In the field of development, there is much research that illuminates how people’s different cultural systems influence their behavior and developmental trajectories. These days, it is well known and perhaps even taken for granted that culture matters. However, it can be difficult to understand and define culture. It’s like the famous iceberg analogy: Most of culture is hidden underneath the waterline. When it comes to working with other cultures, many leaders miss the big picture by only picking up on what is visible on the surface. The result is that solutions they come up with for intercultural issues become temporary band-aids over deeply rooted cultural issues and problems.
Some scholars use the term “culture” to refer to all of a society’s characteristics, including its language, ideas, beliefs, customs, values, symbols, institutions, rules, norms, mores, and artifacts. Others define it more narrowly to refer to the behavioral aspects of a society that are learned and passed on from one generation to the next through communication, imitation, and repetition. It includes everything that gives a society its identity, including its manner of behaving and its beliefs, values, humor, hopes, loyalties, fears, and worries.
Other scholars have distinguished between a high culture that is the preserve of the social elite and a low culture, or folk culture, that belongs to everyone. Yet other scholars argue that it is impossible to pin down the definition of culture, and that it is most practical to focus on what facets of culture are being considered at a given time.
One view of culture is that it is the outcome of a process of biological evolution: that it is the natural progression from instinctive behaviour to learnable, freely variable behaviour and then to a system of things and events. Some cultures have advanced further along this evolutionary path than others, and this can be seen in differences in life expectancy, dietary habits, disease patterns, child rearing practices, and so forth.
In other words, a person’s culture is the way in which he or she makes sense of the world around them. It shapes his or her expectations, and how he or she behaves in response to those expectations. Culture also helps a person distinguish himself or herself from other people by creating a unique identity.
Another important aspect of culture is that it enables individuals to communicate with and interact with other members of a society in order to function effectively within the community. This is the basis of the concept of human culture as it relates to intercultural relations.