Defining Culture

The Fiji Times Online recently published an article about the definition of culture. It was written by Minakshi Maharaj who has taught at many schools including the Fiji National University and the Queensland Institute of Business and Technology. I thought it was very interesting and I would like to pull out and share certain passages of the article. To read the entire piece simply click here.

CULTURE is a word we use very frequently, often with pride and occasionally with disdain. What does culture mean? Is it the ability to perform classical dances and appreciate classical music? Or does it mean the ceremonies and practices we follow on various occasions such as death, marriage or the birth of a child? And most importantly, perhaps, is culture of any use whatsoever?

The exact meaning of culture is not easy to define. The English word culture comes from Latin and it originally meant to till, to cultivate. It is important to remember that although all human groups have “culture”, their words for culture will not have this etymology.

In his brilliant essay titled “Our Culture”, the philosopher C Rajagopalachari explains that culture is an “instrument” of civilization. He said “civilization connotes the curbing of wildness, barbarity and over-indulgence of passions and appetites” (of human beings).

While we may never have considered this as a definition of culture, it is an extremely valid and illuminating definition. Just look around you, progress and prosperity are found where people are humane, controlled, and barbaric people create hell on earth.

So how is this control over human behavior achieved?

“Civilisation”, Rajagopalachari explains, “has two instruments, one is government that acts through laws, and the penal code. This is an external control which communities have imposed upon themselves for the good of all. The other instrument is culture which acts through family training, tradition, religious belief, literature and education. Culture puts down over-indulgence acting as an internal force, as distinguished from penal laws which operate from outside”.

It is the second instrument, culture, which concerns us. In every group, certain codes for human behavior have been developed over thousands of years to ensure the survival of the community and its peaceful co-existence.


A Fijian Bure

Culture includes the codes of behavior which are a part of “family training” — parents instill in children good manners, self-discipline, truthfulness, sincerity, non-violence, kindness and many more virtues. Society too, has a duty to model respect for people and social institutions, helpfulness, honesty, diligence, compassion, respect for the earth, obedience to laws and so on.

Culture establishes value systems and ideals, which not only give goals to aspire for but also a sense of direction. People feel pride and fulfillment in doing what their culture extols. In this way, culture gives meaning to human existence. As Rajagopalachari says, culture is a “subtle instrument. It acts silently. It makes people feel they are not forced to obey, but do it of their own free will and gives them a sense of pride in good behavior”.

For example, both ethnic groups in Fiji used to value helpfulness and sharing.

They gained a sense of fulfillment by helping disadvantaged relatives, friends, and even village people, through financial support, self-denial, and by physical effort. Such behavior won societal acclaim and imparted a sense of self-esteem which further encouraged such desirable behavior.

Globalisation and media are creating an aped uniformity which deprives the world of the beauty of its myriad cultures. This could easily be avoided if we understood, appreciated and retained the best of our cultures.

Culture is not something to look down on or to dismiss lightly. It has been developed over the ages to enable peaceful co-existence for the group’s emotional, material, and even spiritual progress. It is the backbone of societies and has held them together for thousands of years.

In subtle ways, every culture suffers such cultural genocide — smaller groups such as the Aborigines being most vulnerable.

James Ngugi, whose beautiful book, The River Between, is studied in Fiji, says that a tribe without its customs is like “a tree without roots”. It will not survive if it does not retain its rich and meaningful practices and beliefs while absorbing only the necessary and good aspects of other cultures.

Culture must meet the needs of changing times, by accretion to its own strengths, and not by abandoning them.

All us should similarly value our cultural heritage and not denigrate it unthinkingly, which destroys its value in the eyes of the younger generation. Our cultures are the gift of the wisdom of our great ancestors. They give our lives uniqueness, meaning and guidance.

About islandculturearchivalsupport

Island Culture Archival Support (ICAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of records pertaining to the cultural identity of island peoples in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia whose national and public archives, libraries, cultural centers, and business organizations are underprivileged, underfunded, and understaffed. The specific purpose for which this nonprofit corporation was formed is to support the needs of these South Pacific cultural heritage institutions by helping to preserve and make accessible records created for business, accountability or cultural purposes. The organization will endeavor to add value by providing resources or volunteers to advise, train, and work among island residents to support their efforts in building their future and preserving their collective memory through the use of modern archival techniques.
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