What is Culture?

Posted by: | January 12, 2009 | Comments Off on What is Culture?

After reading both Williams’ and Keesing’s articles on “culture”, I know have a better understanding of the ways we define, understand, and portray culture in the public realm.

The first article by Raymond Williams was rather hard to follow. The main points that I understood from the article are these. First, Williams stresses the importance of making a clear distinction between a person’s culture, and the notion of a person being “cultured”. Having a culture does not mean that one is “cultured” with access to and appreciation for the “finer things in life”, such as art and literature. Rather, as the author repeatedly reminds us, “culture is ordinary”. People all over the world, in all walks of life, have some form of culture. In other words, culture is accessible to all.

Williams also stresses the importance of education in carrying on a culture, which I agree with. Not only does education teach the various aspects of the culture, but it also provides individuals with the tools needed to question the culture, and create one’s own meanings and interpretations of it.

Another point the author makes is that one cannot describe a so-called “mass-culture”, as the notion of the “masses” does not exist. By describing a group of others as the “masses”, we are perpetuating the “us vs. them” dichotomy. This idea is further developed in the article by Roger Keesing, which I found much easier to follow.

After reading Keesing’s article, I’m reminded of a few major themes covered in my introductory course to Latin American Studies. First off, anthropologists as well as society in general seem obsessed with the need to define the “other”. In defining what the “other” is, we create a definition of ourselves. We define ourselves by what we are not. This is dangerous, as we tend to perceive ourselves as better than the others, and see our ways of doing things as more sophisticated than theirs. However, more and more cultures are intermingling, and it is becoming more difficult to find this radical “other”, that is so different from ourselves.

In studying other cultures, we must consider who gets to decide what is portrayed as the overall “culture” of whatever society or group of people we are studying. I’ve learned that there are certain people, usually those in power, and often anthropologists, who have the resources and power to shape the way the culture is portrayed. In the case of anthropologists, their portrayal of the culture of whichever society they are studying is often shaped by their search for that “radical alterity”, as Keesing puts it. They therefore portray certain aspects of the culture, and may hide others, in order to show the most radically different culture they can.

In considering who exactly gets to decide what is portrayed as the culture of a society, consider Canada. Often, Canadian culture is linked with all things First Nations, like art, dance, ceremonies and rituals. However, do the First Nations people really get a say in how they are portrayed to the rest of the world? As well, who is portraying Canadian culture this way? Usually, it is not the First Nations people. I find it ironic that the culture portrayed as Canadian national culture is of the people who are most oppressed in Canada. I believe that there are many similarities between the portrayals of Canadian national culture with the cultural portrayals of many Latin American countries.


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