What is Culture?
Materializing the anchor to which culture’s definition can be attached to is a tricky process for the simple reason that culture seems too exhaustive of a topic to satisfyingly sink our teeth into.
Most people would say that culture can be delineated as a set of traditions and customs that hail from a certain country or racial group, like folklore, religion, and language. It trails behind its history and intimate, personal significance to that culture’s population.
One can interpret culture as the individual pleasures that people naturally produce, like food, music, architecture, art, etc, or the end of a string that connects to a country or ethnic community.
Essentialism, on the contrary, synonymizes culture with the united body of people itself.
Within this field of discord, a philosophical question is introduced: Is it the accomplishments that bloom naturally from civilization, or is it the civilization that sows the seed of accomplishment. This divides culture sharply into two meanings. Culture can either be established as an entity one is part of, or culture is an action that can be performed.
Essentialism is the concept that people have intrinsic and fixed characteristics, and relies on the grouping of people. An Essentialist perspective on culture predicates culture on identity.
This can be translated as, for example, “having Russian culture” or “someone belonging to Chinese culture”. Culture is then described as the ideological, behavioral fabric of your society that teaches one a certain mentality.
This is primarily founded on categorization and it functions under the pretense that culture is uniform across all people of that culture. It also implies uniqueness and strict distinction between cultures.
While each culture is individual, the restrictive lines drawn between cultures are actually blurred in real life. Creolization enables cultures to creatively borrow from each other and have some similarities.
When cultures come into contact, usually through colonization, this intermingling brings forth the inception of a new culture in the creolizing process, and often is transcendent of race. These can be best exemplified in the music and food of New Orleans and the Caribbean.
Essentialist views allow us to predict choices on the basis of culture and attempt to illustrate the collective “personality” of a cultural mass. Typifying X culture as innately carrying Y qualities insinuates homogeneity.
However, people are more variable and flexible than cultural essentialists characterize them as. They don’t operate by their environment’s rules mindlessly, human behavior is adaptive and receptive to changing context.
Moreover, generalizing the dispositions solely according to their culture is a huge oversimplification and can often lead down roads of racism. Assigning character traits to cultural groups have historically been weaponized against marginalized cultures.
These lists of cultural values rarely embody the full breadth of the diverse people in a cultural background and risk culminating in misrepresentation or outright prejudices. While anthropologists may negotiate the essentialist framework to derive narratives and explanations of cultures, the intentions behind essentialist purposes seem to attract controversy in modern times.
It is natural that we should be skeptical of observing culture as a substantiated and honest classification of people.
Culture as a Noun
Baptizing culture as an “entity” already flaunts its dominance in the descriptive language we use, and it is so entrenched in our mental renderings of culture that you probably barely noticed the phrases Russian culture and Chinese culture. With a simple phrase, I distilled the behemoth of China’s diversity to a single “Chinese culture”.
This panoptic use of culture is inaccurate, for what really is “Chinese culture”? We are quick to accept that generalizing lexicon, but we don’t critically think about its true meaning. In addition, the word culture has been maneuvered into a euphemism for race, especially when trying to steamroll a socially acceptable tone onto a hurtful racial stereotype.
For example, when one wants to artificially soften the racist sentiment of “Latino men are violent”, they would instead substitute the word culture, saying “Latin culture encourages and reinforces violent tendencies in Latino men”. An even more delicate argument would be “Latino culture values brute strength and roughness in its schema of masculinity”.
By disguising bigotry with observational statements about culture, racists can project their own prejudices on the societal atmosphere the targeted people are living in. Thankfully, there is a way to expose the subtle racist: question their empirical justification for their theories on culture.
Most likely, their ideas on Latin culture will be deficient in scientific evidence and prove no more different than a flimsy opinion. Just because the term culture was employed, it does not automatically compel the engagement of rationale.
As we are products of the spaces we inhabit, we internalize those behaviors, social norms, and personal principles. Despite this, it is presumptuous to standardize all people under one culture. It undermines the humanity and the originality expressed through the intellectual and creative endeavors of people.
Thus, if not cultural essentialism, then the opposing belief is in cultural constructionism. It presents the demarcation of culture as grounded in people’s actions.
Culture spoken as a verb is a process and a performance centered on social interaction. Forging, enriching, and debating relationships with people causes culture to become animated to life, especially when meshed with context and the social dynamic.
Expressing one’s culture is not applicable to every situation; these behaviors can surface when generating the relationship of A to B, but will not necessarily be ideal to A to C. It can manifest in codes of manners or speaking a language.
The act of “doing” culture is reproducing a way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation. Within the culture, there is competition between differing concepts, such as old traditions collecting tension with its modernized, trendy spins, contradicting words for the same meaning among dialects, or differing styles of culture dress.
The activities and movements rather than the people are now the cynosure, which seems to be a far more digestible, achievable avenue of contemplation and hypothesizing. Furthermore, it champions autonomy of people in driving and continually reshaping culture, as opposed to molding culture as a limiting space.
