Culture is a way of life. In a sense, all living things have culture. We speak of bacterial or plant cultures as the environment in which things grow. Animals also live in cultures—the cultures of ants and dolphins are well studied, for example.
Human life demands life in a group. Abandoned babies, who have grown up with animals or have been raised impersonally by a mentally deficient or psychotic parent, grow up without human skills and characteristics. They often cannot walk, talk, or be continent (Borgman, Foundations for Youth Ministry, 2013:84).
Culture develops as a group of human beings adjusts to a way of life. The geography, traditions, and technologies of a human group, therefore, combine to shape and define a culture.
Anthropologists, archeologists, and sociologists particularly study culture, along with other social scientists. Thinkers in other disciplines sometimes neglect or minimize consideration of this fundamental way human life is constructed.
The term “culture” is used in many ways. Most basically, it describes “all learned behavior”—humanness developed and passed on over generations. Light & Keller (1982, Sociology, Knopf, 3rd ed. p. 59) offer a longer definition: “a set of traditions and rules that shape the feelings, thoughts and behavior of a group of people”. Among many characteristics, culture includes a people’s language and the way they dress, eat, sleep, meet, fight, make love, marry, and raise children.
Edward Tyler, in the 19th century, maintained that “Culture is a complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society.” Culture gives identity to a society. Like individuals, societies as a whole have to survive, reproduce, secure their safety and develop distinctions.
Culture should provide for its people’s needs. When a group within a dominant culture finds itself neglected, subordinated or marginalized, it tends to develop a sub-culture or special culture. Immigrant and ethnic subcultures are examples of such. The social construct of adolescence created a youthful subculture—which in time broke into more specialized subcultures (geeks, jocks, greasers, Goths and more).
For obvious reasons, there is always tension when two cultures or subcultures meet. Conflict, assimilation, or accommodation may result. The conflict of cultures hardly needs explanation.
America as a “melting pot” is an illustration of assimilation, or seeing the U.S. as a “tossed salad” of differences is another. The presence of the Amish and Hasidic Jews, who retain their own language and traditions contrary to the ways and mores of the general public, shows how two cultures can live in accommodation to one another.
Radical and youthful countercultures can be in conflict with the establishment and dominant culture. Communes can develop and sustain in a free society. Generally, in time, youthful cultures and individuals assimilate into the main culture.
Sociologists view religion as an attempt to find meaning in culture. Its beliefs, symbols, and practices suggest why people believe and act as they do. People of faith, on the other hand see God as both the underlying and transcendent reality, a second dimension of life. Religion brings not only significance but also tension to believers in a secular society. They are, to various degrees and according to their theologies, “in the world, but not of it.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What cultural ideas were you reminded of or struck by, what most impressed you, or with what did you disagree in the article above?
With what culture do you most identify and how would you describe its identity and ethos?
In what way do some tensions or conflicts that concern you have a cultural basis?
What about culture would you like to study further?
Human curiosity demands the study of culture. Human problems need investigation for solutions.
The broad study of culture leads one to subcultures, the youth culture, and pop culture.
In no way can faith or religion be separated from culture-even in a modern, secular world.