In a previous post, I explained that culture is how people think and behave. But, does every person in a certain culture act the exact same way? Well, consider yourself. You are part of at least one culture. Do you behave the exact same way as other people in your culture? No! So, why is this? Shouldn’t everyone who grows up in a culture be the same?
No, because people are individuals. For example, people have different social identities. Some people are male, and some are female, while others have different kinds of gender identities. Some people are children, others are teenagers, some are adults, and others are elderly. Some people are rich, and some people are poor, and some people are in-between.
All these groups of people behave differently. If that’s hard to imagine, think about the behavior of an elderly woman. Would you expect her to be dancing at a nightclub to the latest music? Probably not. You would expect her to be at home, perhaps doing a quiet activity like knitting or reading. Different groups of people are expected to behave (and do behave) in different ways, even in the same culture.
The behavior of individuals is also different because of different contexts and situations. Imagine yourself talking to a child. Next, imagine yourself talking to your best friend. Then imagine yourself talking to your boss. I’ll bet that you talk differently with each of them, and behave differently around each of them as well. The context–the situation–is different, so you behave differently.
Another reason why people in a culture behave differently is because everyone is unique. We all like and dislike different things, and we respond to the same events differently, and we interpret things differently. So, even though we are in the same culture, we are unique individuals with our own unique characteristics.
Even though people in a certain culture are all different, there are still larger patterns in their behavior. This is because culture provides rules about how to behave, along with ideas and values. We learn our culture’s way of doing things as we grow up, through a process called enculturation. Because of this process, people in a culture share a set of beliefs and behaviors, even though as individuals they are all different.
However, there also can be subcultures–these are groups of people that have norms and values that are different from the main, dominant culture. Norms are ideas about the way things should be done in certain situations. For example, in the United States, when you meet someone, you should shake hands. Values are ideas about ways of life that are best for society. For example, in the United States, advancing technology is seen as a positive thing, and important. In addition to subcultures, there can also be countercultures. A counterculture is when a group of people intentionally starts thinking and behaving differently from mainstream society.
As you can see, culture does not mean that everyone in that culture thinks and behaves exactly the same–people have different social identities, people act differently based on the situation, and people are all unique. However, members of a certain culture still all share some ways of thinking and behaving, which they learned through enculturation. But there is also even more complexity, as within a culture there can be subcultures and countercultures–groups that have different norms and values from the dominant cultural norms and values.
So, culture is complex! When Cultural Anthropologists study a culture, they need to figure out what beliefs and behaviors are individual, and which are shared parts of the culture. What aspects of YOUR life are individual, and what aspects are cultural? Post your answers in the Anthropology 4U Blog Comments Forum!
For an interesting article on cultural norms and tolerance of deviant behavior, check out Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study. The article is free, but you will need to register.
Thanks for reading!