Saturday, January 12, 2008

Defining Society and Culture

Part of what I post below I wrote as part of an online discussion in a purely online section of the "Peoples and Cultures of the World Course." It also relates to an in-class discussion yesterday about "society" and "culture" in a more conventional "live" section of the course.

Society and Culture are really the two big topics of this course and of much scholarly inquiry in sociocultural anthropology and related social science disciplines. There has been long-running debate about how to conceptualize and define them. There is no single, set definition for either. Most every anthropologist or sociologist would offer a slightly different (but not wildly different) perspective and definition.

The following is my “take” on what society and culture are. (What I address are the conventional anthropological senses of both words. As with many words, both have multiple possible senses or references. “Society” could refer to a semi-secret group, such as a Moose Lodge or the International Order of Odd Fellows that function as “secret societies.” It could also refer to people of the upper class, as in “high society.” Neither of these senses is what anthropologists usually mean by “society.” Likewise, “culture” could also refer to the habits and manners of a mainly upper class set of people, as in “high culture,” or it could refer to bacteria in a Petri dish, and neither of these is the sense I’ll talk about.)

A society is in part a group of individuals. It’s not just any group of individuals, though, but a group who, taken together, are organized in such a way as to provide for their productive and reproductive needs, i.e. a group that functions as a population.

Society also involves the organization of interactions between those individuals. Individuals who together comprise a society don’t interact with one another randomly, but in patterned ways. The elements that comprise this social organization will be among the recurring course topics for us.

While there is considerable disagreement about how to precisely define culture and/or human culture, most definitions include the minimal elements of “learned and shared ways of life.” For humans, ways of life or lifeways includes a wide variety of things (also to be a key course topic throughout the semester), such as beliefs, values, worldview, ethos, customs and traditions, etc. What makes them all cultural is that they’re learned and shared – they’re not components of who we are as human beings that derive largely or wholly from our biological nature.

I would tend to define human culture a bit more elaborately, e.g. “learned and shared ways of life transmitted mainly through language and other forms of symbolic communication.”

No comments: