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Global Affairs Blog

Culture Series: Overdefined and Yet Insufficient

By: Ebenezer Gyasi, JD ’19

Culture is complicated. Factor in class as a coefficient and you have a formidable beast to wrestle with in unpacking and understanding. The word is at once over defined and yet insufficient. At its core however, culture is fundamentally about the aspirational and actual traits, habits, mindsets, and customs that groups and nations alike practice or identify with. I use aspirational and actual to highlight the malleable nature of culture. Culture is neither purely fixed nor entirely fluid. Indeed, I would argue that the strength of a culture lies not in its immutability but rather in its adaptability. More on this later.

Perhaps in no other country is the question of culture as multifaceted and complex as the United States. The reasons for this are varied and well documented so I’ll spare you that here. (spoiler: America is the most diverse nation on earth in almost every measurable way). For our purposes today, I’ll focus on the two elements that comprise culture: family and religion. Family First. I grew up in two societies that have differing notions about family. In Ghana, specifically in the Akan tradition, family is conceived broadly where by one’s obligations and responsibilities are to a larger group of people with whom you share a common ancestry. The notion that it takes a village to raise a child is alive and well. In America, by contrast the distinction between the nuclear and extended family is more pronounced with most people thinking of family primarily (although increasingly not exclusively) at the biological level.

Interesting enough, the issue of social class in America furnishes the lens through which we view the family dynamics. In my experience, members of the working class, irrespective of race, tend to have a more robust broad conception of family and the concomitant loyalty that arises with thinking of people as family. One obvious reason for this social reality is certainly economic: when resources are limited, it makes practical sense to pool what is available for the betterment of those who depend on each other.

Another example. In 1964, the sale of condoms to unmarried persons was illegal in the state of Massachusetts, under their “Crimes against Chastity” laws. For those of you unfamiliar with American politics, Massachusetts is one of the stalwart liberal states in our union.  I refer to this historical fact for two reasons. First, it provides context for how, if not what, majority of Americans thought about the connection between marriage and family. Indeed, it should come to us at no surprise that older Americans do not recognize their country in its present form. Secondly, it forces us to critically assess the myriad ways culture changes commensurate with new laws, mores, etc. and ask the hard questions as to whether we are worse or better off as a result.

Religion, like culture, is often understood and described as a set of beliefs, value systems, norms, and practices. It has played a seismic role in American life since our founding.

Here, a quote from the 19th century French philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville sheds light on and is responsive to our topic today.

Religion in America … must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion-for who can search the human heart?-But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society”.

(Tocqueville, Alexis, Harvey C. Mansfield, and Delba Winthrop. Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

While American society has undoubtedly embraced a more secular vision today, I think De Tocqueville’s observation still rings largely true. Certainly, compared to our European counterparts, we as Americans are proud of our religious faiths and practices, holding them to be part and parcel of our larger culture. Look no further than the national outrage about President Trump’s Muslim ban, where you saw overwhelming swaths of our country, including even those who voted for him drawing the line in the sand there. Interestingly enough, new immigrants from places like West Africa, Asia, Latin and Central America are overwhelmingly people of faith who among other things, cherish the opportunity to practice their faith in a nation that has a long and defined tradition of doing just that. The strength of religion as part of American culture lies in the fact that despite the rise and growth of secular norms and scientific mode of thinking, it remains a core feature of how Americans of all ilk live or seek to live their lives.

In sum, the most organic conception of culture boils down to an essential question: would a collective/group recognize it as their own?  Here is another place where I think the nexus between class and culture is most robust, often transcending even racial identity. We can imagine the poor white southerner from rural Louisiana who has never been skiing, never watched Friends, and cringes at the possibility of cold weather. Several people I know immediately come to mind.

Conversely, we can just as readily imagine the black New Yorker, living in Upper Manhattan who thinks food stamps are stamps with pictures of food on them, prefers playing squash, and has more contact with European vacation spots than southern Georgia where his ancestry traces back to. The intercourse between class and culture.

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    Part IV in a Series that discusses, debates, and explores the idea of culture – beginning with its definition to how it intertwines with other social constructs and trends such as class, gender, sexuality, populism, and activism.