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"Elements of Culture"

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The Essential Elements of Culture

Joel Dubois, (c) 2009, 2013-14for free, fully cited distribution only

I. Two Types of Dynamic Culture

To begin with, consider formal definitions of culture. Observers generally use the word "culture" in two different ways, as reflected in dictionary definitions of the term. For example, Webster's Dictionary defines culture as, on the one hand, the "enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training." This definition alludes to the frequent use of "culture" to highlight what is most noteworthy in the art, literature, music and philosophy of a given society, typically by those situated within it. Some refer to this as "high" culture, or "Culture" with a capital "C." Even though religion is often a primary force in shaping "high" culture, especially in Asia, those whose primary interest is a culture's art, literature, music or philosophy are typically less interested in religion in and of itself.

On the other hand, Webster's also points out that the same term may denote "the integrated pattern of knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon...learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations," which may also be described as "the customary beliefs, social forms, and materials traits of a racial, religious or social group." These definitions allude the fact that those studying a particular society, who are often situated outside of it, typically view all of that society's products, not simply its most refined, as important for understanding it. Some refer to this as "low" culture--not because it is UNrefined, but because it encompasses the entire foundation of a society's "high" culture. Because religion has been and remains a primary motivator of human activity in most cultures, especially in Asia, understanding religion is key to analyzing the broader elements of a culture.

This course certainly features examples of the "high" culture of late medieval and modern Asia. But in to order make sense of such examples, the course also places significant emphasis on the broader elements of Asian culture, because most students are largely unfamiliar with them. Interestingly, many students taking the course today do trace their ancestry back to Asia, perhaps even in their parent's generation, and so have been directly exposed to Asian culture. Even those students, however, have typcially grown up studying other cultures through the the public school medium of English. Despite sincere efforts to diversify curriculum, such schooling still focuses primarily on the history and products of European and North American cultures. This course therefore assumes no background in the study of Asian culture, and thus attempts to orient students to its basic elements.

The fact that the word "culture" means different things also hints at another important point: culture is dynamic rather than static. This may seem obvious, but a closer look at the difference between static and dynamic systems drives home how important the distinction really is. A static system is one in which all parts relate to one another in a consistent and predictable way. Machines made by human beings are for the most part like this: every part of an engine must consistently do its job in a prescribed way in relation to every other part in order for the system that is that engine to be considered functional. There are also social systems that function this way: when we wait in line at a ticket or checkout counter, we expect each person to wait their turn, not to disturb others in the line, and any behavior that deviates from this detracts from the functioning of the system. While some static systems are as simple as a pulley or unicycle, some can be highly complex: consider airliners, space stations and computers.

Dynamic systems, on the other hand, are by nature complex for two reasons. First, they include a large number of elements that can in practice never be completely separated and studied; and secondly, the relationship of those elements to one another is continually evolving. Most living things are like this: although scientists of the past several centuries thought they could study living systems and physical laws as one would a machine, contemporary investigators are increasingly admitting that every attempt to do so has proven inadequate so far. Likewise much of human behavior--including the cultures that it produces--is highly dynamic, and social scientists now likewise admit that viewing the human mind using a static framework always falls short. The division between static and dynamic systems, furthermore, is not hard and fast. Experienced engineers know that the static system of most machines, when studied closely enough, are acted on by dynamic forces.

An investigator of culture, then, must be open to encountering a bewildering diversity of messy variables that cannot be reduced to neat formulas, as well as phenomena that cannot be predicted based on static theories. This dynamic nature of culture is also an important reason for the team-based learning format of the course: such dynamic approaches are much more effective at preparing investigators for the real-life complexity of culture than static, instructional methods of learning that focus on transfering facts from teacher to studentu.

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