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What is Culture? Part Two: Components and Commonalities

What is Culture? Part Two: Components and Commonalities

In the second part of a seven-part limited series, we search for the common components underlying the various definitions of culture

In Part One, we laid out the four primary ways the word culture is used today, namely to describe: (1) high culture, (2) communal culture, (3) popular culture, and (4) corporate norms. This alone explains why a macro-definition of culture is so difficult: It would have to encompass Virginia Woolf novels, kula rings, the John Hughes film Weird Science, and “dress down Fridays."

Perhaps what makes “economics” and “agriculture” much easier to grasp is that they are sectors of human life organized around specific aims, principles, rules, and actions. Culture, by contrast, often just feels like a vague ether haunting society. But not everything is culture; it's a specific part of our lives. And culture does have discrete components: material objects, concepts, behaviors, meanings, and values. Culture is the Golden Rule, the gold standard, Goldilocks, Bros’ Gold iPhones, Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” the Pavement song “Gold Soundz,” Jill Scott's “Golden,” the drum-and-bass producer Goldie, Goldie Hawn’s appearances on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, the James Bond film Goldfinger, Goldendoodles, the Golden Arches of McDonalds, Golden Grahams cereal, Hanukkah gelt, the golden hour in photography, the Golden Fleece, Gold’s Gyms, the gold record for extraterrestrials carried in Voyager 2 – and how we feel about all of them at any certain time.

From this list, we're also reminded that we deploy the term “culture” to describe the parts of our lives outside biological necessity and the rational organization of labor to achieve specific technical and economic tasks. Culture happens when we’re eating and drinking, chatting with friends and coworkers, getting ready for bed, alleviating boredom, thinking and tinkering. Bearing balls may be an impressive man-made creation, and there may even be a culture of how industrial workers clean up the spillage of ball bearings as to avoid slipping on them in a Chaplinesque manner. But we don’t think of ball bearings alone as a part of “culture” because their regular application is to make industrial machinery run more smoothly.

In general, most talk of culture tends to fall into one of these five categories:

  1. Customs, the unconscious habits and behaviors distinctive to a community (e.g. the drinking of Folgers coffee in the morning among older middle-class Americans)
  2. Traditions, the conscious rituals performed to celebrate and define a community (e.g. the specific coffee drinking ceremonies of Ethiopians and Eritreans)
  3. Lifestyle, the particular choices modern individuals choose to live and spend their time (e.g. picking up an oat milk latte every morning on the way to the office)
  4. Leisure, voluntary activities for fun and relaxation outside family, health, and economic responsibilities (e.g. running a hobbyist YouTube channel offering tips for making the best coffee)
  5. Art, the intentional creation and aesthetic consideration of non-practical objects and experiences (e.g. “Nighthawks,” a painting of coffee drinkers by Edward Hopper)

But this exercise only further reveals the internal contradictions in the term “culture.” Is culture unconsciously inherited as customs or consciously created as art? Is culture used for the maintenance of standards over generations as seen in traditions or a dynamic space for innovation as seen in avant-garde art? Is culture directed by elites or is it generated in the daily behavior of the masses?

These inherent discrepancies are infuriating, but some believe they’re precisely what makes culture such a powerful concept. “​‘Culture’,” writes Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker, “​is more than the sum of its definitions. If anything, its value as a word depends on the tension between them.” For scholar William Ray, “Culture is not a coherent concept. It is far more a strategy for understanding in dialectical terms, and thus legitimating as reciprocals of each other, the competing imperatives of social order and individual freedom, hierarchy and mobility, continuity and change, law and choice.” In essence, the word culture is complex precisely because it reflects the very complexity of individuals’ relationships with society.

Yet from a pragmatic point of view, we wouldn’t use the same word “culture” to describe all these different things unless there were some semblances between the definitions. What are the basic attributes that distinguish culture from other parts of life?

For a start, the four definitions of culture describe what we create beyond our biological programming. Culture is learned from others rather than innate. By this most basic definition, some animals even have “culture”: Chimpanzees copy each others’ “fashions,” such as placing blades of grass behind their ears, while Southern Resident Killer Whales once had a fad for balancing dead salmon on their heads. For sociologist Georg Simmel, culture is “the development of human nature beyond its natural state.” To this point, literary critic Terry Eagleton notes, “War, hunger, drugs, arms, genocide, disease, ecological disaster: all of these have their cultural aspects, but culture is not the core of them.” The environment may shape the parameters of our culture — Inuits who brave polar blizzards prefer to sleep inside igloos rather than atop breezy sisal hammocks — but within such constraints, humans show incredible ingenuity in thinking up a wide range of material and spiritual solutions to their particular problems.

Likewise, culture is a shared set of behaviors. Just as a one-person language can’t exist, neither can a one-person culture. Early sociologist Pitirim Sorokin’s definition of culture focuses on this aspect of interaction, stating that culture is “Everything which is created or modified by the conscious or unconscious activity of two or more individuals interacting with one another or conditioning one another’s behavior.” (italics added)

If we just focus on culture as a man-made, shared set of practices that exist in the space beyond sheer survival, this would allow us to include contrasting concepts such as customs and fashions, art and pop, habits and idiosyncrasies, rules and rule-breaking. That doesn't provide a particularly interesting definition, but at least we're getting closer to answering what we talk about when we talk about culture.

But we're not done: I believe we can go two steps further. In the next installments, we will:

  1. Better outline the realm of human behavior that “culture” describes (Spoiler: It’s arbitrary behaviors)
  2. Propose an “atomic unit” of culture (Spoiler: It's a convention.)

Agreeing on these two things alone will greatly help us understand, analyze, and discuss culture in a way that works across all four definitions. This will start next time with a critical, yet loathed concept that guides so much of human life – arbitrariness.

Key Takeaway:
Culture, despite seemingly contradictory definitions, describes a social part of life beyond biological instincts and economic activity, as manifested in customs, traditions, lifestyle, leisure, and art.

Next time: Part Three: Arbitrariness

Illustration by Shoko Kawai