Wrapping everything up, with a few clarifications and some suggestions for further reading
We started with a near-impossible mission: Define the most ambiguous and possibly worst word in the English language. I had no ambition to create yet another definition for "culture," but we ended up with one:
Culture describes the conventions of a community, which guide individuals into regular behaviors and provide communal meanings and values.
The specific wording of this phrase is not as important as the main point: Conventions are the atomic unit of cultural behavior. They explain why culture encompasses language, behavior, and art; why culture can manifest as customs, traditions, styles, fads, and fashions; how culture can be both conscious and unconscious; and why individuals become so dedicated to their way of life and so suspicious of equally-valid alternatives. To "think about culture" is then to locate specific conventions in a community and deconstruct their origin, practice, outcomes, and connectedness to other conventions.
At their heart, conventions arise around arbitrary behaviors. But I want to clarify three important points about what I mean:
1) Arbitrary doesn't mean cultural activity is random
The incredible range of cultural practices and values on earth through the millennia reveals that they are all possible for humans as a species. Cultural possibility overrides narrow biological determinism. Men can have short hair, long hair, and no hair. We can enjoy horse meat or find it disgusting. But the specifics of our community's conventions are never random: they arrive through specific historical circumstances. So we should then examine every convention through its origin – especially within the context of social dynamics, power, and wealth.
2) Arbitrary doesn't mean equal outcomes for all behaviors
Different conventions have different consequences. Some conventions related to time management are more productive than others. Many conventions, including words and images, are harmful and discriminatory to certain groups. Modernity means looking at our arbitrary practices and thinking: Would a different arbitrary practice be more beneficial to our community? Cigarette smoking was a well-established convention of American life for most of the 20th century. Then the negative health effects became clear, and public smoking has become taboo. It may be arbitrary whether humans smoke cigarettes or not, but the effects are not arbitrary.
3) Controlling conventions is a form of power
Fashion is the clearest form of cultural arbitrariness. One day we all wear skinny jeans, then straight-leg, then wide-leg, etc. At every single point in that chain, however, there is a "right" and a "wrong" way to wear jeans, and those who conform to the right conventions at the right time are rewarded with social status. Conventions give arbitrary practices differential social value. Having familiarity with elite conventions, then, provides concrete benefits, and to influence the dominant conventions becomes a form of power.
If you want to read more general thoughts on culture or more about conventions in particular, I recommend the following books:
Culture as a topic
- Hannah Arendt: “The Crisis in Culture”
- T. S. Eliot: Notes Towards a Definition of Culture
- Raymond Williams: Culture and Society
- Raymond Williams: Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society
- Raymond Williams: The Sociology of Culture
- Terry Eagleton: Culture
- Edward L. Hall: Beyond Culture (micro-anthropology)
- Roger Scruton: Modern Culture (conservative view)
- Roy Wagner: The Invention of Culture (a deconstruction of anthropology)
Conventions and Norms
- David Lewis - Convention (the seminal work)
- Margaret Gilbert - On Social Facts (includes a challenge of Lewis)
- Edna Ullmann-Margalit - The Emergence of Norms (game theory and norms)
- Rudi Keller - A Theory of Linguistic Signs (linguistics view of arbitrariness)
And with that, it's now time to go beyond this basic theory and start looking into specific cultural principles and weigh in on current conventions.
Illustration by Shoko Kawai