Monday, July 4, 2011



Culture and Environment

You have learnt in the foregoing unit that culture played a crucial role in the successful adaptation, and thereby evolutionary survival of mankind. Such innovations and inventions as the discovery and use of fire, the domestication of plants and animals, the making of tools and implements, and the use of language greatly helped human beings in meetings the challenges of the environment. Both human beings and animals have to adapt themselves to the natural environment. The adaptation of animals is governed by instinctual mechanisms. Hunan being, on the other hand, adapts herself or himself to the environment in a variety of ingenious ways. The great apes, who are zoologically the nearest to human beings, can survive in tropical conditions and on specialised diets only in very limited numbers. Human

being is capable of living and multiplying on various sorts of diets in all kinds of environmental conditions. Thus the Eskimos have lived in the freezing cold of the Arctic; the Lapps who move with the reindeer and live on its milk and meat, have survived and multiplied in the Iceland of Scandinavia; similarly, the Bushmen, who live on wild roots, berries and plants, have managed to survive in the hot, sandy deserts of South Africa.

The environment may be seen as a dependent or an independent variable in different situations. A harsh habitat, such as the Arctic or desert regions offers a strong challenge to human communities, particularly when their economic and technological resources are limited and simple. Consider, for example, the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert in South Africa, who hunt ostriches in an ingenious manner. The Bushmen hunter with his small bow and arrow, disguises himself under the skin of an ostrich, which is mounted on a frame. Then he cautiously joins the herd of ostriches, and imitates their movements so cleverly that the ostriches do not suspects his presence at all. When he comes closer to an ostrich, he quietly throws his arrow at it, killing the animal. Water is of paramount importance to the Bushmen since the Kalahari desert is one of the most inhospitable desert regions in the world. They store water in ostrich egg shells. In addition, they suck roots, bulbs and fruits which contain moisture or liquids.

Culture and Society

Society is perceived as a chain of social relations among groups of individuals who are held together by commonly shared institutions and processes. All processes of human life-cycle are carried out and regulated in society. Thus, there is an integral reality of the individual, culture and society. All these are mutually inter-dependent, so that any one of them cannot be adequately understood without reference to the other. Culture depends for its existence and continuity on groups of individuals whose social relations form society. Human being is generally defined as a social animal. However, their social nature is not particularly unique to them. A society can exist at the sub-human level. Ants and bees, for example, have genuine societies. The chimpanzees and Gorillas in the wild live in their society much like human beings: they form stable relationships; they move about and hunt in groups. Culture exists only in human societies. There can be an animal society without culture, but no human society is found without having to own culture. Consequently, what differentiates men and women qualitatively from other species of animals is not their social nature, but their culture. Human being is essentially a cultural or symbolic animal.

In actual life, society and culture cannot be separated. Even though culture is a broader category, it cannot exist and function without society. Society, in other words, is a necessary pre-condition for culture. Similarly, neither society nor culture can exist independent of human beings.

Culture and Language

Language plays a crucial role in the process of enculturation, whereby the individual acquires and imbibes the values, beliefs, customs and habits of his society. Language facilitates the sharing

and accumulation of experiences and skills; it is also instrumental in the transmission of cultural traditions from one generation to another. Language has played a pivotal role in the evolutionary survival of homo sapiens and the continuity of human society.

Structure of Culture

Cultural Patterns

A cultural pattern refers to an ordered sequence of behaviour. It represents a form of behaviour which is shared among the members of a given community or group. In western society, for example, a man is expected to raise his hat while greeting a lady on the street. This is a cultural pattern. In Indian society, one touches the feet of his/her parents, elders and teachers as a mark of respect towards them. This is

also an example of a cultural pattern.

Cultural patterns are of two types; ideal cultural patterns and actual behaviour patterns. Ideal cultural patterns define how the people of a society should behave in particular situations. But people do not always behave according to the ideal patterns as defined by their society, they sometimes deviate from them. Actual behaviour patterns refer to the manner in which people actually behave in particular situations.

