Culture is a basic feature of human nature and a modern social theory must recognize that. If a modern theory is to be successful, furthermore, it is essential to have a definition of 'culture' that avoids confusion about its role in human behavior. Today, the word ‘culture’ can mean “sophisticated customs”, “man-made material objects”, “the arts”, “the ethos of a group”, “learned patterns of behavior”, “a way of life”, etc. This profusion bewilders students, hinders productive research, and obfuscates the essential role culture plays. (see Pearson 2003:61)
The classic definition of ‘culture’ by Sir Edward Tylor (1871) is “… that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. Three major characteristics: (a) symbolic, (b) social, and (c) systemic, stand out as the central features of Tylor’s definition. These remain essential to a modern understanding of the role of culture. But, for the concept to be used as a contemporary analytical tool, Tylor’s definition requires fine tuning and updating. For one, the symbolic character of culture should be made explicit. Secondly, the definition needs to be broadened to include species other than humans. Thirdly, its systemic characteristics need to be delineated. The definition, furthermore, should be more concise.
With the above in mind, the following discussion will take ‘culture’ to specifically mean: “A system of symbolic information shared by members of a social group.” In this chapter, the definition is discussed in detail and I focus upon two important questions: (1) “Why is culture a key factor for understanding the human condition?” and (2) “What is its role in a modern theory of social behavior?” These questions lead to the development of a modern theory of human social behavior in the following chapters.
Both genetic information and symbolic information are essential to human life. Both make social interactions possible, are transmitted from generation to generation, influence behavior, and affect individuals’ perceptions of their environment. But the two forms of information are significantly different. Genetic information has a physical inertia, persisting throughout the lifetime of an individual and over many generations without having to be symbolically reinforced. Transmitted through the generations via genes and sexual activity, it is a constant factor in human evolution with its distribution in a group varying over generations due to the influences of drugs, disease, or mutation and to sexual interaction between individuals of different social groups.
In contrast to genetic information, culture is not maintained nor transmitted via physical material. Instead, it is stored in memory and transferred via symbols. Furthermore, its function centers more upon the interpretation and organization of sense data than its physical perception. Symbolic information, furthermore, requires reaffirmation by individuals during a lifetime and by groups over generations. Like an ocean wave, symbolic information will disappear if it is not supported by external energy. Testifying to this are the lost techniques of construction and navigation once performed in the past. Today, the techniques ancient peoples used to build the massive walls and monuments found around the world as well as those used by ancient sailors to navigate over thousands of miles of open water to distant islands are difficult to reconstruct. Without symbolic information being taught from generation to generation, it can be lost and may never be recovered.
Analogous to the genetic code in biology, the computer program in information technology, and syntax in linguistics, culture is a set of structured rules for organizing information, deducing conclusions, and transforming a collection of data into a system. Culture separates important sense data from what is to be ignored, categorizes the symbolic information, draws conclusions, and guides significant social and physical interactions. It produces appropriate behavior between members of a social group and between the individuals and their physical environment. Culture makes social life possible and interaction with the world meaningful. It is an essential frame of reference; influencing perception, providing meaning to sense data and guiding action (See the details about culture as a reference frame in chapter 4).
Learning a culture involves sharing it with other members of a group but it does not mean losing one’s individuality. While cultures play a powerful role in ensuring similar behavior among members of a group, two factors ensure that each individual remains unique: (a) variation in the set of cultures learned by the individual and (b) the interplay of a culture with the unique physical makeup of each individual. Networks for learning information differ for individuals and, thus, different individuals learn different subsets of the total information found within a society. That a culture may be learned by all the members of a group, furthermore, does not mean that all individuals in the group share the same set of cultures. A simple example would be two individuals who belong to the same church but participate in different sports. They may share the culture of their religion but the cultures they learn as members of their sports groups will differ significantly. Thus, they maintain an individuality with different sets of cultures for each one.
Social symbolic information (SSI) is shared among members of a group and is expressed in common perceptions, beliefs and actions of the individual members of the group. SSI permits the transference of ideas and feelings between individuals in the group, enhances the predictability of behavior of the individuals, and promotes communal activities.
Social groups can be classified into four major types: familial, tribal, national, and global. The four differ in structural complexity and range. The familial type possesses the least complexity and smallest range while the global type possesses the most complexity and widest range. The familial type consists of small, local social groups in which individuals are related by kinship ties of limited degrees. The tribal type consists of combined familial groups of higher complexity such as lineages, clans and tribes with kinship remaining as the basis for the organization into groups with greater depth and range. The national type consists of tribal groups joined in social units sharing a common political organization. The global type is a social unit that consists of social groups that share major economic endeavors. Each of the major types, furthermore, possesses subtypes defined by sex, age, or common interests.
The familial type is the basic social unit in all societies, containing individuals united by kinship relationships, and is the primary unit within which social information is first acquired. Tribal groups are typically located within a limited geographical area with members sharing distinctive cultural features such as religion or language. National groups share, at minimum, political organization within defined geographical areas and global groups share economic activities and operate beyond the confines of a geographical boundary, a religion, or a political organization.
