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Chapter 3

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Ivanka Knezevic

Why study Culture? Culture is an amazingly powerful social force that influences events as diverse as whom we marry and whether we go to war. What is clear is that, in general, people like to marry other people with whom they share interests and experiences. Such shared ideas and preferences create a feeling of comfort and familiarity, which are things we enjoy about being with other people. Culture includes all these preferences and ideas and notions, and these are the things that allow us in our daily lives to feel connections to other people. Cultural similarities influence our decisions not only about getting married but about all kinds of connections— with whom we become and stay friends, even with whom we work. Just as we often are brought closer to other people, so too we often experience social divisions, some relatively minor and others quite significant. While a conflict of material interests usually sets the stage for war, culture can play a large role in determining whether war is waged. Culture plays a role in dividing us from others, and it is only in the presence of such divisions, when we feel essentially different and disconnected from others, that we are able to pursue as drastic a course of action as war. In addition, culture plays a role in many more minor social divisions that are not as significant as war, such as the various social cleavages between many social groups within the same society. Culture, then, is important because it is the key to understanding how we relate to each other; specific- ally, it is behind both what unites us and what div-ides us. Our cultural differences and similarities are continually coming into play in our daily face- to- face interactions and on a global scale. What is Culture? ‘Consumer culture’, which focuses on a major pattern of people’s behaviour and a set of economic institutions in contemporary society. Recognize that culture is those elements of social life that have meanings that social actors interpret and can also convey. Languages, symbols, discourses, texts, knowledge, values, attitudes, beliefs, norms, world views, folkways, art, music, ideas, and ideologies are all ‘culture’, as are the practices through which these things are often performed or put into concrete form. Languages, symbols, discourses, texts, knowledge, values, attitudes, beliefs, norms, world views, folkways, art, music, ideas, and ideologies are all ‘culture’, as are the practices through which these things are often performed or put into concrete form. The distinction between culture and structure, two terms that has specific meanings within formal sociology. Structural aspects of society are the enduring patterns of social relations and social institutions through which society is organized and through which individual and collective actions are carried out. Recall that cultural elements are those that carry meaning and can be interpreted, and so it is true that the structures named above contain or interact with culture. Rather, this segregation is structural. It is an enduring pattern of social behaviour, existing primarily not at a mental level but at a level of lived experience. The fact that this pat-tern exists in our society (although it is changing) is a structural property of our society, but the gender beliefs that underlie this pattern are cultural. Material resources and engenders long- standing patterns of social behaviour. Our democratic government is a structural dimension of social life. It influences, among other things, our work lives, our consumption patterns, our health outcomes, and our educational outcomes, and so it is a material element of social life that is clearly enmeshed in a web of other important structural elements. It does not qualify as culture, because it is not in itself a symbol; it does not exist to be received and understood as having a meaning. However, there is no shortage of politically oriented culture or of political symbols existing in a wide array of forms. The national anthem and the Canadian flag are both explicit political symbols. Culture in Place and Time In some popular uses, ‘culture’ can refer to the entire social reality of particular social and geographical groups in comparison to other social groups We frequently think in national terms, with fairly strong ideas of what we mean by, for example, Japanese culture, Culture can vary systematically between nations, even in ways we are commonly unaware of. Nation- states have often (although not always) coalesced around a common cultural foundation, or if one was not clearly defined from early on, they have tended to promote such a cultural foundation for the sake of national unity and cohesion. National cultures also entail a great deal of regional and local variation. As is also the case with the differences in regions, such local cultural variations exist in a broader cultural environment of greater similarities than differences Just as we can differentiate cultures with respect to physical space, we can observe that cultures vary according to social space or according to social groupings. Adolescent males as distinct from that of adolescent females Acknowledging culture’s social, not just physical; boundedness provides us with a second dimension Age and gender, the social groupings in the above example, are just two of many social boundaries that can differentiate between cultures. Other social lines along which cultural elements may fall include race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and many other ways that people see fit to distinguish them- selves. Another social space with important cultural implications is that of social class. Stereotypes of distinct working- and upper- class cultures are at least as pervasive as national stereotypes. We have firm ideas about the typical speech, mannerisms, dress, culinary preferences, occupations, and leisure activities of the working class and the upper class. In addition, it is necessary to point out that the dimensions of physical and social space are relatively but not entirely independent of each other. In some instances, there is considerable overlap, as when a social grouping exclusively or almost exclusively inhabits a physical space. Notice that cases in which the physical and social spatial dimensions of culture intersect to the exclusion of other social groups are fairly narrowly circumscribed. For the most part, our social lives are messier, and different subcultures interact with each other all the time Segregation on the basis of race sometimes occurs residentially, although for the most part the common venues in which daily life is played out are racially integrated. Borrowing across cultures happens all the time. Often, such borrowing occurs without anyone noticing, but sometimes it can happen in ways that are thought to be illegitimate, leading to charges of cultural appropriation. Can offend a group’s sense of identity and cultural heritage. Other times, culture crosses social and geographic borders through global commerce and communication channels, with the involvement of multinational corporations That culture varies over time. Culture evolves Culture is never static. It is always developing new features and characteristics. The temporal dimension of culture is independent of its physical and social locations— culture changes over time in all countries and regions and for all social groupings. The Role of Culture in Social Theory: Orthodox Marxist and Neo- Marxist Theories Marxism. In developing his theory of society, Karl Marx was responding directly to previous philosophical arguments about the central role of ideas (squarely cultural) in determining the path of history and the nature of social reality. In such arguments, the general cultural environment worked at the level of ideas to shape people’s thoughts and actions and so was in principle the root cause behind events