Module I: Introduction

I. The Culture Concept

B. A Definition of Culture

Emphasis 1. Symbolic Composition.

The fundamental element or building block of culture is the culture trait. Traits assume many forms varying from material artifacts -- tools, house structures, art works -- to behaviourial regularities -- family interrelationships, economic exchanges, and legal sanctions -- to abstract concepts and beliefs. All of these diverse and complex manifestations share one feature in common; they are symbols and as such express meaning.

 A symbol is simply understood as an expression that stands for or represents something else, usually a real world condition. The use of words in a language provides the most obvious example. Words stand for perceived objective entities and states. Words as symbols, however, differ from the objects they represent and have special qualities, which is why they are so useful to us. One important characteristic is that they bear no intrinsic relation to what they represent and are thereby arbitrary. I can denote a huge animal with dramatic features such as a hoselike snout, enormous ears, and a pair of spearlike oral projections with very different sound sequences, such as pachyderm or osono. Another important symbolic characteristic is displacement, i.e., words can be used in the absence of the objects represented and thus can be reproduced in any time or place. Thus I can talk about elephants without needing to import them from Africa. This quality leads to a third major feature, creativity. Because they are freed from the material constraints of real objects, words can be manipulated to produce novel arrangements. Thus we can use the term elephant to postulate things beyond our direct experience, such as elephant species, extinct elephant ancestors, flying elephants, and elephant gods.

While words provide the simplest example, all cultural elements including material artifacts exhibit a symbolic character. Art and ceremonial objects have obvious symbolic meanings and are intentionally created to represent them. Tools and technologies are less obviously symbolic, but do involved representations. They are manufactured from a standard conceptual plan to bring about a desired objective state different from them in form. Technology also gives us a means to transform a symbolically constructed world to a real one of domesticated elephants and ivory piano keys.

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