In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Definition of Culture 2. Pattern of Culture 3. Material and Non-Material Elements.
Definition of Culture:
The sociological meaning of the term culture differs sharply from the ordinary and literary uses of the term. In conventional usage, the word culture is employed to designate only those particular traits and behaviour systems that are regarded as refinements, such as painting, music, poetry, philosophy, art galleries, etc.
The adjective ‘cultured’ stands close to ‘cultivated’ or ‘refined’. The sociological use of the term culture does not, of course, exclude music, painting, and art galleries; but it also includes football, cricket, beliefs, superstitions, practices, and even crimes. That is, it includes all activities that are characteristic of a given group of people.
In sociological usage, culture refers to the totality of what, is learned by individuals as members of society; it is a way of life, a mode of thinking, acting, and feeling. “A culture refers to the distinctive way of life of a group of people, their complete design for living”.
The two essential points in regard to culture are emphasised in the definitions of Sir Edward Tylor and Robert Redfield. According to Tylor, “culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
Redfield speaks of culture as “an organised body of conventional understandings manifest in art and artifact, which, persisting through tradition, characterizes a human group”. The phrases ‘acquired by man’ and ‘persisting through tradition’ throw into focus two important dimensions of culture.
A human child, as he grows up, learns gradually from parents or from members of the group among whom he is born and among whom he lives.
The fact of learning indicates that one cannot acquire culture in isolation from society. In other words, the concept of culture has a social context. Redfield’s use of the phrase ‘persisting through tradition’ is a recognition of the important fact that what is learned in one generation is passed on to successive generations.
This is a unique aspect of human culture. Acquisition of a particular way of life (i.e., culture) through tradition is possible simply because human beings possess the ability to learn from the group — an ability which the lower animals have in a very limited degree. We cannot explain the standardised patterns of human behaviour in terms of inherited instincts or natural tendencies.
Most animals are equipped by heredity with special skills and instinctive knowledge which enable them to meet their basic needs and to adapt themselves to their environment. Consider, for instance, the habits of some species of fish to move out of sea to spawn in fresh water or the annual migration of birds in winter from cold climate to comparatively warmer areas.
The patterns of behaviour are inherited which appear automatically at the appropriate time, and are not learned from other members of the species. Man, on the other hand, possesses little, if anything at all, of instinctive skills or knowledge which might enable him to survive singly or in groups.
The reason for the survival of man lies in the fact that he has “the capacity to invent and learn language, which, in turn, enables himself to build a culture and to organise society”.
This art of symbolic communication enables man to transmit experiences gained in one generation to successive generation? No knowledge is lost. A human baby need not burn his finger to learn that one should not put one’s finger into fire. He is forewarned by his elders. Because of his capacity to communicate symbolically, man has been able to develop various kinds of ‘cultural aids’ to fulfil his various needs.
In order to ward off summer heat, a man need not, like an animal, keep himself submerged in water. Instead, he has devised electrical fans, coolers, etc., to relieve him from summer heat. It has been very well said that a man does not grow fir like animals in a cold climate; he makes a fur coat to keep himself warm.
The behaviour of man is thus largely a product of learning and experience. These characteristics of culture have led some writers to define culture ‘as man’s social heritage’.
The word ‘super organic’ is used by some writers’ to emphasize a certain degree of independence of culture from inorganic and organic elements. It is said that the inorganic phenomena are investigated by the physical sciences, the organic by the biological or “life” sciences, and the super-organic by the social sciences or the humanities.
The term super-organic does not, however, indicate that it is, in any way, superior to the organic or the inorganic.
The suggestion which is implicit in the word is that a phenomenon which is looked at from a physical or biological point of view is altogether a different phenomenon when looked at from a cultural point of view. For example, a banyan tree carries one meaning to a botanist who examines the tree objectively from a scientific point of view and finds out its characteristic features which distinguish it from other trees.
The same banyan tree appears to be a different phenomenon altogether when looked at from a cultural point of view. To some, the tree is an object of worship.
Some may emphasize its utilitarian aspects by referring to the fact that it provides the much-needed shade to those who take rest under its spreading branches. Similar is the case with organic objects. A cow, for example, is just an animal like many other animals to a biologist. From a cultural point of view, however, a cow is something more than an animal. It is, for instance, a sacred animal to a devout Hindu.
