What Culture Means to Me

In spite of the above title, I’ll start by letting Anthony Giddens define culture. In the glossary of his widely used Sociology textbook he defines culture as ‘The values, ceremonies and ways of life characteristic of a given group.’ This is a fairly succinct definition of what is a concept that encompasses a very wide gamut of human activity and it would be difficult to find fault with it. The use of the term ‘ways of life’ is certainly a catch-all that leaves little outside the scope of the definition, but for me the defining phrase he uses, which in a way defines culture, is ‘characteristic of a given group’. Whether that ‘given group’ is a nation, an ethnic grouping or a group of young people who decide to live their lives in a distinct way, it is the fact that their way of life marks them out as culturally distinct that, in my opinion, gives cultural status to that way of life and in essence defines culture. If everybody lived the same way of life it is doubtful if the concept of culture would even arise, as it seems to be only in terms of there existing a diversity of cultures that we can speak of culture at all.

The idea of values alluded to by Giddens can of course be expanded upon and we may find different sets of values within any given culture. As ‘traditional’ values wane within a culture it does not necessarily mean that the culture that held these values is no longer a distinct culture and the norms that mediated these values may remain in some form or other. Likewise, the norms that mediated certain values may disappear but the values in question may remain in a form that is only outwardly different but still contain the core of their original intent. I would argue that as Western Europe moves towards a more secular form of society, many of the values that inform the secular culture that has emerged are rooted in Europe’s Christian cultural heritage and are very much influenced by that heritage. Of course much of modern Western culture is informed by a desire to disengage from the past and to put itself forward as culturally neutral but history weighs heavily on us all for better or worse.

Culture as a concept is usually associated with ideas and small-scale tangible creations such as artwork. I would argue that culture informs almost every aspect of society from the slightest nuances of our body-language to to the way we build our cities. Civilizations such as the Mayans built cities to correspond with the movements of the planets and the movements of the planets informed the structure of their myths and legends. Perhaps our modern semi-globalized culture does not aspire to such unity and depth but I feel future generations will look back and see a distinctness in the way we design our lives on a grand scale, even if that distinctness is not characterised by any apparent unifying vision.

From a personal point of view I engage in many aspects of culture, some of which might be regarded as ‘high’ culture and some might better be described as ‘mass’ culture. For many years I was a regular patron of League of Ireland soccer grounds and, although I don’t attend nearly as often as I used to, this is one element of mass culture that I have had a passion for since I attended my first game, a league cup final between Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers in 1979. Strangely, the masses in Ireland are more interested in attending soccer matches in England and Scotland, or more likely, watching them on television, so my interest in the mass cultural phenomenon of soccer has been more like a sub-cultural passion with high-cultural notions of superiority over the Irish English football fanatic. I also like listening to some light classical music – Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante Défunte is a particular favourite of mine – and this would traditionally have been regarded as ‘high’ culture. I’m not sure that such distinctions are widely used or accepted nowadays and whether or not they are doesn’t greatly impinge on my enjoyment of either soccer or classical music. I think distinctions between high and mass culture are more connected to a rigid class structure that has, in my view, become less a reality than it was in the past. I prefer to make my choices based on what I think is good and what inspires and uplifts me rather than on notions of high or mass culture. I hope others do the same.

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