I have believed that the definiteness and certainty of many subjects vanishes when they are explored in depth. Culture is one such thing. Culture has been the reason for many modern day conflicts. Whether it is the xenophobia of some western countries or the apprehension of western influence in some East/South Asian countries, both are primarily cultural conflicts. Some conflicts are new and some age old. Can contradictory cultures ever reconcile or will they remain perennially in conflict? I think the answer might lie in understanding what culture is and whether it is a concept that is frozen-in-time or it is a concept that is fluid changing-with-time.

Often we hear people cringe at modern day occurrences and say that ‘this is not our culture’. What does the statement mean? The expression raises many questions.

  • Is there a cultural reference point which the current occurrence is being compared to?
  • How far back in time was this cultural reference point created?
  • Who created this cultural reference point and are these subjective reference points?

What does culture comprise of? As per me the following are the elements of culture: Language, food, dress, festivals and social organization. More importantly culture is about ‘habits’. It is interesting to note that all the elements that comprise a culture are dynamic in nature. If the elements are evolutionary in nature, can the compound be static?

What purpose does culture serve? I think that, Culture acts as a guiding force for members of the society and also builds a community feeling among its members. In addition culture also tries to inculcate habits considered favorable and beneficial for the society at large. If we assume the evolutionary nature of culture then the questions that arise are

  • Is culture valuable only if it is useful
  • Does culture always evolve for the good?
  • Who decides what is good for the society at large?
  • Also what was good for one generation can it continue to be good for another as well?

Do we define culture or does culture define us? I think that ‘we’ define culture and then it defines us. However the question remains as to who are these ‘we’ and how long ago in time did they define this culture and why is that the only reference point to judge the present day culture on? Again if for each generation, there exists a different cultural reference point then it makes culture fluid in nature.

So the conclusion I draw from this is that whenever anyone refers to “our culture”, it remains irrelevant unless the reference point is clarified and also its universal acceptance within the context of a society clearly established. Again if this culture doesn’t play a utilitarian role and is used as an excuse to resist change, it is neither “ours” nor a “culture”.

I think when culture is viewed within the framework of the above argument it certainly appears to be a fluid phenomenon and questions the logic when we try to differentiate between “our culture” and “their culture” or speak of “preservation of culture”. This could probably help avoid cultural conflicts.