So what is culture?

So what is culture? Culture is whatever you see around you wherever you look. This is of course when you are looking at people; though it could also be wherever there is some sort of social behaviour going on – animals and perhaps other organisms. It might become ‘a culture’ when you draw a conceptual line around what you see. So that culture I saw yesterday from where I was sitting was like that; whereas this one I can see now is like this. But these boundaries are of course constructed by you. They are heuristic, to help you make sense of what you see. But they are also dangerous because you might begin to think that these boundaries are an integral part of the culture itself. What is always good to realise is that everyone will see something different to what you see. The people next to you will construct different boundaries to the ones that you construct.

However, there is something else going on. Boundaries are often constructed for us by others – governments, education systems, advertising, the media, all sorts of groups (family, sports, religious, occupational, commercial and so on). Each of us also take part to lesser or greater degrees in these constructions, depending on the power we possess. Strictly speaking, these boundaries are features of whatever culture we are looking at. So it is part of the culture that such and such boundaries are constructed in such and such ways. However, for a lot of people it is not the constructions of the boundaries but the boundaries themselves that are defining features. This is complicated though. We may inside ourselves know that they are constructions; but for various reasons we will declare that they are real, especially in times of difficulty when we need to work hard to assert ourselves against others. And these assertions themselves take on particular senses of reality. Perhaps the more we are under pressure the more they seem real. And when our strongly asserted realities are pitched against different ones asserted by others, then we might go to war. The difficulties that accentuate these realities can be economic or political – scarcity of resources or lack of power and status.

These realities – constructed boundaries that take on lives of their own – are the basis of ideologies and grand narratives. The manner in which we form, consolidate, talk about, present them, oppose them, and so on, are discourses.

And notice, that as I proceed through this description, I shift from talking about culture as an uncountable to cultures as countables. It is so hard to continue speaking about culture without falling into the trap of boundaries.

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