7.1: Preliminary remarks

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In this chapter, we will examine the theme of culture as group membership. One of the most common ways that we use the term culture in everyday English is to refer to people who share the same nationality. We think of people from Korea, for instance, as exemplifying “Korean culture,” or people from Saudi Arabia as exemplifying “Saudi culture.”

If we are interested in arriving at a coherent understanding of the concept of culture, I believe this usage leads us astray. The idea that culture is a product of human activity and that it includes everything that people make and everything they think and do (together) … that idea of culture seems fairly clear and useful. However, to turn around and call a whole nationality a culture, as we are often tempted to do, is an invitation to confusion.

Perhaps it made sense for anthropologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries who focused on traditional societies to think of the small geographically isolated groups they studied as cultures. Such groups were small enough that for the most part they did share all aspects of culture: language, beliefs, kinship patterns, technologies, etc.

But the large collectives of the modern world that we call nation-states are not culturally homogenous. In other words, we will expect to find different cultures in different places, or even different cultures intermingling with one another in the same places. We say that the society in question is multicultural. What this means for the idea of culture as group membership is that we will need a strategy for identifying the various groups that are presumably the repositories of the many cultures of a multicultural society. One way that sociologists have tried to conceptualize the parts that together make up the whole of a society is by means of the distinction between culture and subculture. On the other hand, historians and political scientists have been more interested in a macroscopic view, inquiring into the origins of nationality and the relationships between such things as nationality and ethnicity.

This page titled 7.1: Preliminary remarks is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Nolan Weil (Rebus Community) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.