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What is Culture? Part Five: A web of meanings and values

What is Culture? Part Five: A web of meanings and values

Conventions explain why we follow the same regular behaviors in our community, but they also explain how groups agree on what things mean

Baby boys wear blue, and baby girls wear pink. We know this is an arbitrary assignment of colors, because it used to be the opposite. Earnshaw's Infants' Department's 1918 article stated: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” For the last eight decades, however, the reversal to boy=blue, girl=pink has rooted as an American convention, and most will conform to this rule when buying clothing for a newborn. Baby clothes manufacturers make following this convention even easier by mostly producing clothes that adhere to this arbitrary rule.

More interestingly this particular cultural norm demonstrates not only how conventions set our behavior but also how they provide us with meaning. This is very clear when examining another convention of recent vintage: the “gender reveal party.” Parents communicate the gender of their baby by either flashing the color pink for a girl or the color blue for a boy. From the conventions of baby clothing, we now have assigned colors to the binary genders. Pink isn't just a flattering color for girl babies but now signifies the female sex in total.

In this process, conventions transcend being mere recipes for behavior but end up as communicative signs rich in denotations and connotations. The convention for depicting a cow is to show a black-and-white spotted Holstein Friesian, and beyond its most obvious meaning, this image also connotes a large list of related things: farms, milk, Chick-fil-a billboards, the album covers of Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother and Eugenius's Oomalama, etc.. Conventions allow us to dive into an infinite rabbit hole of associations through a single material object: a Ferrari 308 GTB is the car from the TV show Magnum, P.I., which starred Tom Selleck, who had a mustache, which is a form of facial hair not seen on U.S. Presidents since William Howard Taft, who had a giant bathtub, etc. etc. Culture, then, is never just a linear list of objects, behaviors, and conventions, but a convoluted and dynamic web of meanings, with new links being created and old links being forgotten every day. “The sociocultural world,” writes sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, “consists of endless millions of individual objects, events, processes, fragments, having an infinite number of forms, properties, and relationships.”

Last time we saw how conventions quickly become social norms: they aren't just the regular way of doing things, but the proper way. In the process of communities sharing conventions, values are formed. This becomes clearest when individuals encounter rival groups who adhere to different conventions. Not only do they negatively value the rival conventions but value their own conventions as a badge of group membership. As individuals share certain practices, conventions help form social bonds through shared meanings. The turkey and the guinea fowl are both birds that humans can eat, but turkeys loom large in American culture since they elicit associations with Thanksgiving. RC Cola may just be a soda, but Cheerwine is a symbol of the Deep South, and Coca-Cola long has embodied aspirations for American prosperity. Values are also auto-generated in the social hierarchy. Respected groups' conventions are more valuable than disrespected groups' conventions. The latest fashions — i.e. elite and celebrity clothing conventions — are “in style”; those worn by laggards are “out of style.”

So when we talk about "different cultures," we are discussing communities that adhere to different conventions, take different meanings from the same conventions, or value certain conventions differently. At the 1913 Armory Show, avant-garde painters and philistines alike understood that Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" offered a radically new approach to painting. The difference is how they valued it: Artists hailed it as a masterpiece, Theodore Roosevelt said it was "not art."

The idea of a convention helps us understand why humans make the same arbitrary choices, but now we can explain almost everything in culture through them. Conventions show us how all the key ingredients of culture – material objects, behaviors, meanings, and values – work together to form convoluted webs of social activity. In fact, as we'll see next time, we can easily summarize most of the basic cultural phenomena through the idea of conventions alone.

Key Takeaway:
Conventions don't just explain the regular behaviors of culture but explain why culture becomes a web of meanings and values.

Next time: Part Six: An FAQ on our cultural vocabulary

Illustration by Shoko Kawai