Sociology 304

Notes for January 27, 1998

Societal Culture

A. Introduction

Kymlicka builds much of his argument for minority rights around culture, arguing that culture is extremely important for people and "relevant to individual freedom" (p. 75), that it is important to be able to retain a particular culture and not just any culture, and that "the desire of national minorities to retain their cultural membership remains very strong" (pp. 85-86).

When Kymlicka first introduces and defines what he means by culture, he notes:

I am using a 'culture' as synonymous with 'a nation' or 'a people'-that is, an intergenerational community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and history. (p. 18).

Note that here he specifically excludes lifestyle forms of culture (gay, youth, punk, religious) and his approach is much broader than including only artistic and folk culture such as songs, dances, poetry, and heritage languages. As he points out near the bottom of page 19, his aim is to distinguish national minorities from ethnic groups. Other aspects of culture are important in other contexts, but Multicultural Citizenship is specifically concerned with arguments related to group rights for national minorities and ethnic groups.

While the above quote identifies culture with nation or people, Kymlicka later refines his definition to that of societal culture, "the full range of human activities, encompassing both public and private life. These societal cultures are typically associated with national groups" (pp. 75-76). In Chapter 5, culture then is not identical with nation or people, but it is the ways of life, practices, institutions, memories, and values that assist in defining the nation and extends across the members of the nation.

For Kymlicka, "freedom is intimately linked with and dependent on culture" (p. 75), culture is a "context of choice" (p. 82), "provides options" (p. 89), "determines the boundaries of the imaginable" (p. 89), and "provides an 'anchor for [people's] self-identification and the safety of effortless secure belonging'" (p. 89). In this approach, the meaning of culture is that it is a resource for people that provides them with a sense of belonging and a context for making choices. As such, it is an essential underpinning for individuals, and individuals cannot make meaningful choices in the absence of a cultural framework. Given its importance for the exercise of choice and freedom, having access to a familiar culture is especially important. The argument in Multicultural Citizenship is that the importance of these cultural aspects creates the need for group rights, thus allowing individuals to maintain and protect some aspects of their culture. Arguments concerning which aspects these will be are in Chapters 6 and following.

B. Sociological Approaches.

Culture has a number of different meanings and is not well defined within sociology. This may partly be since culture

is one of the two or three most complicated word in the English language. This is so partly because of its intricate historical development, in several European languages, but mainly because it has now come to be used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought. (Williams, p. 87).

In the Marxian tradition, culture was not a central feature, since it was not part of the economic base of society, but part of the superstructure that emerged from the economic base. Since the bourgeois class controlled the economic base of society, in the Marxian tradition, culture was often viewed as bourgeois or ruling class culture, sometimes being seen as similar to ideology. This was especially true of much of the visual art, architecture, and music which was directly supported and paid for by the bourgeoisie.

Culture in the form of norms and values did form part of Durkheim's early analysis and in his later writings he analyzed religion and the sacred as cultural. Durkheim notes that society defines what is sacred and what is profane, and religion has its roots in social structure. Weber laid emphasis on some particular forms of culture such as the protestant ethic in the development of early capitalism, and rationality as a cultural system and set of values and practices characterizing modern, western society.

The twentieth century United States social theorist, Talcott Parsons, paid more attention to culture, making it part of his systems of actions (cultural, social, and personality systems). The cultural system was a "major force binding the various elements of the social world" (Ritzer, p. 244). Culture was a patterned, ordered system of symbols that orient actors and which are internalized and institutionalized. These are the "values, beliefs, language, and other symbols" that are "internalized into the personality system" through socialization (Turner, p. 60). Further, "it is through this process that actors are … given the interpersonal and other skills necessary for playing roles" and "to provide stable and secure interpersonal ties that alleviate much of the strain, anxiety, and tension associated with acquiring proper motives and skills" (Turner, p. 61). Parsons is considered to be a cultural determinist, in that the values and symbols common to a society are internalized in an individual through socialization. At the same time, Parsons considered culture to be flexible, being able to move readily from one system to another.

Part of the problem may be that culture was used differently in different disciplines, with different although related meanings. In anthropology, it could mean symbols, practices, and ideas, or it could be considered as "an all-encompassing concept, roughly analogous to social structure or social organization for sociologists." Within sociology "culture is more specific than anthropology's, including only abstract ideas (norms, values, style, strategies, repertoires, etc.) and the symbols that imply or represent them" (Berger, p. 19).

