The Essential Elements of Culture
Joel Dubois, (c) 2009, 2013-14—for free, fully cited distribution only
Introduction: Why Study Culture?
Today, English speakers use the word "culture" in a number of different ways. Many think of themselves as preserving their family or ethnic culture in the face of a pervasive diversity that sometimes seems to drown out individual cultures. Other people enjoy attending cultural events and learning how other cultures celebrate and deal with life's challenges. And some feel that they want to be cultured themselves, to cultivate a taste for fine arts, literature, music, and even ideas. Professors and academic writers, for their part, debate what culture really is. Scholars in the humanities and the social sciences often attempt to identify the distinctive features of the cultural products they study. Others, however, argue that culture is just a concept invented by outside observers wanting to study groups of people to which they themselves do not belong.
Given such varied approaches to the study of culture, a student in this course may legitimately ask, "Why should *I* study culture in general, and Asian culture in particular? What, if anything, will really be gained by analyzing these cultural phenomena from distant times and places? What specific goal will be attained that will make the time invested in such study worthwhile?" Without personally meaningful answers to this set of questions, most students will find it difficult to give their full attention to the numerous tasks involved in the work of this course, especially given all the other time-consuming responsibilities they must attend to.
This course aims to train students as "culture consultants." Specifically, the course teaches the skill of analyzing historical records of past practices, with an eye to recommending adaptations that could be made to similar contemporary practices. This skill will require repeated attention to three broad, interrelated questions, which have guided the selection of reading materials and assignments:
- What are the essential elements of culture?
- In what ways does culture connect people to each other, their environments and themselves?
- How can people shape their culture to maximize this potential for connection?
These questions help to understand not only Asian culture, but also our place in the culture in which we participate and to which we contribute. The sooner you begin thinking about these questions, the more quickly you will get oriented to the ideas and activities of the course.
To begin thinking about these foundational questions, I suggest you begin by taking a look at your own daily life as you experience it. Think of culture in the biological sense of "a medium that sustains life," imagining yourself as a cell or plant organistm in that culture. To what extent are YOU part of the culture you've landed in? To what extent do you resist such participation in the culture that surrounds you? And to what extent do you strive to change your culture, or even to create a new one? If you want to make the world of your culture a better place, to offer your best to whatever culture sustains you, then most likely you will need to know what a culture is, how it works, what forces change it and in what ways. These are exactly the kind of critical thinking skills that this course will support you to develop and/or refine, not simply for their own sake but in learning to apply them to real world situations.
As a start to this investigation, this essay proposes a way to analyze culture into a small number of essential elements, based on my own experience of studying culture, as well as the some of the key academic theorists who study culture, over the past twenty years. I often refer to these elements as "dimensions" because, like the dimensions of space and time used to analyze movement, they can never be completely separated from one another. I also use the analogy of "layers," because the essential elements of culture depend upon one another, and because some are easier to observe, while others require some digging to uncover. This explanation of the elements of culture prepares you to consider the diverse specific examples of Asian culture sampled throughout the course. It is be studying these examples that you will develop your own sense of the forces that change a culture and in what ways they change it, so that you can in turn learn to shape your own culture in ways that are both practical and uplifting.