UNIT 21 CULTURE I : MAIN CHARACTERISTICS
Characteristics of Culture
comprehensive definition of the term culture was provided by the 19th century British anthropologist, Edward Tylor. He defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as member of society.
Role of Culture
Culture has two distinctive, but inter-related aspects. On the one hand, it is an expression of human beings ingenuity; it cannot be adequately understood without reference to certain characteristics which are unique to human beings. These unique characteristics include rationality and imagination, capacity for self-awareness and self-reflection, and capacity for symbolic communication or language.
On the other hand, culture has played a crucial role in the fulfilment of capacities and potentialities. Their survival in the evolutionary process was made possible due to culture. Such factors as co-operations, the domestication of plants and animals, the discovery and use of fire, the making of tools and implements, and the invention and use of language greatly facilitated their adaptation to the natural environment.
Features of Culture
Culture is characterised by the following features:
i) It is shared in common by the members of a given society or community. Culture therefore, refers not to beliefs and activities of individuals, but to those of groups of people who are organised in communities. It is fundamentally a social, rather than personal or individual, phenomenon.
ii) Culture is learnt and acquired by human beings in interaction with others. An individual acquires the characteristics of his parents and his group in two ways. On the one hand, she or he acquires the physical characteristics and features of her or his parents, such as skin colour, stature, texture of hair and colour of the eyes, through genetic transmission, over which he or she has no control.
On the other hand, he or she learns and acquires the thoughts, attitudes, language and habits of his or her parents, and through them, of his or her group, by way of cultural transmission.
It follows from the above observation that differences among various groups and communities in regard to language, beliefs, customs and rituals are to be understood and explained not in terms of physical or racial differences, which are biologically inherited, but in terms of learnt and acquired cultural differences.
iii) Culture is not only learnt and acquired by individuals in a social context, but it is also accumulated and transmitted from generation to generation, through the mechanism of symbolic communication or language. In other words, a society or a community accumulates, over long periods of time, experiences,
knowledge and skill, which are shared in common by its members, and it passes from one generation to another.
Culture and Human Nature
Human Beings and Other Animals
A few decades ago, it was commonly believed that animals can neither learn to make and use tools, nor can they plan ahead or count. Modern researches in animal behaviour have established that all these assumptions about animals are not correct. The fact that animals are capable of learning has been known to animal trainers and zoo keepers for a long time. You too must have observed this fact if you have pets such as parrots or dogs or cats at home. Researches in ethology(study of animal behaviour in wild) and ornithology
(the systematic study of the behaviour of birds) indicate that a number of animal species are capable of learning patterns of behaviour. For example, the young one of a bird learns the song pattern of its species during the first spring of its life. A young chimpanzee learns from its mother how to identify poisonous fruits and berries in the forest.
Many species of birds have a remarkable sense of direction and planning. This is evident in their seasonal migration. When the freezing cold of the Arctic becomes too harsh, the Siberian cranes cross a distance of several thousand miles and fly over to places like Bombay, Mysore, where the weather is more pleasant for them. They go back to their native habitat soon after the cold subsides.
Uniqueness of Human Beings
1) In animals, the satisfaction of basic biological urges, such as hunger, thirst and sex, is determined by instincts. In human beings, instincts have almost disappeared. Consequently, the satisfaction of biological needs in them takes place through culture. Animal responses to the environment are fixed and stereotyped, whereas human beings responds to his or her environment in a flexible manner and in a variety of ways.
2) Though some species of animals make and use tools of a primitive nature, human beings’ tool making ability is of a qualitatively superior kind. In animals, tools are made and used only for the present; as soon as their purpose is served, they are thrown away. Human beings on the other hand, make tools
not only for the present, but also in anticipation of their future use. Furthermore, culture makes it possible for men and women to accumulate their experience and skill in regard to tool making and pass it on from generation to generation. Thus, over several thousand years there has been a continuous
improvement in their tools making ability.
3) Human being is the only species in which the female is sexually receptive throughout the year. This has important consequences for marital and social behaviour.
4) The human child is dependent, physically and emotionally on the mother for a much longer period, as compared to other species of animals. This has a significant bearing on woman’s roles, on the mother-child relationship, as well as on the network of kinship in human society.
5) There are certain characteristics of human beings, which are described as ‘species-specific’. The human brain has developed certain devices such as control of hand and speech, foresight and planning. The main organisation of the brain is located in the frontal and the pre-frontal lobes, which enable people to think of actions in the future.
6) Human being is essentially a symbolic animal. She/He is the only animal capable of self consciousness, of self-reflection. The rational and imaginative faculties enable them to create concepts, meanings and values which have universal significance. Their symbolic nature enables them to transcend the immediate environment of which they are a part.
7) Human beings capacity for symbolic communication or language is unique to them. The development of the vocal cords in human beings and the close location of the speech and hearing centres in the brain made possible the emergence of language.
