THR Web Features   /   November 4, 2013

What We Mean When We Talk about Culture

Today, talk of culture is everywhere. There is a culture of fear, of flowers, and of food, not to mention pain, pastiche, and peace.

Welcome to the THR blog. As with the journal, our goal here is to make sense of the cultural changes we are living through, critically exploring our predicament in light of the important human goods that may be at stake. But what do we mean, exactly, when we talk of culture?

Today, talk of culture is everywhere. There is a culture of fear, of flowers, and of food, not to mention pain, pastiche, and peace.

Today, talk of culture is everywhere. Crime and poverty have cultures, as do biomedicine, queers, and Bible Belt Catholics. There is a culture of fear, of flowers, and of food, not to mention pain, pastiche, and peace. We know corporations have cultures because, when mergers fail, incompatible cultures take the blame. Multiculturalists celebrate the cultures of minorities, while cultural studies scholars champion popular (but not mass-produced) culture. Both abhor the “culture of the establishment.” And, of course, in many contexts, “culture” still refers to cosmopolitanism and discernment in the arts, “high culture” over and against “low.”

THR is concerned with culture and cultural change, but in a specific sense. Social worlds are shaped by the practical and metaphysical meanings that human beings invest in them, and culture is the concept that specifies this most basic and symbolic dimension of social life. Culture, in this meaning, does not derive from and cannot be reduced to some other social force that is outside of the domain of meaning itself. We are always and everywhere “suspended in webs of significance,” to use Clifford Geertz's famous words, that pattern and structure what is real and what matters to us, how we define the good in life and our place in it.

Culture is stratified. Closer to the surface, so to speak, are those understandings and practices that are closely linked to specific social conditions and circumstances and are quite open to observation, discussion, and contestation. Questions of parenting philosophy, to draw an example from our current issue of the journal, are symbolic on this level, reflecting how different groups of parents sort themselves with respect to the shifting challenges of raising children in contemporary society. Or we might think of piercing and tattooing the body, changing dialects, advice about how to succeed in business, or the lifestyles of the rich and famous. As conditions change, these more transient features change as well. Teen rebellion, for instance, takes the form of Greasers in one generation, Goths in another.

At the deeper strata of culture is the moral order, those truths that frame and structure reality. This level is less permeable and changes harder to discern, often only visible in moments of rupture—crises, scandals, innovations, discoveries, revolutions—when the taken-for-grantedness of a cultural element is upset and exposed.

Moral order may be an unfamiliar concept. Most commonly, the term is used to designate a system of obligations that defines and organizes the proper—good, right, virtuous—relations among individuals and groups in a community. These systems are expressed explicitly in rules, laws, and moral codes, as well as implicitly in the various roles, rites, and rituals of social life. But moral order is more than rules, expectations, and mutual obligations. It also includes those features of the world we designate as sacred and infuse with moral significance.

The social anthropologist Mary Douglas once wrote, “It is easier to see that tribesmen project the moral order upon their universe than to recognize the same process working among ourselves.” Talk of myth, ritual, and the sacred sounds archaic, out of place in modern, technocratic societies. Yet, as Douglas taught us, these elements constitute a central and inescapable dimension in all human societies for ordering and transforming unorganized needs and experience into meaningful forms. The shared categories of thought and social demarcation are not arbitrary or merely empirical questions of how things are. They draw the lines of the world, and define for us what is real, what is natural, what is right and just.

On this blog, we will engage with contemporary culture in its many manifestations. We'll explore new books and research reports, current conversations and controversies, trends in ideas and social practices. But as we do so, our angle of vision is toward questions of the human good and that most basic level of moral ordering.