Assimilation or Cultural Relativism



Chapter Outline

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Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

1. Explain the nature of culture.

2. Define ideology.

3. Discuss ideological communication.

4. Explain the relationship between beliefs and feelings.

5. Enumerate the differences between real and ideal culture.

6. Discuss the ways cultures may influence each other.

7. Recognize how scientific and humanistic approaches to culture influence the ways culture is conceptualized.

8. Discuss the implications of cultural universals.

Culture 2

2.1 Culture

2.2 Ideology

• Ideological Communication • Beliefs • Feelings • The Enculturation Process • Cultural Change

2.3 Viewpoints About Culture

• Diversity in Conceptualizing Culture • The Unity and Diversity of Cultures

2.4 Cultural Universals

• Biology and Cultural Universals • The Coexistence of Cultural Differences and


2.5 Culture In Nonhuman Primates?

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CHAPTER 2Section 2.1 Culture

Unlike other animals, we humans have a persistent tendency to try to make sense of our existence and to share those understandings with others of our group. In so doing, we also construct a shared system of survival strategies. These ideas and survival strategies are institutionalized and perpetuated as culture, the subject of this chapter. After analyzing the systematic patterning of beliefs, feelings, and ways of surviving, we must note that these patterns differ from one society to the next, frequently resulting in misunderstandings and mistrust between human groups.

2.1 Culture

Human beings are social animals. We live in communities that are part of larger social groups called societies. A society is a group of people who conceive of themselves as distinct from other groups and who are connected by communica- tion ties, common customs and traditions, and shared institutions such as politics, law, and economics. What makes human societies different from the groups other social ani- mals form is that members of human societies share a sense of common identity that grows out of their shared culture, or the learned system of beliefs, feelings, and rules for living through which they organize their lives. In everyday language, a culture is the “way of life” that is passed from one generation to the next. The awareness that their soci- ety is guided by a distinctive set of shared beliefs, feelings, and strategies for living gives the members of each society a sense of common identity as “a people” that is distinctively human.

Great diversity exists among anthropologists’ formal definitions of culture. Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn (1952) surveyed 158 definitions of culture by anthropolo- gists and other social and behavioral scientists. They found that the concept of culture always centers on the idea that there is a system to the beliefs and feelings that unify a human group and give it an identity as a society. Those who share a culture may be aware of some parts of the system, whereas their awareness of other parts of the system may be implicit in their customary behavior without their being conscious of it.

Although cultures are said to be shared, people in a society need not share their culture in its entirety. In fact, in societies such as industrialized societies with populations in the hundreds of millions, there are tremendous differences in the specialized cultural knowl- edge of different individuals. For instance, legal specialists will have a much more detailed knowledge of the rules and values that govern legal institutions than do ordinary citizens; governmental bureaucrats will be similarly more knowledgeable about the customary policies and practices of government than nonbureaucrats; and religious specialists will have a much more detailed knowledge of theology and ritual than will most other reli- gious participants.

In learning the customs of their culture, people are taught that they share some “common understandings” with one another and that others expect them to follow the traditional customs of their group. Our North American culture gives particular meanings to behav- iors such as shaking hands and applauding a performance. Our common understanding about the use of these behaviors lets us know when we should and should not do them. A definite awkwardness or embarrassment is felt by everyone involved if someone does either behavior at the wrong time or place. In this sense, much of a way of life is like a set

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CHAPTER 2Section 2.1 Culture

of rules about how one ought to live. Anthropologists call these rules social norms. Social norms, like the rules of a game, give structure and continuity to the social life of each human group. The predictability that culture lends to people’s behavior gives them secu- rity because it allows them to anticipate the behavior of others, including those they are meeting for the first time. Therefore, the parts of culture that are explicitly taught are often thought of as the proper way of behaving.

Participating in a shared system of customs con- ceptualized as traditional also gives life a sense of meaningfulness. Thus, attending the World Series, the Super Bowl, your high school prom, rock concerts, and a picnic on a crowded beach on the Fourth of July are all activities that help the people of the United States conceive of them- selves as members of a society with its own dis- tinctive culture. Customs, objects, and events acquire particular meanings for the participants and may be thought of as symbols of the cul- ture. Clothing, for example, is chosen not only to protect our bodies from the elements but also to convey symbolic messages that may be inter- preted by others according to the shared mean- ings of our culture. For instance, clerical collars reveal the religious profession of pastors; jeans, a cowboy hat, and handcrafted cowboy boots sug- gest an American West identification; and heavy black eyeliner, dark clothing, a heavy metal band t-shirt, and bat earrings scream “Goth!”.

