How do we define culture?
There are literally hundreds of different definitions as writers have attempted to provide the all-encompassing definition.
Culture consists of language, ideas, beliefs, customs, taboos, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, ceremonies and symbols. It has played a crucial role in human evolution, allowing human beings to adapt the environment to their own purposes rather than depend solely on natural selection to achieve adaptive success. Every human society has its own particular culture, or sociocultural system. (Adapted from source: Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Generally culture can be seen as consisting of three elements:
- Values – Values are ideas that tell what in life is considered important.
- Norms – Norms consists of expectations of how people should behave in different situations.
- Artefacts – Things or material culture – reflects the culture’s values and norms but are tangible and manufactured by man.
Origins and evolution of Cross-cultural analysis
The first cross-cultural analyzes done in the West, were by anthropologists like Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis H Morgan in the 19th century. Anthropology and Social Anthropology have come a long way since the belief in a gradual climb from stages of lower savagery to civilization, epitomized by Victorian England. Nowadays the concept of “culture” is in part a reaction against such earlier Western concepts and anthropologists argue that culture is “human nature,” and that all people have a capacity to classify experiences, encode classifications symbolically and communicate such abstractions to others.
Typically anthropologists and social scientists tend to study people and human behavior among exotic tribes and cultures living in far off places rather than do field work among white-collared literate adults in modern cities. Advances in communication and technology and socio-political changes started transforming the modern workplace yet there were no guidelines based on research to help people interact with other people from other cultures. To address this gap arose the discipline of cross-cultural analysis or cross-cultural communication. The main theories of cross-cultural communication draw from the fields of anthropology, sociology, communication and psychology and are based on value differences among cultures. Edward T. Hall, Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Shalom Schwartz and Clifford Geertz are some of the major contributors in this field.
How the social sciences study and analyze culture
Cultural anthropologists focus on symbolic culture whereas archaeologists focus on material and tangible culture. Sociobiologists study instinctive behavior in trying to explain the similarities, rather than the differences between cultures. They believe that human behavior cannot be satisfactorily explained entirely by ‘cultural’, ‘environmental’ or ‘ethnic‘ factors. Some sociobiologists try to understand the many aspects of culture in the light of the concept of the meme, first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins suggests the existence of units of culture – memes – roughly analogous to genes in evolutionary biology. Although this view has gained some popular currency, other anthropologists generally reject it.
Different types of cross-cultural comparison methods
Nowadays there are many types of Cross-cultural comparisons. One method is comparison of case studies. Controlled comparison among variants of a common derivation is another form of comparison. Typically anthropologists and other social scientists favor the third type called Cross-cultural studies, which uses field data from many societies to examine the scope of human behaviour and to test hypotheses about human behavior and culture.
Controlled comparison examines similar characteristics of a few societies while cross-cultural studies uses a sufficiently large sample that statistical analysis can be made to show relationships or lack of relationships between certain traits in question. The anthropological method of holocultural analysis or worldwide cross-cultural analysis is designed to test or develop a proposition through the statistical analysis of data on a sample of ten or more non literate societies from three or more geographical regions of the world. In this approach, cultural traits are taken out of the context of the whole culture and are compared with cultural traits in widely diverse cultures to determine patterns of regularities and differences within the broad base of the study.