"Elements of Culture"

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The Essential Elements of Culture

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

V. Analyzing the Details of Practice

As with the reflection element of culture, observers often oversimplify the more visible elements of practice and the social web, but for different reasons. Unlike the invisible beings and forces and the dynamic processes of reflection about and trust in such beings and forces, practice and the social web are visible for all to see. Yet people often think of them in terms of broad concepts rather than looking closely at the particulars.

For example, observers tend to label all religious rituals and ceremonies as "worship" or "prayer," emphasizing the inward attitudes involved. But they often gloss over the very real differences in actions, objects, words and spaces. People sometimes also speak of verbal arts in a similarly broad way, speaking of "literature" without clearly distinguishing between starkly different ways of using and recording words, as hinted in the earlier description of verbal depictions of the unseen. When observing the the social web, observers generally notice the external features of individuals, especially those with formal roles; but they often miss the many informal roles and relationships that make up a social web. Those outside of a particular culture often find it especially difficult to understand practice and its social web based on written records as well as material artifacts, because such sources often only hint at the details practice and its social web. The people who created those sources tended to take such details for granted and so focused on depicting or reflecting about invisible beings and forces. Therefore an outside observer relying on written records and material artifacts must make a special effort to investigate practice and the social web.

As in considering the reflection element of culture, then, an investigator must seek out more precise language to describe practices and communities of a given culture, which will sharpen her analysis. Many of the assignments for this course will ask you to identify precisely the elements of some important practice, prompting you to consider repeatedly the following questions.

  • What specific actions, objects, and words are involved in a given art form, ritual or custom?

  • By whom and in what spaces or locales are those practices performed?

  • Which practices occur only occasionally--seasonally, at certain life-stages, or generationally?

  • Which occur regularly and consistently as part of daily, or at least weekly, life?

Often these questions will require that you infer information not explicitly detailed in a written source or material artifact, and sometimes such questions will be impossible to answer completely--but even that absence of information can be significant. Additionally, when asking the above questions, it is important to consider whether a particular practice was actually performed by real people, or whether it is an ideal prescribed by a particular specialist which may not have been widely practiced. Both are significant, but distinguishing the two is key. The articulation of rules for practice by specialists usually implies understanding among many practitioners that things should be done in a particular way. Yet in reality a given individual--even one who is aware of and approves of such rules--will likely deviate from the precise rules at least some of the time.

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