Current General Studies Magazine: "Culture" August 2014

Current General Studies Magazine (August 2014)


United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation UNESCO (2002) described culture as follows:”... culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”.

Key Components of Culture

A common way of understanding culture sees it as consisting of four elements that are “passed on from generation to generation by learning alone”:

  1. values;
  2. norms;
  3. institutions;
  4. artifacts.

Values comprise ideas about what in life seems important. They guide the rest of the culture. Norms consist of expectations of how people will behave in various situations. Each culture has methods, called sanctions, of enforcing its norms. Sanctions vary with the importance of the norm; norms that a society enforces formally have the status of laws. Institutions are the structures of a society within which values and norms are transmitted. Artifacts–things or aspects of material culture—derive from a culture’s values and norms.”

In practice, culture referred to elite goods and activities such as Mute cuisine, high fashion or haute couture, museum-caliber art and classical music and the word cultured described people who knew about and took part in these activities. For example, someone who used ‘culture’ in the sense of ‘cultivation’ might argue that classical music is more refined than music produced by working-class people, such as punk rock or the indigenous music traditions of aboriginal peoples of Australia.

People who use the term “culture” in this way tend not to use it in the plural as “cultures”. They do not believe that distinct cultures exist, each with their own internal logic and values; but rather that only a single standard of refinement suffices, against which one can measure all groups. Thus, according to this worldview, people with different customs from those who regard themselves as cultured do not usually count as “having a different culture,” but are classed as “uncultured.” People lacking “culture” often seemed more “natural,” and observers often defended (or criticised) elements of high culture for repressing “human nature”.

From the 18th century onwards, some social critics have accepted this contrast between cultured and uncultured, but have stressed the interpretation of refinement and of sophistication as corrupting and unnatural developments that obscure and distort people’s essential, nature.

By the late 19th century, anthropologists had adopted and adapted the term culture to a broader definition that they could apply to a wider variety of societies. Attentive to the theory of evolution, they assumed that all human beings evolved equally and that the fact that all humans have cultures must in some way result from human evolution. They also showed some reluctance to use biological evolution to explain differences between specific cultures — an approach that either exemplified a form of or segment of society vis-a-vis other segments and the society as a whole, they often reveal processes of domination and resistance.

The symbolic view of culture, the legacy of Clifford Geertz (1973) and Victor Turner (1967), holds symbols’ to be both the practices of social actors and the context that gives such practices meaning. Anthony P. Cohen (1985) writes of the “symbolic gloss” which allows social actors to use common symbols to communicate and understand each other while still imbuing these symbols with personal significance and meanings. Symbols provide the limits of cultured thought. Members of a culture rely on these symbols to frame their thoughts and expressions in intelligible terms. In short, symbols make culture possible, reproducible and readable.


  • Culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive virtues, does they symbolizes our society?

  • What do you mean by Mute cuisine? What is the difference between ‘having a different culture’ and ‘being uncultured’?

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