By Roland Watson

I have referred to the idea of a culture a number of times, in the last article by distinguishing traditional versus modern, and also earlier when I discussed the manifold problems caused by cultural misunderstanding. In other words, the term culture is used a lot. However, maybe it is not completely clear what it means. What is a culture, and why are they so difficult to understand?

Basic characteristics

A culture is simply a social system. Indeed, the terms can often be used interchangeably. They come in a variety of sizes, and are conceptually extraordinarily complex. This is why they are so hard to understand.

Individual cultures are held together by the shared characteristics of their members, which for the largest cultural organizations are usually geographical proximity, ethnicity, or religious belief. Smaller cultural units may be refinements of these groupings, such as regional cultures within a nation, or based on other characteristics, including political beliefs, age, sex, occupation, and personal interests.

In practical terms, a culture is the set of roles that are fulfilled by the members of the social group. In the largest cultures, roles are determined by class, race, age and sex, in other words, they are assigned to subordinate social groupings.

A culture is governed by the principles, laws and decision-making systems that define how the different classes, races, age groups and sexes relate to each other. These decision making systems in turn, as well as certain other roles, are administered by social institutions, including governments, judiciaries, organized religions, schools, producers and employers, and the media.

To fully understand the breadth of the roles and the complexity of their interrelationships, you would need to observe what different members of a culture do every minute of the day, and every day of the year. What routines do they follow, and how do all of the individual routines fit together to satisfy the needs and desires of everyone in the group?

In this way, we can also see that a culture implies a sense of permanence, that some form of social equilibrium has been achieved.

However, a culture is more than just roles and routines. It also encompasses the wide-ranging beliefs and motivations of the members of the group, as well as the history and traditions that support them, and, the language used to express them. What do the members of the culture believe, and disagree about, and how deeply, and why? What are their dreams and aspirations? And, how are all of these reflected in their ethics, behavioral standards, and other attitudes?

Finally, to use a traditional meaning of the word, a culture includes all of the forms of artistic expression of these beliefs and aspirations, among them dress and design, festivals and ceremonies, art, architecture, music, dance, drama, and literature.

Frames of reference

Given this degree of complexity, it is not surprising that it is extremely difficult to understand other cultures, and individuals from them. Our frames of reference are usually too far apart.

If you have not had long exposure to another culture, you will inevitably have large gaps in your understanding of it. Even if you live in a country for a year or two, you will still be unaware of many things that the locals grasp implicitly and take for granted, simply because you did not spend your childhood there learning these things.

Cultural diversity and value

There are literally thousands of different cultures around the world, each of which would require an in-depth analysis to reach a proper understanding. Indeed, one of the most important and valuable legacies of the human race is the astonishing diversity of cultures that continue to survive on the planet.

The world is actually a collection of cultures, not of nations. The latter is a recent, and in some ways artificial, overlay.

I wrote earlier about value, when I said that the real value of the earth lies in its diversity of natural habitats and species. This is also a component of that value, the human contribution, as manifested in our diversity of cultures, including their languages, arts and crafts, and environmental knowledge.

Cultural evolution

As I have discussed, nothing is constant in life, and this applies to cultures as well. Cultures evolve, and new cultures regularly develop, in response to environmental influences such as civil conflicts, changing economic conditions, and the impact of new technology.

The development of new cultures further results from the normal process of generational rebellion, when teenagers break with their parents to make their own way and find their own identity. The generation gap is nothing more than a clash of cultures.

However, the process of cultural evolution is usually quite slow. For instance, even if the U.S. were somehow able to eliminate instantaneously all of the guns that are now in private hands, it would still require decades, if not centuries, to solve its violence problem. Resolving problems, or at least trying to, by resorting to violence, is an ingrained part of American culture, one of its traditions.

Cultural decline

Cultures also deteriorate. They have their own cycle of existence, including initiation, growth, maturity, and decline. In the last stage, roles, responsibilities and decision-making systems break down, institutions atrophy, and skills, traditions and memories are lost. There may be social unrest as well.

As an example of this, one could easily take the view that many of the problems in American society today, and with modern society in general, such as increasing negativity and intolerance, and the destruction of moral values, are evidence of such a decline. Fortunately, this decline, our loss of equilibrium, is not necessarily irreversible. The challenge for the U.S. - for any modern society - is to find ways to reinvent itself, to begin the cycle anew.

We saw that humans are a hybrid creature, tied to the past, but looking to the future. Similarly, the collection of human cultures on the planet spans all the ages. Many, many traditional cultures continue to survive. Our cultures range from the stone age to the steel; non-monetary to monetary; and rural, agricultural and non-technological to urban, industrial and technological.

Cultural destruction

Unfortunately, most of the traditional cultures on the planet are now in a state of decline. They are dying out, and this loss of diversity, this loss of value, is no less dramatic than the loss of natural habitat and species. We are witnessing the extinction of a wide range of cultural identities, and everything of which they are composed. We are witnessing the death of a large portion of the entire history of the human experience.

What this constitutes is nothing less than the passing of an epoch. The wholesale destruction of culture, not the rise of technology - although they are of course related - is the most dramatic change in the human experience in the last two hundred thousand years.

We are giving up everything that we have ever been, without even thinking about it, without even a care. In the not too distant future, people will look back on us and think that we were blind.

A major cause of this destruction is the cultural pollution that has resulted from the widespread distribution of modern influences, most notably through television and film; and by the unthinking adoption by traditional people of the profit motive and consumerism as the driving forces behind achieving the good life.

The underlying assumption of the modern world is that modernity is better, and traditional people are accepting this wholeheartedly, with little consideration given to the value that is inherent in their own ways of life.

In their rush to embrace us, they are throwing away everything that they have, and they are proceeding through the social evolutionary cycle much more rapidly. Changes that in the West took centuries, they are attempting to complete in decades. Naturally, this is leading to serious, even tragic, problems.

And, as we saw before, there is no going back. Once you are hooked on technology, it is almost impossible to escape. Your life becomes dependent on your new tools and toys. For instance, much of the modern world, and the technology that goes with it, works in a symbiotic, self-fulfilling way.

The modern lifestyle - stressed, sedentary, in a polluted environment; leads to modern health problems - greatly increased rates of mental illness, heart disease and cancer; which require modern health care technology for their resolution.

Even more, technology has led to inventions that have created seemingly unresolvable problems, such as nuclear weapons, which are an almost insurmountable obstacle to peace.

We can never have a real guarantee of global peace until nuclear weapons are eliminated, and with no possibility that they will ever be created again. When will that happen? How many centuries will such a development require?

We truly seem inadequate in the face of this, and other, self-created threats to our, and the planet's, existence.

In the next article, I will examine the modern social system in more detail.

© Roland Watson 2014