Defining ‘culture’- Do I dare go there?

Culture: A slippery, ever-evolving, relative term.

evolving digital culture/s = no culture?

Should we even try to attempt a definition of this notion? As much as I am not inclined to label or define anything, I think for the sake of starting a dialogue and establishing my own position in a blog that I call ‘Digital culture and translation, it might be worthwhile to explore some of the earlier definitions, trying to understand their shortcomings and strengths.

Let’s start with Clyde Kluckhohn. Back in the forties, he attempted a fairly minimalist characterisation of the term:

“the group’s knowledge stored up for future use


Later, Clifford Geerts added dynamism to Kluckhohn’s definition by stating that culture is:

“the fabric of meaning in terms of which human beings interpret their experience and guide their action

(quoted in Hinkson 1977:43)

Scollon and Scollon (1985:126) interpreted culture in its anthropological sense (i.e. culture in relation to ‘any of the customs, worldview, language, kinship system, social organisation, and other taken-for-granted day-to-day practices of a people’ as

any aspect of the ideas, communications or behaviours of a group of people which gives to them a distinctive identify and which is used to organise their internal sense of cohesion and membership”

(Scollon and Scollon, 1985:127).

In this definition, culture plays a central role in the formation of social structures. Scollon and Scollon construct culture from many interdependent symbols and meanings projected from the past of societies. Although similar symbols and forms occur in various societies, the sense of which each one speaks, the system of which they are a part, is of a particular place and time. This singularity carves an identity and creates a “universe of discourse”(Barnlund 1968:32) for its members. Thanks to this formation, those participating in the culture can interpret their experiences and convey them to one another. The discourse to which they belong is transmitted to each generation. Transmission is done in part conscioulsy – by means of education systems, media, government programs – and in part unconsciously – by being a constant in people’s lives that permeates their thoughts and actions and by functioning as patterns for appropriate ways of communicating.

Schutz (1982:229) has put it this way:

“We, the actors on the social scene, experience the world we live in as a world both of nature and of culture, not as a private but as an intersubjetctive one, that is, a world common to all of us, either actually given or potentially accessible to everyone. Soon, the individual creates for him/herself a distinctive world, fashioned around the meanings caputred int he environment where the personal and the cultural, the communicative and the cultural start to interact.”

Charles Taylor (1989:22) brings the community into Schutz’s more individualistic understanding of culture and refers to a common universe of discourse in the following manner:

“Common meanings are the basis of community. Intersubjective meaning gives a people a common language to talk about social reality and a common understanding of certain norm, but only with common meaning does this common reference word contain significant common actions, celebrations and feelings”.

Bauman (1986:4) argues that the function of Taylor’s common meanings is to grant coherence to communities. This coherence will form a sense of belonging. Moments on this dimension may be reactivated at any time as part of the historical communication systems we are born into. These moments can be reflected both in individual and communal voices which are embodied in technical processes, in institutions, in patterns for general behaviour, in forms for transmission and diffusion and in pedagogical forms (Foucault, 1971). The voices in our lives are part of ideological spheres and often become practices which subject individuals (Macdonell 1986:101).

The definition given by Diane Macdonell to culture adds a power element to this notion. Her argument is that cultures are discourses that are constructed by ideologies. Humans construct ideologies – ‘practical system of actions, meanings and beliefs ‘ (MacDonell 1986:101) – to satisfy specific needs. To transform their needs into reality, humans erect institutions which in turn are defined and channelled by culture. Because their needs change so do institutions and by default so do cultures.

Humans produce endless meanings which need to be constantly structured according to rules. Culture is the structuring process of meanings. We use langauge to:

1. carry on the unending structuring of meanings (Bauman 1973:57) and

2. handle the world and ourselves.

If we assume that meaning is converted into speech and that language is a structuring instrument that shapes meanings taken from the environment, the a vinculum is established between language and culture.

Language users learn the correct usage of a language by staying within the boundaries of :

1. appropriate grammatical structures and

2. shared conceptions of truthfulness and meanings.

When communication is affected by cultural diversity, conceptions of truth may be no longer shared.

How do these varied conceptions of truth become reflected in today’s digital world? Do we need to make an effort in reflecting cultural diversity on on the net or should we grab this chance to move towards a universalised digital world? Would love to hear your opinion.


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