Earlier anthropologists tended to use the concept of culture as if there were no diversity among the

“common understandings” of a people. This was an easy oversimplification in an era in which most fieldwork was done in small-scale, relatively isolated societies of 50 to 300 people, where it was easy to stress the commonalities of thought and values expressed. But anthropologists who do their research in societies with larger populations can hardly ignore that their descriptions of a society’s culture must take into account the fact that it is not fixed and changeless, that even within a single society there is variation in the univer- sally accepted pattern of customs, ideas, and feelings. Awareness of this diversity within a culture led to the concept of subcultures, or cultural variations shared by particular groups within a society. We might, for example, say that marriage is typically viewed by Americans as a fundamentally important institution. However, how we view marriage has changed over time, and even today an understanding of what actually constitutes marriage is not entirely shared. A hundred years ago, interracial marriages violated the social norms of American society, but attitudes changed; laws against interracial marriage were declared unconstitutional; and such marriages came to be accepted as a fundamental legal right. Today, gay and gay-friendly Americans differ politically with more tradition- alist Americans in how the institution of marriage should be legally defined and who should have the right to marry.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock Neck rings reveal a woman’s belonging to one of a few particular African or Asian cultures.

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CHAPTER 2Section 2.1 Culture

The essential element that defines a subculture as opposed to a culture is not its com- ponent parts. Both are systems of shared beliefs and values that guide the customs of a group and give the group a sense of shared identity. Instead, a culture is the dominant way of life of an entire society, whereas a subculture informs the distinctive identity and customs of a smaller segment of a society. Members of that smaller segment are aware of and participate in the culture of the larger society. A subculture is a distinctive variant of a culture that has developed within a segment of society in much the same way as a dialect develops as a distinctive variant of the language from which it arose. Some subcultures are regional variants of a national culture that have become distinctive due to the rela- tive isolation of people who live in different geographical areas, as seen in the variants of U.S. culture found in New England, the southern states, the intermountain states, and on the West Coast. A subculture can also be composed of elements of a different cultural tradition that have been maintained by a group that has immigrated into and become a part of another society. A good illustration of this second pattern is the Cajun subculture of Louisiana and neighboring parts of the United States. Cajuns participate in the domi- nant, English-speaking culture of the United States, but have also maintained a distinctive identity and set of customs that derive from their French-speaking Acadian ancestors. These French ancestors first settled in the maritime areas of Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick in Canada during the 17th century but were forced to leave after the Brit- ish took control of the region. They migrated south to the Mississippi Delta region, which was then under French control, and that is where they still live today.

The recognition that each culture may be made up of subcultures, much as languages may have various dialects, underscores the fact that cultures are not static. In recent decades some anthropologists have joined scholars working in cognate fields in exploring the pro- cesses whereby diverse identities, viewpoints, values, and ways of behaving are negotiated and expressed by members of a society (e.g., Clifford, 1988; Gable, Handler, & Lawson, 1992; Linnekin, 1992; Shryock, 1997; Sturm, 2002). John Fiske’s work (1993, 2010) is par- ticularly noteworthy for drawing attention to music videos, Hollywood blockbusters, and other forms of popular culture as a key arena in which various groups and individuals struggle for control of meaning, renegotiate their place in society, and try to redefine what constitutes appropriate behavior. Anthropologist Debra Buchholtz (2010) has focused her attention on the different ways people understand and use their shared pasts. She stud- ied the iconic Indian Wars fight variously known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn (by mainstream historians), the Greasy Grass Battle (by Lakota, Cheyenne, and other Native Americans), and Custer’s Last Stand (in popular culture). Buchholtz discovered that even today the culturally diverse people who live in and visit the battlefield area use the battle story to talk about their pasts, present circumstances, and futures, to strategically construct and assert a fluid and overlapping array of identities, and to negotiate their social relations. In approaches like these, the concept of culture is viewed as consisting of a polyphony of voices rather than as a solo melody. From this perspective, the diversity within a culture is not merely a matter of the existence of subcultures. Diversity exists at the level of individu- als as well. As Linda Stone and Nancy McKee (1999) put it, “Culture is better seen as sets of ideas and behaviors that human actors themselves continually generate. Each actor is in a dynamic relationship with his or her culture; as a result, all cultures undergo change” (p. 3). They pointed out that different groups of people within the same society may differ in what various parts of the common culture mean and in how they feel about them. Thus, for instance, while the Confederate flag is a distinctively American symbol, not all Americans respond to it in the same way. And while the Custer fight is a part of American history, there is little agreement over what it meant at the time and what it means now.

