How culture influences human development

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 4 August 2016

How culture influences human development

This essay is an attempt to show how culture influences human development and interpretation of the world. Therefore, to start with this essay will define culture by different scholars. It will then show the types of culture and give a brief account on what culture constitutes (characteristics of culture). Furthermore, the concept of human development will be discussed briefly to give the reader a more clear understanding of the topic at hand. With clear examples, the essay will then show how culture influences human development and their interpretation of the world. Finally, a conclusion summarizing what the essay will discuss will be drawn.

The attempt to define culture is elusive as many may suggest. Nevertheless, there are certain paradigms that constitute the sum total of culture and underlie cultural images and identity construction. It is the close affinity between cultural image and human identity that makes the definition of culture complex. The most complex and yet comprehensive definition of culture is that arrived during the ‘Mondiacult’ in Mexico city which has continued to be the most operationalised definition of culture: ‘Culture is the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material and intellectual features that charactorise a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of human beings, value systems, traditions and beliefs.’

Young Kate (1993) in a report said, culture is seen in the African social context as transcending the arts or artifacts, folklores, literatures, music, dance and other artistic paraphelia.

According to Taylor (1996) culture refers to the patterns of behavior and thinking that people living in social groups learn, create, and share. Culture distinguishes one human group from others. It also distinguishes humans from other animals. A people’s culture includes their beliefs, rules of behavior, language, rituals, art, technology, styles of dress, ways of producing and cooking food, religion, and political and economic systems.

Culture can also be defined as a set of values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors shared by a group of people, communicated from one generation to the next via language or some other means of communication (Barnouw, 1985).

An American sociologist Ogburn has divided culture into two parts: Material culture which consists of tangible things and tools used to express the way of life such as machines, dwellings, manufacture of goods and transportation; and Non material culture which consists of non tangible aspects such as norms, values, customs and practices that are exhibited in social institutions such as the family, religion, economy and education.

Some of the characteristics of culture is that it is symbolic, meaning it is based on symbols or abstract ways of referring to and understanding ideas, objects, feelings, or behaviors-and the ability to communicate with symbols using language; it is shared meaning people in the same society share common behaviors and ways of thinking through culture(Bodley ,1997); it is learned socially (Archer, 1996); it is adaptive, that is to say people use culture to flexibly and quickly adjust to changes in the world around them (Findely, and Rothney, 2006); it is social meaning culture does not exist in isolation; it is transitive as it is transmitted from one generation to another; and it is continuous and cumulative because it exists as a continuous process.

Various people understand human development on a wide variety of aspects. Human development can be intellectual, biological, social, economical, and many others. Human development involves all the individual’s activities starting from birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, through to adulthood. Therefore, human development and people’s view of the world during all these stages of a person’s life is influenced by people’s exposure to various cultures in so many ways.

Usually when a child is born, it is born into a particular family that has a certain way of life. Members of this family will have a language they usually use, type of food they usually eat, religion or church they are part of, a way they dress, a type of people they interact with, types of social activities they engage in, and so on. All this is part of their culture as a family. That child will grow up and adapt to that culture because the family is its first agent of socialization. As the child grows and develops into an adolescent, then into an adult, his or her view of the world will greatly be influenced by this socialization of the family. The way in which he or she will interact with others will depend on how he or she has been brought up to do. Some individuals are shy and reserved while others are talkative.

In the past, the African culture socialized girls and women to maintain their place which was in the kitchen and to be respectful towards men. In as much as this was a form of gender inequality, this culture also brought some form of human development as the men went out to provide for their families as well as develop their communities, while the women stayed at home cooking, taking care of the children and doing household chores which is a form of human development (social) were socializing of the children is involved. So, in this type of way of life the women interpreted or viewed men as being superior over them and the men viewed the women as being their helpers. However, over the years this sort of view has changed (though not everywhere) due to the fact that culture is not static, it is an adaptive mechanism that constantly adjusts to satisfy human biological and social needs.

Because of this dynamic tendency of culture, cultural communities continue to change as do individuals. A community’s history and relations are part of cultural process which intern lead to various human developments. A good example that can be cited is that of the Khoi Khoi and san people of the past who hunted and gathered food for their survival. It is very rare to find any kind of people in this day and age who still follow that kind of lifestyle.

Culture is not the same everywhere, it varies greatly and this great diversity can sometimes be confusing to others. For instance, the thought of children handling knives makes many American parents very nervous, yet toddlers in some parts of Africa safely use machetes. Similarly, infants in middle-class communities in the United States are often expected to sleep alone by the time they are only a few months old while many low and middle-class Zambian children typically share their mother’s bed through their toddler years. These striking differences in child rearing practices reflect the diverse range of what is considered developmentally appropriate for children around the world, depending on their cultural circumstances (Roggof, 2003). Therefore, people from, say, these two types of societies will interpret child rearing practices differently from one another.