Bocock distinguishes five uses of culture ("The Cultural Formations of Modern Society," in Hall, pp. 151-154). These are:

It is the latter three uses that Kymlicka develops and he notes that societal cultures involve "not just shared memories or values, but also common institutions and practices" (p. 76). That is, it is not just the common ancestry, the memories of founding fathers, the form of dress, or the dances or music of a group. Rather, it is the (see p. 76):

These societal cultures could have existed at earlier stages of history, but for Kymlicka these societal cultures are a product of modernization and liberalism. That is, these are not tribal or isolated forms of culture as the fourth meaning implies. Rather, these are cultures that have emerged in many parts of the world as a result of the need for (i) a modern economy, (ii) democracy with social solidarity and common identity, and (iii) some attempt to establish equality of opportunity -- e.g. through public education (p. 77). That is, these societal cultures have developed as part of the process of building a nation or people and a common culture. This is especially true in North America, but the process has also occurred in many parts of the world.

C. National Minorities and Ethnic Groups.

By focusing on societal culture, and the practices and institutions that are part of it, Kymlicka shows how the situation of immigrants or ethnic groups differs from that of national minorities. National minorities have or had their own societal culture, and wish to retain it. The problem they face is that some of the above four characteristics have been destroyed or weakened - perhaps because of conquest and assimilation into the dominant culture (e.g. aboriginal groups in North America), or perhaps because of integration of one group into a larger entity (Welsh, French-Canadians?). The language may have partially or entirely disappeared, the institutions of the minority may be in disarray, and many aspects of the dominant societal culture may have taken over and replaced much of the national minority culture.

The weakening or loss of societal culture of the national minority may lead to requests or demands for protections and rights that allow the national minority culture to become re-established. Somewhat ironically, this heightened awareness of the need for such protection and the demands that accompany this often come at a time when that national minority has liberalized or modernized and has become similar to other modern, liberal societies.

Kymlicka's example of Quebec moving from a rural, conservative society to an urban, liberal society with "all the diversity that any modern society contains" (p. 87) is especially striking. "Québécois have become more like English Canadians in their basic values" (p. 88), but at the same time this has been accompanied by a stronger national identity.

The example of Quebec shows the importance of societal culture, and maintenance of the societal culture of the national minority, not some other culture.

Ethnic groups generally are part of the dominant societal culture. At the same time, they do wish to retain some aspects of their own culture, although which aspects may be more or less accidental, depending on the circumstances they face in the new country.

  1. They cannot maintain their own societal culture because it would be very difficult to establish all the cultural practices and institutions that were part of their previous societal culture. Some of these practices might be illegal (arranged marriages of young girls) or make it difficult for them to participate in the economy of the new country (family structures). Climate and urban structures can change the practices - Laotian Buddhists may drop by a temple in the open air several times a day, but in Canada this is not practical because of work and residence patterns.

  2. They have generally chosen to leave their own country, perhaps because they did not have many opportunities in that culture, found it limiting, or wished to obtain a wider range of economic and social opportunities. Note that Kymlicka does deal with the situation of refugees who may not choose to come to a particular country (pp. 98-99). While they may wish to retain their societal culture, this is probably not practical, so they have little choice but to integrate in to the country they live, like other immigrants.

  3. The dominant culture may not be as dominant as it appears. In a large country such as Canada or the U. S., there is considerable variety of cultural practices and vocabularies across different regions. This may allow for greater variety and flexibility in cultural practices.

  4. As immigrant groups establish themselves in the new country and integrate into it, they alter the nature of the receiving country. This can be seen by the jobs filled by new immigrants to Canada and the range of services they offer. Neighbourhood and residential structures of the city change and the nature of schooling alters. While Kymlicka argues for special rights for these immigrant, ethnic groups, these rights are to allow fuller participation, not to create special forms of self-government or special forms of representation. Some of these rights might be English as a Second Language programs for children, allowing special clothing, or providing different holidays than have emerged out of the western, christian tradition. Note that integration as a two-way process, requiring "some modification of the institutions of the dominant culture in the form of group-specific polyethnic rights" (pp. 96-7).

    D. Importance of Culture.

    For Kymlicka, culture is not merely an abstract set of symbols that could be interchanged with other symbols, nor is it like joining a different church, moving to a different city, or taking on a different job. Rather, "freedom involves making choices amongst various options, and our societal culture not only provides these options, but also makes them meaningful to us" (p. 83). These societal cultures are "contexts of choice" and provide the choices available, the vocabulary for making these choices, and the meaning we attach to the choices.