An important part of understanding how culture functions is the avoidance of the use of stereotypes. A stereotype is a gross characterization of a group that ignores the facts that individuals in any social group possess different cultures and each person is unique. A stereotype characterizes all the individuals in a group with a single word, idea, or concept and is, at best, misleading. Even in familial groups, individuals possess more than one culture and individuals in a more complex group learn several cultures. The more complex a group, the more culturally heterogeneous it is and the greater the probability that no two individuals in a group will share the same set of cultures.
When the cultures in a group are organized successfully, the result is a functional society with predictable individual behavior, a high degree of satisfaction of lifestyles by individuals, peaceful social interactions, and an ordered social life. With increased complexity comes an increase in the number of individuals having difficulty in coherently organizing the cultures they possess and maintaining coherent interactions with other individuals. This produces increased individual stress, antisocial behavior, and the probability of social instability. The more complex the group, the greater the potential for social chaos.
Learning a culture requires sharing it with other members of a group but does not mean losing one’s individuality. While cultures play a powerful role in ensuring similar behavior among members of a group, two factors ensure that each person remains unique: (a) variation in the set of cultures learned by the individual and (b) the interplay of a culture with the unique physical makeup of each individual. Networks for learning information differ for each individual and, thus, different individuals learn different subsets of the total information found within a society. That a culture may be learned by all the members of a group, furthermore, does not mean that all individuals in the group share the same set of cultures. A simple example would be two individuals who belong to the same church but belong to different sport clubs. They may share the culture of their religion but the cultures they learn as members of their sports groups will differ significantly. Thus, they maintain an individuality with different sets of cultures for each one.
Stereotypes ignore that cultures are not equally distributed among individuals in any society and caricature a society by singling out one culture. During a lifetime, an individual can be expected to belong to several minor social groups with each one providing unique ideas, perceptions, and guides for behavior. Religious, linguistic, medical, and technical information concerning tools, weapons, food preparation, etc. always have an uneven distribution among societal members. Thus, all individuals in any society will never share the same set of cultures. Also, even when two or more individuals do share the same set of cultures, they may differ in the level of emotional commitment to them. Some people become extremely committed to a culture and would rather give up their lives than deviate from its ideas, values, or guides. Others are less committed and may question or even disregard the myths or commandments of a culture. There appears to be a tendency for individuals in less complex groups to be more emotionally committed to singular myths and rituals than those in more complex groups. This is especially true when people treat their cultures as absolutes and suppress freedom of choice.
With increased complexity, there is an increased probability that individuals will learn cultures that are incompatible. That is, they cannot be substituted for each other in a specific environment. For example, a person who speaks two different languages learns the appropriate situation in which to use each one. A simple example is the case of the bilingual individual who is trying to communicate with someone who only speaks one of the two languages. Successful communication between the two individuals requires a common language and the bilingual person will use the language the other person knows to accomplish that goal. Otherwise, communication between the two is extremely difficult, if not possible. Two or more individuals who share more than one language may shift between them and may use one for one subject and others for other subjects. The language spoken will often depend upon which language the speakers consider more appropriate for the subject being communicated. For example, a child raised in a multilingual family will avoid problems with miscommunication by learning the appropriate use of each language. If the child’s father uses one language and the mother prefers another, the child may learn both and use the appropriate one for each parent. The key in multilingual communication is learning to use the appropriate language for a specific environment rather than trying to restrict everyone to use only one of the languages. Furthermore, the result is a richer environment.
When individuals cannot determine the appropriate behavior for a given situation, the result can be inaction, embarrassment, or interpersonal conflict. Selecting the appropriate behavior for a given social situation requires cultural guidelines. These guidelines are essential for maintaining social order. This is true whether interaction is on the family, tribal, national, or global level of complexity. Especially in today’s global environments, guidelines for appropriate behavior are necessary to avoid misunderstandings and chaos. There is a growing need for multicultural individuals to translate cultures and facilitate meaningful interaction between people just as multilinguistic individuals facilitate meaningful communication. In today’s world, cultural translation has become necessary to prevent misunderstandings, fear, enmity¸ and conflicts. It is essential to a successful global economy, productive multinational communication, and a peaceful world.
In sum, ‘culture’ designates a system of symbolic information shared by a group of individuals. The system and the information are learned and maintained through social symbolic interaction, affect all aspects of human life, and is found at all levels of social complexity. Without culture, meaningful human activity cannot exist. One of the major obstacles that has existed in the past to achieving an adequate understanding of behavior has been the assumption that culture was an epiphenomenon. It has been considered to be a superficial layer resting upon “human nature”; a core of physical factors that were the “real” basis of human behavior. This bias in western social science placed a huge impediment in the attempts to understand human social behavior. On the other hand, there has been an opposite bias by cultural relativists to overemphasize mental factors and downplay the involvement of physical factors in human social behavior. This may be understandable in terms of an attempt to get recognition for the significance of culture in human life. But the achievement of an appropriate and productive theory for understanding the human condition requires moving beyond insisting upon either one of these extreme positions. Both must be considered in the environment they are found and the relativistic approach of complementarity will be the only way to achieve the understanding of the essential roles played by both the cultural and physical factors of human life.
Martin Ottenheimer, PhD
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
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 This is a modification of a definition published by Goodenough (1964:36).