Defining culture (an assignment)

Well! One week in Bangkok so far: the first of 44.

My first class is called Education in Multicultural Settings. To begin, we were asked to define 11 terms, which would set the grounds for our conversations. My first definition was on the meaning of culture. I ended up writing pretty expansively on this one. I enjoyed the task of constructing definitions. Often, I somewhat lazily outsource my thinking to experts, books and articles, without really challenging myself about what I actually believe. To complete this assignment, I actually had to work at thinking a little bit. My definitions certainly won’t be as rigorous had they been researched and cited – but maybe that part can come after.

Rather unfortunately, I wrote half of this assignment on a broken computer. Two days into the trip and I accidentally uninstalled my word processing software. Argh. Five days in, and my keyboard didn’t work. Just didn’t respond. I restarted my computer, and found that now the left side of my computer worked. The right side, instead of producing the associated keystroke, was now working as a number pad, producing results like this:

th5s 5s 0y vers56n 6f a n6r0a3 f4nct56n5ng 2eyb6ard.

I briefly considered delivering my assignment in that form, as some kind of obnoxious meta-statement about “defining culture and language, man,” but my desire for external validation superseded my love of dumb jokes. Professor Kornelsen rather graciously lent me his laptop during the staff retreat, and I fixed things up. I’m a little self-conscious, as it’s neither concise nor particularly insightful, but I was pleased with the way I organized my ideas. Here’s what I’ve written below:

“My definition of culture would be a combination of activities, traditions, values, belief systems and actions that play a part in defining a person’s identity. Activities and traditions are part of what I would call “hard” culture. They are things that can be seen, tasted, heard and felt, described using our senses. Values, belief systems and actions would be part of “soft” culture, aspects of culture that are not necessarily visible or immediately apparent, but which still make up who a person is.

Cultural activities are things like food, music, dress and sport. They make up a big part of what is known about a culture externally. Cultural traditions are things like celebrations, holidays and ceremonies where important past events or certain values are commemorated in a particular way. Cultural values and belief systems are the rules that a culture gives itself for how individuals should interact within their relationships. Cultural values and belief systems also provide parameters for what systems of relationships exist within a culture. Cultural actions are the embodiments of those values and belief systems. Cultural actions are the way that we greet each other, the physical, facial and verbal expressions we use to communicate emotions, the languages we speak, and the way that we treat others around us.

Cultures can exist and grow in many different ways. Some of the most widely recognized cultural structures are shared nationality, shared ethnicity and shared religion. Often, these different structures overlap. People are often members of national groups, ethnic groups and religions groups all at the same time. For example, within Canada, many immigrants who have been living in Canada for multiple generations will identify themselves as “Canadians,” belonging to the national group of Canada. However, they often will still carry with them many different cultural associations – activities, traditions, values, belief systems and actions – derived from an ethnic group that is neither French Canadian, British Canadian nor indigenous Canadian. Likewise with religious culture: although Christianity is the most common religion in Canada, there are more and more Canadians who practice different religions, and consequently will have different cultural associations from their religions, while also sharing cultural associations that come from being part of the national group of “Canadians.”

While the structures of nationality, ethnicity and religion are the three biggest branches I can immediately think of, smaller subsections of cultures also exist. Colloquially, we use terms like “workplace culture” to describe the way that people at a certain workplace behave and interact, or “team culture” in sports to describe the way that a certain team operates. These largely refer to soft cultural practices, although they can be part of the hard practices that those groups have.

The idea of distinct cultural groups in which we can or cannot participate has some problems. It can be difficult to define who is able to gain membership to a certain group. If someone has lived in a foreign country for over 20 years, should they consider themselves art of that shared nationality cultural group?

If a child has one parent from a certain ethnic group, but does not grow up around many other people from that ethnic group, is that part of their cultural identity? How regularly must someone practice his or her religious customs in order to have membership within that cultural structure?

We make attempts to answer these questions with processes. To become a member of a national group, one must attain citizenship in that country. If one of your parents belongs to an ethnic group, then yes, you are automatically also part of that ethnic group. Different religions have different standards, but my impression is that among the three Abrahamic religions with which I am most familiar, self-identification seems to be the standard.

These rules seek to simplify the way we build cultural identity, but they are ultimately insufficient. Between any two people who have lived in a new country for decades, one of them could very strongly identify as being art of the national culture, while the other could not, even if both of them have become citizens. The strength of their identification with that new culture is often tied to what extent they have adopted the hard and soft cultural practices of that national culture, rather than something as abstract as formal citizenship. We can agree that anyone with one parent of a certain ethnicity also formally belongs to that ethnicity. However, a child growing up with that community all around them will likely have a much stronger identification with that community than one who grows up completely isolated from the hard and soft cultural practices of that ethnic group.

Culture is an essential part of our identity. “Hard” cultural practices, the tangible ones, often make up a big part of the things that we like to do, the things that make us feel happy and comfortable. Soft cultural practices are a strong influence on the way that we interact with other individuals every day.

The culture we come from and choose to identify with is hugely influential on the way we live our lives and the paths we choose to take. The idea of “cultural identity” can cause problems – as I will explore in the definitions of stereotypes, racism and nationalism. The differences between groups of people it can create can lead to fights, war, and even genocide.

Ultimately, culture is far too important to who we are as humans for us to eliminate it. Nor we could we fairly and effectively decide what new system to guide our living practices we should adopt, among the numerous many that humans currently practice. Rather than abandon culture and conform to uniformity to avoid disputes, we need to learn about other cultures, learn to respect other cultures, and keep the crucial and fundamental benefits, the aspects of identity and a set of guiding life principles, while avoiding the devastation that distinctions between groups of people can cause.”

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