The meaning of culture is a highly controversial issue these days. No one knows the proper definition of this word and its essence. However, what is known is that this complex phenomenon affects people’s lives and forms stable patterns of behavior. Various scientific approaches to culture give an opportunity to take a deep look into the connection between group behavior and culture as well as make insights into human social life.
Let’s begin our observation of the culture understanding the scientific position of Raymond Williams. He believes that the word “culture” is one of the most complicated to define because it is used in several disciplines with different meanings (Williams 87). Because of the historical development of this word, Williams points out three meanings of culture. The first one presents culture as a “process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development” (p. 90). The second one describes culture as “a particular way of life, whether of a people, period, a group, or humanity in general” (p.90). Finally, the last one discusses this word as “works and practices of intellectuals and especially artistic activity” (p.90). The last meaning depends on the first one because material sights of culture are the expression of the person’s internal spiritual development (p.91). However, the second meaning shows that culture is simply the way of life; it defines how people behave in every situation at any time and in different parts of the world. This rather fuzzy explanation may be the most precise as it is impossible to find out what makes a particular group of people behave exactly in this way and not the other. This has also been spoken by Herder, who emphasized the non-linear development of the world, which meant that the behavior which seemed strange for “civilized” Europeans in Bali is completely normal for the inhabitants of the island (p.89). There is no superior culture, which has to be taken into account. There are many cultures on different stages of development that influence particular social practices.
Equally important contribution to the cultural studies was made by George Simmel and his work on metropolis individual. There, the main emphasis is put on the external environment (that is culture), which predetermines social behavior of a person (Simmel 11). Simmel suggests that people’s behavior is an attempt to adjust to the outside world. He contrasts small towns and metropolises to show how external culture influences human conduct. Big cities create independent, unique individuals in contrast to the collective and dependent on each other people living in small towns. A human being, in his point of view, is a creature dependent on differences, which evoke emotional feelings (p.11). City life makes people indifferent to changes happening all the time and awakes blasé attitudes (p. 14). They stop caring for everything and start behaving egotistically. The entire world for the metropolitan person is devaluated. Everything is reduced to the quantitative level, and a person becomes interested only in numbers but not the value. A mere economic interest dictates a behavior of the individual. As the city is a seat of money, it is also a seat of cosmopolitanism. The person’s horizon is enlarged, and he/she feels freedom, independence; however, at the same time, an individual has to prove everyone that he/she is irreplaceable (p.17). He has to show his importance which is not dictated by the external world. The city is also a seat of the advanced economic division of labor, which is another chance to demonstrate one’s importance. This desire leads to the conflict with other human beings for the means of living (p. 17). As a result, human behavior in a boundless cosmopolitan metropolis is individualistic, egoistic, protective, economy-driven, and unemotional.
Another great scientist, Max Weber, proposed the materialistic economy-driven approach to culture. Weber suggested that human actions in society are dictated by economic rationality. Economic rationality is of two types: formal and substantive (Weber 85). It should be noticed that Weber’s ideas of rationality are similar to the Simmel’s ideas about city money economy. According to Weber, formal rationality is quantitating calculations of every action. It conveys how much/many of something a person needs in order to achieve the goal. On the other hand, substantive rationality is the circumstances which force an individual to conduct a certain economic activity to achieve the goal. This is the valuableness a person wants to obtain through the most adequate actions among available ones (p. 85). To sum up, the culture influences economic actions.
