March 20, 2007

What is culture anyway?

I have called this blog “cultural moments”, but I haven’t yet defined “culture”. This is not a simple task as there are hundreds of definitions of culture out there, but I like the following two:

To begin, I appreciate Craig Storti’s succinct definition, “Culture is the shared assumptions, values and beliefs of a group of people which result in characteristic behaviors” -- the kind of definition you can carry around with you in your back pocket.

David S. Hoopes offers a more complete definition, “Culture is the sum total of ways of living, including: values, beliefs, esthetic standards, linguistic expression, patterns of thinking, behavioral norms and styles of communication which a group of people has developed to assure its survival in a particular physical and human environment. Culture is the response of a group of human beings to the valid and particular needs of its members. It, therefore, has an inherent logic and an essential balance between positive and negative dimensions.” This definition acknowledges that a culture makes sense to its members in its historical and social context and will therefore never completely make sense to anyone from the outside. It also recognizes that the positive sides of a culture always have a backside (no utopian dreaming allowed!).

He concludes with,” Culture and the people who are part of it interact so that culture is not static.” This part acknowledges that culture is like an ecosystem -- behaviors influence values and beliefs and vice verse in an ongoing dynamic process that brings change to a culture over time.

Cultural moments come about when we encounter these differences, not just the big ones that easily stand out (food, ways of dress, greeting), but especially the small, insidious, invisible ones that lie below the surface (see the iceberg) – the different way a society is organized, its values, behaviors and ways of thinking. Our sense of who we are gets confused. We lose our sense of orientation among conflicting cultural clues as to how to behave and think.

This week I am going to dedicate each day to a different aspect of culture: time orientation, degree of individualism, rules and their application, role of fate. Then I will get back to my personal reflections on “cultural moments” in Italy, but I will be able to hyperlink back to these posts when a particular concept comes up.

Stay with me for a ride on the cultural moments train!

A domani,

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