On The Limitations Of Pigeonholing Culture


Many social theorists use society as the standard unit for determining the cultural characteristics of a group of people. But what exactly is ‘a’ culture. A simple definition of culture I will use here is learned and shared behavior by a group of people. First off, what is a ‘group’? This could be two individuals, a family, a society, or multiple societies, or even a mix between them. The following equation helps explain how some different cultures can exist:



Each letter represents a group of people who learn and share behaviors with each other. So, if culture ‘A’ interacts with culture ‘B’, and both cultures learn and share a particular behavior while interacting, them both cultures would create a new culture, culture ‘C’, combining cultures “A’ and ‘B’. Therefore, it seems that culture is by nature an abstraction and depends on where you draw the line for a ‘group’. That is, culture can take on multiple forms depending on the particular circumstances of an interaction. The problem with pigeonholing culture is that culture can have many levels, ranging from two individuals to the total global human population. The limitation of using society as the standard unit is that it pigeonholes culture to only one of these levels. The diagram above shows an example of a social theory (structural-functionalism) that utilizes only one these levels of culture. Why is society the standard and not the family, or cross-societies? Both of those levels also have a culture.

By acknowledging the abstractive nature of culture, we can see the limitations of certain social theories. Structural-functionalism did not see conflict as existing in a society because the view was that the culture of societies functioned to produce cultural cohesion. But when we look at cross-societal culture, it is difficult to argue that there has not been conflict between societies. Therefore, it matters how one defines culture in a social theory and that can reveal limitations to the theory itself.




Living Off-Grid and Cultural Relativism


Since discussing Franz Boas and his creation of the idea of cultural relativism I have been thinking of what I could relate cultural relativism to that was modern. I decided to use it in relation to an activity or belief that is sometimes subject to stereotypical generalization. Many things came to mind but I decided to go with off-grid living. This is a practice that seems to be becoming more and more popular. The picture above shows a driveway that is part of a semi-off-grid property. There are a large variety of reasons that some people choose to live a life off of the grid.

Just to name a few, there are those who live off-grid for environmental reasons. They might want to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint by using independent energy sources like solar or wind and maybe grown their own food in a sustainable way. Another person might live exactly the same way except for worries of global economic or governmental collapse. There are also people who believe a zombie apocalypse may be coming, and try to prepare for it by living off the grid. Spirituality is another reason people might live off-grid to help them connect with nature. Others might live off-grid because they were raised in that type of environment and continue to live that way.

I have heard of a question people who live off-grid are sometimes asked: are you gun toting or granola? Granola apparently means an environmentalist who lives off-grid. This question is obviously not open-ended and very limited as to the reasons why someone would live off-grid. But whether living off-gird for reasons of environmental sustainability, economic worries, governmental insecurity, zombie apocalypse, spirituality, or many other reasons, lacking a culturally relative mindset can lead to quite inaccurate, stereotypical conclusions.


Marxist Theory and Worker Cooperatives

Since discussing Marx and Marxist theory in class, I began to think about the means of production and worker cooperatives. Some worker cooperatives may operate different than the definition I will give here, but for those that are new to the concept of a worker cooperative, it is a business that is equally owned by all employees of that business, with each employee having one vote in deciding how the business operates. In short: democracy in the workplace.

Concerning Marxist theory, assuming that a worker cooperative might operate at the definition I gave, the issue of who owns and controls the means of production within the business is no longer an issue, because the workers as a whole own the means of production, assuming that there is a means of production. During Marx’s time, working conditions were terrible for the working-class, so the issue of who was benefiting from these working conditions was great: who is benefiting and who is being exploited in that system. Even within the modern capitalist economic system, there are still concerns over the ownership of the means of production. Worker cooperatives themselves may not have this issue, at least in theory.

Even if all businesses transitioned to democratic worker cooperatives, I think the ownership of the overall means of production might still be an issue to some. Some would like an overall democratic economy, where local communities decide as a whole how production is operated, fulfilled, and distributed, (which I will refer to here as a democratic economy). The idea of a worker cooperative in an industrial state is a revolutionary idea that might exist in both capitalist and democratic economies.

As a person who has by no means read all of Marx’s works, I wonder what he would have thought about modern worker cooperatives. Would that be the ideal outcome for him regarding the control of the means of production? Or would it not go far enough for him?