Culture and knowledge

We don`t have any chapter in TOK books so far, that is, in particular, dedicated to an explanation  of culture. Oh, yes, I know, we can slip into too long discussion about different (better to say, endless) definitions of culture, about components of culture, its importance for human kind, at the end of the day we might finish a story about it somewhere in philosophy or in anthropology and then we are not in TOK.  But, hey, the question  about culture is one of kind that is essential for understanding of development of human kind. So often it was thought,said, written that culture is something that divides human kind from animals.  Something, what? There is, still, no agreement between scientists about acceptance of one single, accurate definition of culture.

We claim that culture is the matter of knowledge. Or that knowledge is the matter of culture? The problem lies in gigantic frames of culture. It incorporates in itself language, religion, myths, dance, moral, sciences, norms, arts etc., customs, habit, the way we interact we other individuals or groups etc.

According the Center for Advance Research on Language Acquisition, some of very important components of culture are patterns of behaviors and interactions and knowledge that is adopted through process of socialization.  Should we consider socialization of process of “cultivating” our toddlers so that once they become  socially accepted members of their society (or of any they chose to belong to) or socialization might be applied for all who are in quest for new home, such as refugees and migrants?

  • And how can I talk about Syrian refugee crisis and its consequences in frames of knowledge, for instance (and that has been the matter of importance for the Balkans, not just for Europe or the rest of the world) region for last few months if I do not include in that story an explanation of multiculturalism, acceptance, rejection, stereotypes, prejudiced etc. And that is all, at the end of the day, the part of culture.

And that was opening of a class dedicated to our “unpacking” of culture.

Development: 60 minutes

To raise a questions to students if showing, telling, proving, simulating as processes of adopting information belong to knowledge or culture? Or to both, possible?

  • open a discussion with students on said for 10 – 15  minutes and then to continue with a quick insight to globalization.  How do we explain globalization? Is this phenomenon characteristic only for the modern era or it could be traced to ancient times, perhaps? Do we perceive globalization as a process which might result with more positive then negative  outcomes or vice versa?
  • then follows a reading activity when students read the article “When did globalization start?”
  • to open a discussion
  • key thinkers, Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Ha – Joon Chang 
  • when a discussion is finished to introduce students with key thinkers on culture and their understanding of culture
  • Matthew Arnolds and his Culture and Anarchy (1867)

According to his opinion, what matters for defining culture is special intellectual and, here to follow, artistic (as one of abstract and highly appreciated) endeavor unique for human kind. If we unpack this definition of culture what can we notice?  Do all people in the world share the same intellectual or artistic capabilities? If not, is it possible to connect this definition with just small groups of people in some society or in different societies? If I or you accept this definition, do we make a step into a dangerous zone, when silently accepting division of human kind to two  groups, to those who posses special intellectual endeavor and to those who do not possess it?

Do we believe in a power of every single letter in United Nations Declaration of Human Rights?

Let`s explore the material deeper.

The second key thinker who should be mentioned in the lecture is Edward Taylor, with his work, Primitive Culture (1870). The work contrasts to Arnolds definition of culture. According to Taylor, culture is ” “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. Belonging to certain culture, no matter how developed is, forms the key description of every social group on the global scale. But despite the fact that Taylor recognized a process of evolution (or, to say in, a process of transition) in societies for which he established the distinction –  “savaged” to those qualified as “civilized” , Franz Boas, the third key thinker on culture, emphasized the uniqueness and values of the many and varied cultures of different peoples or societies. He also disagreed with differentiating societies (cultures) from primitive to developed. Every society, no matter how limited (small) might be with the number of its members, owns unique and so, to be appreciated culture.

Students are encouraged to address their claims and counterclaims to issues of globalization and culture and to point out to knowledge issues which might be generated from said.

  • components of culture ( observable artifacts, values, basic underlaying assumptions, by Helen Spencer-Oatey )

The explanation of difference between cultural relativists position in contrast to cultural ethnocentrism follows. So as an explanation about cultural imperialism.

  • Key thinkers on cultural and ethical relativism, Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Clyde Kluckhohn.

Cultural relativists, Boas, for instance, tended to diminish differences between people that were constructed and accepted in destructive ideologies such as Nazism, anti – Semitism, eugenics.  We are not different between ourselves because we belong to certain race. The only what makes us different is culture. However, Kluckhohn pointed out a strong counter claim to Benedict`s position when said that if we were to put in a range of equality variety of cultural characteristics (so as ethical, too) then we would have been in position to “precludes moral criticism of any cultural practice, including slavery, cannibalism, Nazism, or communism.” (Renato Rosaldo).

Rosaldo is an anthropologist who establishes strong distinction between layers that he found in ethnocentrism. According to his opinion, there are  three levels of ethnocentrism: a positive one, a negative one and an extreme negative one. When ethnocentrism is scaled on a positive level, it might be seen as “the point of view that one’s own way of life is to be preferred to all others” (Herskovits, p. 21).  But ethnocentrism becomes negative when an individual or one group aspires to  become the most important center of everything in a certain society and everyone else should accept that aspiration as mastering. Ethnocentrism  reaches its extreme negative level when “a more powerful group not only imposes its rule on another, but actively depreciates the things they hold to be of value” (Herskovits, p. 103). Horrendous crimes are examples of the extreme negative level of ethnocentrism.

On the other hand,  cultural imperialism tends to impose a set of norms on people who might not want to accept it. In the words of John Tomlinson, globalization destroyed autonomous cultural identities.

  • globalization is “a general process of loss of cultural diversity” (Tomlinson)


Closure: 15 minutes

  • culture is learned, not biologically conditioned
  • human nature versus culture
  • culture as individual and social construct, both

Evaluation of a class.

To assign a homework:

  • To watch and describe in a short essay  (200 – 300 words) reflection after watching the movie “The fifth estate”
  • when write the essay, to include in an answer reflection on the following questions:
  • To what extent is ethical to justify exposition of cultural imperialism?
  •  To what extent is valid theory of cultural relativism in a light of human rights defending?
  • To what extent is culture an individual construct in contrast to definition of culture as a matter of social construction?



Dr. Rosado, Caleb, Cultural Relativism

 Helen Spencer-Oatey, Live Science, What is culture? Compilation of Quotations,   2012

Rosaldo, Renato, Of Headhunters and Soldiers: Separating Cultural and Ethical Relativism

Tomlinson, John,  Globalization and Cultural Imperialism

Click to access Cultural%20Imperialism%20-%20Tomlinson.pdf

When did globalisation start?


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