Module I: Introduction

I. The Culture Concept

B. A Definition of Culture

Emphasis 4. Societal Grounding

Culture is observable only in the form of personal behaviour but can be abstracted from individuals' actions and attributed to the social groups to which they belong. Accordingly, anthropologists underemphasize the importance of individual responsibility and creativity and focus on the common denominator of collective identity and symbols. This position counters some modern understandings of the importance of individual rights and actions. However, a few reflections show that society defines and constrains our behaviour in many unperceived ways. We can best understand the social aspect of culture by realizing that the central function of human symbolization is communication and requires adherence to understood conventions.

We most consciously experience social forces in the form of legal sanctions, which are themselves culturally based, but group norms constrain our behaviour in a wider array of circumstances. There is no law that says that I must communicate with you in English, but I am impelled to do so by the fact that we are engaged in a social relationship that requires mutual understanding. Under special circumstances, you or I might use another language and expect that the other learns it or engages a translator. However, I would never be allowed to use my individual creative powers to invent my own personal language.

A second example involves the selection of clothing. Here in the virtual classroom I am not subject to a dress code, but I do teach this class to a live audience as well and must face each day with the problem of what to wear for my lectures. Of course there are some legal constraints to my selection, since I cannot appear naked, but there are less obvious social restrictions as well. Past generations imposed fairly well defined limits to professorial dress. We had to wear academic gowns symbolic of our status. At a later period professionally identifying clothing was no longer in fashion, and we donned the more mundane adornments of generic business attire, although gowns were and still are required for academic processions.

Installation of a new Rector at St. Paul's College.
Donning the official College robe symbolizes a change in social role
In the 1960s, anti-authoritarian values dictated a new standard: jeans and work-shirts. Now we have apparently achieved a wide freedom to select whatever dress styles we want, but there are still strict cultural limits. I could not come to class in a bathing suit, even on a hot humid day when doing so would contribute to my comfort. As a male, I could not wear high heels and a miniskirt, at least not without creating undesired attention that would detract from my teaching effectiveness.

Such conventional meanings and limitations attached to dress are arbitrary and assume quite different forms in other cultures. Highland Mayan men and women in the Guatemalan community of San Antonio must invariably both follow a strict dress code in which everyone in the village wears the same dress. Judging from Western fashion, we might describe both male and female outfit as consisting of a blouse and wrap-around skirt, which might cause us to question the masculinity of Mayan men.

Mayan Dress from San Antonio Palapo, Western Highlands, Guatemala
However, a close appraisal of the above picture will illustrate that San Antonian men and women dress in ways that clearly mark sexual differences. The clearest contrast is in the colour patterns of the tops: the male style is marked by a red and white striped vest and solid red sleeves; the women's style is the exact inverse of the men's. Besides marking sexual roles, highland Mayan dress forms also mark community membership, since each village has adopted a distinct outfit which unambiguously identifies its residents.

While the emphasis on the social determinants of personal behaviour are basic to the culture concept, anthropologists have tended to exaggerate their influence to the point of overlooking individual behaviour completely. As such, people are often viewed as actors in a play written and directed by an extra-natural author labelled "culture" or "society". (This tendency is called reification, the process of assigning a material reality to an abstract concept.) Cultural and social forces are manifest only in the behaviour of individuals, who are subject to influences of a different nature, such as psychological drives, personal ambitions, and creative imaginings. The anthropological focus on the culture concept gives us only a partial view of the human reality and we must borrow from or cooperate with other disciplines to achieve a total understanding of the human experience.

Go to the next section: method and theory in cultural anthropology