Monday, August 15, 2005

About culture...

The word culture comes from the Latin root colere (to inhabit, to cultivate, or to honor). In general, it refers to human activity; different definitions of culture reflect different theories for understanding, or criteria for valuing, human activity. Anthropologists use the term to refer to the universal human capacity to classify experiences, and to encode and communicate them symbolically. They regard this capacity as a defining feature of the genus Homo.

Different definitions of culture reflect different theories for understanding - or criteria for valuing - human activity.

Sir Edward B. Tylor wrote in 1871 that "culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, 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", while a 2002 document from the United Nations agency UNESCO states that culture is the "set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs". [UNESCO, 2002] While these two definitions range widely, they do not exhaust the many uses of this concept - in 1952 Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of more than 200 different definitions of culture in their book, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions [Kroeber and Kluckhohn, 1952].

Many people today use a conception of "culture" that developed in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries. This idea of culture then reflected inequalities within European societies, and between European powers and their colonies around the world. It identifies "culture" with "civilization" and contrasts the combined concept with "nature". According to this thinking, one can classify some countries as more civilized than others, and some people as more cultured than others. Thus some cultural theorists have actually tried to eliminate popular or mass culture from the definition of culture. Theorists like Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) or the Leavises regard culture as simply the result of "the best that has been thought and said in the world� (Arnold, 1960: 6), thus labeling anything that doesn't fit into this category as chaos or anarchy. On this account, culture links closely with social cultivation: the progressive refinement of human behavior. Arnold consistently uses the word this way: "... culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world". [Arnold, 1882]

In practice, culture referred to �lite goods and activities such as haute cuisine, high fashion or haute couture, museum-caliber art and classical music, and the word cultured described people who knew about, and took part in, these activities. For example, someone who used 'culture' in the sense of 'cultivation' might argue that classical music "is" more refined than music produced by working-class people such as punk rock or than the indigenous music traditions of aboriginal peoples of Australia.

People who use "culture" in this way tend not to use it in the plural as "cultures". They do not believe that distinct cultures exist, each with their own internal logic and values; but rather that only a single standard of refinement suffices, against which one can measure all groups. Thus, according to this worldview, people with different customs from those who regard themselves as cultured do not usually count as "having a different culture"; but class as "uncultured". People lacking "culture" often seemed more "natural," and observers often defended (or criticized) elements of high culture for repressing "human nature".

From the 18th century onwards, some social critics have accepted this contrast between cultured and uncultured, but have stressed the interpretation of refinement and of sophistication as corrupting and unnatural developments which obscure and distort people's essential nature. On this account, folk music (as produced by working-class people) honestly expresses a natural way of life, and classical music seems superficial and decadent. Equally, this view often portrays non-Western people as 'noble savages' living authentic unblemished lives, uncomplicated and uncorrupted by the highly-stratified capitalist systems of the West.

Today most social scientists reject the monadic conception of culture, and the opposition of culture to nature. They recognize non-�lites as just as cultured as �lites (and non-Westerners as just as civilized) - simply regarding them as just cultured in a different way. Thus social observers contrast the "high" culture of �lites to "popular" or pop culture, meaning goods and activities produced for, and consumed by, non-�lite people or the masses. (Note that some classifications relegate both high and low cultures to the status of subcultures.)
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