Humans are funny creatures, we are the lone race on this earth capable of pondering, of asking, why? While other creatures evolved to have insane muscular strength or eyes like telescopes, we got stuck with the world’s most advanced brain. Today, I’ll be exerting my human brain power and trying to answer a question that was raised during our socials class. What is culture? Honestly, I doubt my ability to actually answer this question fully. There is a multitude of facets to this question and the philosophical nature of it will most likely lead to more questions being raised than answered; however, I am highly interested in trying my best to answer it.
My first strategy to answering this question was to try and divide my main question into many other “smaller” “more manageable” statements or questions that would, hopefully, be easier to answer. Some of these questions were:
- List some exact points that are necessary for something to be identified as a culture
- Is it necessary/possible for every human being to be a part of a culture/multiple cultures?
- What are the limits on culture? (can a culture only include one person/is there a point where culture “ascends” and becomes part of human nature)
- Is culture a purely “human” creation? (Can non-self aware creatures be part of a/multiple cultures?)
With my main question divided into these smaller questions/statements, I set off to answer them. I hoped that by creating an answer for all my questions/statements, I could summarize my answers and hopefully come closer to answering my big original question.
List some exact points that are necessary for something to be identified as a culture
Regarding my first question, it seems like the exact definitions of a culture are widely disputed. According to Ifte Choudhury, “Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.” (1, 1-2) Choudhury. Essentially he is making the claim that culture manifests itself in many different forms across a group or an individual. I used this statement to answer my first question regarding what things must be part of a culture for it to be a culture. However, I believe his list is general and to fit in a culture, you do not need to share every single one of the things on the list. You may share a couple from one culture, many from another, and perhaps none at all with another.
Is it necessary/possible for every human being to be a part of a culture/multiple cultures?
This leads me to my second question, Choudhury made an effort to answer this by applying “cultural layers.” According to his paper, there are six levels of culture, all humans belonging to a certain group in all six layers. The layers are as follows:
- The national level: Associated with the nation as a whole.
- The regional level: Associated with ethnic, linguistic, or religious differences that exist within a nation.
- The gender level: Associated with gender differences (female vs. male)
- The generation level: Associated with the differences between grandparents and parents, parents and children.
- The social class level: Associated with educational opportunities and differences in occupation.
- The corporate level: Associated with the particular culture of an organization. Applicable to those who are employed.
While these layers are helpful and applicable, I do believe that they are rather minimalist and general. For example, in the increasingly pluralistic and inclusive society we live in today, many people do not identify themselves as purely male or female. Also, the layers mention nothing regarding family, friends, or geographic location. These categories, especially geographic location could play a larger role than the corporate level.
However, even with the flaws that this system may have, I do believe that it is an interesting and factual way to identify various cultures. One question that arose from the system of layers was, how should we use this system in our daily lives? For example, should we try and push ourselves to spend time with people from other groups on each layer? Do we already gravitate towards people of the same group? Should these groups define us at all? All questions for another day. Now onto the next source.
What are the limits on culture? (can a culture only include one person/is there a point where culture “ascends” and becomes part of human nature)
I found question three to be the most interesting of my questions while researching. My findings actually began in-class, while talking with the learner-teacher (his name is escaping me at the moment) about my topic. I talked to him about how I had been pondering the boundaries of culture and whether it was possible for a culture or an aspect of a culture to ascend to something greater… Essentially, to become part of human culture rather than a culture that humans had. I proposed to him the example of art, all human beings create some form of art, no matter where on the globe. This is unique to humans as no other animal would waste energy on something that doesn’t contribute directly to their survival. Is this an example of something that had become human nature? He found that very interesting and agreed and then posed me the question on whether something modern, such as Coca-Cola, will ever become human nature. This was difficult to answer as there are many facets to this. We talked about the increase in a “globalized world” which would theoretically facilitate the spread of forms of culture, possibly resulting in the ascendance of something into “human culture”.
At the time, I hadn’t really done much research on the idea of something becoming human nature so we put our heads together and bounced ideas back and forth off of each other to try and come up with some boundaries on something becoming human culture. First of all, it must be shared by all of humanity, not 95%, not 99%, but 100% of humanity would need to partake in whatever it is for “it” to be part of human culture. Next, it would have to be something that every human perceived as their own and is directly part of them. This is important because facets of other cultures can be adapted into different cultures but, they are not truly part of the receiving culture until they identify them as so. A somewhat modern example of this can be found with the rise of sushi restaurants in Vancouver. Sushi itself is a strong part of Japanese culture and definitively not a part of Vancouver culture; however, in the future, perhaps sushi will insert itself as a strong part of Vancouver culture.
