Since at least the nineteenth century, culture has been one of the most difficult, richly connotative concepts to define. While it is widely accepted that its roots are to be found in the Latin verb colere, among whose associated meanings is “to cultivate,” this has been all but forgotten in ordinary language. Being a web of meaning in which social life is suspended, culture most commonly goes unnoticed, and requires detailed inquiry, or what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (borrowing from the philosopher, Gilbert Ryle) called “thick description.” Geertz used Ryle’s example of two boys in a room, rapidly contracting their right eyelids: is this a wink, a twitch, a deliberate message, to someone in particular, coded, without cognizance of the rest of the company? These and other preparatory questions have to be addressed before any analysis can reach an understanding of the “piledup structures of inferences and implications” (Geertz 1993, 7) that characterize communications in any culture. Culture, thus, can be said to consist of all the structures and processes of meaning in which communication takes place.
Elements and Dimensions of Culture
In the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries, anthropology, relying on ethnography as its “method” or approach, came to interpret the communications of diverse peoples in order to reach an approximation of their culture. Ethnography, further, provided a template and inspiration for understanding not only so-called primitive peoples, but also cultures in the industrialized west and, indeed, the broader concept of culture itself. As argued by Marcus and Fischer (1986, 20), much anthropology in this period involved a “salvage motif,” or a determination to capture cultural diversity, mainly of non-western peoples, coupled with a cultural critique of “ourselves” in the west. The implication was that “primitive” culture is somehow “authentic” in comparison to the “mass” culture that has grown in the west during the past two centuries. If culture resides in communication, societies with mass communication will have increasingly diverse and diffuse cultures, and no common cultural core. In modernity, then, the definition of culture has been made more difficult by the global proliferation of media and messages. In the second half of the twentieth century, anthropology responded, in part, by transforming its methodology: “thick description” of multiple and complex cultures could only be achieved through a melange of interpretive approaches from the humanities, complementing the methodologies of the social sciences. As media and communication research took shape during this same period, it imported several of the lessons and legacies of anthropology.
Summarizing elements of prevalent conceptions of culture across the humanities and social sciences, Jenks (2003, 8 – 9) offered a fourfold typology. First, culture is a cerebral or cognitive capacity. This notion considers culture the product of a uniquely human consciousness, an exemplification of the status of humans as “chosen.” Although culture may thus be considered the pinnacle of human achievement on earth, the concept of culture as cognition also feeds into ideas of false consciousness, as found in varieties of Marxism – an unrealized human potential. Second, culture is embodied and collective. Culture can be seen as evidence of moral development, indeed, an evolutionary feature of humans as group and species. However, this understanding of culture also informed the civilizing process that was foisted on to “savage” or “primitive” societies as part of imperialism and colonialism. Third, culture is a descriptive category: it refers to a body of work, “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold 1869) – special knowledge, training, and socialization whose products are commemorated in museums and archives. Yet, any account of which insights are special or best is not just descriptive, but normative. Fourth, culture has been understood as a social category. This is the idea, widespread in contemporary research, that culture constitutes the whole way of life of humans generally and of specific social groups and peoples.
The breadth of such a typology re-emphasizes the open-ended status of culture in modernity. Mass communication has produced a proliferation in the number and types of texts and other cultural artifacts; it has also, in extending their availability, resulted in a blurring of the boundaries between texts intended for the elite and those for the “masses.” Still, despite reports and debates concerning a collapse of the high-culture/low-culture distinction, it remains important to assess cultural practices in the context of other social structures. Jenks (2005) has suggested that the modern understanding of culture unfolds along a dimension involving tensions between absolutist and relativist tendencies. In the former case, attempts will be made to establish and maintain a given cultural formation while eschewing traces of others; in the latter case, the inclination is to see cultures and cultural artifacts as functionally equivalent and even, sometimes, essentially equal. If this first dimension captures the qualities of cultural products and processes in themselves, another related dimension addresses the interrelations between cultural forms and their social uses. This other dimension involves tensions between elitism and egalitarianism: culture can either be considered either the preserve of the few or, alternatively, the possession of many or all. Within a matrix of such dimensions, culture can be defined and practiced in different ways with specific social implications. For example, egalitarianism may be compatible with absolutism if the public at large is educated to gain access to, and to accept, one cultural canon. And relativism may feed elitism if the capacity to appreciate multiple or rapidly shifting cultural styles becomes a mark of social distinction.
