Think Twice Before You Use the Word ‘Culture’ Again

When we think of the word Culture, most often than not, we think of what I like to call the ‘container definition’ of culture. This ‘container definition’ of culture has become a more popular definition due to the constant misuse of the term in the over-generalized as well as over-essentialized mass media. The term ‘container definition’ originates from people’s misconceptions of the word ‘Culture’ which is best described with an analogy of a container. The container, which symbolizes human culture, is concrete and rigid. Furthermore, it has very distinct classifications of ‘in’ and ‘out’ regulated by the physical boundaries of its static nature. Such concrete interpretations of human culture therefore, assumes a binary status to human beings (either you are a part of a culture, or you are not) as well as homogenizes those who are ‘in’ the container (culture).

Such politicization of culture due to the ‘container definition’ can be observed in our daily conversations. From personal experiences, I have heard many people ask me “What would you think the biggest difference is between American culture and Japanese culture?” Immediately we can notice the politicization of the term: ‘American culture’ and ‘Japanese culture’. This becomes problematic because it neglects the social reality that culture is in fact arbitrary. Through associating the term ‘culture’ to a collective social group, especially to larger socially constructed groups such as nation-states, one inductively encapsulates ‘insider’ individuals under similar attributes leading to a misguided perception of homogeneity.

As much as we would like to reject these realities that could decompose and restructure our entire identities, concrete and static definitions of culture that imposes sociocultural homogeneity on different collective social groups are simply not true. Rather, the concept of human culture is more fluid and abstract. It is in a constant state of flux as it is changing from one second to the next. Instead of picturing a container where individuals are either in or out,  culture is more of a versatile cloud which individuals refer to when constructing their identities. Imagine human culture as being a giant buffet of colorful playdough, each color representing a different aspect of culture, where individuals can pick out different colors to incorporate within their own identities. Indeed, many people’s playdough will have similar colors as other individuals (those who speak the same language for example will have similar colored playdough). However, no two playdough will ever be completely identical.

If still skeptical of the matter, try asking different individuals who identify as and who you perceive to be belonging to the same collective group or community the question: What does it mean to be a insert-community-name-here (ex:- Japanese)? I guarantee that each person you ask will give you a completely different answer unrelated to the previous.


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