Understanding Culture

Topics: Culture, Anthropology, Sociology Pages: 7 (2492 words) Published: June 24, 2013
Understanding Culture

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...
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