What is culture?
Culture shapes how we view the world, but our ideas of what culture is are influenced by our political, social, and historical contexts.
“Culture” is not a neutral term. It emerged in profoundly unequal world, in which Euro-American imperialists attempted to divide the peoples of the world into “civilized” and “barbaric” categories. A related definition of culture, which emerged during the Cold War, depicted cultures as distinct and oppositional. These ideologies can be problematic, but they echo in many of our notions of how others behave or view the world.
However, in a global society, the “distinct and oppositional” theory is complicated by interaction, adaptation, and multi-directional influences. In her 2013 book Opening the Conversation: Studying Intercultural Communication, scholar Kathryn Sorrells argues that we need a more dynamic way of understanding culture to reflect the complexities of a globalized world. Sorrells offers three definitions of culture:
- Shared Meaning: In this anthropological definition, culture is a system of shared meanings, assumptions, knowledge passed down through generations that allow us to make sense of the world and communicate with one another.
- Contested Meaning: Culture works as a form of power, as the norms and values of dominant groups are normalized and institutionalized. At the same time, other groups can confront, resist, or negotiate those meanings.
- Global Resource: In the context of globalization, culture is something that emerges as we compare difference across group identities. It is also something that can be exploited for economic growth – think of movies, music, or tourism.