How Does Culture Affect Our Lives: Culture, Society and the Individual

When studying culture and society, the role of the individual must be taken into account. This is How does culture affect our lives essay in which the relationship between culture, society and the individual will be considered. Many anthropologists studied the theories of group living, social identity and the individual within different cultures. Margaret Mead studied adolescence in Samoa and North America and built theories on the individual growing up within culture. Ruth Benedict theorized on individuals relying on group life and a social identity for survival. Along with these two, Emile Durkheim studied religion, types of societies and the reliance on others for human survival, creating his theories on individuality in culture. Each of these anthropologists and authors had their own perspectives and theories on the individual. Whether there is a separation between the individual, culture, and societies in which they come up in, is a question of theory which these authors hoped to answer.

Theory is an important aspect of anthropology and human life, as it is a way to express questions, ideas and concepts on factors such as culture and society. One way of describing theory is “a construction about reality”. This is the way that writer Thomas Kuhn described it in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn said that a theory is a person’s perspective on reality and how certain aspects relate, work or function. A theory is based on the beliefs and values of the person who constructed it, the use of models and the history of the discipline it is being used in University of Idaho. Each anthropologist or author creates their own theories for their topic of study. For Mead, Benedict and Durkheim, their theories followed two schools of thought; Structural Functionalist theory, and the school of Culture and Personality. While the authors follow two different schools of thought or general theory, they all share an interest in discovering whether there is a divide between the individual and culture, of if they are two parts of a whole that cannot be separated.

Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict shared theories, or aspects of their theories, as they were both students and followers of Franz Boas. Under Boaz’s field, Mead and Benedict followed the theory that personality patterns are dependent on socialization processes throughout an individual’s lifetime .They believed that “culture is a reflection of the personalities of its members”. Their theories were based on the idea that culture and society are one aspect and the individual is another, and that they are parts of a whole that can be found reflected in one another. Both women's theories followed the school of Culture and Personality. This school of thought began in the early 20th century and was not often considered as legitimate, as it focused on what most would consider two separate fields. This school of Culture and Personality focused on psychological connections to culture and theorized ideas such as adult behaviours being culturally patterned, childhood experiences influencing adult behaviour later on, and that adult personality traits are reflections of the culture’s beliefs and societal institutions, such as religion. In regards to the relationship between culture and the individual, this theory suggests that individuals are molded and shaped by their cultures and surrounding environment, including emotions, thoughts, behaviours and cultural values and norms. Because each individual is molded in these ways by their culture, they are then allowed or able to fit in and act as a functioning member of that society.

Margaret Mead, in her shared theory of culture to Benedict, focused on cultural influence from childhood onwards. In her school of thought and theory, it has been said that Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa was some of the first direct research which looks into the relation between personality and culture. Mead was known for investing herself in culture and living among her subjects of study. Throughout her work in Samoa, as well as other cultures she studied, Mead followed the relationship between the cultural group, psychological aspects of culture and the individual. While many anthropologists focused on more visual aspects of culture such as symbols or rituals, Mead was interested in the physical and mental or psycho-analytical processes of culture. In Samoa her theory focused on social groups and the influences a group or society has on the individual, often beginning in childhood. Her work in Coming of Age in Samoa displayed the effect that environment and culture have on human development in adolescence. Mead said that adolescence is “a time without anchorage or respected home standards or group religious values”. In saying this, Mead suggested that while adolescence is a biological period of time for the human body, it is culturally influenced. Within this cultural influence, Mead considered it to be a time of individual development, varied from cultural development later on in life. In her study of Samoan adolescence compared to North American adolescence, Mead concluded that the development of individuals relies on their cultural environment and expectations, rather than simply being factors of biological human traits or natural science. On the same theory of cultural influence and connection from culture to the individual, Mead discovered that gender traits are not biological, but are socially constructed and developed through culture, as she studied different civilizations in Sex and Temperment in Three Primitive Societies.

