Robert Bierstedt in his book ‘The Social Order: An Introduction to Sociology’ attempts to describe culture and socialization. He talks about culture as an important factor which affects society which exerts ‘a positive and determining influence in society’. His discussion of the concept of culture could be divided into three sub-sections: the meaning of culture, the content of culture, and the acquisition of culture. The present discussion is about the first of these sub-sections, that is, the meaning of culture. Bierstedt asserts that the difference between an American boy’s ability to grasp mathematics and advanced sciences, and a Fiji Islander’s knowledge of bull-roarers or tending a yam plot cannot be explained by topographical or geographical factors but by the factor of culture.
What is culture?
The word “culture” is a very common in everyday vocabulary of an English-speaking person. The word has various connotations when it comes to defining a person. A person who is said to be possessing culture, according to Matthew Arnold, has ‘knowledge of the best that has been thought and said in the world, an ability to see life steadily and see it whole.’ Culture seen from this lens is always associated with personal refinement, pursuit of perfection, good manners and good taste. Similarly, historians also provide different interpretation of the term culture as the “higher” accomplishments of group life or of a period of history—specifically art, music, literature, philosophy, religion, and science.
However, Bierstedt points out that in social sciences such as sociology and anthropology, culture means neither personal refinement nor the refinements of the society; it includes not just the “higher” achievements of a society but all the achievements of a society. This understanding is reflected the definitions of culture constructed by sociologists and anthropologists. The two most important definitions of culture were formulated by E.B. Tylor, and Clyde Kluckhohn and William H. Kelly. Tylor quotes that “[c]ulture 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.” Kluckhohn and Kelly proposed that culture implies ‘those historically created selective processes which channel men’s reactions both to internal and to external stimuli.’ Bierstedt sums up with his own definition of the concept of culture to simplify it for the purpose of the discussion which says: Culture is the complex whole that consists of all the ways we think and do and everything we have as members of society.
Bierstedt also enlists the expressions which are synonymous with the term ‘culture’:
Learned ways of behavior
According to Bierstedt, culture is not behavior in itself but the channel that directs human behavior. He emphasizes upon learning because culture as a way of behavior is different from unlearned physiological responses. It is learned through social interaction. Various studies of individuals deprived of social interaction have shown that man is feral or wild without culture. It is through the process of domestication that man acquires culture and learns to make use of his biological equipment.
The Social Heritage
Bierstedt uses the flowing stream as a metaphor for culture to describe it as a social heritage. According to him, cultural aspects get lost due to failure in transmission from one generation to another. He calls culture, or social heritage ‘the memory of the human race’. Language is the main driving force of this transmission as without it culture cannot accumulate and thus, culture marks a distinction between man and animals. Unlike the interaction that other species have with nature, culture always intervenes in human’s interaction with nature.
Culture is not something solely possessed by an individual but something that is shared. There are various inventions which do not receive wide acknowledgement by the society, remain unused and thus, do not become a part of the culture. Without the pool of accumulated culture we have in the form of knowledge, we cannot survive for long.
There are three orders of phenomena investigated by biological, physical, and social sciences respectively: the organic, the inorganic, and the superorganic. Culture, which is sometimes referred to as the superorganic is to a certain extent independent from the other two factors. Bierstedt asserts that this is not to say that culture is superior to nature or that it is not natural. The term ‘superorganic’ implies here that what may be the same phenomena from the physical or biological point of view may be quite different from the cultural point of view. Same physical objects or physical characteristics may constitute different cultural objects or cultural characteristics. For instance, the same paper with similar characteristics could be a diploma or a bill of indictment in a court. This is true of organic objects and physiological acts as well. For instance, the act of sexual intercourse could be seduction, adultery, prostitution, rape and a lawful intercourse between married couples in different situations.
Design for Living
Culture has also often been described as a “way of life” or “design for living” for people. Kluckhohn and Kelly define culture in this sense as “a historically derived system of explicit and implicit designs for living, which tends to be shared by all or specifically designated members of a group.” Culture conceived in this way is important as it helps distinguishing one society or group from another. For instance, the culture of Mexicans is very different from that of French or Americans. Within the limits of biology and geography, culture is capable of almost endless variety.
The various synonymous expressions of culture describe a slightly different aspect of culture but do not give us a clear idea about the nature of culture, and its forms and contents.
