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Understanding Culture Essay

The biggest challenge the social scientists face is reaching a consensus over the definition of culture. Among sociologists ad anthropologists, debate has raged for several academic generations about the proper definition of the term “culture”. Ralph Linton (1945), an American anthropologist said that culture is ‘the sum total of knowledge, attitudes and habitual behavior patterns shared and transmitted by the members of a particular society’. 1] Ward Goodenough (1957), another pioneer in anthropology stated that culture is ‘the pattern of life within a community, the regularly recurring activities and material and social arrangements characteristic of a particular group’. [2]

Since the seminal work of Clifford Geertz (1973), the older definition of culture as the entire way of life of people, including their technology and material artifacts, or that as everything one needs to know to become a functioning member of a society, has been gradually displaced in favor of defining culture as the publicly available symbolic forms through which people experience and express meaning. 3] Though culture is a very powerful tool for human survival, but yet on the other hand it is a very fragile phenomenon. Culture constantly undergoes change and can be easily lost because it exists only in the minds of individuals. Our written languages, governments, buildings, traditions and other man-made things are merely the bi-products of culture. They are not culture in themselves. For this reason, archaeologists can not excavate culture, like they do for the other man-made things.

All they can do is dig up the bi-products of culture, such as the broken pots and other artifacts of ancient people, which are only material remains that reflect cultural patterns of a society. There are very likely three layers or levels of culture that are part of a person’s learned behavior patterns and perceptions. Firstly it is the body of cultural traditions that distinguish a specific society. When people speak of Japanese, Indian or European culture, they are referring to the shared language, traditions, and beliefs that play a key role in setting people of these cultures apart from others.

In most cases, those who share a common culture can only do so because they acquired it during their childhood, as they were raised by parents and other family members who have it. The second layer of culture that may be a part of your identity is a subculture. In complex, diverse societies in which people have come from many different parts of the world, they often retain much of their original cultural traditions. As a result, they are likely to be part of an identifiable subculture in their new society. The shared cultural traits of subcultures set them apart from the rest of their society.

United States is a perfect example of a multi-ethnic state which harbors many subcultures such as the Asian Americans, African Americans, and Mexican Americans. Members of each of these subcultures share a common identity, food tradition, dialect or language, and other cultural traits that come from their common ancestral background and experience. As the cultural differences between members of a subculture and the dominant national culture blur and eventually disappear, the subculture ceases to exist except as a group of people who claim a common ancestry.

That is generally the case with the Parsi community of India who migrated from Persia to India in 8th century, when the Arabs conquered their country and forced them to convert. This Parsi community identifies itself as Indians first. They also see themselves as being part of the cultural mainstream of the nation. Even while maintaining their own cultural identity they did not fail to recognize themselves as nationally Indian, as Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Asian to occupy a seat in the British Parliament noted: “Whether I am a Hindu, a Mohammedan, a Parsi, a Christian, or of any other creed, I am above all an Indian.

Our country is India; our nationality is Indian”. [4] So the problem still persists that what actually is culture and how can we understand or define it. I remember traveling in the subway riding through Takamagahara in Kyushu two years ago, with an Brazilian Japanese friend who spoke no Japanese. I was often overheard translating for him. People on the train were as startled to see a Japanese face without the language that usually accompanies it, as they were to see my Indian face speaking Japanese.

One man in particular kept insisting that there must be a Japanese relative on my father’s side of the family; otherwise, how could I have learned the language? He also asserted this as the reason for my complexion not being very dark. The assumption was that one’s ability to speak a particular language (like an individual’s physical characteristics) is genetically and not culturally transmitted and that genetics somehow mirrors social organization (i. e. , everything is transmitted through the male’s family line).

Similarly, after coming to Japan, I have bonded very well with the Iranians living in Tokyo. One day the mother of my friend, who had recently arrived from Iran, on meeting me said that I do not look like an Indian as they all are dark, have big mustaches and wear a turban. And when she was told by her son that I am really an Indian, she was curious to know if any of my grandfathers had any Persian wife. What she was not aware of was that not only the Iranian media, but the media all over portrays Indians as dark complexioned with a turban and a mustache.

She was also unaware of the fact that many centuries ago Aryans from the Caspian sea area had migrated to Iran and India, and how the people of two countries share the common gene pool. Each of these incidents illustrates the fact that, for many people, culture is so internalized that we take it as a given – as something we are born with. But both language and gender categories are elements of culture and, as such, are transmitted from generation to generation.

As children, we are taught language, gender roles, how to behave, what to believe (religion), what foods taste good, and so on. If, as an infant, a Japanese had been transported to another culture to be raised in that culture, that culture would be his today, rather than the Japanese culture we see here in Japan. What exactly does culture mean? Is it something material you can touch? Or is it something immaterial, such as values and beliefs? Or is it our customs and traditions, our festivals and celebrations?

For Geertz, culture is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life”. [5] “Most social scientists today view culture as consisting primarily of the symbolic, ideational, and intangible aspects of human societies. The essence of a culture is not its artifacts, tools, or other tangible cultural elements but how the members of the group interpret, use, and perceive them.

