What is Culture?

What is Culture?

By Katie Ford
This past weekend I attended a conference in Paris held by the Associate of American Universities in France, and walked away with a handful of fantastic field contacts, and a whole lot of questions that still needed pondering.  The most troublesome, or most interesting, question that I continue to have is the question of culture, and how to best define it.
The question, “what is culture?” is one often posed by those working in the field of international education.  In fact, the answers to this question and how we react to them is vital to the success of our mission.  So it would make sense that there is a definition that is widely agreed upon in the field, right?  Not exactly.  Sure, there are some definitions or explanations that most do agree upon, but the idea of culture has changed so much since it was first introduced as a concept by anthropologists, that it is truly a challenge to precisely define it as a “thing” that can be explained, understood, or even immersed into.  Dictionary.com defines culture a the following: “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture;the drug culture.”  For the purposes of study abroad, the ethnic group is most relevant.
I have lived in three cultures during my lifetime, based on the broad definition that culture is a set of values and other traits particular to a group of people, or the “ethnic group” as defined by dictionary.com.  These three cultures include American, British/Welsh, and French.  But that brings up an even broader question- what exactly is American or British or French culture?  Saying that I’ve lived solely in these three cultures does a disservice to the places I’ve actually lived, by suggesting that all of France, Britain, and America have only one culture.  So, if we can agree that there is no such this as an overarching American culture, but many small regional ones, then is my culture that of my hometown in New York?  Or is it possible that I have adopted the culture of central Pennsylvania where I attended university for four years?  When I was living in the south of France was I “immersed” into French culture or Provencal culture?  And living in Cardiff, is what I’m experience the culture of Britain or of Wales, or even just of Cardiff, as most will agree that Cardiff is significantly different than towns in north Wales?  It is these questions that haunt me as an international education professional, because if I am unable to define exactly what culture is, and exactly which culture exists in which places, how am I to advise students on the way to integrate into these cultures and compare them to their own?  Cultural integration is another tricky topic; many people study abroad with the intention of “immersing” themselves into their host culture.  But what exactly does it mean to immerse yourself into a culture?  Do you just need to make some local friends and eat the same food, or does immersion go deeper than that?  I would argue that in a semester, or even in a year, it’s impossible to adopt the entire value system of the host culture, so if that’s what immersion means then it probably isn’t even possible.
All of these questions are extremely relevant for both international education professionals, and for students who are about to embark on a study abroad experience.  Most students will be asked the question “what is culture?” before they depart, and they will be asked to consider the stereotypes of their host country, and how to dig deeper to find the truths about the country despite the stereotypes that they are aware of.  But the truth is, the answer to the culture question may be different for everyone, and what immersion into a culture actually means will also probably be different for everyone.  When traveling or living abroad, learning something about your host culture, whether that means the local art, language, habits, values, etc., is vital to understanding the place that your visiting, and will benefit you greatly in many ways.  Entering into these types of experiences with little or no expectations will also allow you to fully experience your new surroundings in a way that is untainted by your previous expectations.  Although it may be significantly more challenging, the element of surprise when you arrive in your host culture will allow you to discover things about that host culture that you may never have noticed otherwise if you’d gone abroad with knowledge already built up.  A certain amount of research about traditions and such will be helpful to you, of course, but those things must be used as a gateway to understanding the depths of your host culture while you are living there.

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