The word “super-organic” therefore — if one refrains from attaching metaphysical connotations to it — fixes our attention upon the social meaning of physical objects and physiological acts and emphasises the fact that this social meaning may be relatively independent of physical and biological properties and characteristics. In this sense “the super-organic” becomes a useful synonym for ‘culture’.
Each particular human group has its own distinctive standardised pattern of behaviour. It is rooted in the traditions of the group and it is shared by all the members of the group. In other words, each group has a distinct design for living.
The concept of culture as a distinct design for living is a useful tool for differentiating one society from another. Indian society, for instance, is to be distinguished from, say, Chinese society in terms of their respective designs for living.
The meaning of culture becomes clear when we take into account these four dimensions of the concept — that it is:
(i) Learned behaviour,
(ii) The social heritage,
(iii) Super organic, and
(iv) A design for living.
Each one of the expressions is used to emphasize a slightly different aspect of a complex phenomenon. The first one suggests that culture is learned and taught and shared and can by no means be acquired by an individual in isolation from society.
The second expression suggests the idea of ‘inheritance’, the idea that culture is handed down from generation to generation, and that something is added to and lost from that inheritance in each generation.
The third expression suggests that culture varies in relative independence of physical constituents and biological components and has an independent meaning. The fourth expression suggests that culture varies from one society or group to another, that it varies in different places at the same time and in the same place at different times.
Acquaintance with these four dimensions of culture is essential to an understanding of the basic concept.
Pattern of Culture:
At a fairly high level of abstraction, there are substantial similarities in the patterns of culture found among different groups of men. That is, “there are traits common to all cultures.
This universal culture-pattern may be expressed in terms of the following:
(i) All peoples have a family system,
(ii) All have a language,
(iii) All have developed some sort of a system relating to food, clothing, shelter, etc.
(iv) Every social group has some kind of government and patterns of social control,
(v) Property systems and inheritance rules are found in all lands,
(vi) People in all groups worship a Higher Power. We may suggest in this way still other universal patterns of culture.
At a much lower level of abstraction, however, we find almost endless diversity in cultural patterns. Thus, Hindus refuse to eat beef, while the Christians and Muslims have no such taboo in respect of beef. What is quite normal and conventional among one group may be highly objectionable to another group.
For example, the Andamanese do not whistle at night because they believe it will attract spirits; among non-Andamanese, say, among us, on the other hand, it is supposed to be one way to keep up one’s spirits when walking past a graveyard at night. Even differences in attitudes and behaviour-patterns persist among groups within the same society — for instance, among rural folk and urbanites.
Why cultural similarity:
Some writers have argued that the biological nature of man largely explains the existence of similarities in broad cultural patterns. We may consider here some biological facts : namely, the difference between the sexes; the long dependence of human infants upon others for survival; the organic drives generated by hunger, thirst, and sex; the processes of maturation and aging; and, finally, the fact of death.
These biological facts form the basis upon which many universal elements of culture are built — for example, the standards regulating the relations between sexes; the practices relating to child care and child rearing; the methods of cooking food; the practices relating to disposal of the dead.
Why cultural diversity:
Biological factors cannot obviously explain adequately the growth of cultural patterns. There are many aspects of cultural life of a community which cannot be easily related to biological facts, such as bodily adornment, decorative art, dancing, hair styles, etc.
These cannot be explained in terms of biological needs. Some writers have tried to explain diversities in cultural patterns in terms of race, and some others have explained these differences in terms of geographical and climatic variation.
Race and Culture:
Those who explain cultural diversities in terms of race assume that the external physical characteristics — such as, the shape of the head, colour of the hair, eyes and skin, height, body build, etc. — have a definite relationship to the kind of behaviour people will exhibit and the kind of culture they will possess.
According to this view, the Negroes, Caucasians, and the Mongoloids are expected to possess different cultures by virtue of their different biological features.
This view is unacceptable for various reasons. To begin with, from the biological point of view, all races of men originate from the same trunk. This view has been upheld by the UNESCO Committee of Experts on Race Problems. Secondly, most people have mixed racial ancestry.
