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Introduction

Culture means different things to different people. To some people, it means the system of learned human behavior, while to other people, culture means a specific  art: painting, music, or literature. Both, however, will agree that culture is the way of humanity. It represents all  elements of human behavior, including  laws, traditions and beliefs, knowledge, morals, customs, and the arts. Understanding human culture is important because it enables people from different societies to understand each other. There are many differences between  different elements of culture. What may be acceptable to one culture is  forbidden or unheard of in another culture.

Culture keeps on changing as time goes on and  people increase their interactions with other cultures. It also changes as people accumulate  more knowledge on different issues. This means that some cultures have lost some  elements of theirs. For instance, some languages have ceased to exist as the people speaking that language have been assimilated to different cultures thereby adopting a new language. Many cultural beliefs in numerous indigenous communities ceased to  exist, especially those considered harmful by the people. Culture is not an individual or personal experience, but it is a way of uniting people who share the  same learned experiences within a community.

Functions and Importance of Culture

Culture exists to enable people to adapt to their environment, so that they could  function well in their surrounding and with other people. Because of culture, people are able to understand and make sense of what is happening around them. It gives people a sense of familiarity, and they do not have to worry about the unknown. People in a particular culture know what to do because they have learnt about this from their culture (Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel 24).

Culture enables a person to communicate with others. This is achieved  thanks to the fact  a group of people ( e.g.  a community) share the same language. Culture shapes people’s behavior, and it gives them a standard which they can use to judge the behavior of others, within and outside their communities. It makes it possible for people to know the right thing to do since people are able to identify and distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. Culture makes it possible for a person to predict  the actions of  another person , or the directions that people within his or her community will take when making decisions. Additionally, culture provides individuals with the sense of identity. People are able to identify with others in the same community because they share the same beliefs and ideas regarding their culture. Because of culture, an individual is able to interpret and understand the meaning of another person’s behavior and actions.

Characteristics of Culture

Culture is not something that one is born with: a person has to learn culture as he or she grows up and interacts with other people. Someone who is born in one culture and raised in another learns the culture of people where he or she grows. People learn culture as they interact with each other, observe the behavior and actions of others, and imitate what others are doing. Through different interactions, people get access to many sources some of which include folktales and the mass media.

Culture is transmitted from one generation to another. For a culture to survive, one generation has to pass it to another generation, who will then practice it as it is or change some elements within it. For instance, people within a culture have passed their language to other generations. However as time passes, the upcoming  generations are likely to  modify the languages. In the English language, people  use some  words  today which were not used  years ago.

Culture is based on symbols, and these include language and images. These symbols enable people from a particular culture to transmit that culture to the next generation. Every culture has undergone changes, and this happens for several reasons. Culture changes as people borrow from different cultures and  form different innovations, which contribute to changes in behavior and belief systems (Haviland et al. 27-43).

Cultures are ethnocentric. People tend to believe that their cultures are more superior to others. This can be beneficial to the people within that culture, as it enables them to have a positive view about their culture, and they are able to maintain their culture this way. On the other hand, ethnocentrism can be disadvantageous because it can prevent people from other cultures from interacting and working with each other. If people feel that their culture is  superior,  they will not be in a position to accept the views of people from different cultures, and they might end up showing them disrespect because of their culture (Haviland et al. 27-43).. Culture is shared among people. People within the same culture share the same values, ideologies, and beliefs. The sharing of culture enables people to bond with each other as they identify with the same identity. Culture is integrated, and this enables it to function properly (Anderson and Taylor 54)

Elements of Culture

There are different elements of culture. Norms refer to  the   ways of doing things accepted by people. People within one culture are expected to know its norms and to follow them. They do not expect the people who identify with their culture to do things in another way. For instance, marriage is an important and necessary element  in every culture. Many cultures define and practice it as a union between a husband and a wife. However, for most cultures, the similarity ends here. This is because various cultures have different ways and methods of conducting marriage ceremonies and different understanding of marriage. At the same time, the norm of many  cultures concerning marriage is that a man and a woman unite and form a family. What is more, people are not expected to deviate from this norm. For instance, they are not expected to form same-sex marriages.

Values refer to people’s ideas concerning what is right and wrong or good and bad in a specific culture.  People within any culture are expected to know the right thing to do. Doing the wrong thing has consequences, most of which are punishable. Values guide and determine people’s behavior (Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel 24-26).

All cultures have different forms of social organizations. People within one culture form different units and this enables them to fulfill  certain functions. These units are  social structures and systems within the culture.They include families, tribes, government, and learning institutions among others. The importance of different social units varies from one culture to another. Some cultures hold  the importance of families and clans in high esteem, and they place them above everything else. Other cultures hold their governments highly and they are quick to follow the established rules and regulations (Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel 24-26).

Language is one of the most important and  most identifiable elements of any culture. Cultures exist because  people have  languages that enable them to transmit their culture. Through language, people are able to share ideas and values, and they are able to share and seek information. This leads to a greater understanding of the culture. All cultures have their  specific languages, and they use these languages to communicate. People do not judge the strength of the language by the ability to write in that  language. Also,  languages enable people to communicate effectively. They  enable people to express themselves. Language gives people an identity, as people within any culture identify themselves by the language they speak. Some languages may be more developed than others, while still others are more common and  spoken by people from different cultures (Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel 24-26).

All cultures have their own religions. People within a specific culture  may convert to a  different religion, which may not have been there in previous generations. For instance, many indigenous people have adopted the Christian and Islamic religions even though their ancestors did not practice them. Religion does not only mean the major recognized religions of the world, but it includes the rites, rituals, and ceremonies of an established religion. These elements of religion are important to  people, and they fulfill a specific purpose in people’s lives. Religion permeates most areas of people’s lives. In many cultures, religion determines people’s choices and  decisions they make. Various functions of  religion in different cultures include resolving conflicts and differences that may exist, exerting social control, providing the source of emotional support, and explaining the supernatural or paranormal occurrences which the people might not be familiar with or which they may not understand (Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel 24-26).

No culture is more important or more superior to another despite what some people tend to believe. Every culture is unique and distinct. Previously, people had distinct cultures because they had limited exposure to other cultures. It was easy to identify the cultural elements of a specific culture, because they  were distinct and unique to that culture alone. People learned from their neighbors, whose culture was mostly similar to theirs. However, as people  increase their rates of interaction, they  tend to be influenced by other cultures and  adapt the ways of other cultures. Some peoples have done this for so long  that the new cultural elements have become a part of them.

Other than religion, education, civilization, and the mass media have contributed to different cultural influences among people. The dominant culture tends to ‘win’ in this situation. For instance, many people around the world have become ‘westernized’ as they have tended to adopt the American culture or the culture of the people portrayed in popular mass media such as television and movies. However, in many cases, people tend to absorb  the beneficial and admirable elements  of a foreign  culture while retaining the elements of their own culture which they admire. 

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