Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What is this thing we call Culture? *Updated* (Help DuWayne with Schoolwork)

I would just like to note that even if your definition has been mentioned, please respond anyways. I am interested in the numbers of people responding in a particular fashion.

I have way too damned many things to address, so it is fitting that I should add something more to that. This semester I am taking two classes that overtly delve into culture and another that addresses a specific subculture that looks to be intensely interesting.

I am going to provide my own response a little later, but I am rather curious how you might define culture. What do you think of, when someone mentions the word "culture?" How does "culture" differ from "society?" What is/are your culture/s?

Depending on the responses I garner (if I garner any), I will probably have some more questions. Indeed, I actually do have some specific questions to come that I am not asking now simply because I don't want to bias responses to the questions I have already asked.

I am asking these questions because I am hoping to use the responses as part of the foundation for one of my papers this semester. If you could help me out, I would really appreciate it. I would ask that those who have a background in anthropology or sociology refrain from responding in comments - I am not looking for professional definitions. What I am looking for is purely layperson responses. And if you have the urge to encourage others to respond to this post, I would be very appreciative. The more responses I can get, the better.


Jason Thibeault said...

In my estimation, society is the construct of support and commerce on which we depend for services and skills from our fellows. Culture on the other hand is the shared experience (or illusion thereof) of the individual members of society.

For instance, popular culture references. They don't actually provide any real function societally, except to identify who's got the same interests and who has shared the same culture as you. You can tell that a person is a video game geek if you make some obscure references to obscure video games. You can identify instances of lingo or dress or obscure references, to quickly determine whether a person has similar interests, goals, ideals, etc., and get a quick handle on whether you are compatible as friends. Being part of a subculture gives a person insight into other members of a subculture that outsiders may not immediately pick up on.

I'm a gamer, an atheist, a skeptic, a blogger, a computer geek. Each of these have their own references, lingo, and even identifying marks. I have a t-shirt with the label "Know your mushrooms" and a set of five mushroom power-ups from Super Mario Bros. Non-gamers might get that I'm a gamer if they understand the reference or with a bit of prompting, but gamers instantly recognize a kindred spirit.

As a part of the larger society, I have a job that provides services within a company, based on my computer skills. I have some shared culture with other members of the IT department and can make geeky references with them and expect them to get it (for instance: my boss understands and occasionally uses "FTW!"). As a part of the corporate "society" we provide one aspect of support to the rest of the company in exchange for our own financial well-being. Other departments do likewise. The company wouldn't work without all of them (though some function as leeches more than others), so the company itself is a society of sorts. The culture emerges from the shared experiences of each department's individual members.

Jason Thibeault said...

Oh. Fair cop -- I minored in anthropology but that was years ago and really just consisted of three first-year-level courses. I've since forgotten most of it, except what reading Greg's blog has provided me.

Abby Normal said...

Culture is the act of growing microorganism on a medium for scientific purposes and the results thereof. Society is a group of organisms living together, usually of the same species, i.e. an insect society. Hey, you said not anthropology or sociology backgrounds. You didn’t say anything about biology.

Sorry, the prevailing culture of the societies to which I belong generally value wisenheimers. I’ll be good now. But my small attempt a humor does illustrate a problem I’m having with your request. That is I’m thinking of multiple definitions for each word, all of which I believe to be correct depending on context. Even so, I’ll try to guess what you’re after.

I would say culture is a set of values, traditions, goals, and attitudes common to a group of people. Society is similar but in many ways the reverse of that definition. Societies are groups of people sharing one or more common attribute, like values, goals, interests, or geography. I’m tempted to go on but I think I’ll leave my definitions at their most basic unless/until your follow-up questions provide more context.

As to what cultures I belong to here are a few: Gen X, geek, gamer, liberal, bachelor, corporate (wage-slave subculture), skeptic, queer, American, Southerner, Midwesterner, Yankee, middle-class, bohemian, folkie

Yes I’m aware of some apparent contradictions in that list.

As I was putting together that list I came up with some things that I rejected because I didn’t consider them cultures. The question of why not has got my head hamster running hard in his wheel. So I thought I’d share that list too: Artist, white, male, intellectual, activist, atheist

Alex said...

Google helpfully defines "culture" as:

"a group of bacteria or cells which are grown, usually in a laboratory as part of an experiment."

D. C. said...

I would ask that those who have a background in anthropology or sociology refrain from responding in comments - I am not looking for professional definitions. What I am looking for is purely layperson responses. And if you have the urge to encourage others to respond to this post, I would be very appreciative. The more responses I can get, the better.

Make up your mind, DB.

For grins, I sent this URL to $DAUGHTER (per "encourage") but then she's professional. Has a great collection of material on the subject, but is feeling unwelcome.

DuWayne Brayton said...

I have no desire to make anyone feel unwelcome, but I want as many responses from people who are not professionals as possible. I have plenty of reading about culture from professionals, having them dropping comments here would defeat the purpose of this exercise.

I am looking for the responses of lay people. What reasonable folk have to say about culture. I have more questions, but am refraining from asking them, because they would bias the responses I am hoping to get. In the same way, getting professional definitions would bias the general pool of responses.

