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A Study on the Concept of Culture

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/07/19; July 19, 2005.]

By Ngawang Namgyal

The study of culture became established as a distinct field of study in early 20th century. With finding of the human evolutionary theory and later cultural evolutionary theory in the later half of 19th century, it became a field of study for intellectuals. Before that, it was not a serious field of study. With the advent of period of Enlightenment in Britain in 18th century, however, a normative concept of culture was formed but it was not until the theory came about that it came to be learnt widely.

In the 15th century, the term, 'culture' appears to have been first coined. It derived from the Latin word, cultura, meaning "cultivation", or "tending". To go a little back into the past, during the time of Herodotus, the renowned Greek historian in 4th century B.C, it appears that there have been a few studies done on culture. Nearer to our time, in the 14th century, another few studies on culture was carried out by some intellectuals. But, all of them were based on second-hand information, and branding them as study on culture does not seem to be altogether right. These studies covered different subjects like classification and effect of environment, economy and sociology upon different cultures.

Despite serious anthropological study began on culture in early 20th century, it, however, came to be defined in many different ways due to severely materialistic attitude held by the researchers and scholars. Most studies had been pursued based on etic perspective which focused solely on pre-established categories of a culture, refraining from involving the people or social agents in them. From the second half of the 20th century onward, due to changing socio-political situation, the study of culture has been carried out from an emic perspective. Yet, inspite of this, due to heavy leaning towards materialism, different cultural theories like 'Structuralism', 'Symbolic Interactionism' and postmodern cultural theories failed to arrive at a proper understanding about culture. In addition, the trend of multiculturalism in superpower countries like the USA, England and France, wherefrom the study on concept of culture actually originated, has led to a crisis of representation.

How can culture be defined? Culture are socially accepted value systems, as generated by human conditional perception, the relevant activity and the outcomes among which the value system and the tangible outcomes are passed down the generation. The value system means an abstract pattern for activity, encompassing within such a pattern, also those related to descriptive activity of the outcomes. It reveals, as a value system, the mode of activity which brings about the desired outcome.

There are two types of value systems. It can be broadly classified as primary value system and auxiliary or supplementary value system. Primary value system is formed when a culture first comes into existence. It consists of secondary value system. Supplementary value systems are value systems which just supplement the primary ones. As does primary value system, supplementary value system also consists of secondary value system, and with each change in them, a new secondary value system comes into being, providing continuity to a particular cultural value system. This new secondary value system can be called as alternate value system. Until new needs arise, the value systems maintain its continuity.

The value systems are generated from a perception, i.e, or as noted earlier conditional perception, of existing means or resources, and needs. The systems, as abstract in nature, are formed when the perception of means and needs are applied for the purpose of creating a new value system. The perception is vital, accurate and forceful in that they create new cultural systems - primary system, secondary or supplementary system. The perception is conditional because it is formed on condition of presence of such significant needs and means or resources.

It is different from other perceptions as it emerges from the knowledge of the means and urgent needs. It emerges periodically, while other perceptions are formed from anything and at any time. This unique perception precedes a culture and provides changes to it, while other perceptions are simply the outcome of culture. Its formation is entirely dependent upon the existence of needs and means.

Out of this conditional perception, not only new primary value systems are formed but also it causes change or evolution to culture, as and when new needs arise, and any means or resources become available. This theory of conditional perception, thus, I think, quite rightly explains the definition and evolutionary process of culture. As for study in greater detail, please refer to Tibetan book on culture, 'General Cultural Concept & Brief Introduction of Tibetan Culture' I have written a few years back.

The activity of culture could be physical, verbal or mental activity that follow a cultural value system. Unlike normal or ordinary human behaviours, they are based upon and directed by value system that are socially accepted. Physical activity is physical action that follow a cultural system, while implementing them. Verbal activity is chiefly teaching on the value system, besides any verbal activity that comes associated while implementing the value system. Mental activity are mental activities or thoughts or reflections that require to be applied during the implementation of cultural value system. Strictly speaking, educating upon value system, however, follow another cultural value system.

As for an example of cultural activity, in a mechanical work, we engage ourselves, after learning the value system, by applying the knowledge physically besides mentally, although verbal relevant activity is not present at that time. But during a concert, more verbal and mental activity is required than physical ones. The activity of culture point to the agent-oriented and living aspects of culture. In their absence, a cultural value system remains unimplemented, and obviously no outcomes result.

Outcome of culture are the result of implementation of cultural value systems that are already learnt and applied. They are what we actually expect to have from implementation of the value systems. In other words, they are the fulfilment of the needs that have been envisaged, and which were instrumental in creating the very value system of a particular culture. The outcomes of culture could be both tangible and intangible outcomes. The examples of tangible outcome are physical visible things such as cultural artefacts, language and symbols, while the example of intangible outcomes are like cultural knowledge, skills and others. Obviously, during actually implementing the system of culture, the activities accompanied by the intangible outcomes like knowledge, skills, habits and others, contribute to the creation of the tangible outcomes.

The cultural value system requires to be learnt, although we usually say that they are passed down from one generation to another. Our teachers teach the value systems while the students either learn them from teachers or learn by themselves. The intangible outcomes such as the skills and habits are required to be cultivated through practice. For proper achievement of cultural skills from the knowledge we obtain by learning the value systems, practice remains a core necessity linking between value system and the outcomes of a cultural value system. Hence, alongside education on culture, we should for proper implementation, carry out proper practice of the cultural value systems.

- Ngawang Namgyal is a graduate from Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Varanasi. He completed in Acharya (M.A equivalent) majoring in Buddhist philosophy and political science. After joining Central Tibetan Administration, he now serves as Joint Secretary at Ngemey Leshe Detsen (Contingency Department) under Kashag Secretariat.

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