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CHAPTER 2Section 2.2 Ideology

In the first half of the last century, Ruth Benedict (1934), Margaret Mead (1935), Bronislaw Malinowski (1922), and other anthropologists emphasized the integrated qual- ity of the values and beliefs that were characteristic of each culture and described each as an internally consistent system of meanings. Today, we are more likely to acknowledge that even when there are important regularities within the symbolic patterns that make up a culture, those patterns are neither rigidly present nor necessarily consistently reflected in individual behavior. Thus, despite some degree of internal consistency, any culture may include contradictory beliefs and competing values and objectives. The different names Americans attach to the Custer fight and the different ways of understanding the single moment in the shared American past suggest that this is particularly the case is a large multicultural society like the United States. The ongoing debates within American society over abortion, gun control, and marriage equality offer further evidence for the lack of consensus within society.

2.2 Ideology

Although they may not be shared by every individual, within any culture there are regularities in how people typically act, think, feel, and communicate, but people are not conscious of all of them. They may never explicitly state an underlying rule to which they seem to be conforming, yet the regularity in their behavior may be obvious to an outsider. Suppose we observed that members of a certain society always took care to lock the doors and windows of their homes and automobiles when leaving them, that they never left their bicycles unlocked when they entered a store, and that they never left valuable items unattended or in open view even at home. We might conclude that these people believe that some members of their society are likely to steal, even if they never say so directly. If we were further reporting on our observations, we would include in our description of their culture the implicit rule of maintaining the security of one’s own pos- sessions, even if these people did not explicitly refer to such a rule when speaking among themselves or to us.

A culture, then, includes all of the rules and regulations that govern a way of life, both conscious, formally stated beliefs and feelings—called ideology—and unconscious, infor- mal, or implicit beliefs and feelings that can be inferred from the consistencies in a peo- ple’s customs and behaviors.

Ideological Communication As people communicate about themselves and their environment, they build a consensus about the nature of humankind and the universe in which it exists. Much of the commu- nication among members of a society is done to reinforce this consensus. Such ideological communication is an important way in which people identify themselves as members of a group, declare their allegiance to it, and define their rules for behaving in the group. It frequently takes the form of highly ritualized acts, such as a pledge of allegiance to a flag or some other symbol of the group, recitation of articles of faith, or singing of songs that glorify the doctrines of the group. Ritual affirmations of one’s social solidarity with others may, of course, be less formally structured, as in so-called “small talk,” the con- tent of which is nonetheless highly predictable. For instance, North Americans recognize

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CHAPTER 2Section 2.2 Ideology

that the greeting “How are you?” is not a request for information but simply the opening gambit of a ritual communication of friendship and will- ingness to interact. The more or less predictable response—”I’m fine, thank you”—is not a mea- sure of one’s actual state of health, but an affir- mation of the same willingness to interact and a declaration that one shares the same cultural code of symbolic behavior. Such ritual reaffirmations of mutuality may be interspersed throughout an entire conversation in stereotyped communica- tions, as in a discussion of the weather. Although ideological communication conveys little infor- mation, it reinforces existing conventions about reality and our place in it. It is through the effort we devote to ideological communication that we construct and reconstruct the meaningfulness of the world. As Clifford Geertz (1973), an anthro- pologist who stressed the need to understand the symbols around which people organize their lives, poetically described it, we humans are “sus- pended in webs of significance” (p. 5) that we ourselves spin.

Beliefs An ideology has two main interacting components: a subsystem of beliefs and a subsys- tem of feelings. Beliefs are the means by which people make sense of their experiences; they are the ideas that they hold to be true, factual, or real. By contrast, feelings are peo- ple’s inner reactions, emotions, or desires concerning experiences. Although beliefs are judgments about facts, they are not always the result of rational analysis of experience. Thus, emotions, attitudes, and values—aspects of the feeling system—may ultimately determine what people believe. Within limits set by the necessities of survival, persons may choose to believe what is pleasing to believe, what they want to believe, and what they think they ought to believe. Once people are convinced of the truth of a new set of beliefs, then, they may change some of their previous feelings to make it easier to maintain those new beliefs.

