Anthropologists describe patterns of behavior that are common within a particular population of people—a culture. This is sometimes referred to as the dominant or mainstream culture. In using the word dominant, do not confuse this with “majority.” The dominant culture may be a result of political power and not absolute numbers of people. However, the dominant culture draws on other cultures, adding and dropping elements that are seen to be either beneficial or no longer necessary. Within the dominant culture, there are subcultures that vary somewhat from the mainstream. Even at the individual level there may be differences from the dominant culture. Keep in mind that while anthropologists talk about these general patterns, it is acknowledged that there is variation within any given culture. The levels that are discussed below is a classification system. Classification systems help people organize the plethora of information that comes their way, breaking it down into understandable units. The levels of culture allow us to understand culture in smaller interconnected units.
The overarching patterns described by anthropologists can be grouped at several different levels. The levels move from general to specific. While most people don’t think about their culture at the most general levels, these levels do impact our cultures even if we’re not aware of it. As mentioned above, one of the criticisms of the culture concept is that it generalizes and stereotypes groups of people. Indeed as you read about the levels of culture you may agree with this criticism. However, these generalizations can be used to develop a starting point in learning about a culture.
International: this is divided into two categories: Western culture and Eastern culture. Historically, the division fell along two lines: religion and industry.
Eastern culture is usually thought of as non-industrial; however, through the process of modern development, this line is less clear than it used to be.
Eastern culture also refers to a different way of thinking, which is best exemplified in the East’s religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Interdependence of people is a defining characteristic of “eastern” philosophy. Duty to family over self is stressed.
The other thing that encapsulates eastern culture is their approach to healing—in the east, it is generally identified as ancient, naturalistic traditions…think acupuncture and herbal remedies.
Western culture arose out of the philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome. Currently it is characterized by industrial economies where capitalism rules and behavior geared for independent success is stressed. Western cultures are predominately Christian or Islamic. In regards to health, institutionally educated doctors and scientifically developed medicines are predominant.
There is much variation within Western and Eastern cultures, but think in terms of dominance. Eastern cultures do encourage people to develop their skills; it’s just that it is not for themselves, but for their group (which can be family, village, or some other entity). In western cultures, duty to family is not absent; it’s just not stressed as strongly.
Keep in mind that the East vs. West mentality or approach is rapidly breaking down through the process of globalization and not all levels will apply to every culture.
The variability of the international level can be broken down into various subcultures, starting with the most general, the National. Subcultures incorporate values and norms from the more general levels, but perhaps not all of the same values and norms.
National: Just as the word implies, we’re talking about a country’s culture. For instance, if someone talks about Ireland, Russia, or Brazil certain mental pictures come to mind.
Regional: Nations are frequently divided into regions. If we were to talk about the United States in terms of the South, the Midwest, or the Southwest, we start to make some assumptions about the culture of individuals from those geographic regions, e.g., the Midwest is populated by farmers.
State-level: Within regions, there are often states, provinces, or territories. If we picked a state in the United States, many people would start to form a mental picture of the people there. If we were to choose an east coast state such as Massachusetts we would make some assumptions about the people’s forms of dress, speech, etc., that is very different from what would assume if the person was from California.
Local: This level could be along the lines of urban vs. suburban vs. rural or it could be something like Seattle vs. Tacoma. It could be a neighborhood or an occupation. There are simply a lot of ways to view the local.
Counter-cultures: Counter-cultures go against something in the mainstream or dominant culture. The classic example of a counter-culture is the hippie/protest movement during the 1960s in the United States. A more recent example is the anti-globalization movement.
The final level of culture, and the most specific, is the idiosyncratic culture. This refers to our personal culture. We are influenced by and choose norms from all of the previous levels of culture to create our personal cultures. Our family and friends are often most influential, but as we mature and move away from home our personal culture may begin to look nothing like the culture we grew up in.
Clearly, all of these levels of cultures are broad generalizations. There is variety of culture in any given place in the world. What these broad generalizations do is provide us with a level of expectations. They help us cope with the unknown. Problems arise when people use these generalizations as a way to judge other peoples. Ethnocentrism, the judging of others using your own culture as the standard, contributes to negative views of The Other and is a way to dehumanize another human being, a necessary step before being able to compete successfully against our fellow humans.
Culture is both overt and covert. There are elements of culture that we are specifically taught–they are overt…how to eat with utensils or how to ride a bicycle. But there are also elements that we are not taught—they are covert and picked up most likely through observation…a good example of this is proxemics. Proxemics refers to our personal bubble—how much space we need around our physical person. In the United States, we have a large personal bubble. We don’t like people to get near to us unless invited. Standing smashed up against someone else on the bus is considered bad manners in the US and is only tolerated if there is absolutely no choice. We aren’t specifically taught this; we pick it up through observation.
We think about our culture, particularly our national culture, in its ideal form. For instance, when asked to describe the values of US culture, people often mention equality, democracy, and freedom. The reality of US culture is that there is not complete equality of citizens and some believe the US only promotes democracy unequally across the globe.
All of these things contribute to our worldview. Worldview is a way of understanding how the world works and what our place is in it. Everyone has a worldview that impacts their perceptions and interpretations of events occurring in their lives. Some people think everyone else interprets or sees things the same way they do. This is referred to as naïve realism. We all start out that way, but through education, our naïve realism lessens as we learn about other people’s perspectives…in effect, our culture is changing.
Bohannan, Paul and Mark Glazer. 1988. High Points in Anthropology, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Tylor, Edward Burnett. 1920 . Primitive Culture. New York: J.P. Putnam’s Sons.