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What is Culture?

Cognitive and Social Culture
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

How do you define culture? What do we mean when we say someone is "cultured?" What about "He ain't got no culture?" How is an individual's culture related to a group's culture?

Cognitive Culture
Some have written of a Cognitive Culture, referring to the idea in our heads of culture and social relationships. This Cognitive Culture is what we call Worldview.

Some who use culture this way even say there is no such thing as "cultures" and "sub-cultures" as a group. This is an insufficient definition. Yes, there is a Cognitive Culture, but it is not the total picture.

Social Culture
There is also a Social Culture. Humans are social creatures. The term culture rightly applies also to the ordering of social relationships between human beings. And definitely, there are definable sub-groups in social relations.

Yes - there is a Social Culture, but it is not the total picture either. Social Culture is related to the Cognitive Culture in the head of each individual. There is a Social Culture, but it is not just external.

The Individual and Society
Each social group has an idea of proper social relations between members and of the "reality" these represent. But these ideas vary. For instance, the concept of the individual and the society. Which is primary? It depends on the culture. In most African cultures, for instance, society exists, thus the individual exists.

But in the West, individuals exist, thus society is created. You may have heard of the concept of the "Social Contract." This is a Western concept, not African. Yet even in Western concepts, there is a sense in which society exists as an entity apart from the individuals involved.

Culture is the Context
What is the frame of reference for the communicative events we engage in through language? What is the common base that enables us to make sense in our encounters? Culture provides the frame of reference, or context, of these communicative events. This context has two aspects, the external and the internal, meaning the social or individual, frame of reference.

The individual cultural frame of reference is called the Cognitive Culture. This is the individual's cultural understanding, self-concept, concept of relationships, roles and procedures. The external or Social Culture is created by relationships of the component individuals in their social interaction. How stable, rigid or flexible this social system is depends on many and complicated factors.

Language is a part of the culture. What does that mean? When we speak to others, we express our Cognitive Culture. This involves who we think we are, who we think they are, how we view our relationship.

How language is used, which language is used, the attitudes and intentions expressed, are part of the Social Culture. This involves what is allowed and what is not, what is considered good or bad, acceptable or abusive. Accent and vocabulary are further social markers.

Exchange of Culture
When humans meet, they experience communicative events. These communicative events involve the exchange of culture. My Cognitive Culture is developed continually from my encounter with others.

The Social Culture occurs when we engage in interpersonal encounters. The encounters in turn clarify, affirm or modify, the Cognitive Culture. The term Social Culture refers to the full range of informal and formal structures in these encounters and relationships, including group identification and social infrastructure.

Shared Experiences
In summary, culture seems to be summed up in shared experiences, concepts and values. Thus an ethnic group a society or culture group have sufficient significant experiences in common to have a similar mental concept of their common life and relationships. This seems to form the link between the Cognitive (personal, individual) Culture and the Social (external or group) Culture.

Also related:
[TXT] Accents - Developing and Changing Them
[TXT] Cognitive and Social Culture (Worldview Perspectives)
[TXT] Culture and Experience
Culture By Generation
Self and the World, Knowing Reality
[blog] Shared Significant Experiences


Originally published in the "What is Culture?" series in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, July 1994
This version written and posted on OJTR 03 December 2004
Last edited 28 May 2012
This topic also appears as part of the series"Wordlview Perspectives"

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright 1994, 2004 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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