societies, ultimately resulting in the concept of culture outlined above - objects and symbols, the meaning given to those objects and symbols, and the norms, values, and beliefs that pervade social life.

This new perspective has also removed the evaluative element of the concept of culture and instead proposes distinctions rather than rankings between different cultures. For instance, the high culture of elites is now contrasted with popular or pop culture. In this sense, high culture no longer refers to the idea of being cultured, as all people are cultured. High culture simply refers to the objects, symbols, norms, values, and beliefs of a particular group of people; popular culture does the same.

Most social scientists today reject the cultured vs. uncultured concept of culture. Instead, social scientists accept and advocate the definition of culture outlined above as being the "nurture" component of human social life. Social scientists recognize that non-elites are as cultured as elites (and that non-Westerners are just as civilized); they simply have a different culture.

The Origins of Culture. Attentive to the theory of evolution, anthropologists assumed that all human beings are equally evolved, and the fact that all humans have cultures must in some way be a result of human evolution. They were also wary of using biological evolution to explain differences between specific cultures - an approach that either was a form of, or legitimized forms of, racism. Anthropologists believed biological evolution produced an inclusive notion of culture, a concept that anthropologists could apply equally to non-literate and literate societies, or to nomadic and to sedentary societies. They argued that through the course of their evolution, human beings evolved a universal human capacity to classify experiences, and encode and communicate them symbolically. Since these symbolic systems were learned and taught, they began to develop independently of biological evolution (in other words, one human being can learn a belief, value, or way of doing something from another, even if they are not biologically related). That this capacity for symbolic thinking and social learning is a product of human evolution confounds older arguments about nature versus nurture. Thus, Clifford Geertz argued that human physiology and neurology developed in conjunction with the first cultural activities, and Middleton (1990:17 n.27) concluded that human "instincts were culturally formed."

This view of culture argues that people living apart from one another develop unique cultures. However, elements of different cultures can easily spread from one group of people to another. Culture is dynamic and can be taught and learned, making it a potentially rapid form of adaptation to changes in physical conditions. Anthropologists view culture as not only a product of biological evolution but as a supplement to it; it can be seen as the main means of human adaptation to the natural world.

This view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, which varies from place to place, led anthropologists to conceive of different cultures as defined by distinct patterns (or structures) of enduring, although arbitrary, conventional sets of meaning, which took concrete form in a variety of artifacts such as myths and rituals, tools, the design of housing, and the planning of villages. Anthropologists thus distinguish between material culture and symbolic culture, not only because each reflects different kinds of human activity, but also because they constitute different kinds of data that require different methodologies to study.

this view of culture, which came to dominate anthropology between World War I and World War II, implied that each culture was bounded and had to be understood as a whole, on its own terms. The result is a belief in cultural relativism, which suggests that there are no "better" or "worse" cultures, just different cultures.

Recent research suggests that human culture has reversed the causal direction suggested above and influence human evolution. One well-known illustration of this is the rapid spread of genetic instructions that left on a gene that produces a protein that allows humans to digest lactose. This adaptation spread rapidly in Europe around 4,000 BCE with the domestication of mammals, as humans began harvesting their milk for consumption. Prior to this adaptation, the gene that produces a protein allowing for the digestion of lactose was switched after children were weaned. Thus, the change in culture - drinking milk from other mammals - eventually led to changes in human genetics. Genetics has, therefore, resulted in culture, which is now acting back on genetics.

Level of Abstraction. Another element of culture that is important for a clear understanding of the concept is level of abstraction. Culture ranges from the concrete, cultural object (e.g., the understanding of a work of art) to micro-level interpersonal interactions (e.g., the socialization of a child by his/her parents) to a macro-level influence on entire societies (e.g., the Puritanical roots of the U.S. that can be used to justify the exportation of democracy – a lá the Iraq War). It is important when trying to understand the concept of culture to keep in mind that the concept can have multiple levels of meaning.

The Artificiality of Cultural Categorization. One of the more important points to understand about culture is that it is an artificial categorization of elements of social life. As Griswold puts it,There is no such thing as culture or society out there in the real world. There are only people who work, joke, raise children, love, think, worship, fight, and behave in a wide variety of ways. To speak of culture as one thing and society as another is to make an analytical distinction between two different aspects of human experience. One way to think of the distinction is that culture designates the expressive aspect of human existence, whereas society designates the relational (and often practical) aspect. (p. 4)

In the above quote, Griswold emphasizes that culture is distinct from society but affirms that this distinction is, like all classifications, artificial. Humans do not experience culture in a separate or distinct way from society. Culture and society are truly two-sides of a coin; a coin that makes up social life. Yet the distinction between the two, while artificial, is useful for a number of reasons. For instance, the distinction between culture and society is of particular use when exploring how norms and values are transmitted from generation to generation and answering the question of cultural conflict between people of different cultural backgrounds (say, the Japanese and Americans).