A totally different approach to culture was offered by Ruth Benedict, who sees it as the embodiment of an individual. Benedict supposed that culture “like an individual, is…a consistent pattern of thoughts and actions” (p.53). Every culture has some characteristic purposes that are not present in other societies. However, it is kind of a mystery how societies choose and reject possible characteristics that determine people’s traits. The author wrote that the identity of every culture is made of the selection of the segments of great arc ranged with all possible interests (Benedict 35). Societies have always justified their favorite traditional forms (p. 44). Though the culture is a set of definite characteristics, it is impossible to find two similar cultures. The point here is that these characteristics can merge and interweave in all possible variants providing thousands of patterns for human traits. Again, the nature of trait is different for every region and is not universal. Actions that are of paramount importance to one society can be insignificant for another. It should be noticed here that Benedict talked about tolerance to other cultures as the manifestation of a great wisdom (p. 45). All cultures are different, and there is no leading or the most civilized one. To understand this variety of cultural combinations, people should perceive them as equal without adjusting other cultures to their point of view. It would be the best to think the same way as people of opposite culture do. However, it seems impossible because all human beings think and act according to their own cultural patterns. Here, we came to the dilemma that cultures cannot understand each other completely because of their different natures. People grown in one culture can realize only the part of other culture characteristics, which is similar to their own. To summarize, culture can be compared to an individual, his characteristics, and typical behavior; the way he acts in a society is a mystery.
The other cultural approach is presented by Emile Durkheim, who spoke in support of culture as a binding social force of a particular group. In order to understand such complex term as culture, he decided to examine the simplest part of it – religion in the form of totemism. Durkheim came to the conclusion that the main task of religion is to integrate people, unite them, and provide the feeling of belonging. Furthermore, people actually worship society, not a god. Society is a framework of the social organization of people (Durkheim 169). All individuals have a particular place in the groups they formed themselves (p.169). This suggests an idea that hierarchy within societies was also invented by humans (p.173). People feel the affinity to others within their group; they naturally understand each other and try to harmonize their relationships. This solid system is fulfilled with mystical sympathy and unites persons. On the contrary, people apprehend others outside their warm circle as hostile, and this presupposes a sort of social conflict. However, different societies mutually supplement each other because they are parts of a single whole (p. 180). In the same fashion, small units of culture such as totemism help to understand the complex social organization of groups of people that has developed during the history.
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The most complicated vision on culture was presented by the psycho-analytical approach of Sigmund Freud. According to the scientist, culture is the internal socialization of the ego, super-ego, and id (Freud 99). The super-ego is the moral supervisor of the ego. The super-ego develops within the lifetime; in general, it is constructed on the model of parents’ super-ego, which was formed based on their parents’ super-ego and so on. Thus, super-ego is a vehicle of tradition, which conveys past experiences from generation to generation and receives almost no influences of the modern challenges (p. 84). One super-ego can become a common element of the group of people or a particular society. Moreover, super-ego helps people to fit socially permissible norms as it decides what is right and what is wrong. The super-ego often strives to quite the opposite than a person’s id wants. The id is the darkest part of our personality that is unorganized, pleasure-driven and wants to satisfy human desires and instincts (p. 91). The third part, ego, is a part of id which was influenced by an external world and now represents it to the id (p.94). The ego stands for rational sense and tries to implement id’s passions according to the real circumstances (p. 95). Moreover, ego is always in the crosshairs of the super-ego. To sum up, the work of the culture is to make ego stand where id was.
Different approaches to culture understanding help to examine from different angles how an individual behaves in society. Every vision explains what drives a person to do something at a particular time and in a certain part of the world. Together a set of approaches shows many factors that make a human being conduct in a particular way. However, they do not show the whole picture of social life. As Benedict wrote, “the whole… is not merely the sum of all its parts, but the result of a unique arrangement and interrelation” (p.53). All scientists tried to simplify such complex issue as human behavior in society and make it fit in their conceptions. Every step to examine the social life from the perspective of economics, psychology, or environment approaches the basic understanding of people’s acting at the same time neglecting other important aspects of human life. The idea to simplify and “atomize” social behavior gave an opportunity to scrutinize every its aspect. However, that does not mean that together they make people closer to the clue how a person thinks, acts and behaves with his fellows. The scientists constructed the framework for people to think of society, human behavior, and social life. Nevertheless, if we imagine for a second that there are no such things as ego, patterns of culture, metropolises, and religion, we lose all the gained knowledge. All those meanings are invented in an attempt to realize how this world works, and we should keep it in mind.
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In conclusion, the scientific works of the above-mentioned scholars aimed to understand such phenomenon as culture and its effect on social life. Depending on the meaning of the word culture, we got multiple explanations of the origins of people’s behavior in society. Culture creates the framework of rules and principles that govern social life.