Cultural Meaning

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CULTURAL MEANING

The meaning humans give to actions, concepts and behaviours is dependent on the cultural milieu and is conditioned to a great extent by the underlying meaning systems, values and frames of meaning he/she inherites from the society in general. Socialization plays a direct role in that process. Education, effects of peers and the intellectual atmosphere all contribute to what is called cultural meaning or systems of meaning. Cultural meaning conditions our perception and determines the way we process external perceptions. In this sense, what Gregory Bateson calls "an ecology of mind" is at work here. The mind acts in an ecology of preceding concepts, comments and semantic networks operating in a particular field and in society as well. Through these networks meaning is produced within a particular person, system, or culture. This meaning then frames and motivates the actions of individuals and groups. "Events are not just there and happen, but they have a meaning and happen because of that meaning," wrote Clifford Geertz.

Meaning is also historically formed. For example; body image varies across cultures and is shaped by the specific meaning given to it by a culture. There is a time dimension involved in this same process, too. Western societies tend to value slim and fit bodies in terms of representation in popular culture. Whereas, body images of other cultures are very different in most cases. Some Pacific island people prefer fatness both as a sign of wealth and of esthetic superiority. But with the advent of globalization and the expansion of western cultural codes through TV and other media, these same people have come to question their body images. Western culture's meaning system expanded its sphere of influence in that case. In fact, a mild fatness was accepted as a desirable physical trait in western history, too.

Much of what is classified under popular culture is subject to meaning systems and the accompanying perceptions about them. A society's selective perceptions and evaluations favor a certain behavior, a mode of thought and even such ephemeral things as fashion fads.

Famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz suggests that an analysis of culture must also cope with the category of meaning. "The culture concept to which I adhere . . . denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited concepts expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life." As is understod from this definition, meaning is an inseparable component of culture and it directly shapes our perceptions and understanding. Alternative meaning systems combine to give a culture its core values.

As a cultural phenomenon, gift giving may be evaluated from that pespective looking at different cultures and their subjective meaning systems attributed to this practice. As can be deduced from David R. Counts' article , some cultures see the act of gift giving in a radically different way. Reciprocity brings about a gift giving approach that is essentially different from ours. The people of New Guinea think gift giving must include a symmetry in that you also have to respond to the act of gift giving by giving something in return for the one you received. It is a kind of implied bargain, or shopping through barter more to say. In the lack of formal rules and practices of trade, the natives created their own concept of reciprocal gift giving as a means of doing trade. From a western point of view, the meanings ascribed to gift giving are very different, though. But New Guineans have refined this form of gift giving through centuries and created this particular meaning system. Western culture sees gift giving as away from commercial thoughts. Though reciprocity is emphasized again, the hints of mutual give-and-take are shunned carefully lest monetary concerns come between. Western...
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