Culture in Our Lives

All cultures have established a set of beliefs that constitute the code of values and moral laws for the people who belong to that particular culture. In Asia, for instance, people were exposed to certain social phenomena and consequently adopted corresponding beliefs that now dictate their behavior as a completely separate culture. In other countries, people share different beliefs and values due to a variety of important factors. Religion is one of the most important deciding points that shape the society in terms of its cultural beliefs and traditions. Another important component is history that can tell us about the events of the past that might have had some influence on the further development of people in that particular country. We are inevitably shaped by our past because history has a habit of repeating itself, even if the human condition allows us to intellectually forget.

Cultural differences present a very interesting social phenomenon to study and understand. There are cultures that share very similar values and traditions and there are cultures that have very different beliefs. In the confines of this paper, I will focus my attention on the differences between Chinese and American cultures that in my opinion present very good examples for this study. There are myriad differences in all aspects of social activity and there are probably more differences than similarities in these two cultures.

To study a particular culture is virtually to study the people and their behavior from a sociological perspective. It is very important to construct a working definition of a culture. Culture is a set of social norms, traditions, beliefs and values shared by a large group of people . Individuals who belong to that group can be considered a culture. By the same token, they can be called a society because at this point there is not much difference between the two notions. A society is literally a group of people that share that particular set of beliefs, values and so on, whereas the word culture has slightly different connotations. A particular culture may as well be share by more than one nation whereas the word society is usually applicable to the nation that inhabits a particular country. There are slight differences between these two terms but most sociologists and anthropologists use them interchangeably.

In other words, a culture is a set of beliefs or a particular ideology that a society shares. It is very interesting to understand how people develop a culture because it seems to be a purely social phenomenon developed by a group of people and then spread among other individuals who somehow relate to that particular group.

As an example, communist countries have very different cultures. They vividly illustrate how a group of people can influence a culture. China was not always a communist country. Long before communists came to power the population of the country shared a different ideology. The communist government directly influenced the country’s culture by the means of propaganda, the education system, television etc. Subsequently, the next generation is going to absorb the culture modified by communism whereas the previous generation is not so likely to accept it. However, even though communists altered people’s views and beliefs they could not completely eradicate most of the traditions shared by the society (Henry Rosemont, 1981).

There are many numerous differences between human beings and animals. Even though humans as well as animals are very complex creatures that have very complicated biological and chemical processes going on in their bodies, humans are more complex creatures because there is a great deal of social interaction that implies relationships, mental processes, human behavior, etc. Social sciences are several related fields that basically study the interaction among human beings. This field is very broad because the social activities that human beings involve in are so numerous that it would be hard to expound all the phenomena that cannot be explained by natural sciences in one discipline.

The social sciences include anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, law, psychology, criminology and social psychology. All these sciences are very important because they make an attempt to explain why people act they way they do, why they interact with others, and why they form a global society. Actually these disciplines cover a lot more social issues that directly relate to the behavior of people. The difference between the social sciences and the natural sciences lies in the fact that the natural sciences like physics, mathematics, biology and chemistry study the processes and objects that can be physically measures in terms of weight, speed, or other measurements. Social sciences deal with more subtle social processes and phenomena that cannot be measured exactly but can only be pondered and theorized about (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Anthropology is a very diverse and broad discipline that primarily deals with questions like what people think, what they do, why they interact with each other, and how they evolved over the course of time . Mostly, anthropologists deal with very basic questions but it is the simplicity that gives way to more complex phenomena. This discipline also studies how people can adopt to various cultural environments and how the cultures were formed. Ultimately, the purpose of this science is to understand the human life. Anthropology contains three main components that are employed by scientists to unravel the mysteries of the human race. They are society, culture, and evolution. Society and culture are the terms that are often confused and used interchangeably.

The basic definition of society can be found in biology where a herd of horses for example is referred to as society. However, society in the anthropological sense is used in reference to humans who can form a society of several billions of people who share the same culture. Culture, on the other hand, is a set of rules, customs, traditions that people live in accordance with. A society that shares the same set of social rules can be called a culture. Therefore, there is very subtle difference between the two terms and most of the time they can be used interchangeably due to the great deal of similarity. There are several elements that constitute a culture.

First of all, people who form a culture speak the same language, and employ other means of communicating complex ideas such as art, literature, cinema, etc. Thus a culture can be passed from generation to generation. Evolution is a radically different approach and it aims at the evolution of human beings over time. There are numerous theories that try to examine the process of evolution but most of them are questionable. As a separate discipline anthropology consists of several fields that include cultural anthropology that studies the elements that constitute a culture and what role cultures play in the world today; linguistic anthropology that focuses on the role of the language in the society; archaeology that studies the ancient societies, the cultures of the past and the effect they have on the present-day world; and physical anthropology that focuses on the evolution of human beings in terms of biological and physiological aspects.

