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The Complexity Of Culture Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2207 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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So why is culture so complex? According to the popular writer Raymond Williams, culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language. The study of culture is far too complex to be studied only from the viewpoint of one specific scientific discipline, or to be based on one specific model. In a world as complex as ours, each of us is shaped by many factors, and culture is one of the powerful forces that acts on us. Culture is not a set of objects and behaviors, but a context, specific to a particular time and place, in which meaning is made (Geertz 1973) (Schall). Cultural contexts include important patterns, attitudes, and values such as language use and communication patterns, religious beliefs and rituals, the tools and artifacts of daily life, familiar relationships, gender roles, and many other characteristics. Because of the complex, multifaceted nature of culture, understanding a specific group, whether one’s own or that of others, requires study from several diverse perspectives. Although each perspective will shed light on the systems of meaning within that group, the different perspectives will not necessarily fit together into a neat, unified cultural portrait (Rosaldo 1989) (Schall).

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In order for a researcher to make sense of the complexity of cultural concepts, relevant prior knowledge and a comprehensive understanding of cultural variation is a prerequisite to effectively comprehending cross-cultural studies. According to Joe Novak, the creator of concept mapping, when concept maps are used, the material to be learned must be conceptually clear and presented with language and examples relatable to the learner’s prior knowledge. Concept maps can be helpful to meet this condition, both by identifying large general concepts held by the learner prior to instruction on more specific concepts, and by assisting in the sequencing of learning tasks though progressively more explicit knowledge that can be anchored into developing conceptual frameworks (Novak).

In the following sections I offer up a series of approaches designed to aid a researcher in unraveling the complex nature of cultural variation and ways of simplifying cultural understanding. Gaining sufficient knowledge and understanding of culture can become a complex task in itself making it necessary for one to develop specific strategies and approaches to the problem. Any approach should encompass key terms, essential cultural concepts and principles, as well as multifaceted foundational theories. This should provide the knowledge necessary to understand and simplify complex models and studies designed for the purpose of illustrating culture differences across an array of situations.

So where should one begin in developing their cross-cultural knowledge? Establishing a glossary of terms that define some of the significant concepts in one or more topics that lend themselves to research investigation using cross-cultural data is necessary. For the purpose of cross-cultural communication, cultural literacy should begin with the basic terms such as ‘culture’ and ‘communication’. Culture can be defined as, “a system of symbolic resources shared by a group of people. In every cross-cultural situation, groups of people with different systems of symbolic resources come in to contact by communicating with one another.” Communication can be defined as, “the practice of creating and exchanging meanings or symbolic resources.” It is clear that culture and communication are interrelated, therefore, cross-cultural communication can be defined as a process of interaction between two groups of people with different systems of symbolic resources.” ( Klyukanov) Understanding these terms will enable one to see how and why people identify with each other and form cultures through the process of cultural identification. Cultural identification simply allows us to define our own cultural selves.

Before embarking upon the quest for understanding of other cultures, it is necessary to break down and understand one’s own culture. Anthropologists Kevin Avruch and Peter Black explain the importance of culture this way: …One’s own culture provides the “lens” through which we view the world; the “logic”… by which we order it; the “grammar” … by which it makes sense. Everyone has a culture. No one can ever fully separate themselves from their own culture. While it is true that anyone can grow to understand and value a range of different cultures and communicate effectively in more than one, one can never overcome his own, or any other culture, to achieve an all encompassing perspective on culture.

As was mentioned previously, it is necessary and important for one to gain knowledge in the study of cross-cultural communication. The nature of knowledge is very complex; however the complexity of the cross-cultural world can be exposed by combining two complimentary approaches: the objective (scientific) approach and the subjective approach. In the objective approach, knowledge is viewed as an object, the world consists of concrete variables and people behave in patterned and predictable ways. From an objective standpoint, all observers of a culture would see the same thing, knowledge is external to all people and the watchful observer captures this knowledge and characterizes it in meaningful fashion. The subjective approach represents the other side of the knowledge gaining process. This approach aims to interpret and understand interactions and cultural meanings that are internal to people. The combined implementation of these approaches highlights the methodical, relational, and opposing nature of cross-cultural communication which includes an array of cross-cultural knowledge.