This makes the concept of race of dubious reliability for social science. Thirdly, the irrelevance of heredity to the kind of culture an individual acquires is confirmed by a number of studies that have been made in this field.
The following report of an American brought up in a Chinese family illustrates this point:
“A few years ago a young man of American parentage, who had been reared in a Chinese family from infancy on, paid his first visit to America. Reporters commented not only upon his apparently complete bewilderment in the American way of life, but also upon the fact that his walk, arm and hand movements, and facial expression were ‘Chinese — not American’. They insisted that one had to fix one’s attention upon his blond hair and blue eyes to convince oneself that he was of white stock at all. Here the point is that an individual’s acts and attitudes not only failed to resemble not only those of his own close relatives in this country but that they resembled those of all members of an alien physical group and contrasted with those of all members of his own physical group”.
Fourthly, there is overwhelming evidence that similar cultures can be found among peoples with very different physical characteristics, that different cultures can be found among peoples with similar characteristics, and that culture may change quickly without any corresponding change in racial composition of the people.
Culture and climatic and geographical factors:
The evidence which invalidates racial theory also refutes the theory of climatic and geographical determinism of culture. The same patterns of culture may prevail under widely different climatic and geographical conditions. For instance, European ways of life have been adopted by some sections of the population in almost all the countries outside Europe and America.
The ways of life in big cities of the world exhibit broadly common features which cut across national frontiers. Likewise, different ways of life are found under similar climatic and geographical conditions. Dissimilarities of social practices among various groups of Indians illustrate this point.
We cannot, however, totally dismiss climatic or geographic facts from consideration. It is true, as is evident from the above discussion, that climate and geography cannot be regarded as determinants of culture. We should, however, look upon them as problems — extreme heat or cold, for example — which different groups of men may meet differently.
Thus, a person can meet the problem of heat in tropical climates by taking to a loin cloth, or by sleeping through the hottest part of the day, or by using electric fans. The way a person meets such problems obviously affects other aspects of his life and thus marks a distinct way of life.
Material and Non-Material Elements of Culture:
The full meaning and scope of culture is brought out by making a distinction between symbolic elements of culture and non-symbolic products of cultural behaviour. It is sometimes useful, for reasons discussed below, to bear in mind the distinction between a system of cultural behaviour and the products of these systems.
These products may be both symbolic and non-symbolic. Symbolic traits constitute a large part of every culture. Every word in our language is a symbolic trait, and every idea or belief is a complex of such traits.
It is through these traits that the experiences of mankind throughout the centuries can be stored in books and libraries where each generation may acquaint itself with valuable accounts of other people’s trials and errors, their successes and failures.
In addition to the symbolic traits that constitute an important part of every culture, there are non-symbolic or material traits that are associated with behaviour systems. Examples of non-symbolic or physical traits of cultural behaviour are buildings, bridges, dams, books, etc.
The significance of non-symbolic cultural traits lies in the fact that they have an existence independent of the behaviour that produced them. Very often they survive long after the people who produced them have ceased to exist.
For example, we can investigate the physical traits dug up in the ruins of ancient societies and can reconstruct the modes of life, i.e., the cultural behaviour, that are likely to have prevailed among those people.
We may discuss here a question relating to the criterion by which to judge whether a physical object is or is not cultural. Does an ordinary rock lying in a field or by a roadside come under the^ category of a cultural object? Obviously, it does not, because such a rock is neither a part of a behaviour system nor a product of such a system.
Man has nothing to do with its creation or location, and people react to it in the same way as they react to the millions of other objects called rocks.
If, however, it is found on closer examination that the rock has a groove around its middle, indicating that it was once used as a man-made tool or weapon, it becomes a product of human behaviour. It seems fairly reasonable to conclude that the rock was once used in behaviour systems, such as fighting or the production of food. In other words, this particular rock has a meaning which rocks in general do not have.
Similarly, an ordinary piece of ground becomes a cultural trait if its meaning is modified, as in the case of a holy place, a burial ground or a football ground, as a result of inter-human behaviour. We may conclude, therefore, that the of an object, not its intrinsic character, determines whether it is to be regarded as a cultural trait.
The symbolic and non-symbolic products of cultural behaviour are integrated closely together and form part and parcel of a standardised pattern of behaviour, a consistent and systematic whole.