Week 2: Defining Culture

When asked how I define culture I instantly thought of an essay I had read written by Matthew Arnold called ‘Culture and Anarchy’. Arnold defined culture by the ‘perfection’ of society, he urged the public to abandon narcissism, prejudice and dogmatism in the study of perfection and to achieve what he would call “culture”. However, my own conception of culture is entirely. I felt that culture was something that encompassed a group of people; share norms and values of a community made up by how they communicate, their beliefs, food, music, language, heritage and many other elements.

In the lecture we considered this quote-

“Many, if not most, people think of culture as what is often called “high culture” – art, literature, music, and the like. This culture is set in the framework of history and of social, political, and economic structures……..Actually, the most important part of culture for the sojourner is that which is internal and hidden…, but which governs the behaviour they encounter. This dimension of culture can be seen as an iceberg with the tip sticking above the water level of conscious awareness. By far the most significant part, however, is unconscious or below the water level of awareness and includes values and thought patterns.” (2)

This made me think about how society’s conception of culture has changed; Matthew Arnold’s thoughts on culture are outdated and were written during the Victorian period but culture today holds a much more detailed and broader meaning.

Culture is a vague term, as is the concept of culture itself- I have always considered it to be too expansive to pin down. There is a great debate in social science about what it is that shapes us both as individuals and as members of society. With regard to individuals, this debate is about nature versus nurture” meaning whether it is our inherited genetic predisposition (“nature”) or what we learn as we grow up (“nurture”) that predominantly shapes us and our differences as individuals. Similarly, anthropologists ask how much of our behaviour as a group is pre-determined by geography, culture, or history.

I made no conclusion on the subject, but I don’t think that that was the idea. Instead, by simply considering what culture means to people and our understanding of it, we furthered our ability to think laterally and rationally about what culture means to people as well what it means to scholars and how it is considered in theoretical terms.

(1)Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, Smith, Elder, Harvard University (1869)

(2) Weaver, G. R. (1993) p.157 Understanding and coping with cultural adjustment stress. In R. M. Paige (Ed.), Education for the Intercultural Experience (pp. 137-167). Yarmouth: ME: Intercultural Press


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