What is Culture?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
You may remember the song by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings:
"Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." The advice continues:
"Let 'em be doctors and lawyers and such." Except that in Montana, everybody is a cowboy. Except the people who work for the fisheries.
This song is expressing an evaluation of social roles in the culture. Social roles arise out of the shared experiences of the society.
I have said previously in this series that a culture is defined
by a set of shared experiences. Members consider themselves part of the
same group because they share a world view arising out of their similar
experience of reality.
Diversity and Similarity
The more similar the set of experiences, the more closely-knit
and similar the members will be, because they have seen the world the
same way through the same set of experiences.
The more varied the set of experiences is, the more diverse the
culture will be, as few members can share all the significant experiences
possible in the broader culture group. A similar language is helpful
in maintaining a single identity with a broad and diverse set of experiences
Popular art, like music, movies, literature, also help to forge
a diverse unity among individuals with a wide range of individual experiences.
The common or diverse set of experiences are important in determining
the significant social roles within a culture group, or “people.” Some
peoples develop warrior cultures in response to threats at a certain period
of their history.
This is the case with the Maasai, still organized around
age grades in which every generation goes through a warrior stage. This
is now passing away under strong pressures of social change.
The Zulu are another warrior people. The Zulu were one
small clan of the Nguni Bantu people. One young man tired of the disunity
and poor defense of his people. This man, Shaka, set out to reform the
social order, and decisively developed a warrior class, then conquered
most of the neighboring Nguni-speaking peoples.
This significant period of history set the model of experience
for the Zulu. They are still a warrior people, though they too have
changed with the modern options.
In times of peace and prosperity, focus shifts to convenience,
art, the leisures of philosophy, technological development, etc. This
causes a shift in the roles available or valued in the society. Assumptions
from this culture lead to communication difficulties with non-leisure cultures.
In a peaceful leisure society, there are social roles, guilds or
castes of sustainers, maintainers, defenders and caregivers. This frees
the member at large from the drudgery of survival -- free for the luxury
of choosing interests and activities, to focus on comfort and convenience.
Economics becomes more important than defense, which shifts to
an elite group supported by those who now have the liesure to make extra
money. Social leadership becomes an option for more, so political philosophies
develop, desire for power infects more members who try to gain power.
In America, for instance, a common expectation of the “American
Dream” is that any one can become president. This cultural fiction is
still heard. But people really know that not everyone can become president.
Only the rich “liberal” can become president. Or the rich “conservative”
who is so much like the rich “liberal” that you can't tell them apart.
Yet this remains one of the popular expectations of American culture.
Cultural roles are clarified in various ways, in subcultures and
the broader culture. Subcultures place slightly different significance
on certain roles than the broader culture. This is what makes for regional
or ethnic difference within a broader political or geographic culture.
You can set up a line representing all the possible experiences
humans can have in common. You will find the significant sets of experiences
bunching up at different places along that line. Many times, these sets
of experiences are not consciously chosen. People adapt to changes in
weather or move to new terrain due to famine, war or overpopulation.
The actions necessary in making these vital adaptations lead to
changes in significance of certain experiences. The social group as a
whole adapts by acknowledging new leaders, new needs, new expectations.
This leads to new social roles, or new significance to already existing
The new expectations and new demands to adapt lead to the ”bunching”
of experiences at a new place along the line of common human experiences.
The greater the challenge, the more significant the change in perspective,
role or character in the society.
Social roles and expectations develop out of the set of common
experiences in a group considering themselves as one people. Social
roles vary according to the significance of certain experiences valued
within that people.
First published in the series "What is Culture?" in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, April 1994
First posted on Thoughts and Resources 24 April 2002
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1994, 2002 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.