Anthropologists Clyde Kluckhohn and William Kelley claim that by “culture,” we mean those historically created selective processes that channel men’s reactions, both to internal and to external stimuli. In a more simplistic way, culture is the complex whole that consists of all the ways we think and do and everything we have as members of society. Culture may thus be conceived of as a kind of stream, following down to the centuries from one generation to another. When we think of it in this way, culture becomes synonymous with social heritage. Each society has its own culture. The process of acquiring the culture of a different society from one’s own is called “acculturation.” We popularly refer to this process as the “melting pot.” The culture of all people includes a tremendous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world. Even the most primitive societies have to know a great deal simply in order to survive. Their knowledge is more practical, like knowledge of how to obtain food and how to build shelters. In advanced societies, sciences and technologies create complex and elaborate cultures.
Although culture is abstract and intangible, its influence is far from superficial. A food taboo can be internalized so deeply that the digestive system will revolt if the taboo is violated. The involuntary physiological responses to embarrassment—blushing, stammering, and so on—are, in effect, controlled by culture, because the proper occasions for embarrassment are culturally defined. Thus, culture puts constraints on human behavior, thinking processes, and interaction. Cultural constraints are either prescriptive (people should do certain things) or proscriptive (people should not do certain things). Cultural constraints go a long way toward telling people what they can do; where they can choose; and with whom, where, and how they can interact; and they also help solve the problem of having to compare things that are seemingly incomparable. In addition, traditional constraints on choice may tell people in which domains of their lives the principles of rational choice are allowed to operate. Thus, cultural constraints serve as a kind of preventive medicine, protecting people from themselves. Cultural constraints affect not only the choices individuals make but even how the individual—the self—is constituted. The boundaries that separate the self from others are very much culture dependent. In cultures such as the United States, the self is construed as an independent entity. The boundaries between the self and others are clear and distinct. Independence, autonomy, and self-determination are prized, and the values and preferences of each individual are given a status that is independent of the values and preferences of others. However, in other, even industrial cultures such as Japan, the self is construed as an interdependent entity. Significant others form a part of the self, and their values and preferences are one’s own.
Biologist Jacob Von Uexkull has noted that security is more important than wealth to explain how evolution shaped organisms so that their sensory systems were exquisitely attuned to just those environmental inputs that were critical to their survival. Thus, biology seems to supply the needed constraints on choice for most organisms. For human beings, those constraints come from culture. The interference of cultural constraints in the developmental process of the young humans, particularly the cognitive-ordering processes entailed in naming and word association, have worked to release the grip of instinct over human nature and to break up its fixed patternings, which carry significance in the world. In other words, cultural constraint through the process of internalization of habit and externalization of ritual is mostly indirect constraint that remains mostly subconscious, below the level of our conscious awareness. Such indirect constraints channel our lives along the grain because they confer a sense of regularity, predictability, subjective inevitability, and efficacy to all that we think, say, and do and without which our lives would be made to seem haphazard, chaotic, uncontrollable, and somewhat contrived. Cultural constraints include sanctions, laws, and taboos.
Sanctions: Sanctions are the supporters of norms, with punishments applied to those who do not conform and rewards given to those who do. Negatively, they may be anything from a raised eyebrow to the electric chair; positively, they may be anything from a smile to the honorary degree. There are more or less subtle ways in which disapproval of action may be expressed.
One of the less subtle ways is ridicule. However, it is a powerful social sanction because no one likes to be considered to be ridiculous by those whose opinions he or she values. One likes to stand in well with others, especially with those who constitute his or her intimate groups, and such a sanction, therefore, has an immediate and direct effect when promptly applied to those who do not conform. Thus, ridicule is so effective in some primitive groups, it is the only negative sanction needed to induce people to abide by the customs of the society. The ultimate negative sanction for both the mores and folkways is ostracism, a studied refusal to communicate with violators, the banishment of offenders from the groups to which they want to belong, sending them to coventry. Individuals do not like to be exiled from groups they consider their own, from their circle of intimates and friends. Ostracism is thus one of the cruelest social punishments known to men.
Laws: There are legal constraints, too, which are the negative sanctions applied to violators of the laws. These constraints are clear, familiar, and stated in the laws themselves. They include fine, imprisonment, deportation, and, for some offenses, death.
Taboos: Taboo means prohibition against an item, person, or type of behavior. In religious taboos, the forbidden item is believed to be unclean or sacred, and the taboo is imposed for protection against the item’s power. Prohibition against incest and marriage within certain groups are examples of behavioral taboos. The most universal prohibition of such taboo is that on mating among certain kinds of kin: mother-son, father-daughter, brother-sister. Some other taboos are more concerned with social relationships, as in the obsrvance of caste or class rules or use of language among family members.
- Chick, G., & Dong, E. (2003, April 6-8). Possibility of refining the hierarchical model of leisure constraints through cross-cultural research. Proceedings of the 2003 Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium, Bolton Landing, NY.
- Lewis, H. (1993). Anthropologia. Whitter, CA: Lewis Micropublishing.
- Nanda, S. (1994). Cultural anthropology (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.