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File:Mush culture diagram.gif
Diagram of various mushroom cultures (from attra.ncat.org)

In 2008, culture is defined in two broad categories: first, the product of various biological cultivations (as in the cultivation of plants, soil, bacteria, breeding animals, etc) and second, in reference to the cultivation of the human mind and practices (that is, sets of socially transmitted practices, beliefs and expressions amongst groups of people within societies and nations, and whole societies and nations).

Culture can describe the way people speak, play, dance, interact, fight, learn and make art. Those who share in a culture might be associated by geography, class, race, ideology or cyberspace. They might be associated by region or by a whole country. Culture can refer to a group of beliefs and practices belonging to an organization - as in corporate culture - or to a period in history - as in 18th century British culture - or even specific events in history - as in the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

File:Culture diagram.jpg
"Model of Peoplehood" by Tom Holm at the University of Arizona (from pbs.org).

This Wiki

← ways to conceptualize culture

In this collaboration, we and our cohort found that most of the usages we came across were descriptions of practices. Nonetheless, even within that narrow definition, several "kinds" of culture were claimed, beginning with Susan Crean's triad of "mass culture," "elite culture" and "vernacular culture." Culture can be defined in such categories, but by no means should be, and despite the messy overlap of trying to map culture categorically, several dimensions of culture will be explored in this wiki.

One person's experience with culture - such as an instance of culture shock - can be drastically different from another's experience within the same cultural setting. Likewise, the meaning assigned to various aspects of culture can be very different depending on one's perspective in relation to those aspects - e.g., the various meanings assigned to Hip Hop culture. Some people believe Hip Hop is a culture that creates and perpetuates violence, whereas others believe that Hip Hop is a culture that is a reaction to the violence that already exists in our society and works to expose the social forces that perpetuate violence against urban youth of color (see farness4hiphop).

George Yudice sees culture in these modern uses as the “intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development; the way of life of a people, group, or humanity in general; and the works and practices of intellectual and artistic activity” (Burgett, Hendler, 2007, 71). If this is the case, "culture" is something we all inherently have and experience everyday, so perhaps a definition is useful, categories notwithstanding.

Culture is…art and performance

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The State of Connecticut has a department for arts and culture (from CT.gov)

Culture is often intoned in conjunction with “arts.” These two are treated as sisters, even twins. Where one goes, the other usually follows, making the two terms synonymous or interchangeable. Culture has come to evoke musical practices, performance, dance, craft and all other plastic arts. In fact, most major U.S. cities have an arts and culture department. Culture is, in these cases, a kind of roux for plastic and performance art – the milieu in which art is created and disseminated.

The close association of the two words, art and culture, is not, however, absolutely symbiotic. Whereas arts and culture organizations, magazines, websites and programs abound, it is harder to find a program with culture, all by itself, in the title. Rather, we require some kind of adjective or partner (like art) to help us make sense of ‘culture’ – hip hop culture, society and culture, organizational culture. Culture becomes nonsensical out of context.

While in the U.S. there is some uneasiness about the place and importance of culture (and arts), in Argentina there is no such ambivalence. A recent Seattle Times travel article about Buenos Aires [1] touted that government's pride in its role as a producer of culture in the region. In fact, to maintain its position and stimulate growth, the government subsidized "most cultural activities," making them free. The article does not say what kind of activities are considered "cultural," but in this manner, Buenos Aires is providing arts and culture accessible to all people to stimulate growth, appreciation and investment in arts and culture, while simultaneously tying the Buenos Aires arts-culture environment to the city of Buenos Aires and the nation of Argentina.

Artistic Freedom

In America, the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment's protection of artistic expression very broadly. It extends not only to books, theatrical works and paintings, but also to posters, television, music videos and comic books - whatever the human creative impulse produces.

Two fundamental principles come into play whenever a court must decide a case involving freedom of expression. The first is "content neutrality": the government cannot limit expression just because any listener, or even the majority of a community, is offended by its content. In the context of art and entertainment, this means tolerating some works that we might find offensive, insulting, outrageous -- or just plain bad. The second principle is that expression may be restricted only if it will clearly cause direct and imminent harm to an important societal interest. The classic example is falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a stampede. Even then, the speech may be silenced or punished only if there is no other way to avert the harm (see ACLU on Artistic Freedom and the Constitution).

