Thursday, July 10, 2014

Culture and Youth by Eva Pearce

Culture can mean different things to different people. Some people, such as microbiologists, will consider a culture to be some form of Petri dish colony while others will consider it the same as religious identity. However, anthropologists define culture in a very different and intellectually more rigorous way. They do this by analysing the spectrum of patterns that have helped human societies to flourish. One of the founders of modern anthropology, Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), once commented that culture was “the complex whole”, and it would be this totality in his observation that has fascinated anthropologists ever since.  
Making a Society for the youth
Prior to Tylor, how we developed cultural identities was considered a biological trait that was inherited from one generation to the next. It would be a shift toward looking at patterns of behaviour, toward a psychological account, that would prove to be the most academically profitable in explaining patterns of behaviour. This account would have to take into consideration a whole plethora of novel factors such as laws, customs, morals, religious beliefs, and habits. These factors may affect one part of the whole or may constitute a significant slice of a given society, either way; it reflected the new complexity with which one had to understand how we could define culture.
While acknowledging the significance of Tylor’s research, it must be remembered that it was one of the first such novel accounts of culture and therefore more inclined to error. One of the chief difficulties with his outcome is that it assumes a homogenous type of civilisation – a place where there is more unity than diversity. Besides assuming this homogeneity, his definition does not permit any type of exceptions – a notable example being trends that are contrary to the mainstream such as alternative fashion or music. By limiting the scope of how one defines culture, Tylor’s work could only stretch so far until such time came that a fresh new look needed to be taken.
A Dynamic Civilisation
This dynamism that imbues modern society can be understood by looking at its three distinct layers. In the first instance, patterns of behaviour govern a particular group of people; this can include the traditional conception of what it means to be Chinese as opposed to Irish. The second layer looks at what are known as subcultures, the chunks of society that identify both with the mainstream as well as their own local variant. Subcultures can often disappear and become part of the mainstream as has been seen with Irish Americans. The third layer encompasses the broad behavioural patterns that are shared across humanity, principles such as gender classification, art and communication.
The purpose of understanding these layers of learned patterns in civilisation is that it enhances comprehension of how diverse a culture can be. This aforementioned dynamism only partly echoes what Tylor defined and highlights the great complexity in trying to understand modern culture. However, the concept of “the complex whole” managed to pervade academic literature right up until modern times. The reason for the marked departure from Tylor’s work rested on the idea of falsely differentiating between different types of culture – in this case low and high culture.
Impact of Popular Youth Culture
It might be noted that Tylor’s scientific approach in understanding how societies operate focussed chiefly on what might be called high culture. Understanding the differences between high and low culture became an integral part of these scholarly developments. Hence, this left a chasm in the academic environment in how to fuse low culture with its upper counterpart. A case in point would be to look at the effects of alcohol and drug abuse in modern times. The misuse of these psychoactive agents has grown exponentially in recent years resulting in the proliferation of local therapeutic clinics on a scale not seen before. From a purely theoretical standpoint, the abuse of such substances challenges the prevailing zeitgeist of what's morally acceptable which is entirely contrary to adherents of the Tyrolean account of culture.
This is because what happens at the lower strata of society was hitherto never considered part of what it meant to be cultural. Incorporating the challenges from this level of society into the cultural framework has led to a blurring of the boundaries in how to arrive at a crisp definition of culture. Unfortunately, it appears that this definition still remains elusive. Research compiled by Helen Spencer-Oatey has revealed that there are over 160 different academic definitions of culture, each varying with some minor technical nuance. Notwithstanding the anthropological developments that have taken place over the past century and a half, it seems that forging a clear characterisation of societal behaviour remains just as difficult as it was when the problem was first introduced. 

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