Public Agenda (Accra)

Ghana: The Uniqueness of the Relationship Between Culture and Society


Discussions on the concepts of " culture " and " society " as gleaned from sociological and anthropological literature of both old and contemporary times leave one with an inescapable conclusion, to wit, the interrelatedness and the nuances between the seemingly inextricably interwoven terms, and the analysis below may not be a far cry from this observation.

The word " culture " originated from the Latin word " colere " , which means " to cultivate " (Doshi and Jain : 2001).In social anthropology the word " culture " means " knowledge " , that is, knowledge about those aspects of humanity which are not natural, but which are related to that " which is acquired " .

But the concept of culture is very comprehensive and profound, and different schools of thought have defined it variously. One of the oldest and classical definitions was provided by Edward B. Tylor. In his seminal work, Primitive Culture (1871), Tylor , an anthropologist of the evolutionary school, defined culture as " that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society . "

In his definition Tylor also emphasizes " acquiring of culture " as an important characteristic of the concept. Secondly, it is the capabilities and habits which form the content of culture.

In traditional terms, biologically, heredity gives the characteristics of a set of genes to the coming generation. In the case of culture, the social characteristics are acquired by the present generation from preceding generations. Thus culture is a social inheritance.

In a very textual and simplified way John Lewis has defined culture as " All that is socially transmitted in a society, including artistic, social, ideological and religious patterns of behavior and the techniques for mastering the environment constitute culture."

From Lewis ' perspective, culture is social transmission which is prevalent in all walks of life. He, however, does not stress on the acquired aspects of culture. He only talks about transmission from the preceding generations to the coming generation.

In Voices from Africa (Gbotokuma: 1992), Zeke Gbotokuma writing on " Cultural Identity and Underdevelopment in Sub-Saharan Africa " , sees culture is as much a way of as a concept of life, a " Weltanschauung " as the Germans say. He explains that as a way of life, culture is " a plan according to which society adapts itself to its physical, social and ideological milieu " . A concept of life, he further observes, " covers, for example, food, lodging, clothes, interior decoration, marriage, organization of the family, system of parenthood, social class, trade, government, war, religion, magic, language, etc " .

To E.R. Leach of the Structural School of Thought, " culture emphasizes the component of accumulated resources, immaterial as well as material which the people inherit, employ, transmute and add to and transmit. " Leach also a supporter of the diffuisionist theory, attaches ambulatory (dynamism) element to culture.

From Leach ' s definition, it could be said that culture has traits and complexes originating through innovation and spreading through diffusion and thus having a geographical distribution. Second, it has patterns, structure and functions and thirdly, it could be static or dynamic.

The common theme in all the definitions provided is that culture is acquired through learning within a society. The anthropologists dealt with so far see culture as all-embracing including society.

But there are other anthropologists who differentiate between society and culture. A proponent of this school of thought is Zeke Gbotokuma. In his write up referred to above he argues that culture is a " tradition " , an incarnation of a society ' s history. And since two societies cannot have an identical experience and history, it is logical that their way of life can never be exactly the same. In this sense, " culture is as unique as a society and a society as unique as its culture " (emphasis mine).

Society, like culture, has been defined in numerous ways. A fairly comprehensive and usable definition has been provided by Goodman and Marx (1978). In their book, Society Today, they define society as " a relatively large and relatively autonomous collection of people who have a common heritage that is transmitted from generation to generation and who interact with one another in socially structured relationships. "

The people in a society have a common heritage that is transmitted from generation to generation. This common heritage is the culture and includes all the values, customs, beliefs and artifacts of a society as earlier pointed out in Tylor ' s definition of culture. Because the people in a society share the same material and nonmaterial culture, they attach similar meanings to things and events. And this shared vocabulary of meanings forms one of the major bases for a society ' s cohesion.

It is important to clarify that a society is a group of people held together by common traditions, customs, and ways of life, or a common culture, and in which there exists among the members constituting it an awareness of belonging to it.

The foregoing discussion on culture and society brings into sharp focus the intertwined nature of the two concepts. It was this observation that prompted Alfred Louis Kroeber of the Diffussionist School of Thought to make that famous pronouncement: " no society, no culture, no culture no society. " He contends, ?We can accept this: society and culture, social and cultural, are closely related concepts. There can be no society without individuals. The converse "no society without culture-holds for man: no cultureless human society is known; it would even be hard to imagine. " - Doshi and Jain: 2001. In sum Kroeber sees a correlation between culture and society.

Nonetheless, it is significant to point out that Kroeber in his earlier writings had admitted that societies do exist without culture and that culture marks humans from other animal societies.

There is another group of anthropologists who steered a middle course by accepting that society and culture are two aspects of social realities viewed from different dimensions: that of relationship and group (society), and that of action and behaviour (culture).

Examining the two concepts, it could be argued that society is far broader in scope than culture. A society may be made up of a handful of people or may embrace a huge number of people, example the Aborigines society of Australia, the Ghanaian Society or the German Society.

The uniqueness of the relationship between the concepts of culture and society could be summarized as follows: that although the two concepts are seemingly inextricably tied up like a knot, the knot could be disentangled and lay bare the concepts as two separate and distinct terms. Anthropologists and sociologists have managed to achieve this fact with finesse. For anthropologists, culture is the ultimate reality and society is the vehicle of culture ? a necessary but not sufficient condition of culture. Conversely, sociologists contend that society is the ultimate reality which renders intelligible the nature of humans and of social institutions by which they are governed. Actually, sociologists consider society as the creator of culture whereas anthropologists think that it is culture which keeps the organization of society going.

David Bidney observes: "Both sociologists and ethnologists (anthropologists) agreed that culture is the product of social intercourse and independent of psychology, they differed only as regards the metaphysical or meta-scientific issue of the ontology of priority of society and culture. "

It has been argued by some scholars that the validity of any type of approach is matter of one ' s perspective. Society and culture may or may not be co-terminus but both are in fact aspects of the same phenomenon. The essential relations between the concepts lead to the frequent use of a compound term " socio-cultural " as applied to the group behaviour. It seems that the concept of culture as all embracing is the most useful one. In this case human society is an as aspect of culture.

On my part, I subscribe to the position espoused by Kroeber that there cannot be culture without society; neither can there be society without culture. The two concepts from a certain perspective are independent of each other and in another respect they are interdependent. It this thin line between the two concepts which accounts for the uniqueness in their relationship and invariably engages the minds of scholars of both anthropology and sociology.

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