Dimensions of Culture

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The word "culture" can be a bit confusing to the beginning sociology or anthropology student. People talk about culture to mean ballet and symphony; what we could call high culture. Others talk about, say, Canadian culture, meaning beer and hockey; what we would call popular culture. Others might talk about traditional drumming, singing and dancing of an ethnic group or country, which is valid, but not what the social scientist means by culture.

To the social scientist, culture is everything we humans learn, that can be communicated by symbols. When we touch a hot object and learn that it is hot by the pain we experience, that is learned, but is not symbolic, so it is not culture. When Mommy says the word "hot," giving it a symbol, then it is culture.

So as to explain this sociological perspective view of culture, I am proposing the use of six dimensions which cross cut all culture, and more clearly give an indication of its scope and depth.

The Six Dimensions

Each cultural or social dimension is like a mathematical dimension in space (height, depth, width) in that they are analytical qualities, not empirical; the removal of any one dimension, by definition, removes all dimensions.

  • Note: The number two, for example, is an analytical concept, not an empirical one. If you see two apples, for example, the number two is in your head, not an intrinsic characteristic of the apples. See Epistemology.

There are six of them.

All of these are learned, composed of systems of symbols, are social (beliefs and behaviour, not human individuals) and not transmitted or stored by genes.

Technology: We need to use the word "tools" and explain the (1) inventing, (2) using and (3) teaching of others to invent and use them, is the cultural dimension, not the physical tools themselves.

In Economics, this is called "capital," wealth produced not for immediate consumption but to increase further production.,

Economy: We need to refer to the production and distribution of wealth, which did not need money in earlier societies and in some elements of our society today, eg home and with friends.

Wealth is anything that has value and it has value to the extent it is useful and scarce.

It could include goods and services, but goods only in terms of the services they provide.

Money is not wealth, but is a measure and a means of storing and exchanging wealth.

The economic dimension of culture is not just business, buying, selling. These things are specific to modern complex industrial culture, but not universal among all cultures and societies.

Political Dimension relates to power and influence.

It includes authority and types of authority (traditional, bureaucratic or charismatic).

Politics is not the same as ideology (which belongs to the values dimension) or only party politics (which are institutions that are not universal).

The Social, Interactional or Institutional dimension refers to patterns of interaction, social organisation, meanings we attach to each other, our presentations of selves, roles.

Examples include family or class.

Values, Ideology, Aesthetic: The shared values that we apply to judgements such as good or bad, beautiful or ugly, right or wrong.

Beliefs or Worldview, the ideas we have about how the universe operates. Religious beliefs –– and more.

The dimensional approach to understanding culture is that, like physical dimensions in space and time, they permeate the whole of culture. From the largest group or country, down through communities, to simple dyads (relations between two people) all six dimensions are present. By definition, removal of a dimension, or a value of zero, means the whol culture is not there.

Dimensions and Change

To make social or cultural changes in any one dimension has repercussions in each of the other dimensions. To introduce a new method of obtaining water in a community, for example, requires the introduction of new social institutions, or reorganising of existing ones. to maintain the new water system.

To change something in one cultural dimension not only requires changes in other dimensions, it causes changes in other dimensions.

Learning any new ways of doing things will require the learning of both new values and new perceptions. Changes in any dimension will start changes, like the ripples of water on a calm lake when you throw a stone into it, and ultimately all six dimensions will change.

Since all resulting changes do not immediately appear simultaneously, we use the term “culture lag” to describe elements that delay.

Here is a diagram that can be used as a framework for discussion of social change and the inter relationships between cultural dimensions.

Marx saw changes in the foundation (bottom two), technology and economy, as causing changes in the other four.

Weber saw changes in the top two, values and beliefs, as causing changes in the other four.

They were probably both right, in different contexts. Their diametric opposition is more apparent than real.

Functionalism can not explain causes of change, but if there is change in one dimension, functionalism would predict compensatory change in all six dimensions.

If we look at each dimension in turn, we can detect some easily identifiable patterns along the broad spectrum from simple to complex societies. This also represents the range of human communities from the earliest to the present. Overall, with some notable exceptions, the direction of change in culture and society has been from simple to complex.

In the Technological Dimension, our simplest societies were engaged in gathering and hunting. Their tools and their language (a tool) reflected that. Then the biggest and most important revolution started taking place, the agricultural revolution. It was most likely started by women, who did the gathering while men hunted. They learned through experience that if they saved seeds, shoots, or cuttings, they could plant them later to get a new crop. The new technology produced a food surplus that allowed and encouraged the development of city states, division of labour and other revolutionary changes in the other five dimensions. Human control over power and energy increased from human power, through animal power, mechanical power then engines and on up to nuclear power. Tools became more sophisticated and complex. This is what Marx meant by modes of production.

