Background reading material for Year 1 Semester 2 PPSD Session on Wednesday 31st January 2004 adapted from the British Encyclopedia 2004 by Professor Omar Hasan Kasule Sr.

General Definition of culture

Culture is defined as human behavior together with material objects used as an integral part of this behavior. Thus, culture includes language, ideas, beliefs, customs, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, and ceremonies, among other elements.


When things and events are considered in the context of their relation to the human organism, they constitute behavior; when they are considered not in terms of their relation to the human organism but in their relationship to one another, they become culture by definition.


The mother-in-law taboo is a complex of concepts, attitudes, and acts. When one considers them in their relationship to the human organism—that is, as things that the organism does—they become behavior by definition. When, however, one considers the mother-in-law taboo in its relationship to the place of residence of a newly married couple, to the customary division of labor between the sexes, to their respective roles in the society's mode of subsistence and offense and defense, and these in turn to the technology of the society, the mother-in-law taboo becomes, again by definition, culture.


Relativist approaches to sociocultural systems

Every human society, therefore, has its own sociocultural system: a particular and unique expression of human culture as a whole. Every sociocultural system possesses the components of human culture as a whole—namely, technological, sociological, and ideological elements. But sociocultural systems vary widely in their structure and organization. These variations are attributable to differences among physical habitats and the resources that they offer or withhold for human use; to the range of possibilities inherent in various areas of activity, such as language or the manufacture and use of tools; and to the degree of development. The biologic factor of man may, for purposes of analysis and comparison of sociocultural systems, be considered as a constant. Although the equality or inequality of races, or physical types, of mankind has not been established by science, all evidence and reason lead to the conclusion that, whatever differences of native endowment may exist, they are insignificant as compared with the overriding influence of the external tradition that is culture.


Culture and personality

Since the infant of the human species enters the world cultureless, his behavior—his attitudes, values, ideals, and beliefs, as well as his overt motor activity—is powerfully influenced by the culture that surrounds him on all sides. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the power and influence of culture upon the human animal. It is powerful enough to hold the sex urge in check and achieve premarital chastity and even voluntary vows of celibacy for life. It can cause a person to die of hunger, though nourishment is available, because some foods are branded unclean by the culture. And it can cause a person to disembowel or shoot himself to wipe out a stain of dishonor. Culture is stronger than life and stronger than death. Among subhuman animals, death is merely the cessation of the vital processes of metabolism, respiration, and so on. In the human species, however, death is also a concept; only man knows death. But culture triumphs over death and offers man eternal life. Thus, culture may deny satisfactions on the one hand while it fulfills desires on the other.


The predominant emphasis, perhaps, in studies of culture and personality has been the inquiry into the process by which the individual personality is formed as it develops under the influence of its cultural milieu. But the individual biologic organism is itself a significant determinant in the development of personality. The mature personality is, therefore, a function of both biologic and cultural factors, and it is virtually impossible to distinguish these factors from each other and to evaluate the magnitude of each in particular cases. If the cultural factor were a constant, personality would vary with the variations of the neurosensory-glandular-muscular structure of the individual. But there are no tests that can indicate, for example, precisely how much of the taxicab driver's ability to make change is due to innate endowment and how much to cultural experience. Therefore, the student of culture and personality is driven to work with “modal personalities,” that is, the personality of the typical Crow Indian or the typical Frenchman insofar as this can be determined. But it is of interest, theoretically at least, to note that even if both factors, the biologic and the cultural, were constant—which they never are in actuality—variations of personality would still be possible. Within the confines of these two constants, individuals might undergo a number of profound experiences in different chronological permutations. For example, two young women might have the same experiences of (1) having a baby, (2) graduating from college, and (3) getting married. But the effect of sequence (1), (2), (3) upon personality development would be quite different than that of sequence (2), (3), (1).



Ethnocentrism is the name given to a tendency to interpret or evaluate other cultures in terms of one's own. This tendency has been, perhaps, more prevalent in modern nations than among preliterate tribes. The citizens of a large nation, especially in the past, have been less likely to observe people in another nation or culture than have been members of small tribes who are well acquainted with the ways of their culturally diverse neighbors. Thus, the American tourist could report that Londoners drive “on the wrong side of the street” or an Englishman might find some customs on the Continent “queer” or “boorish,” merely because they are different. Members of a Pueblo tribe in the American Southwest, on the other hand, might be well acquainted with cultural differences not only among other Pueblos but also in non-Pueblo tribes such as the Navajo and Apache.


Cultural relativism

Increased knowledge led to or facilitated a deeper understanding and, with it, a finer appreciation of cultures quite different from one's own. When it was understood that universal needs could be served with culturally diverse means, that worship might assume a variety of forms, that morality consists in conforming to ethical rules of conduct but does not inhere in the rules themselves, a new view emerged that each culture should be understood and appreciated in terms of itself. What is moral in one culture might be immoral or ethically neutral in another. For example, it was not immoral to kill a baby girl at birth or an aged grandparent who was nonproductive when it was impossible to obtain enough food for all; or wife lending among the Eskimo might be practiced as a gesture of hospitality, a way of cementing a friendship and promoting mutual aid in a harsh and dangerous environment, and thus may acquire the status of a high moral value.


The view that elements of a culture are to be understood and judged in terms of their relationship to the culture as a whole—a doctrine known as cultural relativism—led to the conclusion that the cultures themselves could not be evaluated or graded as higher and lower, superior or inferior. If it was unwarranted to say that patriliny (descent through the male line) was superior or inferior to matriliny (descent through the female line), if it was unjustified or meaningless to say that monogamy was better or worse than polygamy, then it was equally unsound or meaningless to say that one culture was higher or superior to another. A large number of anthropologists subscribed to this view; they argued that such judgments were subjective and therefore unscientific.

ŠProfessor Omar Hasan Kasule, Sr. January 2007