Global Cultures: The First Steps toward Understanding


Elsie Begler

Too often when we turn to the classroom study of particular cultures, there is a fixation on what I call the “Five Fs”: food, fashion, fiestas, folklore, and famous people. Without a proper understanding of what “culture” is, misconceptions about “cultures” will continue to abound.

Most of us are aware of the the distinction between Culture and culture (“big C, little c”). Culture thought of with a big “C” refers to “high culture,” as in the fine arts, literature, philosophy, classical music, and other forms of endeavor that represent the highest aesthetic achievements of a society. Culture with a “little c” adds to this the social, economic, and political systems of a society—with people’s values and beliefs providing a framework for all other aspects of the culture.

We tend to think very differently about foreign cultures from the way we regard our own. Foreign cultures are often seen as discrete entities—rather like hard-shelled billiard balls that go through history banging into and bouncing off each other without ever much changing their shape, size, or color (although some do manage to get knocked out of the game entirely).1 For instance, Chinese culture is often seen as having reached its essential form by the end of the Han Dynasty (200 A.D.), continuing on basically unchanged right up to the establishment of the modern People’s Republic.

In contrast, we are more likely to think of our own culture as dynamic, versatile, and contemporary. One misconception is that, here in the United States, the level of diversity is so great that each of us has an individual culture. Chinese culture, so the misconception goes, is monolithic; United States culture is made up of not one but 265 million rainbows.

Because of the misconceptions about our own and other cultures, and because the amount that can be said about cultures is so vast, it can be a difficult subject to teach in the classroom. Although ambitious and challenging, teaching about culture can also be both effective and rewarding. The key is to have a teaching framework that allows students a good grasp of the fundamentals of culture, and that can be used to study all cultures, including our own.

The first step is to make sure that students have an understanding of the word “culture” that is conceptually correct yet also manageable. While there are many definitions in the anthropological literature, virtually all contain the idea of culture as an integrated system of beliefs and behaviors that are learned and shared. Key understandings include the following concepts:

n Culture is learned rather than genetically inherited. This means that each of us is capable of learning more than one culture, although—as with language—we are usually most fluent and comfortable with the culture in which we grow up.

n Culture is shared by members of a group. It is true that each of us is unique and capable of individual thoughts, behaviors, and utterances. It is also true that societal knowledge is not shared equally among all members; individuals have varying levels of familiarity and expertise with different aspects of their own culture. Even so, what we say and do must conform to some set of underlying linguistic and cultural rules that makes us comprehensible to other members of our society. Otherwise, these behaviors are idiosyncratic, not cultural. We do not each have our own individual culture.

n Culture is dynamic rather than static. Even during Paleolithic times, when human societies were small and travel over long distances was hardly possible, there were changes in culture. These resulted from adaptations to changing environmental conditions, as well as ideas and inventions that became incorporated into the common knowledge and behavior of groups. During most of history, conquests and trade contacts have caused the mixing of new ideas and artifacts among human cultures. Today, few groups remain sufficiently isolated from the global networks of information and artifact exchange to possess a culture that has remained essentially unchanged over the last fifty years.

n Culture is a systemic whole and not to be broken into high and low culture. It is neither Confucius nor chopsticks, Orozco nor serapes, Yeats nor Yorkshire pudding. It is all of these, as well as the color of the flag, the music heard on the street, the value of the currency, and the rate of divorce.


World Culture: A Visual Organizer

How can we present such a complex whole to students in a way that helps them to understand different cultures, including the one to which they belong? “Culture” is such a large concept—embracing both beliefs and behavior—that it is often easier to grasp when broken down into distinct components. Figure 1 provides an easy visual organizer for analyzing cultures using a Venn diagram format. To the various facets of culture described above, it adds both the historical and geographical context. It is based on several assumptions:

n All cultures serve basic functions that can be classified into a set (or sets) for easier understanding. Five basic sets of functions of any culture are: economic, social, political, aesthetic, and values/beliefs.

n All cultural behavior is framed by underlying systems of values and beliefs that shape behavioral norms and provide meaning to human activity.

n All cultures exist within a historic context that has shaped the development of the cultural forms and functional systems in operation today. To adequately understand why a culture takes the form it does, historical study is imperative.

n All cultures operate within a geographic context that involves them in a constant state of interaction and adaptation. In the broadest sense, the geographic context for human culture writ large is spaceship Earth.

The World Culture visual organizer can be used as a quick check on whether all the main aspects of a culture are included in a unit of study, or whether the study is heavily skewed towards a few areas only—say, politics and beliefs (religion).

The visual organizer also serves as a powerful reminder that culture is an integrated whole. A simple but powerful way to impress this concept on students is to distribute well-chosen pictures that clearly illustrate two or more aspects of a culture simultaneously (e.g., a picture of an Amish house-raising can, arguably, illustrate all five basic functions within a specific historical and geographic context).