Another example by Barbara Roggof (2003) which results in a great difference in interpretation due to the diversity of culture is the comparison between the United States and Mayan community in Gautemala. The United States is a highly age-segregated society, with children spending much of their time away from activities of adults.

That segregation removes children from important opportunities to observe and learn from elders by participating in valued community activities, said Roggof. In contrast, in the Mayan community in Gautemala, children often learn through the process of observation and supportive guidance as they engage in community activities. Young Mayan girls, for instance, regularly observe women weaving complicated patterns because weaving is a daily household activity. Experienced weavers watched for their daughters to express interest and then set up a simple project beside their own which allows them to offer, what Roggof calls ‘guidance embedded in activity’.

So unlike in the United States community were learning is often pegged to age and managed in specialized child settings, instruction in this Mayan community is generally triggered by the child’s interest in becoming involved in valued family community activities. This shows that human development in some cultures is influenced by age, while in others by interest. Cultural diversity shows that there are different viewpoints and ways of interacting with the world as there are cultures (Young, 1993).

However, cultural difference may sometimes become problematic. Because different people are part of different cultures and backgrounds, people tend to see or interpret things through their background. ‘That is, culture acts as a filter, not only when perceiving things, but also when thinking about interpreting events.’ For example, Mary Banda may interpret Aisha Yusuf’s habit of over spicing her food whenever she is cooking as a sign that Aisha is not a very good cook as she uses these spices as a disguise of her lack of talent.

Mary might even conclude that people from her own culture are better cooks than that of Aisha’s because she does not need spices to make her food taste good. Mary Banda, in this example, is interpreting someone else’s behavior from her own cultural background and based on her own beliefs of culture and behavior. This is an act of ethnocentrism, which is the viewing and interpretation of the behavior of others through one’s own cultural glasses (Giddens, 1989). This is a form of biasness which is also closely linked to stereotypes.

For example, suppose someone is having a conversation with another person from a culture different from their own. While he is talking to this person, he notices that she does not really make eye contact with him when he speaks. Also, she does not really look at him when he speaks. On the few occasions when her eyes look his way, she quickly averts her gaze if their eyes meet. From his cultural background he may interpret that she does not feel very positive about his interaction.

He may even put off and reject any attempts at future interactions. He may not feel trusting or close to her. But she may come from a culture were direct gazing is discouraged or even a sign of arrogance. She may actually be avoiding eye contact not because of any negative feelings, but because of difference and politeness to him. Of course these potential problems have real and practical implications in everyday life. Such scenarios may occur in a job interview, in a teaching or learning situation at an elementary school, at a business negotiation, or even in a visit with a doctor.

It is always hard for people to separate themselves from their own cultural backgrounds and biases to understand the behaviors of others.

However, this is not to say that all cultures are different or diverse. There are always cross-cultural tendencies or behaviors that are shared in most cultures. For instance, in most cultures people burry their dead, celebrate at weddings, mourn at funerals, name their children, wear clothes (do not move naked), and many others.


In conclusion, culture is basically people’s way of life or way of doing things or even way of thinking. Be it how they comb their hair, dress, worship, eat, time they sleep at night, and so on. Culture is material and non material, and therefore, influences a great deal of people’s lives. This influence of culture can be on their human development from birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, through to adulthood. Jean Piaget talked about four stages human beings pass through as they develop.

These include the sensory motor stage (0-23 months old), pre-operational stage (2-7 years old), concrete operational stage (7-11 years old) and formal operational stage (11 years and above). Through all these stages, human development occurs in various ways. And this can be intellectually, socially, economically, and biologically. It can also influence how people interpret the world or other people around them as illustrated in the few examples in mentioned in the text.


Archer, M. S. (1996). _The place of culture in social theory_. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Barnouw, V. (1985). _Culture and personality (_4th edition_)._ Wales: Dorsey Press.

Bodley, J. H. (1997). _Ethnology_ (4th edition). Mountain View cliff: Mayfield Publishers. Co.

Dressler, D. et al (1976). _Sociology: The study of Human interactions_ (3rd edition). New York: Alfred A. Knopt.

Findely, & Rothney, (1996). _Twentieth century world_ (6th edition). London: McMillan Press Ltd.

Furedidi, F. (1997). _Population and development: A critical introduction_ (3rd edition). Britain: Polity Press.

Giddens, A. (1989). _Sociology_ (6th edition). Britain: Polity Press.

Rogoff, B. (2003). _The cultural nature of human development._ New York: Oxford Press.

Taylor, (2006). _Principles and practice of stress management_ (3rd edition). New York: Guilford Press.

UNESCO, (1982). _Cultural industries: A challenge for the future._ Paris: UNESCO.

Valsiner, J. (2000). _Culture and human development: An introduction._ Britain: Polity Press.

Young, K. (1993). _Planning development with women: Making a world of difference._ London & Basinstokei: McMillan Press Ltd.


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