Defining culture is a tough task. A number of intellectuals have tried but, ultimately, all descriptions of culture have proved to be inadequate in one way or the other. To avoid confusion in this particular article, “culture” is defined as “the beliefs and attitudes about something that people in a particular group or organisation share”.
Ibn Khaldoun, the renowned Arab Tunisian philosopher, defined culture 200 years before the word finally found its way into the German dictionary. To him, culture was what people’s behaviour, their way of life and business consisted of. Terry Eagleton, author of The Idea of Culture, and professor of English at the university of Oxford, had a far different approach toward the meaning of culture. He considered the term to be among the “two or three most complex words in the English language”.
Like culture, Eagleton thought, the term “nature” (often considered to be an idea contrary to culture) was also quite problematic. Unlike many others, though, he did not consider nature to be a result of culture, but rather culture to be, in many ways, an offshoot of nature. He tells us that the word “culture” is etymologically linked to words deeply linked to nature. One of the many meanings of “culture”, he reminds us, is “husbandry”, which is deeply linked to nurturing and promoting growth.
Despite its etymological linkages, the word “culture” is primarily derived from the Latin word colere, which signifies care and nurture. In the course of history, culture has come to be associated with the cognitive aspect of human society, whereas civilisation has continued to be linked to the materialistic aspect. Most English speakers have a habit of confusing the two. Edward Tylor, an English anthropologist who was, incidentally, also the first person to provide an official definition of culture – in his book Primitive Culture published in 1871 – considered culture to be an amalgamation of traditions and beliefs, art forms and the societal structure of a given group.
Yet another Arab Algerian theorist, Malik bin Nabi, considered culture to be the bigger picture containing everything else like customs, routines and practices. This big picture, Nabi argues, colours the lives of every member of a particular society and sets him/her apart from the members of different societies.The disparity among the various accepted definitions of culture have much to do with the large variations in the study methods employed by researchers. No two researchers in the field make use of the same methods. As a result, the conclusions they reach and the definitions they formulate are very different from one another. Some researchers follow anthropological methods, and therefore deal with the cerebral and material achievements of society. Others deal with methods concerning styles and values invented and implemented by people over the years in order to give themselves and their society specific identities.
Unlike in the West, in Arabic countries “culture” has a strict, linear definition. In a state such as the UAE, culture is considered to be a sort of superiority and stature, which only the educated have the means and the right to earn. A marked ability to cultivate one’s taste in literature and the arts, and the capacity to evaluate someone else’s thoughts, are considered unique to a person’s culture.
Though society and culture are closely linked, culture cannot hope to survive in the absence of society. However, in the presence of society, culture performs the crucial task of moulding the members of that society. Since the culture of every society differs, no two societies are exactly alike. Thus, we can safely say that society makes culture and culture makes people. Contrary to popular belief, the arts have a definite impact on societies. They help create the cultural institutions and foundations and allow them to grow and develop. This in turn helps communities to increase their cohesion. It is therefore unwise to suggest that investing in cultural activities is futile.
Artists have often claimed that the returns from cultural activities, though difficult to define, are important for their societies. Development, they argue, does not concern the growth of one sector and the total stagnation of another. Rather, it is the simultaneous growth of every part of society. Such growth therefore requires the synchronised growth of both the economy and the culture of a given society. These are important lessons for our society in the UAE as we struggle to define our identity.
Dr Salem Humaid is an Emirati writer and researcher in cultural and anthropological studies based in Dubai.