Culture - Is it truly liberating?

Culture – Is it truly liberating?

Race as a biological concept has had many cruel consequences. The Holocaust is but one of the events related to race that will remain etched in history. Closer to home, the racial riots of 1964 is what pushed the Singaporean government to emphasize racial harmony and implement policies to cater to each racial group.

Wells (2002), in his book “The Journey of Man” asserts that our genetic roots are inherently the same, and problematizes the concept of race by revealing to us that race is primarily a social construct. Thompson (2006) brings this argument further, by stating that simply calling it a “social construct” does not address the phenomenon and its consequences well enough, and suggests the use of the word “lineage” instead. Race, it seems, has been recognized as a concept better left behind, and a new catchword seems to have arisen from this – Culture.

At first, the use of the word ‘Culture’ seems enticing. Free from any negative connotation of the past, it seems to emphasize something of heritage that is worth preserving. Culture seems to be able see past skin-deep differences and embrace our diversity. It seems to explain why different people do things differently in a non-aggressive manner, without the judgmental undertones that race carries. But do we fail to see the dangers in its subtleties?

Bourdieu and Passeron (1990) assert that culture is an act of “symbolic violence” in which the dominant class imposes its values onto that of the dominated class, and it is misrecognized as the values of the entire society. All this is done and accepted unconsciously by the dominated class. Yet in contrast, rising individuality and globalization have led to a greatly increased consumerist and postmodern culture, in which each individual picks and chooses his or her own brand of culture. Will we then, simply be brainwashed into accepting the values of those in power by unconsciously accepting what is fed to us, or be otherwise overwhelmed by the myriad choices of culture to choose from? The culture of a collective group of people (e.g. Singaporeans) is getting harder and harder to define, simply because of the increasing diversity of systems of belief, meaning and knowledge there is within each group.

Racial lines were divisive not because they were inherently a divisive concept, but because those in power chose to use race as an explanation/excuse (in a biological way) to subjugate those who were culturally different. It is relatively easy to do away with the concept of race and its negative connotations, but how do we fight the propensity to utilize power and influence to neutralize those who are different?

In Singapore, the government draws distinct cultural lines with the concept of race. It would be safe to say that the concept of race in Singapore does not carry much negative connotation anymore, and people understand it to refer to cultural differences. Yet, in prescribing what culture is supposed to mean to us among these groups, a lot of cultural diversity gets unified, and in some sense, cease to be passed down. Chinese dialects and traditions (e.g. Hokkien, Canton, Teochew) are forced into one big cultural idea referred to as “Chinese”, and Malays who choose not to be Muslim find themselves in an awkward position.

What exactly is culture then? Cronk (1999) says that culture is separate from behavior. He likens it to “the socially transmitted information that tells a person how to bake a cake.” In our fourth lecture, Prof Thompson suggested that culture resembles a spiral in which culture constantly is changing because agents never reproduce it perfectly. If culture is ever changing, then are not anthropologists as well as the government defeating the purpose of cultural diversity by trying to concretize and describe the fluid nature of culture? On top of this, if culture is not adequately shown in our behavior, how much of culture do anthropologists actually hope to capture by describing behavior? If they purport to understand a certain culture (e.g. Singaporeans) how would ascertain how representative their interpretation of a certain culture based on their interactions with a sample group? We speak of cultural relativism between groups, but how about cultural relativism within groups?

We have less racial riots to this day, and we are not forced to accept differential treatment based on biological differences. Culture can be seen to be embracing diversity, or is it? I believe that while culture is able to do that, it is also able to impose homogeneity, once an attempt is made to prescribe it to a certain part of the population. The concepts of cultural imperialism, as well as cultural hegemony stem from this. If culture is truly to embrace diversity, it must remain fluid and not seek to draw lines between groups. (e.g. saying this is Chinese culture, that is Malay culture.) Otherwise, it will simply run the risk of going down the same path as race.

I would suggest, therefore, that culture is not as useful a concept as it seems to be. It potentially has the same divisive tendencies as race, but deceptively seems less dangerous. Anthropologists can observe behavior and note it down as fact, but it is unwise to assume come up with a monolithic idea about culture among a group of people, especially in a changing world where culture is not easily generalized to any group of people.


Thompson, E. C. (2006, Feburary). The problem of "race as a social construct". Anthropology News.

Wells, S. (2002). The journey of man: A genetic odyssey. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J. C. (1990). Reproduction in education, society, and culture. Sage Publications Ltd.

Cronk, L. (1999). That complex whole: Culture and the evolution of human behavior. (pp. 1-15). Colorado: Westview Press.

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