Elements of Culture
Culture is an integral part of human life and history as it dictates the behaviors of groups and individuals. Each culture has its own characteristics that allowed its members to survive both natural and man-made disasters. Understanding the impact of culture on human history will allow individuals to better appreciate existing practices and continuously strive for cultural progress. Culture’s impact on human history is due to the cumulative effects of its elements; which are symbols, values, beliefs, languages, and material objects. This article will discuss these elements and aim to provide a better understanding of the subjects.
A culture is a set of practices and beliefs that influences the decision-making of certain groups or individuals. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it includes beliefs, customs, arts, and ways of life. These factors lead to the development of collective behaviors and ideologies that are unique to particular groups. Culture includes nonmaterial and material concepts which both affect the development of society (University of Minnesota). Nonmaterial concepts include elements like symbols, values, and beliefs while material concepts refer to technology and tools. This distinction between the elements indicates that culture affects both the physical and abstract progression of society.
Symbols are visual representations of beliefs, languages, emotions, and other abstract concepts. Each culture has its own symbols which members will use to identify messages. Different cultures express symbols through drawings, carvings, gestures, signals, and other mediums that allow non-verbal communication. For example, Pasztor (2020) conducted a study regarding the relationship between engraved sun symbols and the burial practices of the middle bronze age Vatya culture. The researcher argued that the sun symbols represented the culture’s belief regarding the journey to other worlds after death. This practice showcase how earlier cultures utilized symbols to express and preserve their religious beliefs. Symbols allow cultures to preserve their ideas and communicate without the use of formal language.
Today, symbols are still part of different cultures. Religious groups utilize symbols like the Christian cross, Wheel of Dharma, Om, and Star and Crescent to represent religious ideologies. Specific gender groups establish flags to help them express their sexual identities. On social media, users regularly use emojis to express emotions through visual representations. Ananthakrishnan & Siri (2018) even compared emojis to Egyptian hieroglyphics as they allow the development of non-verbal communication. The researchers stated that the use of emoji can be more effective as it allows the brain to register emotions faster than traditional language. This indicates that symbols are still integral in modern cultures and can even aid in the development of digital communication.
Language is an element of culture that plays a significant role in communication. Language can be a verbal or nonverbal method of communication that allows members of a group to understand each other. Symbols, another element of culture, is closely related to language. However, symbols focus more on visual representations and messaging while language refers to systems of communication. Each culture can develop its own language which becomes an integral part of its identity. According to Shashkevich (2019), language plays a big role in an individual’s perception of the world. Since each culture has its own language, certain words or gestures may become offensive or meaningless. This will lead to miscommunication which can significantly affect the relationship between two cultures. Additionally, language tends to evolve over time which leads to slang and other nontraditional terms. The use of these terms can affect an individual’s perception of a group and their ability to communicate.
The effects of language have also resulted in the advanced mental capacity of humans. According to Gelman & Robers (2017), human language allowed individuals to enhance and expand their categorization capacities. The term “categorization” refers to mental representations that allow humans and non-human animals to identify categories of concepts. For example, a dog has the categorization capacity to identify a piece of meat as food which then allows it to identify other pieces of meat as edibles. For humans, language allowed a wider capacity for categorization. Referring to the previous example, a dog will categorize any piece of meat as food. Humans, on the other hand, can categorize meat as either chicken, pork, or beef through verbal communication. This allows them to share cultural information with children and outsiders. This concept extends to more advanced activities, such as tool usage and machine operation. Humans can categorize different tools regarding their use which provide individuals the capacity to differentiate a Philips head screwdriver and a flathead screwdriver.
Values are beliefs that dictate the ethical behavior of a group or individual. In a culture, values affect the norms and practices of each member. A particular culture may possess the value of strong community relationships. This can lead to the culture developing norms that promote community efforts, such as close relationships and co-dependencies. Other cultures, such as in a working environment, may encourage values like integrity and diligence. This will establish an organizational norm where employees are transparent and focus on great results. Additionally, cultural beliefs can strongly influence its values. This can lead a culture to possess unconventional ideas; such as patriarchal and self-righteous values.
Since values can affect the behavior of members of a culture, it also plays a significant role in decision-making. The values that individuals possess become a driving force in their ethical decision-making (“Values”). This indicates that values can greatly affect a culture’s organizational structure since leaders will depend on cultural values to make decisions. Bolat & Korkmaz (2021) conducted a study assessing the organizational culture, social values, and life skills of teachers and school leaders. Their findings indicated that there is a strong relationship between these factors and that school leaders value social values more than the other factors. This further supports the role of values in a particular culture as leaders tend to depend on them.
Cultural beliefs are ideas and concepts that a particular group believes. Cultural beliefs can be religious ideas, spiritual ideas, organizational structure, diets, and other beliefs that affect a group’s way of life. This element of culture plays a significant role in establishing norms, customs, and traditions. Cultural groups tend to design their symbols, values, and art based on their cultural beliefs. For example, Renaissance artists mostly designed statues, paintings, decorations, and other art pieces based on biblical events (Brittanica.com). Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and other artists painted portraits and landscapes that depicted angels, saints, and other biblical characters. This showcases the influence of religious belief in the establishment of cultural designs.
Aside from religious concepts, cultural beliefs also include government structure and superstitions. As mentioned earlier, cultural beliefs and values can lead certain groups to develop unconventional ideas. For example, Indian culture promotes patriarchal structures which result in the poor treatment of Indian women. These beliefs greatly affect the quality of life of certain groups which showcases the influence of the element. Additionally, beliefs also lead to superstitions which can affect an individual’s way of living. For example, some Chinese believes in Feng Shui which focuses on harnessing natural energies to gain luck and wealth. These beliefs can lead certain individuals to purchase houses that agree with their Feng Shui belief.
This element of culture refers to tools and technology. Different cultures utilize tools to gather food, build shelter, protect the community, and innovate. In early cultures, they utilized simple tools such as stones, rocks, and wood to hunt animals and create fire. As humans developed better tools to build shelters, cultivate the land, and protect each other; they shifted from a nomadic culture to settlement-focused communities. Since nomadic groups began to settle, they adapted to different environments which resulted in different practices, beliefs, and values. The tools that they created became an integral part of their developing culture. Communities in fertile soil established a culture based on farming and livestock while groups near rivers developed cultural identities that promoted fishing and flood-proof housing. This led to the progression of society and the development of different cultures.
Today, technology is one of the most influential material objects that can affect culture. Different technologies lead to the development of different cultures and the distinctions between them (Epstein). Technology allowed humans to create machines for transportation, medication, communication, and other utility. These factors largely contribute to the development of modern culture as they have become integral in daily life. Humans rely on the social impact of the Internet to market their products and communicate with each other. Transportation technology allows humans to travel great distances which can lead to multicultural practices. Other forms of technology help in the development of vaccines and medicine which shifted most cultures from relying on herbal medicine to clinical products. Technology plays an integral part in modern culture as it has established a central role in various daily aspects.
The elements of culture; which are symbols, language, values, beliefs, and material objects aid in cultural development through varying influences. Symbols allow cultural groups to create visual representations of their language, beliefs, values, emotions, and other expressions. Language leads to effective communication which helps in the allocation of information and developing abstract concepts. Values become cultural standards that greatly affect the ethical decision-making of a group. Beliefs influence values, symbols, organizational structures, and cultural norms which dictates the behaviors and social structure of a particular culture. Lastly, material objects can shape cultures as their utility helps in the establishment of cultural structure. The effects of these elements continuously aid in the development of culture and human progress.
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