Conformity to a Belief System People in each society have their own distinctive patterns of thought about the nature of reality. These beliefs reflect what those who share a culture regard as true (e.g., “God exists,” “the sky is blue,” “geese fly south for the winter,” “spilling salt causes bad luck”).

As children are socialized, they learn that other members of their society share a system of thought and a pattern of thinking about—or way of conceptualizing—the nature of the world. For example, North Americans grow up under a formal educational system in which mechanical models sometimes are used to demonstrate the plausibility of the idea that the moon is a sphere, the apparent shape of which depends on the relative positions

Creatas/Thinkstock The events of our social life are defined by our culture. What cultural items can you identify in this photo?

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CHAPTER 2Section 2.2 Ideology

of the sun, the moon, and the Earth. By contrast, the Shoshone Indians of the western U.S. Great Basin area traditionally explained the phases of the moon by describing it as shaped like a bowl or basket rather than a sphere. The phase of the moon was thought to be simply a matter of which side of the moon was facing the observer: A crescent moon was a side view and a full moon was the outside convex bottom. By learning the distinc- tive culture of their own society, children use this knowledge to anticipate the behavior of those around them and interpret the meanings of those behaviors. In this sense, a culture can be thought of as a system of understandings that describe how members of a society customarily behave and make sense of the world around them. Much as a map helps a traveler negotiate a terrain, a culture helps people negotiate the flow of interactions with other members of their society that punctuate daily life.

However, the knowledge embodied in the culture of a society is also taught to each new generation as a set of prescriptions, or rules that define the proper way of thinking, feeling, or acting. Rather than simply describe what people are likely to do, these rules specify what they should do. Culture as a set of prescriptions can be taught explicitly, as when rules of etiquette or law are explained by someone who already knows them to someone who is learning the way of life. However, such expectations may also be taught implicitly, as when children learn that their nonconformity is unacceptable by inferring from others’ emotional reactions to their behavior the limits and boundaries of rules that were never explained in words. We infer the existence of such unspoken rules when we break them and our nonconforming behavior is met with stony silence, active anger, derisive laughter, or shunning. When we learn the prescriptive rules of a culture, we learn that to obtain full acceptance as members of our group, we must conform to the ways in which others think.

Prescriptive cultural ideology is instilled by rewarding conformity and punishing devi- ance. Individuals who violate their culture’s rules for proper thinking and behaving are likely to experience punishment ranging from a mild reproof or laughter to severe sanc- tions such as banishment, imprisonment, or death. In the contemporary United States, for example, normal people do not “hear voices.” Those who do may find themselves placed in mental hospitals “for their own good” or “for the safety of others.” In other times and places, those who heard voices have been honored as spiritual teachers. Black Elk, the respected Lakota holy man, was one such person (Neihardt, 1961). Throughout his life, Black Elk had visions and heard voices. He and his people interpreted these not as evidence of psychosis but as important messages from the spirit world. Similarly, North American schoolchildren, of which I was one, are rewarded for believing that the moon is a sphere and punished for believing otherwise. But during my fieldwork on an isolated Shoshone reservation in the late 1960s, I discovered that my attempt to describe the moon as a sphere evoked either argument or skeptical looks, and my desire for acceptance soon silenced my expression of deviant views. I thus learned that my own culturally instilled understanding of the phases of the moon violated Shoshone cultural prescriptions.

Widespread acceptance of a system of beliefs gives people a sense of identity as a group. A people’s knowledge that they share a set of beliefs gives them a feeling of security and a sense of belonging. When people become conscious of their shared beliefs, especially if they assign a name to their system of beliefs, this part of their ideology may begin to func- tion as an active, driving force in their lives. Such conscious systems are particularly com- mon in complex societies. They are most dramatically illustrated by the named religions and political factions that can command the loyalties of great masses of people. But once

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again, it should be kept in mind that to say that an ideology is “shared” does not neces- sarily mean that everyone is in lockstep unity about the beliefs and feelings that make up the ideology of their culture. Differences do exist, although those whose beliefs are not mainstream may be willing to acknowledge that their own views are not “typical” in their society. For instance, in a study I conducted of Mormon students at my own university, most had religiously based reservations about biological evolution. The minority who affirmed their own acceptance of the scientific validity of biological evolution also identi- fied their doing so as religiously contrary to “Mormon doctrine.” That is, they recognized that their own views were not part of the Mormon subculture they otherwise identified with and accepted. Such diversity among individuals is found in every group. If there was no diversity among a people’s understandings or the feelings they have in different situ- ations, cultures would be static and unchanging. But, in fact, cultures change and evolve.

