Culture Defined and Dismantled: How Culture Informs Social Change

Culture is at the heart of what we study and attempt to understand within anthropology. Anthropology is, crudely, the study of culture. How do we even begin to talk about culture? How do we define it, describe it, differentiate it, understand it? Culture refers to people, but what about people subscribes them (us) to a particular culture, and how is the way in which we talk about our own culture going to be different from the way we talk about the culture of others? What defines a culture, and on what grounds- where are the lines? Who gets to say what makes up a cultural group, and what that means? I think that it is important to understand the inner workings of culture and how we relate to it if we are going to get any depth in understanding social change. There is so much to say about what has been said about culture, and so much to think about, theorize about, and reflect on; and we continue to think, theorize, and reflect on the things that have been thought about, theorized about, and reflected on. I will turn to Bourdieu and other theorists to think through how we can gain a better understanding of culture in an effort to work towards social change- especially in breaking the tension of ‘us versus them.’.

There have been many attempts at defining and describing culture, and together, they paint a picture that seems to come together, in a way, as if seen through the various lenses on that strange steampunk inspiring contraption the optometrist uses for eye exams; each lense clicking into place and providing a less blurry, more defined and detailed image. See, we need the different lenses, the different apertures of perspective and focus, to come together in order to get the clearest picture. Meaning, one lense doesn’t really cut it. However, even when the picture is clear, we have to recognize that we are still only seeing it from one angle. Pierre Bourdieu, as poetically worded as he can be, gave a simple, one word definition of culture- being that culture is a map. (1990) (More on this shortly.) Webb Keane further elaborates on this concept. “Schneider maintained that anthropology’s purpose is the study of cultures as ‘different conceptual schemes of what life is and how it should be lived’” (1972,44) (Keane, 2005). Keane emphasises that cultures are most concerned with how life ‘should’ be lived, possibly according to a map or manual, and are less concerned with how it plays out in reality; and hints that cultures manifest their own generic capacity to decide how to live. (Keane, 2005) This to me points to the simple fact that life is very life-like, by which I mean, life is complex and unpredictable, but also has a sense of manifest destiny, on a cultural level, at least.

You can write a script, or a map, but it doesn’t always play out the way that it is imagined or prescribed. “Schneider presumed a clear distinction between social and cultural systems and insisted that culture was distinct from actual behavior” (Keane, 2005). So, culture itself is not a determinant of behavior. I agree with that, but I might slightly disagree with Keane’s interpretation of Schneider and say that the distinction between social and cultural systems may be a bit murky- I would also say that the relationship between culture and behavior is a watery, indistinct connection. Culture influences behavior, but doesn’t determine it, and behavior influences culture, and sometimes, it becomes it. As in, certain human actions can heavily influence a culture, and in saying that, I am also saying that I believe culture is influenciable. It is also heavily influenced by the dominant class, who are usually the ones to write and promote the map that Bourdieu was talking about.

Bourdieu states that in the sense an “…outsider compensates for lack of practical mystery, by use of model of all possible routes” (1990, p2). The funny thing about maps, which he points out, is that although they claim to be accurate and are in effect quite useful, they are not to be taken perfectly literally. These things cannot be understood at face value, and really, you need to know how to read a map for it to make any amount of sense. For as Bourdieu says, it would be like expecting that “roads must be red if they correspond to red lines on a map” (1990, p29). Alas, you could drive down any of those red lines, and they would be the same grey color as all of the other roads. Here Bourdieu is also dissecting the concepts of rules, language, and how these things can be interpreted in so many different ways, in different context. I see this as an accurate portrait of culture- as a set of rules that are not taken literally, and can easily be misinterpreted. The problem comes when things are misinterpreted- and that happens, a lot.

When I was little, I thought that if I crossed the state border line, there would actually be some sort of a line there. I couldn’t believe that there wouldn’t be. The first time I visited the border between Connecticut and the state of New York, I found that this was not the case. There were signs on the roads, but if you were not on a road, you may have no way of knowing that you entered a different state, and there was nothing really different from one side to the other. This baffled my little brain, I must have been about four or five at the time.

When we approach different cultures, we almost approach as a child, still learning our manners, our roles, and what all the rules are that we need to follow. If we can take in new experiences in new places with new people with the curious eye of a child, possibly we could gain a better understanding than coming in with our predetermined reactions based on our own lives and experiences. This is much easier said than done. Bourdieu said that practical estimations give disproportionate weight to early experiences; as in the structures characteristic of a determinate type of condition of existence (sexual division of labor, domestic mortality, cares, strife, tastes, etc.) (1990, p78). These are often the things that we don’t even realize are things that are learned, because for each of us, these are the things that have always been that way. This creates the basis of perception and appropriation of all subsequent experience. (Bourdieu, 1977 p78) It is extremely difficult to detach from these original ’facts’ of life, and to understand that these ‘truths’ that we have always known vary vastly across different cultures.

These subliminal ideas, coming to us directly from the dominant Imperialist Western discourse, somehow implemented themselves in our brains from a very early age- that there is a ‘right’ way of living and doing things, and that everyone should strive for this ideal, and if you don’t something is wrong with you. One could reference the so called ‘American Dream’, which seems like an anxiety dream to me, more than anything. “Those who have the monopoly on discourse about the social world think differently when they are thinking of themselves and about others (other classes). They are readily spiritualist as regards to themselves, materialist towards others, liberal for themselves, teleological and intellectual for themselves, and mechanist, and dirigiste for others” (Bourdieu, 1990, p80). How we see ourselves and those like us is vastly different from how we see others who are different from us. But does that mean that they are looking at us as different from them, too? So who is right, and what is real?

We don’t make these things up on our own, as Sahlins would say- we work best in groups. And a culture is not the individual- but the group. Bourdieu strongly points out that “…practical evaluation of the likelihood of success of a given action in a given situation brings into play a whole body of wisdom, sayings, commonplaces, ethical precepts (‘that’s not for the likes of us’) and, at a deeper level, the unconscious principles of the ethos, determines ‘reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’ conduct” (1990, p77). So there are these complex designs of culture, with so many levels relating to what we would call common sense, ethics, values, and what is true and reasonable. But these unspoken aspects of life- are they all just inventions of our own stories, that have molded who we are, what we do and how we do it? How much control do we have to implement social change? If we can look to the deeper levels of discourse and ideology that make up what is ‘normal’ for a society, could we find ways to gain control, and instigate change on a fundamental, cultural level, which would affect behavior, and thus more change? Possibly.

I see culture as coming off of the map, and transforming into a living, breathing feedback loop. Of course there are forces of control and power that overwhelm this, and try to lay it all out on a two dimensional map that visibly separates ‘us’ from ‘them,’ whether geographically, or in whatever ways. This tends to oversimplify things, lock them within lines, and this is why we hear things such as someone coming ‘from the wrong side of the tracks.’ What is ultimately problematic in approaching culture is not the fact that it is different in different places and among different groups, but that we are deeply taught to approach difference with fear, judgement, and elitism. What I am arguing for is to recognize this as a learned approach, and try to approach difference with kindness and curiosity, with a sense of newness and also respect. But those are my opinions coming out. These are things I think are worth considering as we try to work towards social change, and really, to create a new normal.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1977. Print.

Graeber, David. “Radical Alterity Is Just Another Way of Saying “reality”: A Reply to Eduardo Viveiros De Castro.” Hau HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5, no. 2 (2015): 1–41.

Keane, Webb. The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Sahlins, Marshall David. The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1976.