There are some terms such as beauty, culture, democracy, love and power which are difficult to define. In fact, these are illusive terms for us. Social scientists and scholars of humanities regard these terms as contested ones. This explains why there are more than two hundred definitions of culture. Scholars of cultural studies, anthropologists, sociologists and history seek to define culture from the perspectives of their disciplines. This is why scholars can hardly agree with each other as to what is culture or what constitutes culture.
There are again misconceptions about culture. If a man is educated and talks nicely, he is held to be “cultured.” On the other, if a man talks improperly, he is held to be an uncouth and “uncultured.” Sometimes, we distinguish between high culture and low culture. Anyway, culture is what we do and say without questioning. In this sense, culture is a habit. However, culture is also changeable in the long run. In most cases, cultural changes are evolutionary in nature. Culture is both material and immaterial. Culture is a product of language, religion and geography. Especially, material culture is mostly a product of such geographical factors, such as topography and climate. Food and dress are very much the products of geography. Culture is also related to identity, especially national identity in our times because culture is said to be of supreme importance in defining who we are as human beings. Interestingly, politics of national identity has been pronounced both in national and global politics from the late twentieth century,
Culture is used both for judgment and hierarchy among people. These people who often claim cultural superiority over others tend to believe in “we” versus “they,” “us” versus “them” divisions or dichotomy. Cultural differences often lead to clashes between different peoples upholding and emphasizing their supposed differences. Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism have received much currency in social sciences and humanities because of the issues of both judgment and hierarchy among cultures. Over the last five hundred years, western nations have been able to establish their domination over other peoples not only through technology, especially military technology but also through culture. This way culture has also been related to civilization, especially civilizational differences. In his classic, The Protestant Ethics and the Spirits of Capitalism, Max Weber, one of the most important sociologists, has sought to depict the superiority of the West over other civilizations based on certain cultural traits or differences. He also explored the success of modern capitalism based on Protestant ethics of asceticism in this classical text. In recent times, there have been attempts to explain the spectacular success of East and Southeast Asian countries in terms of economic development from the viewpoint of the superiority of Confucian culture and values.
Liberal thinkers do not pay emphasis upon culture as an element in human affairs. Rather, they put emphasis on human rationality and reason as universal values. To them, culture does not matter. From this standpoint, they believe in the Project Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that emerged in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries based on reason and rationality. However, there are many traditionalist thinkers who tend to question the very values associated with the Enlightenment. To them, cultural differences still matter and persist. Accordingly, cultural differences cannot be wiped out by the phenomenon globalization because differences in human societies both give birth to cultural differences and simultaneously reinforce them. These traditionalist thinkers thus believe that as long as nation states exist, human differences will persist based upon cultural divergences among them.
(The author teaches at the University of Information Technology and Sciences (UITS), Baridhara, Dhaka.)