Physical anthropology is similar to archaeology in the sense that both study the evolution. However, physical anthropology focuses on the physical changes that presumably occurred in the human bodies over time whereas archaeology emphasizes the cultural aspects of evolution. As you can see, anthropology is a very broad field and it is closely related to some other social disciplines (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Another very important component that I believe influences the formation of a particular culture is mythology that relates to the people of that culture. Mythology is virtually a set of myths that originated in a culture and were spread around by people. Thereafter, this set of myths became traditions and cultural beliefs that are share by the people of that culture. A myth can be classified as a narrative or a tale that has been passed from one generation to another by word of mouth. This process of retelling keeps going up to the point when it is hard to distinguish between a tale and a true story.

Myths usually get accepted by the culture as a custom or a tradition and when this happens it is hard to tell a myth from reality. Most of the time, people involuntarily believe that the myths that happened to originate a long time ago constitute the foundation of their culture (E. Evans, 1983). Myths are universal, occurring in almost all cultures. They typically date from a time before the introduction of writing, when they were passed orally from one generation to the next. Myths deal with basic questions about the nature of the world and human experience, and because of their all-encompassing nature, myths can illuminate many aspects of a culture. Although it is difficult to draw rigid distinctions among various types of traditional tales, people who study mythology find it useful to categorize them.

The three most common types of tales are sagas, legends, and folktales. When a tale is based on a great historical (or supposedly historical) event, it is generally known as a saga. Despite a saga’s basis in very distant historical events, its dramatic structure and characters are the product of storytellers’ imaginations. A legend is a fictional story associated with a historical person or place. Legends often provide examples of the virtues of honored figures in the history of a group or nation. The traditional American story about young George Washington and the cherry tree-in which he could not lie about chopping it down-is best described as a legend, because George Washington is a historical figure but the story about the cherry tree is recognized today as fictional. Folktales, a third variety of traditional tale, are usually simple narratives of adventure built around elements of character and plot-for example, the young man who slays a monster and wins the hand of a princess. Folktales may contain a moral or observation about life, but their chief purpose is entertainment (E. Evans, 1983).

Myths may include features of sagas, legends, and folktales. What makes one of these tales a myth is its serious purpose and its importance to the culture. Experts usually define a myth as a story that has compelling drama and deals with basic elements and assumptions of a culture. Myths explain, for example, how the world began; how humans and animals came into being; how certain customs, gestures, or forms of human activity originated; and how the divine and human worlds interact. Many myths take place at a time before the world as human beings know it came into being. Because myth-making often involves gods, other supernatural beings, and processes beyond human understanding, some scholars have viewed it as a dimension of religion. However, many myths address topics that are not typically considered religious-for example, why features of the landscape take a certain shape (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002, Deluxe Edition).

The key character of Chinese mythology is monkey. He is a god-hero who is the cornerstone of ancient China’s mythology (Henry Rosemont, 1981). Based on what is said in the legends, monkey was born from a stone egg that was created from a rock as old as time and included the essence of the Earth and Heaven. Monkey was endowed with a magical staff that could shrink or grow to any size. Also this hero had other magical abilities. For example there is a famous picture in Chinese mythology where the monkey creates an army out of his fur blowing it into the air.

Subsequently, this clever creature creates a monkey warrior out of every single hair. Monkey defied the supreme god of Chinese mythology, the Jade Emperor, with his own claim as high god. To appease the mischievous Monkey, the Jade Emperor proclaimed him King of Heaven, concealing the fact that he had only made him a heavenly stable keeper. Monkey discovered this deception and, enraged, returned to Earth to wreak havoc. The Jade Emperor entreated Buddha for help. Buddha dropped a mountain on Monkey, and Monkey remained beneath it for 500 years. On his journey from China to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures, the monk Tripitaka unearthed Monkey, who became Tripitaka’s escort and disciple. With two other companions, Piggy and Sandy, both exofficials of the Heavenly Court reborn in monstrous bodies, Monkey accompanied the monk for 14 years, covering nine kingdoms and encountering numerous fantastic adventures. After presenting the scriptures Tripitaka had obtained in India to the Chinese emperor in the imperial capital of Chang-an, the four travelers were borne up to heaven. Monkey, with his irrepressible spirit and countless magic tricks, is generally regarded as a personification of the nature of genius (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Culture is basically the patterns of behavior and thinking that people living in social groups learn, create, and share. Culture distinguishes one human group from others. It also distinguishes humans from other animals. A people’s culture includes their beliefs, rules of behavior, language, rituals, art, technology, styles of dress, ways of producing and cooking food, religion, and political and economic systems (E. Evans, 1983). Culture is the most important concept in anthropology – the study of all aspects of human life, past and present. Anthropologists commonly use the term culture to refer to a society or group in which many or all people live and think in the same ways.

Likewise, any group of people who share a common culture-and in particular, common rules of behavior and a basic form of social organization-constitutes a society. Thus, the terms culture and society are somewhat interchangeable. However, while many animals live in societies, such as herds of elk or packs of wild dogs, only humans have culture. Culture developed together with the evolution of the human species, Homo sapiens, and is closely related to human biology. The ability of people to have culture comes in large part from their physical features: having big, complex brains; an upright posture; free hands that can grasp and manipulate small objects; and a vocal tract that can produce and articulate a wide range of sounds (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002 Deluxe Edition). These distinctively human physical features began to develop in African ancestors of humans more than four million years ago.