Culture and Biology
Human being shares with animals certain basic biological urges, such as hunger, thirst and sex, which press for satisfaction. However, there is a significant difference in the manner in which the satisfaction of basic biological needs takes place in them and in animals. Among the animals, the basic needs are satisfied through the mechanism of instincts, whereas in human beings they are fulfilled and regulated
Culture and the Satisfaction of Hunger
There are tremendous variations in the manner in which the biological urge of hunger is satisfied among human groups and communities in different parts of the world. The Bushmen, who live in the hot, sandy Kalahari desert in Southern Africa, survive on wild plants, insects, locusts, scorpions, bustards and ostriches. The Eskimos,, who live in the freezing cold of the Arctic, survive on the meat and fat of the walrus. The Lapps of Scandinavia survive on the milk and meat of the reindeer. The Andaman
Islanders in the Bay of Bengal live by means of fruits and roots gathering, fishing, and hunting. The Semang hunters of Malaysia, who survive on yams, berries, roots and nuts, supplement their diet with squirrels, monkeys and lizards. The Australian aborigines hunt the kangaroo and relish its meat.
Food Taboos and Rituals
Culture defines what types of food are worthy of consumption by a given people or a community, and what food items are to be avoided. Consequently, a given food item, which is relished by one people may be abhorred by another. The aphorism a short sentence packed with meaning, “one man’s food is another man’s poison” is very true in a cultural sense. Pork, which is forbidden to Jews and Muslims is eaten with relish by the Christians. Milk and milk products are regarded as luxury food by
the Baganda of East Africa, and the people of West Africa and the Chinese consider them as inedible and nauseating. The Navahos and the Apaches of New Guinea and Arizona consider fish nauseating and unfit for human consumption. Dog meat, which will be nauseating to most modern people, is eaten with relish by the Mexican Indians and some Naga tribals in India. The American Indians, until recently,
considered tomatoes poisonous and refused to eat them. Certain types of fish are considered a delicacy and eaten raw in Japan. Eating raw meat is widely prevalent in several parts of Africa.
Patterns of Sexual Gratification
There are infinite variations among groups of mankind in regard to the fulfilment of the sexual impulse. In almost all cultures, sexual mating is institutionalised in marriage. Furthermore, every culture has rules of incest, which prohibit marital relations among close relatives. The incest taboo is a universal cultural invention which is aimed at regulating sexual behaviour. There are great diversities in respect of incest regulations from one culture to another, and even within a single society. In North India, for example, cross-cousin marriages are not allowed, whereas they are preferred in south India. In some south Indian castes, an elder sister is expected to ask her younger brother to marry her own daughter. This would be considered incestuous in North India.
Culture in Relation to Health and Sickness
Cultural factors significantly influence health and sickness in society. Certain types of ailments are significantly correlated with such factors as class, occupation, ethnicity and food habits. Hypertension, diabetes and ulcers may be regarded as urban diseases, generally connected with sedentary occupations. Environmental pollution, brought about by technological advancement, is now identified as one of the major causes for the growing incidence of cancer.
Food habits, particularly the consumption of fatty foods and high salt intake, are significantly correlated with cardiovascular diseases. Several tribal communities in the South Pacific islands, the Kirghiz of Turkey, certain African tribes, the Australian aborigines, and the Eskimos use no salt in their diet. Consequently, diseases such as high blood pressure are unknown among them. On the other hand, one-fourth of the diet of Eastern Finlanders consists of animal fat; consequently, they are most prone
to heart attacks.
Culture and Sex Roles
Men and women differ not only in anatomical and physical features, but also in respect of behaviour, role and attitudes. It is generally held that men and women behave differently because nature has prescribed different roles and behaviour patterns for them. This is a mistaken view. The differences between the roles and behaviour patterns of men and women, though related to certain anatomical and physical processes, are not entirely determined by them. Sex roles and traits, in other words, are not biologically given, they are conditioned by culture.
In India and in many other cultures, men are supposed to be dominant, aggressive and rational, while women are supposed to be submissive, impulsive emotional and delicate. Margaret Mead, a distinguished American anthropologist, made a comparative study of the respective roles of men and women in three primitive societies in New Guinea. She found that in each of these cultures, the sex roles were radically different from those of Western culture. For example, in the Tehambuli
tribe, women are masculine and men feminine, in terms of Western cultural standards. Women are dominant, responsible and are engaged in gardening and fishing activities. Men, on the other hand, are concerned with aesthetic matters, and with being charming. Among the Arapesh, both men and women show feminine traits; they do not indulge in aggressive behaviour. Among the Mundugumor, both men and women exhibit masculine traits. Their behaviour reflects violence and aggressiveness. Mead,
therefore, concluded that sex roles are culturally conditioned.
Culture and Race
Differences in physical characteristics and features among people belonging to different countries of groups are often confused with differences in culture and behaviour. One hears, for example, of Jewish race, Negro race, Aryan race, etc. When the term race is used in this manner, it combines a set of unrelated features, such as physical characteristics, language, religion, cultural traditions and behaviour patterns, which differentiate a given people from others. Furthermore, there is invariably an
implicit value-judgement in this sense of the term race. Some races are regarded as being naturally and inherently superior to the others.
This is a wholly fallacious view. There is no necessary connection between race, language, culture and nationality. Racial features are largely determined by genetic and biological factors, whereas culture and language are learnt, acquired and transmitted through training and education. Race prejudice is based on false and irrational premises. In fact, racism has proved to be one of the most dangerous myths of modern times. Hitler’s belief in the superiority of the Nordic race led to the most inhuman massacre of six million Jews in Nazi Germany. Race prejudice has been responsible for the persecution and harassment of thousands of Negroes in the United States. The obnoxious phenomenon of apartheid in South Africa, whereby a small white minority had ruthlessly ruled over a vast black population, is an expression of the ideology of racism.