It is the values, symbols, interpretations, and perspectives that distinguish one people from another in modernized societies; it is not material objects and other tangible aspects of human societies. People within a culture usually interpret the meaning of symbols, artifacts, and behaviors in the same or in similar ways. ” [6] It is this, the human ability to create, perceive and transmit culture, that differentiates us as humans from the rest of the animal world.

Many of us know the story of the Wildboy (Victor) of Aveyron. was a feral child who apparently lived a majority of his childhood naked and alone in the woods before being found wandering the woods in France, in 1797. [7] It should be noted that despite many attempts to educate him for several years by many physicians and anthropologists, the only two phrases Victor ever actually learned to spell out were lait (milk) and Oh, Dieu (Oh, God). Despite many attempts, he failed to progress beyond a rudimentary level.

It can be said that after living in wild during his formative years and adapting himself to the animal culture, his ear no longer remained an organ for the appreciation of sounds, their articulations and their combinations; and it was nothing but a simple means of self-preservation which warned of the approach of a dangerous animal or the fall of wild fruit, as in case with most animals. [8] Thus it can be concluded that the kind of environment one lives in and the type of lifestyle one follows in his formative years become the ‘culture’ of that particular person and it is next to impossible to overwrite on it.

We often feel sorrow over changes taking place in our cultural norms, thinking we are losing them. It is mainly because most of us think culture is static and sacred. We feel it is strange to discard norms we have practiced for so long. It is therefore not unusual to see our elders and political and religious parties appealing to the youth in particular not to give up their culture. Most religions warn us that we will be doomed if we stop leading our lives according to our traditions, try to reinterpret the religio-cultural symbols or adopt a foreign culture.

Simply because culture is transmitted through symbols whose meanings remain more or less constant doesn’t mean that cultures are static and don’t change. On the contrary, cultures are never truly static. Culture does not create society; it is society that gives birth to culture. In fact, society itself is an ever-changing phenomenon and is not static. All societal features, including people and institutions, keep changing because of changes in the mode of production. It is no wonder then that tribal, agricultural and industrial societies have different cultures.

In today’s world due to globalization and constantly rising human to human contact many new traits and sub-cultures have risen, which have completely changed the way we have lived until now. For example, with the introduction of mobile phones, first came the concept of missed call, which can be interpreted in different ways. For an old man missed call simply means a call which he was not able to answer on time, but to the new generation it signifies that the other person is either waiting for you, wants you to call back, wants to inform he has reached safely etc.

The emails and phones have completely changed the way people used to communicate with each other and have uprooted the precedent letter writing culture. British spellings have been replaced by American spellings. This makes one wonder that what causes cultural change? Outside influences, through a process known as cultural diffusion, may stimulate cultural change, and in past have given rise to great civilizations. An example of this is commercial or cross-cultural contacts like the Silk Road, which brought silk to the West and Buddhism into China and Japan.

Inventions and technological developments from within a society, such as the steam engine or the automobile, can also have an impact on culture. The Industrial Revolution completely changed the European society and brought the mighty Asia, undergoing a phase of static culture, under colonial rule. Religion plays an important role in the culture of a man. Like mentioned above, a human lives and dies with the culture he inherits during his formative years. Similarly religion and ethnicity are a part of culture and remain with a man forever.

When approached by a devotee of new religion, most people brush aside even what sounds like plausible appeals, assuming that sound reason exist for dismissing such claims. Religion, ethnicity, and culture are among the most difficult concepts to disentangle. Religion, however, is not the same as culture or ethnicity; it can overlap either. Technically, religion is defined as a set of beliefs. But while some religions confine themselves to the realm of ideas or beliefs, other religions extend into the realm of behavior and prohibit or mandate certain actions as well.

The Ten Commandments identify behaviors prohibited by the Judeo-Christian religions. For Orthodox Jews, kosher rules are an example of behavior that is required. For Moslems, eating during daylight during Ramadan or consuming pork or alcohol in general is a prohibited behavior. The Hindus have been prohibited from eating beef in the Vedas. But all religions that accept or desire converts have had to adapt themselves to the cultures where they spread or they would not have been accepted.

Buddhism spread into the Far East was facilitated by its willingness to incorporate native Shinto practices (known as Shin-Butsu Shugo) into its pantheon of gods, and flexibility to recite the sutras in regional languages. Similarly, as Islam spread in Asia and Africa, it incorporated specific cultural practices peculiar to the areas it reached. For example, Moslem women in sub-Saharan Africa do not wear veils, while those in rural Afghanistan cover themselves with the burka. Female circumcision is practiced in Moslem sub-Saharan Africa, but not anywhere else in the Islamic world.

Christianity during its spread in India incorporated many characteristics and practices of the Brahmin society and gave rise to a Christianity which differs from the one practiced in rest of the world in many ways. This adaptability of religion to local cultures sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish culture from religion – but they are not the same. The next part of this paper would look into how Christianity was introduced in India, and what all changes it had to undergo before it got accepted by the local people.


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