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What is Culture?

Social Institutions
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Each society has its own social institutions.  These are not buildings or places, but structures of relationship, obligation, role and function.  These are social concepts and practices, but also involve cognitive structures.  Members of a society have a similar mental concept of right and wrong, order and relationships, and patterns of good (positive values).  Those who do not honor these concepts are "criminals," or at least antisocial.

Linguist Noam Chomsky provides a good model for cognitive culture. He presents a coherent theory of how children create language by organizing the early language experiences around them by using a native analytical "faculty" in the human psyche.  The same pattern applies to culture.  Let's look at some of the social institutions that insiders learn through their socialization experiences, which affect insider identity.

Political: Every society has an organizational principle, with authority figures, with defined roles and obligations.  There are written or oral laws.  Some societies are tightly knit, while others are very loosely organized.  The Luo people, for instance, traditionally had no chiefs, the society being organized around families.

Economic: This involves the production of goods and the organization of labor, the provision of care and similar factors, not just money, buying and selling.  Every society has systems of provision or procurement.  Economic and political institutions are related.

Religious: This entails beliefs about the world, universal order and good, spiritual beings and powers, as well as rituals and ceremonies. For many peoples, religion is not separated into a separate sphere of life but is part of the fabric of society, making "conversion" difficult, because of the "religious" identity of the society.  Concepts of loyalty, identity, faithfulness and personhood are in this category.  Political and religious institutions are often related.  This may involve "religious" ceremonies of cultural identity.

Linguistic: Language usages may involve role and function, affecting social identity or status, so can be considered "institutions." There are often subtle but significant meanings in the languages used or choice of words used in certain situations or topics.

Educational: Even in "primitive" societies, there are highly developed methods of conveying knowledge and values.  These methods will affect reception of new ideas.  The effective communicator learns and uses the insider formats and channels.

Aesthetic (Art and Architecture): The artistic self-expressions of a people become part of their cultural identity.  These are also communication media.  Think of "gothic architecture," "Dixieland Jazz," "Shakespeare," "Magnum," "Snow White."

These significant factors in a society's identity are important for understanding the society and integration into the society.  An outsider normally has to become aware of these social institutions to gain acceptance and credibility in the host society.


Original version of this article first published in "What is Culture" series, Focus on Communication Effectiveness, July 1992
Posted 19 June 2001

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright © 1992, 2001 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.
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