How and why is culture important?
- Culture is a factor that distinguishes individual from individual, group from group, society from society, and also humans from other species of animals.
- What may seem like just a physiological act also depends upon our culture. One such act is the act of seeing. Bierstedt gives us the example of the moon and how it is seen in different cultures. The Americans see a man in the moon, the Samoans see a woman who is weaving clouds, a Puritan of New England sees a goblin, while an Irish legend says that young women can see their future bridegroom in the moon.
- What one wears and how is also depends upon culture. Nudity is immoral in some societies and not in others.
- The structures that we built to house ourselves are also a product of our culture.
- The food we prefer to eat also varies across cultures. A French person might look down upon those who drink milk but must be fine with serving diluted wine to the smallest of children. What is edible and digestible is definitely governed by physiology but most immediately by culture.
- The physiological act of shedding tears may vary across age and sex to some extent but cultural variations transcend them over and above these. For example, Italian men are culturally permitted to both laugh and cry in public but crying for American men is culturally viewed as a sign of weakness and therefore, is tabooed.
- Temperamental variables such as aggression, pugnacity, and militarism have sporadic appearance yet they are not constant across history and societies. Wars are a phenomena in most societies but not all, also wherever they occur, they are not constant. Thus, social phenomena or variables such as these cannot be explained in purely biological terms but by another variable called culture.
- Our thoughts are also conditioned by our culture. What one thinks is to a large extent determined by ones language, therefore, words of a language become bits of culture. This is also why a certain philosophy emerges in a certain culture. There are words which are peculiar to a particular society and cannot be adequately translated into another language. For example, the German term ‘Weltanschauung’ means an entire attitude toward the universe but is translated less precisely as “world view”. In another instance there can be more than one word for the same object, like the Eskimos have different words for drifting snow, falling snow, light snow and so on. Thus, it could be said that the ideas of one society or group cannot be precisely translated into the language of another society or group.
- Whether one learns and how much one learns is determined by intelligence but what one learns is a function of culture.
- The goals and aspirations of an individual are very much based upon his or her culture. For example, an Eskimo may not aim to win a Nobel Prize, similarly, no American would want to become a witch doctor.
We can now say that culture is a key concept in explaining and understanding the social life of man.
The Relationship between Culture and Biology
Biological or physiological functions are to a large extent shaped and molded by culture. Sometimes the biological and the cultural factors go hand in hand and at others they are opposed to each other. While in one instance, biological factors such as certain impairments of brain may lead to social irresponsibility, but cultural influence on biological factors may not always be explicit.
Biological or psychopathological conditions such as epilepsy and paranoia are often found to have special meanings in certain cultures. Epilepsy is considered a sacred disease in certain societies, also paranoia earns prestige for the possessed in certain others. Some cultural practices may also be harmful for the human body. For example, initiation rites across various societies involve burning, mutilation, sacrifice of flesh etc. There are certain conditions resulting from societal occupations which affect the human anatomy like bursitis, pitcher’s elbow etc. In a certain society, people are more likely to develop ulcers due to a strenuous and competitive culture.
The kind of body considered desirable varies from society to another. High heels as a fashion statement may be an essential part of American beauty standards but it also affects the anatomy of the arch. Dissimilar to the American beauty standards are those found in certain parts of Africa, where fat woman are considered more beautiful.
Physiological reflex actions resemble certain culturally formed actions. For example, blinking is a reflex but winking is a creation of culture. Similarly, kicking a football is different from a reflexive knee-jerk.
Therefore, a man biologically may only be a perishable compound of chemicals, but when seen as a cultural being, he is capable of existing in memories.
Lastly, Bierstedt also describes the concept of cultural diffusion, implying that society’s own culture constitutes only a small part of it, a large part of its constituents come from other societies and from other times. Cultural diffusion refers to the process by which culture comes to be widely distributed. Cultural diffusion is channeled through the means of communication and transportation. Both material items and ideas are diffused. For instance, tools, techniques, religion, scientific knowledge, books etc. all get diffused as new means of communication and transportation are introduced speeding connectivity and mobility across spaces.
Reference: Bierstedt, Robert, 1974, The Social Order, Chapter 5, ‘The Meaning of Culture’, p. 125-151