Next, it would have to be something that every human perceived as their own and is directly part of them. This is important because facets of other cultures can be adapted into different cultures but, they are not truly part of the receiving culture until they identify them as so. A somewhat modern example of this can be found with the rise of sushi restaurants in Vancouver. Sushi itself is a strong part of Japanese culture and definitively not a part of Vancouver culture; however, in the future, perhaps sushi will insert itself as a strong part of Vancouver culture. Now, an important distinction has to be made when talking about identifying things as part of a culture. Oftentimes, aspects of a culture can be stolen and identified as one’s own, this is unacceptable and is not truly one’s own. This brings up a whole other aspect of this debate regarding human rights which I won’t be touching on today.
After discussing the possibility of something “ascending culture” with the learner-teacher, I went home and researched whether this was actually a valid “thing” and sure enough it was. As Dennis O’Neil said:
“Cultural universals are learned behavior patterns that are shared by all of humanity collectively. No matter where people live in the world, they share these universal traits. Examples of such “human cultural” traits include:
- communicating with a verbal language consisting of a limited set of sounds and grammatical rules for constructing sentences
- using age and gender to classify people (e.g., teenager, senior citizen, woman, man)
- classifying people based on marriage and descent relationships and having kinship terms to refer to
them (e.g., wife, mother, uncle, cousin)
- raising children in some sort of family setting
- having a sexual division of labor (e.g., men’s work versus women’s work)
- having a concept of privacy
- distinguishing between good and bad behavior
- having some sort of body ornamentation
- making jokes and playing games
- having art
- having some sort of leadership roles for the implementation of community decisions”
After researching my theory of “cultural ascension”, I was very happy to find other sources that agreed and had done research into the same thing. Yet after all this, I hadn’t answered the first part of my question. In short, a culture can be as small as one person due to the fact that one person can partake in all aspects of the things that define a culture (see above). This raises the question as to whether everyone has their own personal culture based on the fact that everyone lives out their lives differently. Again, due to the fact that I’m at 1700 words and counting, that’ll be for another day.
In summary of question two, a culture can be as big as the entire human race and as small as one person. If you want to know why, read above.
Is culture a purely “human” creation? (Can non-self aware creatures be part of a/multiple cultures?)
Finally, onto my final question. This one was also mentioned by Dennis O’Neil. According to him: there is a difference of opinion in the behavioral sciences about whether or not we are the only animal that creates and uses culture. The answer to this question depends on how narrow culture is defined. If it is used broadly to refer to a complex of learned behavior patterns, then it is clear that we are not alone in creating and using culture. Many other animal species teach their young what they themselves learned in order to survive.
Whether or not other animals have culture depends on how you identify culture. Based on the rather firm guidelines I set above, they would not meet most of them. Animals do not have a religion, for example; however, if you are applying the guidelines of culture rather loosely, great apes do teach their young how to use tools and many pack animals learn strategies to work together but is that culture? As always, it’s up to the interpreter to decide.
Setting off on this project, I knew that I was sending myself down a long windy road with more questions than answers along the way. Honestly, I loved it. Looking into these kind of things and posing crazy thought inducing questions is just what I enjoy about socials so this was perfect for me. Could I have summarized in a neater, more legible package? Probably. Is all the information on this page useful and interesting? I think so and I hope you do too.
In an effort to clarify this messy paper, I’ll try to summarize the answers to each of my questions as quickly as possible below.
- “Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.” (1, 1-2) Choudhury. All these are aspects of culture but a culture does not need all of these aspects.
- There are many cultural layers, each of which everyone fits into some way. We can and are part of a multitude of cultures but they all don’t have to apply to us with the same strength.
- Woo here’s the big one. Culture’s can be as big as the entire human race and as small as one person. Cultural ascendance applies to when something becomes bigger than culture and “ascends” to a part of humanity itself. Confusing? Read above. Still confusing? Yeah, I agree.
- Depending on who you ask and how you identify culture, it can apply to many or no “non-human” animals.
Wow, what would I still like to know? Well… In this blog, I wrote down a lot of questions that came to mind based on what I was writing or thinking about. I think that you can never truly know everything about this subject as in the end, it comes down to opinion and how you view the world. Which, coincidentally, is highly affected by aspects of your culture ;). I’d love to spend many more days researching these kinds of questions and coming up with more of them to research which would bring up more questions which…
Why is this important? Well, culture is such an integral part of us as human beings and creating an effort to understand it can aid in many things. For example, if we understood culture and the importance of it, perhaps we wouldn’t have committed cultural genocide to an enormous number of Native Americans.
Written by Dennis O’Neil, helped with questions 3&4.
Written by Ifte Choudhury, helped with questions 1&2