In the Economic Dimension, simpler societies produced and allocated wealth (anything of value because it was scarce and useful) on the basis of family obligations and without recourse to using money Barter was never very important a means of allocating wealth. Then came state redistribution, so that the aristocracy and the new occupational categories that supported the state, could carry on without having to produce their own food. As economies became more complex, money of various types came to be used as a universal means to measure, store and exchange wealth. Power shifted from the state organizations to the owners of capital, and money came into its own.

In the Political Dimension, the overall direction of changes was from simple societies where there was very little difference in power between those who had the most and those who had the least. With increased complexity, the distance between the people with the least to the most power widened. In contrast to a widespread ideology of equality and democracy, the realpolitic in complex societies is very hierarchical and continues to become more so.

In the Social Dimension, the change is in greater complexity. This means greater division of labour, and a decreasing reliance of family and kin links on which to construct social organization. Nepotism, which was once the only way to allocate positions, is increasingly being seen to be a negative and undesirable mode of allocating social and economic roles.

In the Values and Aesthetics Dimension, at first there appears to be no noticeable pattern of change from simple to complex societies. Different eras were characterised by more tolerance and eclecticism, or more rigidity and fanaticism. When we look at social class, however, and remember that class is based on power, wealth and prestige, we see a clear pattern. In simple societies there is not much difference between the prestige allocated to people at the top as to people at the bottom. In a modern industrial complex society, there is a huge gap between the prestige given to a national president or CEO in contrast to some janitor in a slum hotel.

In the Worldview and Beliefs Dimension, there is a clear pattern of reduction of different supernatural beings. In gathering and hunting societies, where there is little control over natural forces, the land is more highly respected, and hundreds of Gods are identified. Each animal is seen as a mortal manifestation of the God of that animal. Ethnocentric monotheists called them spirits rather than the Gods they were. With agriculture the number of Gods was reduced, although the monotheists later showed their ethnocentrism by not putting upper case “G” at the beginning of the word “God.” Monotheism came along with patriarchy, and the slow shift from agriculture to industry. Although modern complex societies are not fully atheist, the belief in no God parallels the increase in beliefs about increased control over natural forces. Each change was cumulative rather than the new replacing the old. So ghosts and God are still believed by some in modern complex societies.

An important characteristic in all these changes, is that the introduction of something new does not automatically remove the old. Things accumulate. Only if an old thing is dysfunctional and can not contribute to, or hinders, survival and growth, will it be dropped.

In most cases, with exceptions, it is easier to introduce something technologically new, as it is seen as less threatening to values, institutions and beliefs. So technology tends to be at the forefront of culture change, but eventually all six dimension will have to adapt to the new introductions. If you are a mobiliser encouraging the empowerment of a community, the new water facility will eventually have effects on institutions, beliefs and values.

Dimensions and Community Empowerment

When we encourage and guide a community to strengthen itself to become more self reliant, we are promoting social change. The community of course, must strengthen itself, we can not do it for the community.

Let us say the community decided its first priority would be a potable water supply. We guide and encourage them through finding resources and constructing the facility. We know that might be part of the technological dimension, and would be tempted to think that is the end of it.

We would be wrong; it is not the end. That change in technology will have far reaching repercussions in all of the six dimensions.

The eight elements of the community empowerment methodology do not specifically refer to the six dimension of culture. What goes unsaid, however, is that empowerment usually means the community comes together and chooses a high priority action for itself, and that action is clearly identifiable as belonging to one of the dimensions (usually the technological dimension). What we know now is that eventually all six dimensions affect and will be affected by the empowerment intervention.

Before an empowerment intervention can be successful, certain conditions in the community must be present, and these belong to all six dimensions. Where the technology is nomadic herding, for example, building a clinic would be possible but not likely. Where the culture is characterised by religious animism, building a church would be unlikely. Where the community is rural and dispersed, fighting for tenants urban rental rights would be a waste of time and effort. To begin the process, the activist or mobiliser needs to have a good understanding of the ethnography of the community (see below).

After an empowerment intervention, even if it is in one dimension, adjustments will start bing made in all six dimensions. It is the responsibility of the mobioiser, who wants to held a community strengthen itself, to ensure that repercussions do not result in negative situation in all six dimension.

This is not always easy. Who would have guessed that when Henry Ford introduced an affordable new automobile in the Early twentieth century (“I will make cars any colour the public wants, so long as the public wants black,”) it was not a big surprise that this revolutionized transportation across North America. What was a surprise was that this allowed teen aged children to be alone with each other in their parents’ cars, and dating and sex were never the same between them after that.

When a new source of potable water supplies is installed in a community, women and girls who had previously spent hours walking long distances to nearby

More Coming

Dimensions and Social Research


Dimensions and Ethnography

Ethnography is the description of a community. It is, or should be, based on empiricism, observation.

Ethnology, in contrast, is the analysis of those observed characteristcs, how they might relate to each other, and how they can explain the world for us.

A mobiliser wishing to encourage and guide a community to strengthen itself, must nrecessarily be a good ethnogarapher, and some ehnological ability would also be useful.

More Coming



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