Culture: Complexity, Conformity and Cultivation.

Culture: Complexity, Conformity and Cultivation.

“Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future”
Albert Camus

I find Culture a thoroughly fascinating, yet confusing topic due to the numerous interpretations of it by anthropologist, sociologist and social psychologist alike. The meaning of culture appears to be vague and difficult to explain as it is most commonly and famously defined by Edward Burnett Tylor inPrimitive Culturesas a “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society”. As Lee Cronk has pointed out inRighting Culturethat all behaviours (behaviours being the “habits acquired by man as a member of a society”) is “cultural behaviour”; including behaviour as a concept in defining culture merely confounds the definition of culture and hence prove inept in explaining what is culture. Thus, Lee Cronk believes in culture being ”socially transmitted information” which is not directly observable but can still have the ability to affect our behaviours.

Our behaviours are learnt and adapted to conform to our society’s expectations and norms. This is due to the “hunter-gatherer” instinct innate in all human beings, the ability to respond appropriately to other’s emotions and actions, in order to ensure harmony and survival. Since cultures are diverse, the implicit cultural rules vary cross-culturally. An example of categorising emotions is via the separation of societies into “Dionysian” and “Apollonian” (Heelas, 1996). Dionysian societies regard majority of the emotions to be vital in moral/social order while Apollonian societies believe in emotions being able to enhance the power accorded with negative moral values. For example, the Ilongot tribe in Philippines (Dionysian) encourage the display ofliget, a type of anger, because it gives them strength and courage when they go “head-hunting.” (Rosaldo, 1980:55) On the other hand, the Tahitians of French Polynesia deem “anger” having the ability to kill because mystical agents within a person is unleashed by anger and can cause a person to do harm to others and thus the Tahitians represses anger to their best ability. (Harris, 1978) This shows that two different cultures may be able to interpret a common emotion, anger, differently. Therefore, one needs to practice cultural relativism; keeping an open mind towards cultures that differs from you.

Culture also determines social roles and consequently appropriate behaviours associating with these roles. The act of veiling and the traditional role of woman as the domestic homemaker and child bearer in Indian societies (a patrilineal, patriarchal and patrilocal one) shown in the film “Dadi’s Family” further accentuates the lower status of woman to man. In contrast, Javanese woman are able to own lands, operate business and have to right to initiate divorce (ibid) even in a patriarchal society and act of veiling is a symbol of autonomy and education opportunites.

Next, I believe that culture can be created and sustained since it is a type of “socially transmitted information” and an observable behaviour, which arise from the interaction with people in a society. This leads me to question if a “Singaporean Culture” does exist?

Singapore, being a cosmopolitan, degree- driven, paternalistic, multi-ethnic city-state is famous (or some would say, infamous) for our local glorification of the term “Kiasu-ism.” Kiasu-ism is defined as the fear of losing out to the point of becoming a selfish and overly cautious person. ( Although “Kiasu-ism” has been a term coined by locals and is unique to Singaporean’s way of life for decades, some may argue it may not be as unique to Singaporeans as we think. Famous British comedian, Rowan Atkinson’s well-known portrayal of the character Mr Bean, whose laughable actions often puts himself more advantageous to the detriment of others, appears to be the epitome of “Kiasu-ism” too. Nevertheless, in recent years, Singaporeans have creatively developed a new trend, namely the “Chope Culture” which is commonly exemplified by the usage of an item (often a packet of tissue) to reserve a seat at a crowded diner. This implies that culture is an expression of behaviours learnt and can be newly created as long as the majority of a society practices or recognise the existence of such actions.

Lastly, I would like to conclude by saying, culture is knowledge learnt and passed down from generations to generations, but it is not static. Culture, too, is subject to external forces that compels it to become adaptive as education and globalisation alters our traditional thinking and mind sets. To stay abreast in a modern society, one has to shake off the shackles of tradition or be laughed at for being old-fashioned. The diversity of culture is an important note in studying the appropriate behaviours and emotional displays which are often context driven, based on a certain societal norm and cultural beliefs. Therefore, it is pertinent to study culture in an objective and accepting light.


Harris, G. (1978),Casting out Anger.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paul Heelas (1996), “Emotion Talk across Cultures”, in R. Harre and W. Parrot (eds),The Emotions: Social, Cultural and Biological Dimensions.London: Sage, pp.171-199.

Rosaldo, Michelle. (1980),Knowledge and Passion.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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