3. A subculture is a culture shared and actively participated in by a minority of people within a broader culture. A culture often contains numerous subcultures. Subcultures incorporate large parts of the broader cultures of which they are part, but in specifics they may differ radically. Some subcultures achieve such a status that they acquire a name of their own. Examples of subcultures could include: bikers, military culture, and Star Trek fans (trekkers or trekkies).

A counterculture is a subculture with the addition that some of its beliefs, values, or norms challenge or even contradict those of the main culture of which it is part. Examples of countercultures in the U.S. could include: the hippie movement of the 1960s, the green movement, polygamists, and and feminist groups.

Subcultures bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by societal standards and allow them to develop a sense of identity.[44] Subcultures can be distinctive because of the age, ethnicity, class, location, and/or gender of the members. The qualities that determine a subculture as distinct may be linguistic, aesthetic, religious, political, sexual, geographical, or a combination of factors. Members of a subculture often signal their membership through a distinctive and symbolic use of style, which includes fashions, mannerisms, and argot.

Ethnocentrism & Cultural Relativism. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one's own culture. Many claim that ethnocentrism occurs in every society; ironically, ethnocentrism may be something that all cultures have in common.

The term was coined by William Graham Sumner, a social evolutionist and professor of Political and Social Science at Yale University. He defined it as, "The sentiment of cohesion, internal comradeship, and devotion to the in-group, which carries with it a sense of superiority to any out-group and readiness to defend the interests of the in-group against the out-group." Ethnocentrism often entails the belief that one's own race or ethnic group is the most important and/or that some or all aspects of its culture are superior to those of other groups. Within this ideology, individuals will judge other groups in relation to their own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with concern to language, behaviour, customs, and religion. It also involves an incapacity to acknowledge that cultural differentiation does not imply inferiority of those groups who are ethnically distinct from one's own.

Sociologists study ethnocentrism because of its role in various elements of social life, ranging from politics to terrorism. This is also an area where sociologists often become advocates as they attempt to reveal ethnocentric biases to those who hold them with the aim of helping people realize that such biases are seldom beneficial to social solidarity and peaceful human relations.

Cultural relativism is the belief that the concepts and values of a culture cannot be fully translated into, or fully understood in, other languages; that a specific cultural artifact (e.g. a ritual) has to be understood in terms of the larger symbolic system of which it is a part.

An example of cultural relativism might include slang words from specific languages (and even from particular dialects within a language). For instance, the word tranquilo in Spanish translates directly to 'calm' in English. However, it can be used in many more ways than just as an adjective (e.g., the seas are calm). Tranquilo can be a command or suggestion encouraging another to calm down. It can also be used to ease tensions in an argument (e.g., everyone relax) or to indicate a degree of self-composure (e.g., I'm calm). There is not a clear English translation of the word, and in order to fully comprehend its many possible uses a cultural relativist would argue that it would be necessary to fully immerse oneself in cultures where the word is used.

4. While there are numerous theoretical approaches employed to understand 'culture', here we use just one model to illustrate how sociologists understand the concept. The model is an integrationist model advocated by Ritzer. Ritzer proposes four highly interdependent elements in his sociological model: a macro-objective component (e.g., society, law, bureaucracy), a micro-objective component (e.g., patterns of behavior and human interaction), a macro-subjective component (e.g., culture, norms, and values), and a micro-subjective component (e.g., perceptions, beliefs). This model is of particular use in understanding the role of culture in sociological research because it presents two axes for understanding culture: one ranging from objective (society) to subjective (culture and cultural interpretation); the other ranging from the macro-level (norms) to the micro-level (individual level beliefs).

If used for understanding a specific cultural phenomenon, like the displaying of abstract art, this model depicts how cultural norms can influence individual behavior. This model also posits that individual level values, beliefs, and behaviors can, in turn, influence the macro-level culture. This is, in fact, part of what David Halle finds: while there are certainly cultural differences based on class, they are not unique to class. Displayers of abstract art tend not only to belong to the upper-class, but also are employed in art-production occupations. This would indicate that there are multiple levels of influence involved in art tastes – both broad cultural norms and smaller level occupational norms in addition to personal preferences.

Date: 2016-03-03; view: 186

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