Edward T. Hall, a respected anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, identified Ten Primary Message Systems which he classified as Interaction, Association, Subsistence, Bisexuality, Territoriality, Temporality, Learning, Play, Defense, and Exploitation. From his ten primary message systems, Hall devised an interrelated ‘Map of Culture’. Hall’s map makes it easier for researchers to pinpoint complexities in understanding target cultures. The process of constructing a system of meanings known as cultural mapping explains how every culture develops ideas about the world and its place in it. The main types of meanings which form a culture map include: beliefs, attitudes, values, norms, mores, laws, and world view. It is important to understand that all of these ideas are interconnected. Culture maps provide structure and give rationality to universal knowledge established about people and the social world, providing expectations about typical patterns of behavior and the range of likely variation between types of people and their characteristic actions and attributes. Understanding and applying these concepts can aid researchers in breaking down the complexities of cross-cultural variation.

Another set of means that are typically presented are global cultural dimensions. These variables are very wide in scope, are related to all cultures, and can be used for the purpose of assessing cultures. Global cultural dimensions vary from researcher to researcher, this section attempts to identify and provide the most commonly discussed dimensions which include: Individualism/Collectivism, Power Distance, Masculinity/Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, and High-Context/Low Context Communication.

Researching several ethnographies and studying the approaches presented by anthropologists, philosophers, and writers whose work has laid the foundations for the field of cultural studies will provide further depth and understanding. Below are a few examples of the….

According to Hans Gullestrup the complexity of cross-cultural studies, as well as cultural studies, are especially related to the following observations or “facts”:

1. The relativity of each culture – the cultural hierarchy

2. The co-incidence of the cultures – the cultural categories

3. The changeability of each culture – the cultural dynamic

4. The ethical problems related to cross-cultural studies

A researcher will base his or her work on different paradigms and a differing understanding of culture depending on the situation and the purpose (Hans Gullestrup). For these reasons, Gullestrup argues that theoretical and analytical models are needed for cultural and cross-cultural studies formulated as frame models, or as a kind of framework, where each researcher or cultural actor can relate to one other with his own data, observations, and experiences when trying to create an understanding of a particular cross-cultural situation, according to his or her needs, as well as to the four factors mentioned above.

As mentioned previously, anthropologist Edward T. Hall

When we approach another culture, a tendency exists to generalize, placing experiences in wide-ranging categories or types. The best we can do is to make sure generalizations are as accurate as possible and avoid overgeneralizations, especially those beginning with “All”. When attempting to describe a certain culture, we must be careful and ensure that the culture we classify is the one that was observed. If we come across another culture and fail to notice obvious differences then the all we have done is stereotyped and our interaction with that culture has become extremely unreliable. To avoid stereotyping, it is necessary to test generalizations against the actual behavior and values of those being encountered in the observed culture. Cross-cultural communication is successful when our observations and reflections of people from other cultures are accurate.

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Two useful approaches for counteracting mistakes of oversimplification and generalization of a culture are Culture-General and Culture-Specific approaches. Concentrating on culture’s broad characteristics, is macro and global in scope and defined as “Culture-General”. With over 200 national societies throughout the globe, over 5,000 languages, and endless subgroups interrelated by ethnicity, race, religion, common history, politics, and “culture”, it becomes virtually unfeasible to thoroughly sort out the full range of cultural practices found in each society. Culture-General ideas and frameworks are useful and provide researchers tools necessary to understand principles, categories of behavior and world views, ideas and values, how to learn another culture, and how to successfully and effectively navigate cultural boundaries. Culture-general approaches to interaction describe general contrasts that are applicable in many cross-cultural situations. For example, Edward T. Hall’s classification of high-context low and low-context cultures is a culture-general comparison that implies a source of miscommunication between many diverse societies. This approach is based on more conceptual categories and generalizable skills, and represents the “etic” form of cultural knowledge. Etic knowledge is essential for cross-cultural comparison because such comparison essentially requires standard units and categories (Lett).

General cultural characterizations can be narrowed by using a “Culture-Specific” approach, based on ethnographies, is an intercultural form of “emic” cultural analysis. Emic knowledge is essential for an intuitive and empathic understanding of a culture (Lett). Culture- Specific refers to the distinctive qualities of a particular culture. It can also be a means of studying cross-cultural communication when the culture characteristics of a particular culture are examined and used to explore the broad, general characteristics of the structure of cultures. At the culture specific level, differences between two particular cultures are assessed for their likely impact on communication between people of those cultures. Cultural observers must always be ready to modify existing conceptualizations when new experiences do not fit into the original universal category. Simply, one-size fits all conceptualizations are not effective in cross-cultural communications.

Clifford Geertz, in his book “The Interpretation of Cultures”, attempts to simply cultural variation by saying, “The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate, is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical. But this pronouncement, a doctrine in a clause, demands itself some explication.”


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