Culture is a complex and multifaceted concept that encompasses the beliefs, customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. Culture shapes our identities and experiences in profound ways. In this essay, I aim to define culture in my own words and explore the key elements that comprise culture.
In simple terms, culture refers to the way of life of a group of people. This includes the ideas, customs, social behaviors, languages, arts, and technologies that make a society distinct. Some key aspects of culture in my view are:
Shared beliefs and values
Every culture is based on belief systems that shape people’s worldviews. These belief systems include religious faiths, social norms, ethics, and assumptions about human nature and the universe. For instance, individualism is an important value in American culture.
Social institutions like family, education, government, and economic systems are organizational manifestations of cultural values. They formalize social relationships and interactions. The nature of these institutions varies across cultures.
Language enables the sharing and transmission of cultural knowledge and traditions. The specific language used by a group fosters a shared identity and way of encoding cultural meaning. Subcultures can emerge around different languages and dialects.
Cultures find creative outlets in art, music, dance, architecture, literature etc. These artistic forms reflect cultural messages, values, and worldviews in nuanced ways. For example, blues music originated among African Americans in the deep South and conveys the struggle and emotions of that experience.
Food and clothing
Cultural identities and histories are often expressed through traditional clothing, cuisine, and food habits. The types of clothing and food items favored by a group reveal aspects of their living conditions, beliefs, and aesthetic preferences.
Traditions and customs
These are the rituals, practices, and conventions that people of a society follow in their daily lives. Births, weddings, funerals, holidays, and social interactions are all characterized by culture-specific traditions and customs. Adhering to them reaffirms one’s cultural identity.
Key Functions of Culture
In addition to its visible characteristics, culture serves some core functions in human societies:
Gives a sense of identity
Culture shapes people’s sense of self and who they are in relation to others. Adopting a culture provides one with a social identity and way of defining oneself. This creates a feeling of belonging.
Sharing a common culture enhances communication and understanding between members of a society. It provides a context for encoding and interpreting meaning in human interactions.
Ensures social control
Cultural norms and values regulate human behavior in society. They promote social order by imposing expectations, duties, and social boundaries that people are compelled to follow. Deviance from cultural norms results in negative sanctions.
Allows transmission of knowledge
Culture preserves and passes on knowledge to subsequent generations. Core values and accumulated wisdom about human existence are transmitted through stories, rituals, language, and mores. This intergenerational transfer is vital for cultural continuity.
Promotes social cooperation
Shared social institutions and cultural practices foster cooperation between members of a cultural group. Following behavioral norms and fulfilling one’s social role as per culture enables smooth social functioning.
For instance, politeness norms enable pleasant social exchanges.
Elements of Culture
Culture is intricately woven out of many elements that I summarize in the table below:
|Elements of Culture
|Values and Beliefs
|Ideas about what is right/wrong, good/bad, important/unimportant, sacred/profane.
|Expected patterns of behavior in different situations.
|Meaningful signs, gestures, objects used to convey culture.
|Tools for communicating, encoding cultural meaning.
|Arts and Literature
|Expressive objects/forms reflecting culture.
|Patterned customs, rituals, celebrations.
|Organized, established procedures and practices.
This table summarizes the broad components that comprise the culture of any society. The relative importance of each element may vary across different cultures.
Factors Influencing Cultural Development
Culture does not emerge in isolation. Many factors play a role in cultural development:
Shared historical experiences shape a cultural group’s worldview and traditions. Major events become reference points in their collective narrative and cultural memory. For instance, the experience of apartheid influences contemporary South African culture.
Geography and environment
Geographic factors like natural resources, climate, and landscape impact how cultures develop. Material conditions impose adaptive demands that are met through cultural innovations. Arctic cultures show adaptations to extreme cold.
Contact with outsiders
Interaction with other cultures often leads to the exchange of cultural elements through trade, migration, and war. This contact accelerates cultural change as groups select and integrate foreign cultural traits. America’s multiculturalism partly reflects its immigrant history.
Technical innovations like the internet, automobile, and firearm have significantly changed cultures around the world. They spur new institutions, values, lifestyles, and social relations aligned with technological realities.
Influential thinkers, religious figures, and political leaders can deliberately introduce cultural changes. For example, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk imposed major cultural reforms in Turkey.
Diffusion of cultural traits
Cultural ideas and practices can spread from one society to another through trade, travel, media, and technology. Diffusion enables cultures to mutually influence each other. Fast food has diffused from the U.S. worldwide.
Culture encompasses the everyday beliefs, customs, forms of expression, institutions, and worldviews shared by members of a society. It shapes people’s sense of identity and way of life. While culture is a group phenomenon, there is diversity within cultures as well. Individuals interpret and express cultural meaning in their own way. Culture constantly evolves in response to changing environments, contact with other cultures, and human creativity. However, it has an overall continuity anchored in its core values and institutions. In today’s interconnected world, all human cultures collectively constitute the global culture that we must cherish.