    As an example, consider the set of choices you make as students, proceeding through the educational system. Upon completion of university, many students have different directions they pursue than when they entered university, and different views concerning desirable courses of action. University provides you with a range of options and you have to make some choices - concerning courses and majors, but also in terms of friends, peer groups, lifestyles, and social and political action. In what context are these choices made. Language is obviously a very important basic resource, and those without knowledge of the language of instruction must first learn this. Knowing and being able to use the language provides the means of considering what the options are, what are the potential advantages and disadvantages of the various options. The culture and values that you entered the university with will have some influence, the new understanding of other aspects of history and social structures that you develop in university, and meeting individuals from different backgrounds, all have an effect, and these are all part of the societal culture. The institutions and practices associated with the educational system provide constraints and opportunities, a framework within which the choices are made. The values each of us has, which Kymlicka notes may be wrong or may need revision, are developed within the societal culture as we grow up and age.

    In this way, societal culture can be viewed as a resource which each of us has, which is necessary to survival, to pursuing a good life, to revising ideas of the good, to pursue options, to exercise freedom of choice. As noted in the last paragraph, the liberal society provides people with "information about other ways of life … and makes it possible for people to engage in radical revision of their ends" (p. 82).

    But if culture is so important, why not pick a good culture, abandon one that is inferior, and why not change cultures. Emigrants generally decide to do this, although many have great difficulty adapting to a new culture. Some do this at the level of subcultures, and that is part of the exercise of freedom of choice - e.g. youth subcultures, sexual preference, religion. But all of these are carried out within the same societal culture, and do not involve making changes in such basic features as language or altering many practices and institutions. For example, changing sexual preference may involve changing family and household structure, in addition to changing sexual practices, but it need not involve a change in neighbourhood, language, job, etc. or in the way in which social interaction occurs among friends, associates, or co-workers. In contrast, changing societal culture is much more dramatic and much more difficult, and most people prefer not to change it.

    There are various reasons why people would like to retain their culture.

    Individuals may choose to leave a culture, but where possible, individuals should be able to have access to one's own culture, much as we treat access to material resources as desirable.

    E. Conclusions and Implications Concerning Culture.

    Kymlicka concludes Chapter 5 by noting the importance of culture for (i) enabling meaningful individual choice and (ii) supporting self-identity and belonging. Even though individuals may adopt quite different styles of life, make different choices, and may not even share moral values, attachment to a common culture may be important for these individuals. In fact, it may be more important in the contemporary era where moral values and ways of life differ so dramatically, and when such attachment does not require common values and lifestyles. A common language and culture may provide "a secure foundation for individual autonomy and self-identity" (p. 105). Nations provide a "domain of freedom and equality, and a source of mutual recognition and trust, which can accommodate the inevitable disagreements and dissent about conceptions of the good in modern society" (pp. 105-106).

    The consequence of this argument is that it may be important to protect group rights, so that members of the group can maintain the bond to their own culture. For national minorities, this may be the only route to allowing the minority to achieve equality. The importance of this may lead to creating self-government, group rights, or other forms of cultural protection. See pages 27-30.

    For ethnic groups, polyethnic rights mean protection of some aspects of culture, but need not entail the same set of rights. For example, polyethnic rights might include protection and maintenance of language, anti-racism policies, public funding of cultural practices, and exemptions from laws that disadvantage certain religious practices (pp. 30-31). Note that these are not to create special rights to privilege certain groups. Rather, these rights encourage the individuals in the group to participate more fully in the mainstream economic and political institutions of the society. Kymlicka argues that these further, rather than discourage, integration into society.

    References for Notes on Culture:

    Berger, Bennett M., An Essay on Culture: Symbolic Structure and Social Structure, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995.

    Hall, Stuart "The Question of Cultural Identity," in Stuart Hall et. al., Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Blackwell, 1996.

    Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, fourth edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1996.

    Turner, Jonathan H., The Structure of Sociological Theory, fifth edition, Belmont, California, Wadsworth, 1991.

    Williams, Raymond, Keywords, London, Fontana Paperbacks, 1976. Revised Flamingo edition of 1981.

    Notes from classes of January 27 and 29, 1998. Last edited on January 28, 1998.

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