Saturday, March 3, 2012

Problems in the definition of culture

Defining culture as an ensemble of practices, values and meanings common to a certain collective entity, as suggested in our discussion of definitions of culture, brings about a few theoretical as well as practical problems. To begin with, such a definition of culture caters for an essentialist perception of culture, holding that each and every culture has its own unique practices, values and meanings. The main problem that arises from such a definition culture comes in the context of intercultural interactions. A relativistic perception of culture, such as multiculturalism, could result in negating cultural exchange and the ability of one culture to communicate and interact with a different culture. However abounded cultural misunderstanding are, the notion that cultures are essentially incapable of communicating with each other is empirically invalid.

Another definition of culture offered is that of the totality of activities and objects through which meaning is generated and circulated in a given collective entity. This definition of culture focuses more on the function of culture rather than on its essence and meaning. This definition of culture stresses the fact the culture is a social practice and a kind of collective practice. A problem that arises with this definition of culture is that it of delineation. When we view culture as the mechanism in which meaning is generated and circulated, what exactly counts as part of culture and what does not? Indeed this is a very wide and often fluid definition of culture.  
In translating definitions of culture into sociological and anthropological practice a few theoretical tendencies for the analysis of culture can be found in late 20th and early 21th century. Culture can be analyzed in the context of power rations and the battle between perceptions of reality (this approach is associated with the legacy of Karl Marx). Cultural analysis could also engage with the manner in which meaning is constructed onto reality in a given society (the legacy of Emile Durkheim). Another tradition that of Max Webber, is to analyze specific worlds of meaning to show how perceiving reality in a certain manner has an effect on social and personal behavior.  Other options for the analysis of culture are to focus on daily human interactions or the analysis of contemporary global culture in the relations between cultures within it.