"Elements of Culture"

Team Activities

Daily Practice

Guided Reflections

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The Essential Elements of Culture

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

V. Analyzing the Details of Practice & Its Social Web

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 above list 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 artefacts, because such sources often only hint at the details practice and community. 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 artefacts 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 settings 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 you infer information not explicitly detailed in a written sources or material artefact, and sometimes they will be impossible to answer completely--but even that absence of information can be significant. In asking all of these questions, finally, 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.

With regards to investigating the the social web of culture, an important key is often discerning the processes by which certain people within a culture specialize in particular kinds of activities (i.e., religious ritual, leadership, administration, music, art, literary production). Another key is the relationships of different specialists with each other. One fundamental distinction is that between specialists trained within established institutions (e.g., professors), as opposed to those who gain their authority from some type of charisma (e.g., independent authors and speakers), but the two are not mutually exclusive. Also important, finally, is the relationship of such specialists with laypeople, who tend to more common work such as managing households, growing food, manufacturing goods, and maintaining societal order.

The following questions summarize the above distinctions. Here even more than with questions about practice, the investigator of culture must often infer details not explicitly stated in written records or foregrounded in material artefacts. Sources describing ritual, for example, usually prescribe action for certain types of people, acting in particular social contexts. Depictions of the unseen often describe specific kinds of people relating to invisible beings , forces, and/or other worlds.

  • what different degrees of specialization are available to members of a given social web?

  • in what ways are different types of specialists trained and recognized?

  • in what ways do different types of specialists interact with each other?

  • in what ways do different types of specialists interact with non-specialists?

As noted above regarding practice, with social roles and relationships too a distinction needs to be made between ideal and actual behaviors. Ideals may occasionally be articulated (either explicitly or implicitly) in written, spoken, or visual sources, but most of the time such ideals lie dormant as the sense of obligation that people feel towards each other to act in certain ways. Actual behavior is easier to observe face to face; but written records and material artefacts rarely record such direct observations, especially when dealing with distant historical periods.

Identifying the social web of a given culture is especially key overall because it is typically specialists who create or commission the written records and material artefacts that depict unseen power and forces. Understanding these specialists, their audiences, and their motives ensures accurate interpretation of sources, especially those of distant times and places. Some specialists address their own colleagues, while others address other types of specialists. Still others address primarily laypeople, or some combination of these. The documents of early Christianity found in the New Testament, for example, clearly represent leaders and writers in different communities addressing the very different needs of a variety of members--Jewish & Greek, men & women, etc. The Indian, Chinese and other Asian sources represented in this course reflect a similar diversity of specialists and their audiences.

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