What is culture?

Defining culture

Defining culture is not an easy task because culture is a concept that has a wide
application. A useful definition or an operational one is that suggested by
Raymond Williams (1976) who proposes that culture should be defined as a way of
life. A way of life that “includes material, intellectual and spiritual
dimensions of cultural life” (Purvis, 2006).  

 It is here that the contested nature of the term culture becomes clear. The
difficulty is that not everyone in South Africa lives the same life even
though they all live in the same country.

Key Concepts in Culture

Culture is not an innate thing but is learnt knowledge, it involves groups or
collectives and is organised in certain ways. Key concepts in culture include
things such as: subjectivity and identity; texts and readers; power; popular
culture; representation; culture and signifying practices.

As individuals our interaction with other individuals in society is heavily
influenced by how we view those individuals in relation to ourselves or how
they view themselves in relation to us. Power becomes an important factor to
consider in these relationships because it is the ‘force which subordinates one
set of people to another’ (Barker, 2003, p.9). For example during colonisation
in Africa most locals were subordinate to their colonial masters. This
influenced the relationship they had during that time and even years after the
end of colonisation. Indeed, Africans are still trying to recover from this way of thinking due to the legacy of colonisation. Cultural studies also examine these relationships between subordinate groups and
dominant groups.

It is through subordination that the ideas of certain groups end up becoming more
dominant than the ideas of less dominant groups.  The concept of hegemony becomes relevant in
this case. In this example hegemony would promote the idea that powerful groups
in society use this power to exercise social authority over everyone else so
much so that their views about what is culture in that society are taken as
being universal. As a result of this dominant position these groups are also
able to influence how the world is represented in important ways. Cultural
texts are understood in different ways in different social contexts but power
can influence representation or how the social world is characterized.

Although cultural studies focus on all these aspects the main focus of cultural studies
is culture. Culture refers to the practices, representations, languages and
customs of any specific society (Barker, 2003). Language itself is a major
signifying practice because it is through language that the world is represented
to us. It has been said that language is a carrier of culture so to learn a
language is also to learn about the culture of the speakers of that language. This
is important if we want the world we live in to be a tolerant space. It is this
lack of understanding other people’s cultures that often causes tensions that
exhibit themselves in xenophobic attacks as a case in point. Every conflict
that arises in our society is not due to this lack of understanding. However,
the recognition that we are created by different social settings, histories,
experiences and cultures is a step in the direction of understanding that there
is no universal way of life. It is also helpful in acknowledging the fact that
culture is constantly evolving as it is not set in stone.