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Views of Culture

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    It is a ‘truism’ that the word ‘culture’ is problematic. Raymond Williams is purported to have said he wished he had never heard ‘the damned word’. There are various common-sense definitions of the word, and Williams’s discussion on this is still a good place to start. As he points out, there are various overlapping categories of meaning: culture as a process, as a product, and as a way of life of a particular community, but the meaning of the word shifts continuously (Williams, 1983 (1976). Stuart Hall (1997: 34-36) calls the word ‘the new language of our time’; it is a catchword, used widely and frequently ‘from politics to business, from life-style to media’ to refer to the way people think, feel and behave. Frequently, the words ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ are used interchangeably, both in everyday use and in the literature on the subject. There are no clearly agreed definitions on what separates the social from the cultural, although the word social is more often used when we talk about structures and systems of society and relations between people or groups of people, whereas culture is often seen as encompassing anything social plus the wider notions of value and ideological systems.

    In Williams’ seminal book Keywords, he lists the intricate and complex semantic transformations the term ‘culture’ has undergone since its early use in the 15th Century. In summary, modern usage of the term relates to three broad categories (1983 (1976): 90):

    1. A general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development. This usage captures the idea of culture as a natural process of human development in a linear way, the ultimate of which resulted in the European ‘civilization’ and culture of the Enlightenment. Culture is then seen as a universal development of human history;
    2. A particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, a group, or humanity in general, in short, the anthropological view of culture. The use of the word ‘culture’ as ‘a way of life’ started in the 18th century with Herder (1782-1791) who attacked the Eurocentric view of culture encompassed in the first definition. This view contrasts with the first one, as it does not see culture as a universal process, but instead sees ‘cultures’ in the plural: ‘the specific and variable cultures of different nations and periods but also of […] social and economic groups within a nation’ (Williams, 1983 (1976): 89). Whilst Herder is sometimes cited as being the forerunner of the one nation, one language view of culture, he was, according to Risager, not a National Romantic (Risager, 2006: 61). The view of culture, in terms of specific particularities associated with a particular group of people, often equated with nation or ethnicity is a dominant one in common parlance. Generally speaking, these particularities refer to behaviour, belief systems, history, language, customs, values, and so on. Within cultural anthropology itself, however, this static view of culture is seen as outdated (cf. Wright, 1998; Street, 1993; Hannerz, 1999).
    3. The works and practices of intellectual and aesthetic activities, such as music, literature, painting and sculpture, often referred to as Culture with a capital C or ‘high’ culture. In daily contemporary usage this view of culture now also includes products and practices from popular (‘low’) culture, such as film, TV, and media. The use of the terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ indicate the value judgments attached to these. Hence, Eagleton represents the view of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture as the ‘culture wars’ (Eagleton, 2000).

    The latter definition, culture in the sense of aesthetic activities and products, is the view of culture which has been traditionally assumed in modern language degree programs, at least in Britain. In the liberal humanist educational paradigm, culture was (and in certain institutions still is), mostly seen through the prism of the literary canon, the ‘high’ view of culture, which combines the aesthetic view with the hierarchical view of culture as civilization. This concords with Matthew Arnold’s (1889: 56) view of “the best knowledge and thought of the time”. However, as I discussed in chapter 1, as a result of the expansion of university education in Britain and the political pressures towards instrumental aims of language learning, literature courses have been increasingly replaced by courses focusing on ‘contemporary cultural studies’, as Worton referred to it (2009), bringing about a change in how ‘culture’ is interpreted. ‘Contemporary cultural studies’ in Worton’s report refers to courses which combine the ‘high’, and ‘low’ view of culture; literature as well as film studies. But in addition, culture is part of the curriculum in its anthropological form through ‘Area Studies’. These courses tend to include the history, politics, and social structures of the target country.

    When it comes to the view of culture as anthropology, culture as a way of life, there is, however, a range of practice in courses taken as part of a modern language degree. At the humanities-based modern language degree programs at the university where this study takes place, for instance, there is, for instance, no reference to the term Area Studies. Non-literature courses tend to be taught in academic disciplinary areas, such as history, film studies, and occasionally as linguistics or sociolinguistics. Increasingly courses are taught comparatively (e.g. comparing literature from different countries) or as interdisciplinary, thematic courses.

    Language teaching remains strictly separate from the ‘content’ courses. In this book, my concern is not with separate content courses in the academic disciplines of literature or history, but with the cultural dimension of language teaching itself. For this reason, I will not discuss Area Studies as an academic discipline. What I will discuss is culture pedagogy as it is practiced in the language classroom.

    I start with the knowledge dimension of culture pedagogy, which is often underpinned by the national dimension of culture.

    This page titled Views of Culture is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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