What is Culture?

Recently I’ve been wondering what exactly culture is. I’ve never really come across that many definitions that include both an academic definition and what exactly constitutes culture. This is my attempt to offer such a definition.

According to Wikipedia, ” “culture” in American anthropology had two meanings:

  1. the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and
  2. the distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively.”

So culture, according to anthropologists, has something to do with human creativity.

According to Denis O’Neil, culture has 3 layers:

  1. the collective body of cultural traditions that distinguish a specific society,
  2. subcultures within that society, and
  3. cultural universals, which are learned behavior patterns that are shared by all of humanity collectively.

I believe it is a good idea to define my understanding of what each of these means, just to be clear. A societal cultural tradition may include sporting events or national holidays, for example, such as Independence Day in the USA. A subculture is a sub-group within a larger cultural group. A cultural universal is some aspect of culture that is shared among all cultural groups.

It is important to distinguish between these 3 ‘layers’ of culture because different aspects of culture belong to different cultural ‘layers’.

But what constitutes culture?

Culture is made up of various creative works, such as music, films, books, blogs, TV shows, paintings, and sculptures. Some of those creative works are produced, almost manufactured, by large film and record companies.

An example of this is the music of Rihanna. I imagine that the record companies go through more or less the same ‘motions’, or process, to make a new song or album for Rihanna as they would for other musicians. One thing that stands out to me about this process is that the musician gets little or no say in the process of making the music, they simply do what they’re told to by the producers or others within the record company, or they at least appear to based on what I’ve read.

Some creative works are also produced by individuals or groups of individuals that don’t deal with big corporations, such as the music that can be found on Bandcamp, Jamendo, Soundcloud and Battle of the Bits (a more obscure, esoteric example), and the video that can be found on YouTube, Vimeo and Blip.tv. There are also many books and ebooks that are released via services such as Amazon that are released by individuals who aren’t dealing with big publishing companies. There are also ‘open textbooks‘ being released. An example of music that is produced by an individual that I have come across recently is the music made by 4mat, which can be found on Bandcamp and can be (legally) downloaded for free. Many musicians are able to be successful without signing deals with the big record companies, such as Ed Sheeran (see the second paragraph of this article) and the Chicago-based group The Cool Kids (see the sixth paragraph of this article).

Some view the creative works produced by big record companies, and other such companies, as being garbage. For an example of this, take a look at this video from Tek Syndicate, from 12:26 onwards:

I quite like this video, as it’s very informative, even if it is somewhat sensationalised (which they did intentionally), so if you want to know more about what’s bad about the ‘Six Strikes’ plan in the USA, I’d highly recommend you take a look at the whole video. Much of what they talk about also applies to countries with similar laws, such as the three strikes laws in New Zealand and in France.

I personally don’t like the vast majority of the stuff produced by the big record companies, as I tend to listen to electronic music genres (known collectively as EDM, or Electronic and Dance Music), such as the trance music made by Above & Beyond and the progressive and experimental music made by Andrew Bayer. However, that’s my opinion, and I don’t expect you to agree with my opinion. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the music and films produced by the large media companies can’t be considered culture, because there is at least some amount of creativity that goes into the production of their music and films. I believe that the creative works made by individuals such as 4mat is much more creative and culturally important than the works created by the film and record companies. That’s because it is not produced by adhering to a strict formula as is the case for the music performed by the likes of Rihanna, or by sticking to the tried-and-true film genres and franchises.

Summary

Culture is the collection of creative works produced by big media companies and created by individuals or small groups. Some view the creative works produced by the big media companies as garbage, which I would be inclined to agree with (at least most of the time), but there are some things produced by the big media companies that I do like. The total amount of creative works that have been created is very large. For example, there are more than 20 million users on Soundcloud according to Wikipedia.

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