Introduction

Suggested Focus

This introduction to the book will give you a brief survey of the topics covered in each chapter. Identify two chapters that you think might be particularly interesting. Why do you think so? Be prepared to discuss your choices with other readers.

 

The word culture is among the most frequently used words in English. We use it frequently in daily speech and encounter it often in both popular and academic texts. Directly or indirectly, it is the subject matter of many university courses. Even when it is not the exclusive focus, it plays a role in many discussions across the humanities and social sciences. But most of the time, we use it without defining it or even thinking much about exactly what we mean by it.

Despite the ease with which we use the term, culture is not a simple concept. The primary purpose of this book is to promote a better understanding of the scope of the idea. Indeed, the word has a very wide range of meanings, and they are not all consistent with one another. For one thing, it has a relatively long history, and its primary uses have changed markedly over several centuries. Even in my lifetime (I was born in 1953) the ways in which scholars have defined culture have only become more diverse.

To come to grips with culture then will require that we give an account of the various ways that culture has come to be defined. It also goes without saying that one cannot define any concept without introducing still other associated concepts, so this book is rich in such secondary concepts.

We begin our mission of defining culture in Chapter 1 with a brief recounting of the history of the word. We point to its Latin root and recount the senses attached to it in 18th century France, and later, in 19th century England, before 20th century anthropologists made it a central concept of their discipline. We round out the chapter by calling attention to the proliferation of definitions of culture over the last 50 years. We end by introducing seven themes that Faulkner, Baldwin, Lindsley and Hecht (2006) have identified as encompassing all of the most common ways in which scholars have sought to define culture.

In Chapter 2, we put definitions of culture on the shelf temporarily, and put on the hat of the physical anthropologist. Our purpose is to emphasize the idea that culture, as anthropologists originally conceived it, is characteristic of the human species. That being the case, we want to remind readers of the antiquity of our species because it lays a foundation for putting human culture into a historical perspective in the chapter that follows. We also want to shine a light on the relationship between human diversity and geography and advance the argument that “race” is, biologically speaking, a meaningless category. Concepts such as those of race and ethnicity are often seen as bound up with culture, but my hope is that readers leave Chapter 2 with a sense that when it comes to humanity, the only “race” is the “human race.”

In Chapter 3, we return to an explicit focus on culture, defining it as a product of human activity. We learn that the first modern humans came into a world already swimming in culture. Their hominid precursors, for example, were already tool users. The first half of the chapter features a discussion of the material culture of the Paleolithic, a time stretching from roughly 50,000 to 10,000 years ago.  You will no doubt marvel at the remarkable tools of stone, bone, horn and ivory, and the various other artifacts that are hard to describe as anything less than art. The second half deals with the remarkable similarities in the world’s mythologies, tracing their major themes back to Africa, and proposing that a major innovation that took place roughly 40,000 years ago may have given rise to most of the world’s mythologies as they have come down to us today.

Chapter 4 might best be regarded as a bridge from the Paleolithic to the present. There is no grand theory in the chapter and no technical terminology to master. It merely begins with a quote from a renowned folklorist, who declared that “Material culture records human intrusion in the environment” (Henry Glassie, 1999: 1). Taking inspiration from the quote and from Glassie’s descriptive approach to material culture, I was moved to write a simple homely narrative based on my travels across several regions of the country. I caught hold of the first impressions that came to mind when I recalled several memorable travels. These recollections were of waterscapes and landscapes, and the most obvious intrusions were boats and buildings.

Structural definitions of culture often consist of lists of elements that refer to products of thought (or those things that can be expressed by means of language) and those things which are recognizable primarily as actions (i.e. performances, or ways of doing things). The intent of Chapter 5 is to define a handful of terms that are generally regarded as aspects of culture: beliefs, values, norms, customs, traditions, and rituals. This certainly does not exhaust the list of elements typically mentioned as integral to culture, but they are terms that we routinely fall back on when challenged to define culture. They are also terms that we find difficult to differentiate. What, for example, is the difference between a custom and a tradition? Although it may be a fool’s errand, we will do our best to distinguish this handful of interrelated terms one from another.

In Chapter 6, we take a closer look at several ways in which anthropologists have put beliefs and values to work in the service of cultural inquiry. We look at the theory of Florence Kluckhohn and Fred Strodtbeck, known as Values Orientation Theory, which proposes that human societies can be compared on the basis of how they answer a limited number of universal questions. We then summarize the results from another approach to universal values, that of Geert Hofstede, who has proposed a theory purporting to identify different orientations across national cultures. We contrast that with a Chinese Values Survey reflecting a Confucian worldview. We wrap up the chapter with a critique of Hofstede’s theory, motivated by a suspicion that the persistence of the theory is due more to charisma than to the veracity of the theory.

Chapter 7 takes up the theme of culture as group-membership, questioning the labeling of large national groups as cultures on the grounds that few people in today’s multicultural societies actually live in groups where everyone shares the same culture. In other words, we argue, culture is not something that is contained within groups. We define some social categories often discussed by sociologists including race, ethnicity and social class. We then examine group-membership as historians and political scientists have often discussed them through the lens of nationalism.

In Chapter 8, we explore the roots of American culture. In doing so, we employ many of the elements of culture discussed in Chapters 5 and 6, most particularly: beliefs, values, and folkways. But whereas Chapter 5 focused on defining the terms, and Chapter 6 looked into beliefs and values as cultural universals, Chapter 8 examines some beliefs and values particularly associated with the United States. We start with a conventional depiction of the United States as exemplifying values such as individualism, freedom, equality, and beliefs in change and progress, and as embracing norms of competitiveness, informality, and so on. We continue by challenging that as perhaps too much of a stereotype. Then, drawing on the “nation” concept from Chapter 7, we take a historical view of the United States as a country of eleven nations all exerting regional influence, and four dominant cultures dueling for political authority.

Chapter 9 explores some relationships between religion and culture, not the least of which is the fact that the word “religion,” like the word “culture,” comes to us from the Latin. Therefore, like the word, “culture,” the word “religion” does not have exact equivalents in many languages. Throughout the chapter, we will touch on many of the world’s historically prominent religions. Along the way, we will see that while some religions are rooted in particular shared beliefs, other religions place more emphasis on everyday practices. In the end, exploring all the various aspects of religion might lead us to wonder whether “religion” and “culture” aren’t simply two different terms for referring to the same things. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that ordinary speakers of English could get by without distinguishing that which is simultaneously religious and cultural from that which is “merely” cultural.

This book does not explicitly cover all of the seven themes introduced in Chapter 1. There isn’t really much about culture as process or culture as refinement. And culture as power and ideology is only suggested in Chapter 8. However, perhaps there is enough here for every student to gain some small measure of appreciation for the many ideas we might want to keep in mind when speaking of culture.

References

Faulkner, S. L., Baldwin, J. R., Lindsley, S. L.  & Hecht, M. L. (2006). Layers of meaning: An analysis of definitions of culture. In J. R. Balwin, S. L. Faulkner, M. L. Hecht & S. L. Lindsley, (Eds.), Redefining culture: Perspectives across the disciplines. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Glassie, H. (1999). Material culture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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Speaking of Culture by Nolan Weil is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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