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Cross-Cultural Psychology

How Do You Define Culture?

Helping the Vice President answer a question about culture.

Key points

  • Recently, the Vice President was asked to define "culture" and her response was widely criticized.
  • The Unified Theory of Knowledge (UTOK) is language system that defines key terms, like mind and culture.
  • One definition, culture with a small "c," refers to shared, learned patterns of behavior.
  • Culture with a capital "C" refers to the shared systems of justification that coordinate people.

This post is addressed to the folks on U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ staff. During the recent 2023 Essence Festival of Culture, the Vice President was asked how she defined “culture.” Here is her answer:

"Culture is — it is a reflection of our moment and our time. Right? And present culture is the way we express how we're feeling about the moment and we should always find times to express how we feel about the moment. That is a reflection of joy. Because, you know…it comes in the morning," She then broke into a bit of a nervous laugh. She then went on, saying, "We have to find ways to also express the way we feel about the moment in terms of just having language and a connection to how people are experiencing life. And I think about it in that way, too."

This is obviously quite convoluted, and she has been criticized for it, with some calling it “word salad.” But as anthropologists know, culture is a tricky word to define, and being asked for an impromptu definition for a complicated concept can leave many folks stumbling.

Gregg Henriques
The Now UTOKing series defines key words in UTOK like behavior, mind, and culture.
Source: Gregg Henriques

One of the great advantages of the Unified Theory of Knowledge (UTOK) is that it functions as a language system that clearly defines key terms like behavior, mind, cognition, and so forth. (This “Now UTOKing” video series defines 15 key terms, including culture.)

When we apply the logic of UTOK to the concept of culture, the first move we need to make is to differentiate the broad definition of culture from the more specific meaning of culture as applied to humans. The broad meaning of culture is learned and shared patterns of being in the world. Defined this way, many animals have culture. For example, in an extensive review of shared and learned patterns in chimpanzee communities, researchers found “39 different behavior patterns, including tool usage, grooming and courtship behaviors, [that] are customary or habitual in some communities but are absent in others where ecological explanations have been discounted” (Whiten et al., 1999).

In addition to this broad and general meaning, there is the more specific meaning applied to humans. This becomes apparent when we look at the world through the lens of the Tree of Knowledge System. It shows that there is a Culture-Person plane of existence that evolves out of but is also somewhat discontinuous with the behavior patterns of minded animals. The ToK System captures the qualitative shift in complex adaptive behavior that emerged with the evolution of language, propositional knowledge, question-answer dialogue, and recursive self-conscious reflection. In UTOK, this is framed by Justification Systems Theory, and the Culture-Person plane of existence is structurally and functionally organized by systems of justification. This also means that Culture is different from society, which would include things like technology and industry.

Gregg Henriques
The ToK divides the world into four planes of existence: 1) Matter-Object; 2) Living-Organism; 3) Mind-Animal; and 4) Culture-Person
Gregg Henriques

If the Vice President had been prepped for this in advance in a way that was informed by UTOK, here is the answer she might have given:

“That is a great question. Even though it is a central concept in anthropology and sociology, the experts have struggled to define it clearly. I like to think about it in three senses. First, there is the commonsense way culture is used, which refers to the refined activity of those who are engaged in the arts and humanities. So, this would be what we might call “refined culture,” in that it refers to those who are exploring the leading edge of thought and expression, which is what this festival represents.

"At a more technical level, I would say culture with a small c refers to the shared and learned patterns of activity. This broad definition applies even to animals, like chimpanzees. Finally, there is what I call Culture with a capital C. This refers to the large-scale systems of justification that is made up of propositions that coordinate folks and function to legitimize what is and ought to be. It emerges with language and question and answer dialogue, and we can see it right here, with you asking me to define this term. Such processes of justification are uniquely human and, indeed, are the processes that make us such unique creatures."

If she had given this answer, she might have made headlines in a very different way.

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