Culture police

All of which begs the question of when culture is a manifestation of the people and when it is a way to enforce "internalizing control" within civil society (T.Miller 1993; Bennett 1995). Potentially, a city, state or national government could have control over what is deemed worthy to produce in terms of arts and culture. Former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Bill Ivey, recently released Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights[2] in which he argues that "[t]he expanding footprint of copyright, an unconstrained arts industry marketplace, and a government unwilling to engage culture as a serious arena for public policy have come together to undermine art, artistry, and cultural heritage—the expressive life of America". He proposes a Cultural Bill of Rights, reminding us that culture should be a right, not a privilege.

Cultural Oppression

Oppression (from nmazca.blog)

Franz Fanon, Susanne Pharr, Paulo Freire, and other scholars on oppression and psychology have identified concepts of horizontal oppression and vertical oppression to map out how we are policed and how we police ourselves culturally. While vertical oppression is defined as oppression from dominant powers, such as state policies or legal discrimination, horizontal oppression refers to when oppressed people target their anger towards their own oppressed group, rather than targeting the powers that have created their oppressive situation. For example, when Black people attack other Black people who go to college by saying they are "turning white." Horizontal oppression can also occur amongst advantaged groups. For example when white people attack other white people who are trying to dismantle racism by calling them racial slurs (Adams, Bell, Griffin, 47).

Culture is…cultivation of the mind: Education

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Children learning
Children learning

Education is one of the key institutions for transmitting culture - but what is the impact to culture and society when there are very different opportunities for education depending on your zip code?

When education is oppressive and/or when culture becomes oppressive and denies autonomy, there is often resistance. Some people use the arts to re-envision culture and help change the individual roles of human beings as cultural agents.

Here are a few documentaries on cultural and social change through the arts:

Favela Rising documents a man and a movement, a city divided and a favela (Brazilian squatter settlement) united. Haunted by the murders of his family and many of his friends, Anderson Sá is a former drug-trafficker who turns social revolutionary in Rio de Janeiro’s most feared slum. Through hip-hop music, the rhythms of the street, and Afro-Brazilian dance education he rallies his community to counteract the violent oppression enforced by teenage drug armies and sustained by corrupt police.

In Mad Hot Ballroom 5th graders from New York City's public schools are followed as they learn various forms of ballroom dancing. Through the students eyes the viewer watches them transform from cootie-conscious pre-teens into confident, ambitious competitors.

Culture is... Pop

WOW Blog on China's Popular Culture

In Latin America and Africa "popular" culture often refers more toward the mass culture of the working class. In the U.S. and Europe popular culture can be described as mass-produced culture. The difference in these manifestations is that Third World mass culture is popular because of widespread practice - the cultures of farming, religion, community engagement - whereas Western mass culture is commercialized for profit.

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Image from African Arts and Popular Culture Series at the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities

Pop culture in Africa is changing with the influence of new democracies across the continent. Cultural tension can be found in many of the lyrics, paintings, plays and artifacts created by pop culture artists as they struggle to define their history and their future in light of colonialism.

Artists and cultural scholars on Africa:

  • Shaheen Ariefdien, "Cape Flats Up-Rocking: On Race, Resistance and Rap in South Africa."
  • Obiora Udechukwu "If You Call Your Plate a Potsherd...' The Postcolonial Artist and Tradition"
  • Isolde Brielmaier and Trevor Schoonmaker, art curators of exhibits on pop culture and global-political culture.

Culture is…a way to objectify

=== Ethnic Culture === Too often, when we think of culture, we think of "ethnic culture" - African culture, Spanish culture, Polynesian culture, etc. - as though these are discrete artifacts that exist ahistorically, rather than as living, changing, porous practices that influence and are influenced. Culture becomes reified and objectified as a Thing and its members delimited as Others/things.

For instance, in the course of telling a young woman about the Cultural Studies program, she gushed in response: "Oh, I love cultures! Which one is your favorite?" As sweet and funny as this sounds to us now, it nonetheless demonstrates a sense of distance, even branding, of ‘culture.’ Obviously the young woman was thinking of ethnic cultures. But in referring to them the same way one would refer to ice cream flavors or bands, her own culture "disappears". She can pick a favorite and compare her 'taste' to others'.