Finally, the visual organizer is useful for the comparative study of cultures, illuminating as it does what is universal, what is similar, and what is unique about the cultures under study. For instance, using the organizer as a guide, students can discover both surprising congruencies and significant differences between the cultures of ancient Rome and the antebellum U.S. South. The organizer can also be used effectively to study how the same cultural tradition has changed over time.

As pointed out in the “Guidelines for Global and International Studies Education” (pages 311-317 in this issue of Social Education), “despite almost 40 years of culture studies and programs, curriculums featuring holidays and food festivals ... still seem to be the extent of the offerings in many schools.” Does this mean we should abandon the ever-popular “Five Fs”? Must we forgo our International or Multicultural Fairs, our Cinco de Mayo and Chinese New Year festivals? Of course not. But let’s use them as starting rather than culminating points in our cultural studies. Again, the World Culture visual organizer provides a guide.

Take food. Food is more than something to fill the belly or titillate the taste buds. It’s a topic that can be used to delve deeply into virtually every aspect of culture. Next time your class or school serves food as part of a cultural fair, use the occasion to have your students research the following questions for the culture they are studying:

n Geographic Context: How do the foods traditionally eaten in this culture reflect the geographic context within which the culture developed?

n Historical Context: If a traditional food item is not indigenous to this culture, how did it get here? For example, the chili peppers so important to East Indian and Thai curries today did not exist in the Eastern Hemisphere prior to 1492. Nor, for that matter, did the “Irish potato.” What does the contemporary (as opposed to traditional) menu of this culture look like?

n Economic Context: How is food produced and distributed in this culture? Who has access to certain kinds of food and who does not? To what degree does access reflect economic factors?

n Social Context: Who eats with whom, when, and where? Are there special foods for special occasions? Do certain foods carry symbolic messages or indicate special roles or status?

n Political Context: Who prepares food? Who serves it? Who cleans up? In what other ways might positions of power and authority be reflected in food customs?

n Aesthetic Context: How much attention does this culture pay to the aesthetic aspects of preparing and eating food? How does this vary with the social, economic, or political context?

n Values and Beliefs Context: Which foods are highly valued in this culture? Do certain foods have special religious or ritual values? What are they? Are any foods taboo? Why? What meaning (beyond basic sustenance) does food have in this culture in general?

Think how much your class would learn about a culture (another or their own) by answering these questions. Food is no trivial matter if the right questions are asked. Nor, for that matter, is any human behavior. The World Culture visual organizer can provide an easy and useful reference point for framing questions about topics throughout the school year, whether the subject is history, current events, a piece of literature—or the senior prom. v



1. Acknowledgments to Ross Dunn, San Diego State University, for the “culture as a billiard bal#148; (mis-)analogy.


Elsie Begler is a cultural anthropologist and director of the International Studies Education Project of San Diego (ISTEP). She holds a joint appointment in the College of Arts and Letters and the College of Education at San Diego State University.

The following lesson illustrates how cultural perspectives may affect the definition and use of resources. The International Studies Education Project of San Diego (ISTEP) adapted this lesson from a unit titled What Is a Resource? developed by the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE). This lesson works well both at upper elementary and secondary levels.

It can be used to reinforce lessons about differences between cultures and/or differences within the same culture over time. It is also an excellent way to integrate science and social studies.



An ISTEP Multiple Perspectives Adaptation of

Resources and Culture



Students will understand that:

1. The identification of certain things in the natural environment as “resources” is dependent upon culture, and will vary over time as technology advances; and,

2. The particular use to which people put a given “natural resource” will vary with culture and technology.


Materials Needed

Two or three sets each (depending on whether a two- or three-way comparison of cultures is being made) of:

n Ocean or lake water (i.e., jars containing water and either sand/seaweed/shells or silt/pebbles/and perhaps a mollusk or two)

n A stick and some leaves

n A bone and some feathers

n Dirt and rocks

The last three sets of items should be sealed in clear plastic bags to avoid loss and mess.



1. Divide the class into small working groups of three to five students each. Assign one-half (or one-third, if doing a three-way comparison) of the groups to role-play the identity of one cultural or historic group they have been studying (e.g., Pilgrims, etc.). Assign the other half of the groups the identity of the contemporary inhabitants of the region (e.g., contemporary New Englanders). A three-way comparison might involve the role-play identity of, e.g., Northeast Woodlands Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans.

2. Distribute the prepared items to each group, making sure that the same item is given to groups with different identities—e.g., both Pilgrims and modern New Englanders get ocean water. Depending on how you wish to set things up, each group may be given one or more items.

3. Instruct the groups that they are to identify their item(s), figure out what kind of resource it represents, and pretending they are the identity assigned, list all the possible ways in which that group of people might have made use of that item. If the item needed to be processed in order to use it in a particular way, they should describe the process used. Impress upon them that they must try to think the way the people whose identity they were given probably would think (e.g., the Pilgrims probably would not have thought of using chicken bones for nose ornaments!)

4. Have each group share the uses they thought of for their resource. Which of the various cultural functions illustrated on the World Culture Model do the different uses fulfill? What differences do they see between the uses different groups made of the same item? What are some of the reasons these differences exist?