With people at the front wheel of culture, culture remains an ever-changing force, as clearly seen in how art forms or alphabets develop over centuries. Constructionism extracts meaning from the beauty people produce in their everyday lives and allows for culture to change and move forward.
Culture in America
The undertones of “performing” or “doing” culture seems to take on a more nuanced meaning when the culture that one is practicing is in the minority. This is most exemplary in the United States, which is known for its diversity in cultures, with a suffix of “-American”.
America is sometimes referred to as a melting pot or a multicultural, multiethnic country. However, despite the vast variety of cultures, it still behaves under white supremacy that influences the rest of the world.
As a result, immigrants must internally bargain the impacts of their home cultures and whether they should answer to “Americanness”. Some people thoroughly assimilate into America and reject the culture of their homeland. Some hand-pick traits of their culture to strip away and continue to integrate other traits into their American lives.
Some immigrants are staunchly affixed to their culture. They engineer their own safe spaces, in which they dismiss assimilatory practices, such as standardized schooling in English.
Cultural enclaves have additionally popped up all over America in reaction to finding no acceptance or accommodation in white-centered markets. These separate spaces engender an ethnic-specific market in which most sellers, consumers, and products are from that culture, and there is no need to appeal to the dominant culture.
Enclaves have been historically boosting the financial situations of immigrants, as they can create their own businesses that cater to their cultural niche. This is paradigmatic of constructionist thinking because people are independently building land zones and institutions specifically for the purpose of “doing culture” so they can feel comfortable in their own skin.
Regardless of the decision to balance the cultures or let one be a dominant force, this conflict is dependent on the individual’s motivations and feelings, as well as the social context and geographical environment. For example, if restaurants of a certain cultural cuisine and certain types of groceries are scarce in the region one is living in, it will be inherently more difficult to cook foods from one’s culture.
Another person who lives in an area where this resource is abundant will find it easier and have more options. Likewise, an immigrant household can choose to teach their children in their native language or in English — sometimes it is one or the other, and sometimes it is both.
It wholly depends on the wishes of the parents: the parents are the deciding authority if the native language will be their first language or whether English will be spoken in the home at all. This phenomenon is interesting because it greatly varies not only generation to generation, but culture to culture and person to person.
The idea of performing culture emerges into the power dynamics of different cultures. Immigrants can perform their culture by speaking their language in circles where it can be understood, such as with family members or friends who speak the same language, or in cultural recreational activities.
Culture is also reproduced and recomposed when making and serving food, performing dance or music, wearing cultural clothing, participating in religion, carrying out rituals, celebrating holidays, and joining cultural events. All of these opportunities are reliant on residing in a sector where your culture is common, or if you are surrounded by a community, familial or not, that practices your culture regularly.
Doing culture can be a tool to keep one’s culture alive in the midst of assimilation and give it a place of security and legacy for the future generations. Doing culture can also emerge when one wants to protect themselves; by becoming a member of a community that consistently practices one’s culture, one may find support, safety, and relatability among those members.
Theoretically, you are less likely to experience discrimination with your in-group than with an out-group. However, performing openly has, in the past, proved to endanger that faction due to racism and general cultural intolerance.
In spite of America’s title as an ethnic mosaic, there are still systematic measures to prevent demonstrations of culture. For example, in the present day, for someone who is Muslim, the issue of praying in the workplace or wearing a hijab to the office has been debated on its professionality, and that person may or may not be allowed to follow their religious practices.
If it is judged as inappropriate, they will either jeopardize their employment or cross their faith, which is a choice no one should be required to make. In history, during WW2, the FBI would nonconsensually search the homes of anyone of Japanese descent for proof of loyalty to the Japanese emperor. Japanese Americans had to hide or throw away Japanese family albums, Japanese heirlooms, books, and religious items in the fear that they would be targeted by the government and arrested.
Nonetheless, all Japanese Americans were imprisoned anyway, due to their culture and ethnicity. This perpetual possible risk is a testament to how minority cultures are not valued as equal to the majority culture.
As a consequence of battling bigotry in everyday lives, culture is a value people hold dearly to their hearts and becomes all the more important to honor and pursue. Performing culture could serve as a resolution to inner cultural conflict, a sanctuary, a defense mechanism, a freedom of expression, a personal, private rebellion, and a simple conversation at the same time, and depends on what context the actions are put into.
Culture as a noun is argued to advocate too much for uniformity when the people of that region or bracket aren’t homogenous in mind and character. Its foundation is an assumption of existence, because people already depict culture as an innate accompaniment to race or country.
The entity of culture necessitates the belief that people are mainly steered in specific directions due to cultural standards, and therefore anthropology can wield culture as a forecast for people’s decisions, which can have unsavory motivations. In the reverse, culture as a verb personifies it as an interaction between peoples, as well as an expression that is malleable to types of interlocutors one encounters and types of domains one finds themselves in.
The process of culture empowers humans to be the judges of what makes up culture, and gives room for growth and development across time. Performing culture can hold emotional meaning to people, especially when cultures are marginalized and in the minority.
When the definitions of culture are juxtaposed, I would argue that calling culture a verb is more realistic and is more truly reflective of how society works today.