Culture as an Essentially Contested Concept
Within a matrix of absolutism/relativism and elitism/egalitarianism, culture stands as an essentially contested concept (Gallie 1956), having a consensual core meaning, but also a series of connotations that give rise to continuous scientific as well as social debate. These connotations can be traced to the conceptual root of culture in cultivation and, especially, the extended metaphor of horticulture, i.e., the enhancement of gardens or natural environments. In use as early as 1837, when it was employed by the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the notion of culture as horticulture can be seen as absolutist (there is a state of cultivation against one of non-cultivation), relativist (there are different kinds of cultivation), and elitist (only some could or should have the power of cultivation), as well as egalitarian (everyone can, potentially, cultivate). The connotations of culture in the sense of meaningful communication, similarly, are traversed by absolutism, relativism, elitism, and egalitarianism. One connotation of culture is civilization, the idea that participation in a culture qualifies the individual for membership and, even, status within a community. Further, at the community level, culture as ongoing cultivation suggests dynamism, emergence, and potential change, partly in opposition to the static implications of “tradition,” especially in a modern context. In summary, culture generally connotes process and movement: a process of educating and socializing people within specific webs of meaning, and a movement of meanings within and, perhaps, beyond a given community. In the last case, culture may amount to a colonizing process, complementing political and economic imperialism, or extending a national monoculture, for example, through elite adoption and transformation of popular culture.
Even the distinction between culture and its etymological opposite – nature – contributes to contested definitions. The root of “nature” is the Latin verb nascere, “to be born,” suggesting a contrast between qualities of innateness and processes of cultivation. This distinction has been emphasized within elitist and absolutist conceptions in an attempt to delineate culture as the height of achievement by human consciousness. The position was typified in Romanticism’s ambivalent relation to nature, celebrating the union of humans and their natural environment, while simultaneously elevating the work of the artist as the cultivator of such a union. In the wider history of ideas, the notion of Kultur as a privileged domain of human activity established itself contemporaneously with Romanticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Germany, anticipating subsequent anthropological research on cultures in the plural and the very concept of culture. An elitist/absolutist conception of culture has remained influential in theories of communication and society, including, perhaps curiously, neo-Marxist analyses by the Frankfurt School from the 1920s to the 1970s. Here, an elitist definition of culture served to exclude popularly consumed artifacts produced by the industries of mass communication. Although Marxist and other critical work might be expected to pursue egalitarianism, or an alternative culture of the proletariat, an absolutist conception of culture may have been attractive across ideological divides in social theory as a representation of what societies might become in contrast to a state of nature.
Culture, Communication, and Society
Culture as Social Practice
Contemporary research on culture, communication, and society, while diverse, commonly addresses culture as an integrated constituent of social practice. The idea of culture as a whole way of life, associated primarily with the work of Raymond Williams, has been adopted by sociologists, anthropologists, and communication researchers as a framework for investigating the bewildering variegation of communications in modernity. Williams (1981) envisaged culture as an object to be studied by sociology rather than, say, art theory, because culture is a product of broader social formations, institutions, organizations, and ideologies, which make up particular historical means of production and reproduction.
His works (see especially Williams 1965) stressed that culture is a process whose continual movement and development are checked only by the vicissitudes and conflicts between those other social factors that make up its context. Unlike other egalitarian conceptions of culture that frequently have an absolutist tinge, holding that fine art should be the province of all, Williams’s premise was that the practices of all people in a society are eligible to be considered parts of culture. Countering any relativist overtones in this position, Williams instead sought to erase the line between elite and popular culture, stressing not their relativity but their commonality.