Cultural Traits and Cultural Complex

A cultural trait is the smallest identifiable unit of a culture, such as bow and arrow. The system of primogeniture, which is prevalent in most parts of India and other countries and according to which the eldest son succeeds his father after his death, is an example of a cultural trait. A cultural complex, on the other hand, is an aggregate of traits. The jajmani system, which was prevalent in many parts of rural India, provides an illustration of a cultural complex. The jajmani system refers to a complex network of economic, social and cultural relationship ‘say’ between a food producing family and an artisan family. ; A farming family, for example, get its agricultural tools and implements made and repaired by the former a part of the crop at harvest-time. Thus, the jajmani system, which represented a reciprocity of relationship, functioned as a cultural complex.

Cultural Symbols

Every culture bestows a special meaning and significance on certain objects and things. Material objects, colours, figures, and gestures thus assume special importance for the members of a given culture. They represent cultural symbols. A flag, for example, is the symbol of a nation. The bindiya or bottu on the forehead of some Indian women is a traditional symbol of her married status. The use of sindoor or vermilion in the parting of her hair is also a symbolic index of the same.

Cultural Ethos

A culture has two distinctive, but inter-related, aspects. One can be described as eidos or the external form of a culture, and the other as ethos or the world-view of a people, their conception of the world and of man’s relationship with the world. The eidos includes the formal structure of a culture, such as its institutions, customs, habits, rituals and behaviour patterns. The ethos of a culture refers to its total quality, the system of ideas and values which permeates and dominates the whole culture.

Cultural Areas

The area in which similar cultural traits are found is called a cultural area. The great regions of the pacific, such as Australia, Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia and Indonesia are described as cultural areas, because each one of them is marked by a concentration of distinctive cultural traits and features.

The present boundaries of states in India, which have been drawn on the basis of languages, generally represent cultural areas. For example, Rajasthan, Kashmir, Assam and Tamil Nadu are distinguished from each other not only in respect of the languages but also in regard to certain distinctive cultural traits and characteristics.

Major Components of Culture

The major components of culture, which are universal in nature, can be analytically separated into the following units:

i) Technology : it refers to the system of tools, implements and artifacts, made and used by a people to meet their basic needs.

ii) Economic organisation : it includes the techniques which are employed by a people in organising the production and distribution of goods and services.

iii) Social organisation : it refers to the framework of social and inter-personal relations.

iv) Political organisation : it refers to the ways and methods of controlling conflict, and deals with the maintenance of the social order.

v) Ideology : it includes a guiding set of beliefs, values and ideals.

vi) Arts : that is the forms which ensure the fulfilment of human beings’ aesthetic urges.

vii) Language : it is the medium through which all the above operate.

Cultural Diversity

There are great variations among different human groups in regard to the disposal of the dead. The Jews, Muslims, Christians and several other communities bury their dead. The Hindus cremate the dead. The Parsis in India expose the dead bodies to vultures. The ancient Egyptians mummified the dead bodies of kings, queens and other important individuals. In India, dead bodies are sometimes set afloat in the river Ganga. In addition to these there are other methods of the disposal of the dead, which are practised by human communities in various parts of the world. These include, seafold burial, simple abandonment, dismemberment and setting away in vaults or canoes.

Cultural Diversity in India

The Brahmin constitute a single varna. However the Brahmin in different parts of the country are not a culturally homogeneous group. They are divided into hundreds of castes and sub-castes called jatis who marry only among themselves. There are great variations among the various Brahmin sub-castes in respect of language, food habits, customs and rituals. The Brahmin sub-castes are divided into two major sects, the Vaishnava and the Shaivite. These sects are divided into numerous smaller

sects. For example, in South India, the Vaishnava are divided into Madhava and Shri Vaishnava. The Shri Vaishnava in turn are sub-divided into northern and southern sects. In North India, the Vaishnava are divided into worshippers of Rama and worshippers of Krishna. the worshippers of Rama are sub-divided into Madhava and Ramanandi. The worshippers of Krishna are sub-divided into Chaitanya and Radha-Vallabha.

There are significant variations among the various Brahmin sub-castes in respect of food habits. The Kashmiri pandits eat meat, but not fish. The Maithili Brahmin of Bihar eat meat and fish, but not chicken. Similarly, the Bengali Brahmin and the Saraswat Brahmin eat fish. The Punjabi, Gujarati and South Indian Brahmin on the other hand are strictly vegetarians.