Co opting Other Cultures

Picking favorites and adopting pieces of them is nothing new. When coming in contact with other cultures, there is a tendency by some to romanticize that culture and adopt certain aspects of it, without actually having to deal with legacies of pain and oppression. A classic example is the adoption of Indigenous culture by non-Indigenous people. This film made by Terry Macy and Daniel Hart (Native Voices at the University of Washington): "White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men" offers a very good look at this phenomenon (this is only part of the film that is available on You Tube):

White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men Part 1

White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men Part 2

This is not to say that there are not respectful ways to celebrate and honor the expressions and arts of others, be they part of one's own culture or that of distant peoples. Arguably, culture has been shared throughout human history in both violent and nonviolent manners, lending to the concept of cultural diffusion.

Culture is…the way we do business

In and of itself, culture is rarely sinister, though it can be used to describe sinister practices, as with "culture of corruption." In this usage, culture has little or nothing to do with foods, songs, languages or art, but has everything to do with norms within a group of associated people. A culture of corruption implies the acceptance (if not expectation) that bribes, kickbacks, physical violence, dirty deals, and profit at the expense of others are the norm. “Culture” then, has been used to replace “customs.”

This is also the case with "corporate culture." Again, culture is used in place of 'practices' or 'norms' of behavior within a corporate environment, which can include acceptable dressing and interacting. Using culture in these phrases, however, conveys a sense of pervasiveness; a mode of interacting and behaving that has become so common as to go unnoticed.

It is a small shift in the way culture is used - to mean norms, but one that is being deployed more and more. In some cases, culture is being pulled even farther from its usual definitions. See Republican Vice Presidential candidate (2008) Sarah Palin's use of the term "Culture of Life" as she argued against the Pro Choice movement. The phrase Culture of Life does not describe a group whose lifestyles are particularly life-giving or life-sustaining. She is not describing shared rituals or practices, language or expectations. Instead, the term is used to invite audiences to place her opponent in a culture that is opposite of life.

Culture vs…social structure

Wilson on inner city culture vs social structure in perpetuating cycles of poverty

The Transmission of Culture

Key to creating cultural space is how we create and transmit ideas of culture. In many societies, communication, media, storytelling, ritual, educational institutions, religious institutions, and the workplace are the primary transmitters of culture and social norms that shape the way people behave, think, and interact in society and in the various groups and communities in which they belong. Multimedia technology has advanced to a point where most people in first world economies can easily produce their own media and this is having a revolutionary impact on media authorship and self-representation. Helen De Michiel offers the following reflection on the changes happening with mass-access to production: "We are, as Ellen Schneider of Active Voice points out, no longer independent mediamakers, but interdependent ones. That is, we are now free (no "need" for expensive tools, distributors, broadcasters, etc., to release the work to audiences) to exchange and share ideas with our "users" and thus open up a myriad of ways to approach, use, and even change the media piece and redefine its place in our communal cultural habitat. 'The work we create as individuals, or in clusters, will simply become part of the larger flow of cultural images, ideas, and evolving patterns of dialogue. In this, emerging era of open-source media, with its constant surge of new tools and delivery mechanisms, the biggest task facing us is how to understand our individual contributions and redefine their deep human value not only as entertainment or advocacy, but as a way to stimulate dialogue with oneself, the community, and throughout the global media space none of us can escape" (From "A mosaic of practices: public media and participatory culture").


Punk Subculture

Subcultures are often described as cultures within culture. Groups of people that share common elements in lifestyle, belief, or an activity that is a defining factor in their identity could be described as part of a subculture. For example, punks are generally connected by an ideology of anarchy against mainstream social norms, a particular sense of fashion, and common taste in music and cultural icons.

Culture Online

Online Social Spaces Map from: www.notcot.com

Online culture continues to grow in new ways – from social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace to personal blogs and real-time updates with Twitter to the many wonders of YouTube. These sites allow us new avenues in which we express ourselves, opinions, thoughts as well as connect across a broad network of other users. Though this culture is similar to the arts in terms of self-expression the fact that users can remain anonymous within these arenas makes it markedly different.

Keywords in Culture

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Robot Goddess (from WIRED Robot Gallery)



Counter Culture





Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook By Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, Pat Griffin Contributor Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, Pat Griffin Published by CRC Press, 2007 ISBN 041595200X, 9780415952002

Keywords for American Cultural Studies Edited by Bruce Burgett, Glenn Hendler Published by New York University Press, 2007