Another influential body of work on culture as social practice is that of Pierre Bourdieu. Two of his concepts have passed into general usage in cultural and communication theory. First, Bourdieu (1986) conceived culture in terms of the specific habitus that different groups in society rely on as they orient themselves in, interpret, and act on everyday contexts. The habitus is at once an embodied predisposition and a socially patterned space of evaluative positions. It comprises “both the generative principle of objectively classifiable judgments and the system of classification . . . of these practices” (1986, 170) – a person’s habitus generates value judgments, and these judgments bear witness to the place of that person in the larger social space. Accordingly, “taste” is an expression of how social groups – stratified by income, occupation, education, etc. – pursue different variants of language, art, and style. Second, Bourdieu described the distribution of such cultural resources across the social space in terms borrowed from Karl Marx; depending on the amount of cultural capital that individuals have accumulated, they may, or may not, be able to participate in particular aspects of social and cultural life. Even when practicing an egalitarian conception of culture, for instance, making museums accessible to all classes, Bourdieu noted, a society will tend to reproduce the elitism inherent in its stratification.
The boundaries of culture are frequently challenged from both within and without. In the second half of the twentieth century, it became increasingly clear that western culture was producing a number of distinctive “subcultures” internally. These are generally thought to consist of communities of people who come together to pursue practices and observe customs (sometimes recently developed) that are somehow divorced from or in opposition to “mainstream culture.” Frequently, though not exclusively, subcultures have been associated with youth tastes and pastimes, not least popular music. Facilitated and amplified by the mass media, subcultures form within as well as across national boundaries.
The relation of subcultures to culture in general, however, remains ambiguous. On the one hand, mainstream culture may integrate and co-opt subculture in an ultimately elitist fashion; on the other hand, subcultures may transform mainstream culture in an egalitarian direction as subcultural vocabularies and styles become naturalized forms of communication in the culture.
While subcultures may transform a culture “from within,” cultures are also affected by communication “from without.” Intercultural communication has usually been understood in research as subject to difficulties and limitations. Growing out of anthropological work in the first half of the twentieth century, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been influential, if debated, since the 1950s: it states that communication between different cultures is impeded by the distinctive languages and other codes on which they are based, so that cultures can never be fully communicative with each other. Put briefly, the language you speak places you firmly within one culture and at a distance from any other culture.
Nevertheless, mass communication, globalization, and intensified commerce have meant that different cultures are increasingly exposed to diverse communicative practices and traditions – both verbal and nonverbal – far beyond translation in any traditional sense. The idea of monocultures is being challenged by notions of cultural hybridity. For example, postcolonial theory has suggested that only mental and physical repression have enabled particular cultures to maintain a mythical monocultural status. Similarly, research on imperialism has noted that western cultures, in addition to imposing themselves on those being colonized, were changed in the interaction (Bhabha 1985). In the case of commercial exchanges, cultures can be seen, over time, to enter into a more consensual process of hybridization. Intercultural communication, thus, occurs not just through specific acts of translation, but through interactions in all areas of social life.
Semiotics of Culture and Nature
The inclusive conception of culture as social practice has been developed further in research on the semiotics of culture. Semiotics has commonly been concerned with interpersonal communication, whether technologically mediated or not, but has also addressed interspecies or interorganism communication, seeking to reorient the culture/nature distinction. Thomas A. Sebeok summed up this position when referring to culture as that “minuscule part of nature compartmentalized by some anthropologists” (1986, 60). Communication can be said to take place across nature and culture, comprising both verbal and nonverbal signs. Whereas the signs of the known universe are predominantly nonverbal, a small number are based on the uniquely human capacity for language, which is the primary source of culture. Contemporary semiotics has described language as a modeling system, following the work of the Moscow–Tartu school and Sebeok (1988), and conceives culture as the outcome of three distinctive processes of modeling in humans. The primary modeling system is language as a cognitive capacity for differentiation, ontogenetically and phylogenetically manifested in nonverbal communication. The secondary modeling system is the capacity for verbal communication, manifested in speech and writing. Culture is the tertiary modeling system, in which complex and metaphorical manifestations of the primary and secondary modeling systems are circulated (Sebeok and Danesi 1999).
One ambition of the semiotics of culture is to avoid the pitfalls of egalitarianism/ elitism and absolutism/relativism, in consonance with Williams’s (1981) conception of culture as a whole way of life. Another ambition, comparable in certain respects to that of cognitive science, is to renegotiate the culture/nature dichotomy, which has been on the interdisciplinary research agenda since, in 1959, C. P. Snow lamented the divergence of the humanities and the sciences.
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