What Is Culture?

What Is Culture?

PERSPECTIVE CHECK: Of course, some members of this class may be excited to hear the instructor make these statements precisely because they challenge dominant ideas and/or affirm their own experiences.

What Is Culture?

Each one of us is born into a particular time, place, and social context— into a particular culture. Culture refers to the characteristics of everyday life of a group of people located in a given time and place. Some of these characteristics are visible and easily identified by the members of the culture, but many (indeed most) of them are below the surface of everyday awareness.

Culture: The norms, values, practices, patterns of communication, language, laws, customs, and meanings shared by a group of people located in a given time and place.

The iceberg illustration presented in Figure 3.1 is a helpful visual representation of culture. While we may be able to identify superficial elements of culture (such as food, dress, and music), deeper levels of culture (such as notions of modesty and concepts of time) are more difficult to see. Like a fish that is immersed in water from the moment of consciousness and thus cannot know that it is separate from the water, we too are immersed from birth in the deep water of our culture.

What Is Socialization?

Socialization refers to our systematic training into the norms of our culture. Socialization is the process of learning the meanings and practices that enable us to make sense of and behave appropriately in that culture. Notice the massive depth of the iceberg under the water and how many aspects of socialization are below the surface—not consciously thought about; we just know when someone is “friendly,” or is “acting weird,” or has “poor hygiene.” We know because we have been socialized into the




norms of our culture, norms that regulate these aspects of social life, and if our friends have been socialized this way too, getting along is easy. Socialization begins at birth and continues throughout life. Indeed, the forces of socialization are gathering even before birth, when our families begin to project their hopes, dreams, and expectations onto our lives.

Figure 3.1. The Iceberg of Culture

Source: www.homeofbob.com/literature/esl/icebergModelCulture.html

PERSPECTIVE CHECK: What’s below the surface is often easier to see when the deep culture you have been socialized into does not match the deep culture you are currently navigating. for example, if there is a difference between your home culture and your school or work culture.

One of the clearest examples of this cultural education is the process of gender socialization. Consider the first question most people ask expectant parents, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Why do we ask this question? We ask because the answer sets in motion a series of expectations and actions. For example, if parents are informed that they are having a girl, they may




begin to buy clothes and decorate the room in preparation for their daughter’s arrival. The colors they chose, the toys they buy, their expectations for her future, will all be informed by what that culture deems appropriate for girls.

But even our conception of what girls and boys are is rooted in our culture. Although sex and gender are often used interchangeably, they mean different things. Sex refers to the biological, genetic, or phenotypical markers that are used to categorize us into female and male bodies: genitals, body structure, hormones, and so on. These markers are related to reproduction. Gender, on the other hand, is what it means to have that body in a given culture. Gender refers to the roles, behaviors, and expectations our culture assigns to those markers: how you are supposed to feel and act based on whether your body is seen as female or male. Males are expected to learn to “act like a man”—they are trained into masculinity; and females are expected to learn to “act like a woman”— they are trained into femininity.

Cisgender: The term for people whose gender assignment at birth and subsequent socialization are the same as their identity.

Transgender: The term for people whose gender assignment at birth is different from their gender identity.

Genderqueer, Genderfluid, non-Binary: People who do not identify in binary terms and /or whose gender identity and expression is fluid and dynamic.

PERSPECTIVE CHECK: Of course this binary construct is the dominant construct in Western society. In other cultures, there are “third” or alternate gender identities that are normalized, such as two spirit or Muxe in Indigenous traditions, Hijra from South Asian traditions, or Kathoey from Asian traditions (among many others). These traditions show that societies around the world have grappled with the complexity of gender and sexuality identity and expression for millennia.

When we fit neatly into these binary categories, scholars sometimes use the prefix “cis” to describe us. Cis is Latin for same and indicates that one’s gender assignment and identity are the same or in agreement. Another way to think about this is that a person who is cisgender is not transgender. People who are transgender have a gender identity that is different from their assigned sex at birth. A transgender woman is




someone who was identified as male at birth but whose gender identity is female and lives, or desires to live, her life as a woman. A transgender man is someone who was identified as female at birth but whose gender identity is male and lives, or desires to live, his life as a man. (And there are some people who don’t want to be in either of the gender categories; they are nonbinary.) One thing we all have in common, regardless of our gender identity, is that we live in a society that is set up to enforce the gender roles imposed on us from birth. Cisgender and transgender people have this in common, though they will undoubtedly have different experiences and feelings about being socialized as boys or girls during childhood, following a prescribed script throughout adolescence about what it means to achieve manhood or womanhood, and existing as adults in a structure where compulsory gender norms continue to be imposed. We acknowledge that the terms we use here—“man,” “woman,” “male,” “female”—are neither natural nor unchanging. What we aim to communicate by using these terms, limited and inadequate as they may be, is the power of socialization; what society tells us it means to be a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, male or female, how it tells us, and what the consequences are. Thus, we use the terms men and women to illustrate the process of socialization within a cisnormative gender binary and how that socialization is rooted in sexism.

More often than many people realize, babies are born with variant sex characteristics that are not easily understood as being female or male, or with a combination of both female and male genitals (Bergvall, Bing, & Freed, 1996; Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Gender in many cultures is a binary system that insists on male/female opposites, and this binary has profound meaning and consequences. Because of this, doctors routinely opt to surgically and hormonally “correct” any variations and assign one or the other sex and gender status to the child even though many of these babies are healthy at birth. Through medical intervention, the bodies of sex- variant babies are reshaped into what is considered normal for a male or female and therefore understandable in terms of gender binaries.

Because we are taught that sex and gender differences are natural, we rarely notice how much we have been socialized into them. Indeed, as the title of a popular book from the 1990s tells us, men are from Mars and women are from Venus: so fundamentally different that they don’t even come from the same planet. Yet in fact, there are actually fewer, rather than more, differences between women and men (Fausto-Sterling, 1992). However, because society is invested in the differences (in maintaining the different social statuses of women and men), the research that validates difference between women and men is the research that gets promoted.

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What Is Culture?
What Is Culture?



Like gender, many other aspects of our socialization are also invisible to us. For example, how close do we stand when talking to someone? How do we know when someone is standing too close? And how do aspects of socialization (such as age, social class, religion) and context (such as at a party, in the office, or at home) influence our assessments of whether or not someone is standing too close? The norms of our culture are most often invisible until they are violated.

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