If all I wanted was what pros think about culture, I could look at the myriad books I have on the topic and the texts I have for some of my classes this semester. I could also ask several anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists I know. Indeed, I have asked several of them similar questions in the past, because they have an expertise and talking directly to people who know is better than reading about it in a book.

I am hoping to utilize the responses I get from this and a follow-up post of questions as the foundation for one of my papers this semester. I cannot really explain right now what it is about, because again, I don't want to bias the responses. All I can say is that I am not going to use any specific respondents identifying information in my paper - I am going to simply categorize the responses I get, make an assertion based on those responses and back my assertion with peer reviewed sources.

mk said...

For me, culture is flavor.

It is the spices and herbs, the sweet and the savory of society. The bittersweet saltiness of humanity. The gumbo, the goulash, the stew and even the bland tuna casserole that is/are our mores and customs.

Jason Thibeault said...

mk pretty much nailed it. Society is society; culture is what makes the constituent components of a society unique.

bob koepp said...

Society is any functional assemblage of organisms. Culture is what societies do with symbols.

Anonymous said...

Individuals do all kinds of different things. But identifiable populations are identifiable because most individuals within that population do similar things. All those things that individuals within an identifiable population do the same are culture.

Culture is shared activity.

Anonymous said...

Culture is the conceptual and behavioral patterns of a society. The term society usually refers to a group of humans. However, I suppose one could also consider a society of rocks (or any other subset of the universe); it would just have a culture as trivially uninteresting as the empty set.

Society also usually refers to groups where the conceptual and behavioral patterns of members is significantly shaped by feedback relationships; this also is probably not essential to the demarcation, but makes for more interesting (and tractable) cases. 

Aquinas Dad said...

A 'Culture' is those shared values, aesthetics, ans communal experiences that lead to individual and community action that further the weal of the community and continues the propagation of those same values, aesthetics, and communal experiences.

Something I was wondering about a couple years back, too, and this was my own answer.

Greg said...

Culture is the shared set of individual human systems cerebrally mediated behavior including symbolic (including linguistic) systems, social practice, kinship, ethics, morals, legal systems and other beliefs. Society is the larger collective behavior of a human political and economic system usually associated with geography. Culture is received modified and expressed at the individual or very small group level, society is the emergent set of systems and phenomena operating at a scale of size and extent usually larger than a culture.

Because these definitions are context dependent and overlapping, some phenomena develop that transcend them and are often named as such. Fad, trend, cult, and so on may refer to culture-like phenomena that occur at a "social" level.

People who study culture use rich description and linguistic analyses. People who study society use statistics.

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely a layman (I'd say, 'laywoman', but I can hear the smirks, yes, right through this monitor), so this is just a rough approximation.

I think of a 'culture' as a shared set of common interests, information, and experiences. Cultures overlap each other, considerably; for instance, while the scifi and fantasy cultures overlap, they also have overlaps with some other genres; horror, mystery, romance, etc., which don't necessarily all overlap each other. (And if I can make that more coherent later, I'll take another swing at it.) A 'society' contains multiple 'cultures', and often shares a common history and/or geography. But it's sloppy; the same culture isn't all contained within the same society. Plus, cultural immersion isn't a constant, either; everyone isn't equally involved in the cultures and subcultures they are part of. For example, I'm very intensively a FRPGer, but only peripherally a musician.

So, using previous commenters' lists as guidelines...FRPGer, SCAdian, atheist, feminist, skeptic, comic geek, science geek, scifi and fantasy, history geek, liberal, wage-slave, Mid-western American, middle class, cat enthusiast, musician, artist (by aspiration, anyway), computer using (though not a computer geek).


DuWayne Brayton said...

No smirks here, I really should have said "layperson," being one of those sorts of people.

RPS77 said...

My very rough definition would be that culture is the sum of patterns of thinking, and patterns and codes of behavior, that are generally held in common among a group of people and which distinguish them from other groups with different patterns. These patterns of action and thought are learned from other people from infancy and probably have some effect even on the the physical development of different parts of the brain.

A society often refers to the total group of people who share a common culture, although it can also refer to groups of people who are connected by things other than culture, like economic or political connections.

Cultures are not mutually exclusive - in fact, I believe that most people belong to several different cultures. In my case, I think of myself as belonging to (or at least having a connection with) these cultures

- American
- Suburban middle class
- White male
- Librarian/archivist
- Amateur history enthusiast/"history geek"
- Socially awkward nerd
- Bibliophile (book-lover)
- Person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Now, some of these probably don't seem like "cultures" to most people - they are professions, or personality traits, or psychological disorders. I think of them as a type of culture, though, because they definitely affect my patterns of both thought and behavior, and give me at least a few things in common with most other people in that group.

I could also include "barely practicing Catholic" and "moderate conservative", because even though these are political or religious affiliations, they also have a cultural component in that people who are part of these groups usually share certain thought patterns, assumptions, and activities.

Dan J said...

I'm definitely a layperson when it comes to something like this.

I see a "society" as a collection of individuals, or collection of groups of individuals that have something in common, whether it be geography, economic system, political system, etc.

I think culture is something more personal in a way. I see culture as something that a group of people share, whether it be historically or ethnically significant, or simply a common goal or interest. To me, a culture provides more of a sense of belonging for the individuals who are a part of it. People might be identified as belonging to a particular culture by others, or might identify themselves by way of belonging to one culture or another.