Anthropology Spotlight: What is Culture?

There are about 20-30 different academic definitions of the word “culture”. But it’s really more than just a word. It’s a word that conjures up all sorts of images, emotions, opinions and beliefs. From the 15th century until as recently as the late 1900’s, it was widely accepted by the conquering West, that “natives” (indigenous people’s) were savage and simple, to be treated more like unruly animals than human beings. Western Europeans believed lover’s of philosophy, art and music were closer to nature, and therefore “cultured”. Ironically, indigenous people’s or First Nation’s as they are called here in Canada, had (and still have) cultures that were (are) defined by nature. Their housing, their subsistence, their beliefs, every fabric of life is intricately woven with nature’s offerings. It was some time, the mid 1800’s, before Ethnographers and Anthropologists who conducted extensive fieldwork, began to redefine what culture was, and re-educate the West about cultural diversity, it’s relevance, and importance.

So, what is culture exactly? How do we define it? Is it a state of mind? Perhaps it’s a set of beliefs? Or is it more than that? The easiest way to start a dialogue about culture is to first understand we are not born with it, it is developed, it is complex, and the diversity is vast. Is it possible for one individual to be more “cultured” than the next? If culture is learned behaviour, gleaned from our parents, peers, kin and community, can culture be bad? If “culture” is our survival mechanism, a tool we wield to gain a sense of identity, can we ever be judged? Being a Canadian and of mixed ethnicity, I often grapple with what defines “my” culture. If I were an Anthropologist from an entirely different culture from my own, perhaps, the Yanomamo of the Amazon, or the Bembe of Namibia and I came to live amongst contemporary Canadians, how would I describe “Canadian” culture. What defines it? What makes it unique, how would I describe social interactions? Who decides what will become what is often referred to as a ‘cultural norm’, and who decides when something blurs the line between a cultural norms and culturally unacceptable?

What do you think?


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Jordana is a Canadian based travel author, travel manager, and anthropology graduate with a passion for all things cultural.

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