Types of Belief Systems Every society tends to develop two different kinds of belief systems: scientific and non- scientific. The former occurs because a certain degree of practical insight into the nature of the world and its workings is necessary for any society to survive, as Nelson found in his many years of conducting research among the Inuit and neighboring Arctic peoples (1993). Beliefs about such matters as how to obtain food and shelter or how to set broken bones must be based on pragmatic rather than emotional judgments if they are to be use- ful. The beliefs that arise from the search for practical solutions to mundane problems of living may be referred to as the scientific beliefs of a society. Even in societies in which science is not practiced by a group of professional “scientists,” some beliefs are held by most because of their demonstrable practical value, and these form what can be under- stood as the folk science of each culture. One of the Inupiaq hunters Nelson accompanied even referred to himself as an “Eskimo scientist,” a clear indication he appreciated the value of empirical knowledge (p. 106).

The second basic type of beliefs found in every culture grows out of a people’s feelings about their existence. These nonscientific beliefs are often formally organized within the framework of religious and artistic philosophies that portray the universe and express (sometimes in the guise of descriptions of reality) deeply valued feelings about the world in which people find themselves. Strong emotional commitments may also exist in politics or recreation. These, too, are often guided by beliefs that express the members’ deeply held feelings.

Feelings Feelings and beliefs tend to strengthen each other. Our feelings may be the motivation for believing things for which no objective support exists. Beliefs may, in turn, validate our feelings. When we believe that our feelings are the same ones that other people experience in the same situations, we are more confident that they are valid. Recognizing that our feelings are shared by others also supports our sense of belonging to a definable group.

Four major kinds of feelings find their idealized expression within an ideology: emotions, attitudes, values, and drives. See Figure 2.1.

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CHAPTER 2Section 2.2 Ideology

Figure 2.1: Feelings in culture

Emotions, attitudes, values, and drives contribute to a person’s ideological communication.

Emotions An emotion is a reaction to an experience as pleasant or unpleasant, to varying degrees. As we mature, we learn to distinguish many subtle variations on the two basic emotional themes of pleasantness and unpleasantness, such as delight, elation, affection, love, mirth, happiness, surprise, or exultation, and contempt, anger, distress, terror, or grief. The basic emotions of happiness, fear, guilt, grief, and embarrassment are found in every society and are expressed with the same facial expressions, as well as the same changes in blood flow (e.g., blushing when embarrassed) and breathing (e.g., sighing when grieving). Paul Ekman (1984), for example, found that the Fore of the New Guinea Highlands were able to

Reaction to experience learned through one’s culture.


Ideals of morality, etiquettes, piety, and aesthetics in a society.


The general likes and dislikes learned through one’s culture.


Things people value the most in everyday life.


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accurately identify the emotional states of non-Fore individuals from photographs of their faces. Also, when asked to demonstrate the facial expressions they associate with basic emotions, the Fore expressions matched those found in many other cultures. However, which emotions we learn to experience in various circumstances, the degree to which showing them is acceptable, and exactly how we express them behaviorally depends on the culture in which we are raised. For instance, Maoris show intense levels of grief when faced with the loss of a loved one, while the Japanese are more subdued in expressing their grief in front of others. Both males and females experience sadness, but in America we still hear the admonition that “big boys don’t cry”.

American anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has grappled with these universal and cultur- ally specific aspects of grief in a very personal way. Rosaldo once struggled to under- stand why Ilongot men of the northern Luzon in the Philippines headhunted. He reports that his elderly informants attributed their headhunting behavior to “rage, born of grief” (1989). This was something he simply could not understand, at least not until his own wife died suddenly in a fall while they were doing fieldwork. In the aftermath, he experienced for himself the emotional force of a death, or “rage, born of grief.” Instead of going out in …