"Elements of Culture"

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The Essential Elements of Culture

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

VI. Analyzing the Details of a Social Web

The subtle influence of specialists and lay people on written sources and material artifacts, mentioned in concluding the preceding section, makes it especially important to investigate closely the the social web of a culture. An important key is often discerning the processes by which certain people within that 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 which exists 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 typically do 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. In these and other cases, then, it helps to look for clues about the answers to these questions, even if they are hard to find.

  • 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 prescribe practice and inspire reflection about unseen beings and forces. Understanding these specialists, their audiences, and their motives typically leads to more 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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