Dysfunctional Culture?


Culture is

“…knowledge that is learned and shared and that people use to generate behavior and interpret experience.”

That definition is from David W. McCurdy, James P. Spradley, and Dianna J. Shandy in The Cultural Experience: Ethnography in Complex Society (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2005).

David W. McCurdy, James P. Spradley, and Dianna J. Shandy The Cultural Experience: Ethnography in Complex Society, (Long Grove IL: Waveland Press, 2005).

It has been my favorite definition for culture.

  1.  It explains what culture is at its essence:  “shared knowledge that is learned.”
  2.  It explains what it does.  It generates behavior and it interprets experience.

So suppose one loses one’s job. How does culture function in respect to that experience? Consider some possibilities:

  • I lost my job because it was God’s will. Therefore, there is nothing I can do except submit to God’s will.
  • I lost my job because of bad karma. I must have done something bad. I need to do something good  so that good things wil come my way.
  • Losing my job was a sign. God must be telling me that I need to be doing something else. I better start right on that.
  • Hey, I lost my job because S**t Happens. Nothing I could have done about it. Nothing I can learn from it.
  • I lost my job due to my own incompetence. I need to learn and grow and do better next time.
  • I lost my job because of “the system.” Those cold heartless overlords need to be taught a lesson.
  • I think I lost my job because I offended my ancestor, or maybe some spirits. I need to appease them.

Of course, in any culture, there may be a variety of answers that come up for these circumstances, but culture provides normal answers and responses.

I like the definition, but I feel there is room for improvement. I would like to modify the definition somewhat.

Culture is

“…knowledge that is learned and shared and that people use to generate behavior and interpret experience, as well as provide meaning and a sense of belongingness.”

I feel that the additional points are useful.

Culture provides meaning or purpose. It gives answers in terms of the great existential questions. One might consider that to be a worldview function, but worldview is a deep aspect of any culture. What is my purpose? Why am I here?

Culture also provides a sense of belongingness. Culture provides an answer as to “Who are we?” and equally important, “Who are they?” Culture provides a sense of kinship that goes beyond biological or nationalistic kinship.

I feel it is good to add these two points as well, because, when considering whether a culture is functional or dysfunctional, it is best to consider to what extent it provides meaning for its members, as well as how it provides a sense of belongingness.

 

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