Orville Jenkins Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home

What is Culture?

Social Roles
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.

Shared Experiences
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 among members.  

Popular art, like music, movies, literature, also help to forge a diverse unity among individuals with a wide range of individual experiences.

Warrior Peoples
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.

Prosperity Cultures
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.

Significant Sets
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 roles.  

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.
Email: orville@jenkins.nu
Orville Jenkins Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home