The earliest physical evidence of culture is crude stone tools produced in East Africa over two million years ago. People have culture primarily because they can communicate with and understand symbols. Symbols allow people to develop complex thoughts and to exchange those thoughts with others. Language and other forms of symbolic communication, such as art, enable people to create, explain, and record new ideas and information. Symbols allow people to develop complex thoughts and exchange those thoughts with others (E. Evans, 1983). A symbol has either an indirect connection or no connection at all with the object, idea, feeling, or behavior to which it refers.

For instance, most people in the United States find some meaning in the combination of the colors red, white, and blue. But those colors themselves have nothing to do with, for instance, the land that people call the United States, the concept of patriotism, or the U.S. national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner. To convey new ideas, people constantly invent new symbols, such as for mathematical formulas (E. Evans, 1983). In addition, people may use one symbol, such as a single word, to represent many different ideas, feelings, or values. Thus, symbols provide a flexible way for people to communicate even very complex thoughts with each other. For example, only through symbols can architects, engineers, and construction workers communicate the information necessary to construct a skyscraper or bridge. People have the capacity at birth to construct, understand, and communicate through symbols, primarily by using language.

Research has shown, for example, that infants have a basic structure of language-a sort of universal grammar-built into their minds. Infants are thus predisposed to learn the languages spoken by the people around them. Language provides a means to store, process, and communicate amounts of information that vastly exceed the capabilities of nonhuman animals. For instance, chimpanzees, the closest genetic relatives of humans, use a few dozen calls and a variety of gestures to communicate in the wild. People have taught some chimps to communicate using American Sign Language and picture-based languages, and some have developed vocabularies of a few hundred words. But an unabridged English dictionary might contain more than half-a-million vocabulary entries. Chimpanzees have also not clearly demonstrated the ability to use grammar, which is crucial for communicating complex thoughts. In addition, the human vocal tract, unlike that of chimpanzees and other animals, can create and articulate a wide enough variety of sounds to create millions of distinct words.

In fact, each human language uses only a fraction of the sounds humans can make. The human brain also contains areas dedicated to the production and interpretation of speech, which other animals lack. Thus, humans are predisposed in many ways to use symbolic communication. People are not born with culture; they have to learn it. For instance, people must learn to speak and understand a language and to abide by the rules of a society. In many societies, all people must learn to produce and prepare food and to construct shelters. In other societies, people must learn a skill to earn money, which they then use to provide for themselves. In all human societies, children learn culture from adults.

Anthropologists call this process enculturation, or cultural transmission. Enculturation is a long process. Just learning the intricacies of a human language, a major part of enculturation, takes many years. Families commonly protect and enculturate children in the households of their birth for 15 years or more (Encyclopedia Britannica). Only at this point can children leave and establish their own households. People also continue to learn throughout their lifetimes. Thus, most societies respect their elders, who have learned for an entire lifetime. Humans are not alone in their ability to learn behaviors, only in the amount and complexity of what they can learn.

For example, members of a group of chimpanzees may learn to use a unique source of food or to fashion some simple tools, behaviors that might distinguish them from other chimpanzee groups. But these unique ways of life are minor in comparison to the rich cultures that distinguish different human societies. Lacking speech, chimps are very limited in what they can learn, communicate to others, and pass on from generation to generation.

People living together in a society share culture. For example, almost all people living in the United States share the English language, dress in similar styles, eat many of the same foods, and celebrate many of the same holidays. All the people of a society collectively create and maintain culture. Societies preserve culture for much longer than the life of any one person. They preserve it in the form of knowledge, such as scientific discoveries; objects, such as works of art; and traditions, such as the observance of holidays.

As it was pointed out mythology plays a vital role in the development of a culture. The tales and sagas that originated in a particular culture are adopted as beliefs and traditions that in turn form a cultural foundation that people adhere to. It is not only traditions that constitute a cultural barrier that interferes with the mutual understanding among cultures. People in China were able to develop different traditions and customs partly because they inhabited a different geographical area and were not influenced by the American culture. There are things that can only be understood by people who live in a particular area. Furthermore when the representatives of a particular culture confront people from another culture there is a great deal of misunderstanding between them. Using the sociological terminology, it can be classified as a cultural clash. Such a cultural clash happens whenever people from two different cultures attempt to communicate an idea not taking into account the cultural differences that exist between them.
Bibliography Chinese Language, Chinese Philosophy, and Truth. Journal of Asian Studies 44:3 (May 1985), pp. 491-519 Encyclopedia Britannica 2002 Deluxe Edition. Edward Evans. Understanding and interpreting cultures. New York: Random House, 1983. Henry Rosemont. Studies in Classical Chinese Thought. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1981. Lisa A. Raphals. Sharing the Light : Representations of Women and Virtue in Early China. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998.

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