There are differences in the various regions of India in respect of dress pattern. In eastern India the ritual wearing of unsewn garments is widely prevalent. Similarly, one can enter the inner sanctum of a Jain temple only while wearing an unstitched piece of cloth. The Brahmin of eastern Nepal eat their food only while wearing unsewn garments. However, as one moves from Bengal to Western and Northern

India, unsewn garments are replaced by stitched garments.

Cultural Diversity and the Unity of Mankind

Cultural variations among the various peoples of the world may appear to be confusing and mind-boggling. However behind the facade of diversity lies the fundamental unity of mankind. All human beings, regardless of social and cultural differences, belong to a single biological species homo sapiens. All human groups and populations can inter-breed and produce their own kind. Moreover all human

communities share the cultural universals: the capacity for learning and acquiring culture, the capacity for language, incest rules, funerary rites, institutions such as marriage, family and religion, among others.

Cultural Conditioning

Human beings, as individuals and as members of groups think, feel, and behave in certain ways because they have been brought up under certain conditions in a given society or community. The culture of a people influences their perception and attitudes, their values and beliefs their habits and customs. In other words, it is largely our culture which forms our character and builds our personality. This fact is known as cultural conditioning.

Purity and Pollution in India

An interesting illustration of the manner in which culture influences and conditions behaviour is provided by an aspect of the caste system which is known as ritual purity and pollution.

Pollution is supposed to be brought about by birth, unclean occupation and contact with death and bodily emissions such as blood, excreta, urine, saliva, nail pairings and hair. Any contact with these things renders a person impure. Pollution is believed to be transferable by physical contact. A more interesting aspect of ritual defilement is known as distance pollution, which is particularly prevalent in South India. It is believed that pollution or impurity can be transmitted by the mere shadow of an

untouchable, or by his or her proximity within a certain distance. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, certain castes in earlier time had to keep a certain distance between themselves on the one hand and the Brahmins and other higher castes, on the other so as not to defile the latter. Thus, the Shanar, of the toddy-tapper caste of Tamil Nadu, contaminates a Brahmin if he approached him within 24 paces. In

Kerala, a Nayar may approach a Brahmin but must not touch him. A Tiyan was allowed to keep himself at a distance of 36 steps from the Brahmin and a Pulayan was not permitted to approach him within 96 paces.

Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism refers to the view that the values, ideals and behaviour patterns of a people are not to be evaluated and judged in terms of our own values and ideas but must be understood and appreciated in their cultural context.

Cultural Change

Acculturation and Diffusion

When groups of individuals, having different cultural traditions, come into contact, changes take place in their original cultural patterns. This is referred to as acculturation or culture contact. Diffusion on the other hand, refers to the spread of cultural traits and patterns from major centres of civilisation to smaller cultures and occasionally the other way round. Acculturation and diffusion involve one another.

Diffusion generally refers to the spread of specific cultural traits or elements, whereas acculturation refers to the changes brought about in whole cultures.

Diffusion of Paper Making

Paper was invented in china during the beginning of the first century A.D. In A.D. 751, the Chinese attacked Samarkand which was under the control of Muslims. The Arabs repulsed the attack and a number of Chinese were held by them as prisoners of war. The Arabs were aware of the fact that the Chinese knew the technique of paper making. They told the Chinese prisoners that they could secure

their release if they taught the Arabs how to make paper. The Chinese prisoners agreed to the condition and taught the technique of paper making to the Arabs. Within two centuries paper mills were set up in Baghdad and Cairo. Paper making spread through the Muslim world from Samarkand and reached Europe in 1189. In the course of time, it spread from Muslim Spain to Italy, France, Germany, England

and the U.S.A. The following figure brings out the diffusion of paper making from China through the Muslim world to the West.

Diffusion and Language

A comparative study of languages provides an interesting illustration of the dimensions of cultural diffusion. The English language has borrowed and adopted hundreds of words from Chinese. Indian, Semitic, African and other languages of the world in the course of its development. Consider, for example, the following words which are widely used in English but which are of Indian origin: bungalow, chit, loot, jungle, bamboo, bandicoot, verandah. The following words are of Arabic origin: sofa, cotton, tamarind, algebra, admiral, cipher, tarrif, alcohol, atlas, arrack. English has contributed a large body of vocabulary related to technology, industry and mechanics. Another interesting illustration of cross-cultural diffusion is provided by the manner in which certain words are borrowed and modified in different languages. The following chart provides the origin of some English words.

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