Ruth Benedict, following the same general theory and model as Mead, focused on the relationship between culture and the individual through cultural comparisons. During the development of the psychological or Culture and Personality phase of anthropology, Benedict was criticized as being “too humanistic and not using enough qualitative data”. This criticism has a point in the study of cultures, as her theory follows the close connection between the individual and culture, which could result in a skewed perspective ignoring the variations that can occur within one culture. Ruth Benedict’s main theory was that each person has individuality because of society and culture, but that there is still a separation between the individual and their culture. While studying the Plains and Pueblo peoples, Benedict determined that the culture of a society can be studied by studying the personalities of its bearers. In following this theory, Benedict could categorize people into personality types referencing their emotions, physical features and attitudes. While individuals are influenced and molded by culture, cultures can be studied through individuals as they are reflected in the individuals’ personalities. This is where Benedict’s theory can be critiqued. Studying a culture through select individuals gives a certain perspective on that culture. However, within a culture there will be variations. How your family raised you, the places you have visited or lived in your life, and any other material influence can change the way you reflect your culture from how someone else reflects it. Because of this, Benedict’s theory on individuality could result with biased perspectives of cultures or societies. Ruth Benedict also believed that an individual must belong to a culture and society in order to reach full potential or success. To Benedict, the reliance individuals have on society was an important factor in the relationship between the two aspects. For example, Benedict said that in a society, you have the choice to support or protest social norms and values. In order to protest or support you need to be a part of, or have some connection to, that society.

In contrast to Benedict and Mead’s school of Culture and Personality, Emile Durkheim was a main proponent of the Structural Functionalist school of anthropology. Structural functionalism is the theory that societies are complex systems made up of parts which work together to create a whole functioning society. This is the theory that Durkheim followed in his work. Much of Durkheim’s work questioned individual and societal survival. He believed that individuals have the personal skills and sense to survive alone, but rely on others and group living for survival. For example, hunter gatherers can survive alone as they have the skills and knowledge of survival away from their group. Although they have these skills and knowledge, they rely on their band or group as they carry a societal or cultural identity to this group. Durkheim’s theory followed the idea that as humans developed and lived in group settings, societies were created, resulting in society and culture to becoming necessary human traits. He believed that as we have developed societal belonging and norms, we have built social identities and cannot, or do not want to, survive without identity. His theory also states that as social connections and a sense of belonging became significant, a division of labour was created, making society more complexWhile group life became a natural trait of humans, the division of labour created a divide in groups, further enforcing his theory that humans cannot survive successfully outside of groups or societies. In relation to life today, this could be exemplified in how we live in modern towns and cities. While we can live alone and rely on ourselves for most things, we rely on others to run grocery stores, mechanic shops, public transportation, and other trades. To be able to have a job, drive a car, live in a house and eat food, we rely on the societal system.

Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and Emile Durkheim, while studying and reflecting different perspectives on the individual, resulted with theories very comparable to each other. Mead’s theory concluded that the individual is the product of the culture in which they grow up in, with respect to individuality which is allowed or accepted within that specific culture. Benedict concluded in her theory that the relation between the individual and culture or society is, in a sense, like a mirror. The individual reflects the culture which affected them, while the culture reflects each individual. Mead and Benedict agreed in their theories that while the individual is one factor and culture or society is another, they are two parts of a whole that theoretically cannot be separated. Durkheim concluded that in the development of societies and culture and the individual, society has become a human trait, deemed necessary for survival. His theory concluded in the idea that the individual and culture may have existed as two entities at one time, but are now one whole that are made up of and rely on each other. 

Overall, the three authors concluded to answer the question of whether there is a separation between culture and the individual in three varied ways, resulting in two answers. From Mead and Benedict, the individual and culture are two parts of a whole, each their own entity but connected to each other. From Durkheim, the individual and culture are one whole which cannot be separated for human survival. Theory and perspective on human culture, society and individuality are all important to the ways in which we live today, as well as in studying anthropology, history and other humanitarian fields. 

10 October 2022
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