The Essential Elements of Culture
Joel Dubois, (c) 2009--for free, fully cited distribution only
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.
Without attempting to unify all uses of the word "culture" or to resolve the debates mentioned above, this essay proposes a way to analyze culture into a small number of essential elements. 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 is intend to orient readers to the diverse examples of Asian culture sampled throughout the course.