What actually determines human behavior? Is it the natural settings within which a human being survives or is it the genes? This Historyplex article explains the meaning of cultural determinism with examples to identify human behavior influenced through culture.
Franz Boas, a German-American anthropologist was the first one to introduce culture as the principal concept for identifying human behavior rather than biological factors.
In order to belong to a social group, human beings have to adhere to the cultural norms within their environment. Culture very subtly dictates every aspect of the human life mainly through ideas, attitudes, and traditions that have been passed down from one generation to another. One of the underlying ways in which cultural notions, patterns, and orientation determine psychological processes is the way people perceive about themselves and their relation to others. Cultural psychology identifies two main styles of self-interpretation: individualistic and collectivist. People belonging to independent cultures, such as the United States, tend to respect their liberty, singularity, unopposed restraints, and the right to express their personal style, whereas people belonging to collectivist cultures, such as Japan have high esteem towards social concord, abidance, and bond over collective group behavior.
Culture impacts in such a way that the brain becomes a cultural sponge, imbibing the cultural phenomena from the physical and social environment.
Cultural Determinism is the belief that the culture dictates our behavior widely through economic, political organizations, educational, and religious elements rather than our biological genes.
◆ Culture can simply be defined as the sum total of traditionally-ascertained demeanor of a group of people imparted from generation to generation. It is a collective cognitive behavior that discerns one cultural group of people from another.
◆ Human nature is learned through ideas, meanings, beliefs and values determined by the society. Anthropologists propose that there is no universal law such as the ‘right way’ of being a human because the exclusive ‘right way’ always corresponds to ‘our way’ which in turn varies according to different society cultures. Optimistically human nature is endlessly ductile, human beings can prefer to live the way they want but mostly cannot because they are conditioned to behave in a particular way towards the society. Passively they follow the culture that surrounds them, knowledge and values itself mold and groom an individual.
◆ When an individual is born, his mind is like a clean slate while later in life he/she imbibes from the cultural settings and falls into a particular ‘type’ or ‘category’ of the society that influences his personality.
◆ Cultural determinism is loosely based on cultural relativity – the belief that growth in one society is totally different from the other society and cannot be equated.
For e.g. a citizen of one country operates in a different reality from a citizen of another because they speak different languages, believe in different religions, and so on. Hence societal differences are ascribed to ‘cultural’ divergences. A person imbibes the ideas of their society and goes on to behave much like everyone else there, whether they happen to live in a developed country or belong to an indigenous tribe.
Cultural Determinism in Anthropology
◆ German anthropologist, Franz Boas was the first one to formulate a correlation between human perception and the natural world. He believed that only elaborate cultural histories of the world provided a detailed record of the human existence rather than the whole evolution theory.
◆ His belief was that many cultures grew independently, each based on its own peculiar set of contexts such as geography, climate, environment, resources and particular cultural borrowing which in turn shaped the human life of that particular region.
◆ The dispersion of cultural attributes in various geographic areas made cultures around the world diverse, unique and made up of myriad individual traits. Hence people from different cultures behave in a different manner in every country.
◆ For Boas, cultures were clusters of traits. Boas argued that each cultural trait has a complex past, and therefore the total cultural assemblage of a civilization was that it “has its own unique history”. He rejected the notion of evolutionary stages by pointing out that different geographical regions had their own unique archaeological discoveries regarding the presence or absence of pottery, metallurgy, or cultural existence. Boas successfully brought about the demise of socio-cultural evolutionary by shifting the focus to diverse, unique and integrated cultures within the world.
◆ The ancient Greeks conceived that only those who conversed in their language could interpret their ideas and political orientation, other civilizations were perceived as ‘barbaroi’ the English equivalent of ‘barbarian’.
◆ Philosopher and historian, Niccolò Machiavelli considered political behavior to be universal. He also indicated that elements of culture, specially religion, could create unique political systems which were advantageous.
◆ Sociologist Max Weber advocated that religious reforms of Protestantism had a huge impact on capitalism.
◆ In media, the theory that persists is that people are influenced by the image culture. People believe in what is projected to them. More often what is shown is an inspiration from cultures and the lifestyles that have been around from ages.
◆ The intellectual movement of Romanticism was a large component of cultural determinism. Writers such as Goethe, Fichte, and Schlegel produced exceptional works influenced by the culture around them.
The tussle between nature vs. nurture is never ending, obviously one can say that culture imitates life and life imitates culture. It’s a parallel universe.