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What is Culture? Part Six: Defining cultural phenomena

What is Culture? Part Six: Defining cultural phenomena

If everything in culture is made of conventions, we should be able to explain all cultural phenomena in terms of conventions

Conventions, the atomic unit of culture, explain why groups of individuals follow the same arbitrary behaviors and become enmeshed in a web of material objects, behaviors, meanings, signs, and values. Every culture, then, is a massive, complex web of things and beliefs — the arrangement of which is always in flux. Perhaps this isn’t that far from our original description of culture as a “vague ether haunting society.” But by thinking about culture as conventions, we have the tools to isolate distinct phenomenon inside the ether and better explain what is happening.

What do we mean when we identify something as being part of a community's culture?
We have identified a convention — a pattern of behavior that a significant number of people repeatedly follow in an observable way.

What defines cultural difference?
Cultures reveal differences through following different conventions, or taking different meanings and values from the same conventions.  

What is a custom?
A custom is a long-established, unconscious convention that has been internalized.

What is a tradition?
A tradition is a conscious convention anchored in the notion of historical precedence and celebrated as a symbol of group identity.

What is a style?
A style is a convention guiding the usage and arrangement of certain perceptual attributes such as visual elements, sound, and taste.

What is a trend?
A trend describes a convention in the process of taking on new adherents.

What is a fad?
A fad is a short-term convention that rapidly gains followers but loses those followers just as quickly.

What is a fashion?
A fashion is a short-term convention in a particular field (e.g. clothing, fonts, interior design) where new conventions are proposed and disposed in a regular cadence.

What is cultural change?
Cultural change describes:

  1. The acceptance of new conventions
  2. The devaluing of previous conventions
  3. The revival of previous conventions with new meanings and values

What causes cultural change?
Cultural change is always conventional change. New coordination problems may arise, older solutions may lose their effectiveness, and established conventions may become undesirable for various reasons, including:

  1. Social factors: Individuals revaluate old conventions and create new conventions in order to avoid sharing the same conventions with whom they consider to be undesirable
  2. Cultural factors: Individuals abandon old conventions when their arbitrariness becomes too obvious
  3. Technological factors: Individuals revaluate old conventions and create new conventions in adapting their behavior to new technologies
  4. Economic factors: Individuals revaluate old conventions and create new conventions in adapting their behavior to new economic arrangements
  5. Environmental factors: Individuals revaluate old conventions and create new conventions in finding new solutions to coordination problems after changes to the physical environment

What is invention?
Invention is the proposal of new coordination solutions that go on to form new conventions.

What is innovation?
Cultural innovation describes the process of an invention becoming a convention. (Technical innovation has more to do with measurable efficiencies.)

What is art?
Art is the radical invention of aesthetic forms that challenge and play with the internalized conventions that guide our perception.

What is folk culture?
Folk cultures are customs created in a certain locale outside of (or at least indirect to) the commercial marketplace and mass media.

What are subcultures and countercultures?
Subcultures and countercultures are marginal groups that follow conventions conspicuously contrasting with mainstream norms. (In sociology, subculture has become more associated with the working-class negation of mainstream praxis, while countercultures are middle-class groups focused on negation of mainstream beliefs.)

What does a monoculture describe?
A monoculture is when humans from diverse backgrounds all take on the same conventions.

What is the culture industry?
The culture industry describes companies and creators who forge new products and art forms where commercial success hinges on the future conventionality of those ideas.

What is cultural capital?
Cultural capital is the knowledge and proper performance of certain high-status conventions that identify an individual as a member of a high-status group.

What are cultural politics?
Cultural politics are struggles over the distribution of power and resources as they relate to and play out in the dominant conventions of society.

What is cultural relativism?
Cultural relativism proposes that no convention is more valuable than another within the universal context of humankind.

What is cultural assimilation?
Cultural assimilation describes minority or less powerful groups abandoning their previous conventions in order to join the dominant conventions of the society.

Should we call cultural change “cultural evolution”?
No. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “I deeply regret that common usage refers to the history of our artifacts and social organizations as ‘cultural evolution.’” Darwinian evolution contends that certain traits in a single species provide advantages that promote replication. This is a bad metaphor for how culture changes over time. The existence of certain conventions isn’t contingent on the better survival of certain people in a population. Nor do stronger art forms persist while weaker ones go away. If anything, culture is Lamarckian rather than Darwinian. (Alex Mesoudi disagrees with all of this, but I haven’t read his book yet to understand why.)

The fact that culture isn’t Darwinian is quite good for humans. As Gould writes, intentional inheritance means “You can move very deliberately, and very fast” towards progress. Moreover the arbitrariness of culture means that change isn’t teleological. Jazz and hip-hop are both great. If humans have enjoyed a vast range of music and not "evolved" beyond previous forms, we can always go back and revive what we've lost.

Does culture go “viral”?
Viral contagion is also a bad metaphor for cultural change. Viruses are semi-living things that attempt to spread themselves. If culture is conventions, then cultural trends aren't “things” with their own goals and momentum. Culture spreads when people take on different behaviors. Yes, the unconscious imitation of behaviors means culture can be “contagious,” but people are more likely to “get infected” when they're already open to being in the same conventions as their peers. No matter how many purple Shen Yun advertisements upper-middle-class Americans see, this ad blitz hasn't created a sincere craze for the music and dance of Shen Yun.

Key Takeaway:
Once we understand culture as conventions, we can better understand and track what is happening in culture by looking at how humans move in and out of conventions.

Next time: Part Seven: A final summary and suggested bibliography

Illustration by Shoko Kawai