and social change. In contrast, Marxism argues that the nature of society is determined primarily by the prevailing mode of economic production, evolving through history from agrarian societies to slave ownership to feudalism and then to industrial capitalism. Squarely structural, because it argues that all social change is a result of the economic organization of society. In Marxist terminology, the economic mode of production forms the ‘base’ of society on which the ‘superstructure’ rests, which includes everything else, including all cultural elements of society. Neo- Marxist perspectives do not adhere so strictly to the view that culture is entirely dependent on society’s mode of production. While they borrow extensively from Marx’s insights, they also modify these insights, and in so doing they provide a significantly different view of culture. These perspectives share with Marxism a focus on the role of culture in maintaining and supporting capitalism and inequality, but they differ from Marxism insofar as they view culture as more than simply the reflection of the underlying economic base. Neo- Marxist perspective on culture is the argument that our current economic mode of production is accompanied by a dominant ideology. This ideology is a system of thoughts, knowledge, and beliefs that serves to legitimate and perpetuate capitalism. Our mental lives and our entire thought modes are shaped to minimize criticism of capitalism and to maximize participation in and support of capitalism. Neo- Marxists recognize that culture can be shaped by specific groups and individuals who seek to achieve certain social outcomes. For example, Antonio Gramsci (1992) argued in the 1920s and 1930s that intellectuals within spheres such as politics, religion, the mass media, and education provide knowledge, values, advice, and direction to the general population that serve to perpetuate the status quo and to suppress revolutionary tendencies. The groups responsible for the creation and promotion of popular culture within the entertainment industry are themselves significant members of the bourgeoisie. Growing out of a neo- Marxist perspective, the cultural studies tradition is a field with roots in British literary scholarship and in sociology. The specific insight that cultural studies borrows from neo- Marxists is that culture can be shaped and manipulated by dominant groups and employed to maintain hegemony, which is a common- sense understanding that inequality and domination by elites is natural and inevitable. Cultural studies has thus provided a more sophisticated under-standing of the ways in which culture can work to reproduce inequality; the meanings that are embedded in cultural works can be hegemonic and can therefore legitimize inequality. Cultural studies practitioners agree with neo- Marxists that culture can function to maintain social divisions, keeping some groups dominant over others. Where they break from Marxists and early neo- Marxists is in the recognition that class conflict is only one of many sites of ideological dominance. As Philip Smith writes of cultural studies, ‘ a move has gradually taken place away from Marxism toward an understanding of society as textured with multiple sources of inequality and fragmented local struggles’ ( 2001, 152). Dominant groups can be defined not only by class position but also by race, gender, geography, and sexual orientation. Stuart Hall, who has produced some of the seminal concepts of cultural studies. As Hall (1980) explains, communication of meaning requires both encoding and decoding. Such things as an advertisement or a television show are created in such a way as to convey a particular perspective. The predominant beliefs of the creators are encoded into these cultural productions (or texts) in subtle and sometimes subconscious ways. A fresh, critically informed reading of such texts is required to see how they encode assumptions and messages about such things as gender and social class relations. Another significant insight of Hall’s is that meaning does not simply exist as part of cultural creations but instead is constructed by individuals through the process of receiving and interpreting culture. Meaning is created by people while they make sense of the culture they consume or take in. It is important to note that neo- Marxists and those who have further developed their insights make a fundamental advance in their view of culture insofar as they see it as more than simply an artifact of the economic base. Culture, they argue, can also help to determine other facets of social reality— not merely reflective of other things in society, it also helps to shape society. Culture, in a sense, sup-ports dominant groups in their efforts to maintain their dominance. Cultural Functionalism Émile Durkheim. In contrast to the conflictual emphasis of the Marxists and neo- Marxists, the views on culture that are based on Durkheimian sociological insights focus on the integrative ability of culture. Rather than pointing to the ways in which culture can create social fissures, Durkheim ( 1964 [ 1912]) identified the ways in which culture can create social stability and solidarity, focusing on how culture unites us rather than on how culture divides us. Culture, in terms of norms, values, attitudes, and beliefs, is not reflective of the economic mode of production. Instead, these cultural elements are generated according to the needs of society by its form as a more or less complex system. Culture rises out of a particular society’s social structure to produce a general consensus about the goals and nature of society. In this sense, culture serves a necessary function: through common values and beliefs, society is able to remain coherent, and all the different parts of society can effectively carry out their specific purpose. Durkheim paid special attention to the role of religion as a motivating force in society— one that made possible the affirmation of collective sentiments and ideas and one that could therefore play an important role in strengthening social bonds that then strengthened and reinforced the fabric of society. Symbolic Interactionist and Dramaturgical Perspectives A third important perspective treats culture as a product of individuals’ interactions. In symbolic inter- actionist thought, And is generated by individuals in face- to- face encounters Body language and the signals we send through it, however subconsciously, are a clear element of culture in this perspective. The decisions we make and carry out to reveal or to sup-press certain pieces of information about us are also culture. Social interaction can be analyzed to reveal layers of meaning behind routine actions. There is a communicative element in a great deal of our interactions, although we are not always conscious of its presence or of the nature of the messages we send. The result of our interactions is (usually) the successful management of our relationships with others. In terms of its view on culture, the symbolic interactionist approach contrasts with Marxist and functionalist approaches insofar as it attributes more responsibility to individuals as the active creators and implementers of culture. Rather than originating from an economic order or indirectly from the general social structure, culture is a product of creative individual agents who use it to manage their everyday tasks and routines. Erving Goffman. Goffman developed an analytical framework that analogizes social interaction to what goes on in a theatre. For that reason, it is known as a dramaturgical perspective. In a theatre, there are actors with roles to play for an audience. Likewise, when we interact with people, we assume a role for the situation we find ourselves in and perform that role according to a well- known script that defines the boundaries of what is expected and acceptable for the role. We learn these rules of social behaviour through the ordinary process of socializat
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