Tuesday, February 8, 2011
The Nature of Culture
Culture is hard to define: it’s one of those concepts that seems to change identities when applied in different circles.
For example, one in the humanities might see culture as an example of “the best” of civilization—fine arts such as sculpture and painting, symphonies’ and orchestras’ renderings of musical compositions, a restaurant practicing elegant gastronomy. This culture is one of tradition—a static representation of a piece of “the good” in society to be preserved as is for future generations.
One in the social sciences, however, might see culture as a “cultural whole” where it is tied to society in its entirety, not just the elite. Since the activities of this society are constantly subject to change as the society adapts to its situation in place and time, these activities cannot be preserved as is. And here, even within the social sciences, varying theories abound as to the correct way to characterize the ilk of culture. Clifford Geertz, a heavily referenced 20th Century American anthropologist who explored a theory of “thick description,” argued that while culture is represented through actions of symbolic behavior it is the import behind these actions that will provide the greatest insight and understanding of the culture they derived from. Others then expand on this, questioning whether it is culture that defines behavior, behavior that defines culture or a cryptic combination of both. Behavior itself is then questioned: is action the means to an end as determined through cultural values or is there more to culture than just values that drives culture? Michael Schudson, an American sociologist, maintains that at times culture does indeed drive behavior but that the success of culture as impetus relies on the strength of the cultural symbols and values employed. Ann Swidler, an American sociologist at UC Berkeley, suggests that perhaps culture is defined, in addition to values, by a certain set of skills and knowledge she labels a cultural “tool kit.” This tool kit can explain why values (or ideologies) and behavior do not always match: if an individual possesses no tools in his tool kit that allow him to act in recognition of a certain value, then subsequent behavior will most likely be adverse to the value in question.
So the theories as to “what is culture” are complicated—repeatedly diversified, deconstructed and reconstructed—and to apply these theories in order to define the culture of a society is not any easier. During my experience in Senegal, West Africa with the Peace Corps, we talked often of culture and how it affected our daily lives. Our trainers tried their best to familiarize us with “Senegalese culture” before setting us loose to experience it on our own, but in reality this sensitization training only served to alert us as to how far we were out of our own element. The trainers were part of urban Senegalese culture, whereas most of us volunteers were sent to live in remote villages in rural settings, and we often found that their lessons didn’t jive completely with culture as we experienced it. For instance, our trainers imposed strict rules of dress while we stayed in the city at the training center, arguing that Senegalese took pride in their appearances and that if we did not dress appropriately we could be written off as unprofessional. However, upon entering the village sites, it became clear that most people dressed for function—they had no money to spend on clothes (except for major holidays) and often wore the same work-worn outfit several days in a row, especially during the farming season. If a volunteer didn’t wear similar work-worn clothing, the community considered them incapable of hard, physical labor, and for volunteers in agricultural extension this created major problems. Urban volunteers benefitted from the training, but rural volunteers found themselves having to adjust to a different set of cultural values. According to the space and setting, the culture varied—even within a bound region subscribing to an overarching national culture—so that the Senegalese rural belonged to a culture of their own.
This separation isn’t unique to Senegal, but perhaps this was the first time I truly thought about the differences in culture according to places. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, but rarely did my friends and I sit down and talk through what it meant to be a part of rural Pennsylvania culture. It wasn’t until I was removed from my own cultural context and trying to learn another that I realized the full power that “place” had in determining who I was—my values, my behavior, my tool kit. They say volunteers often suffer from “reverse culture shock” upon their re-entry into the American way of life, but I’m not so sure this is the case. Perhaps it is simply an emerging interest in exploring their own roots—a notion they may never have really had to think about before. Some may have questions about American culture in general. I, in addition to the latter, have questions about American rurality as a piece separate from yet contained within “American” culture.