What is Culture?
Culture is very important to psychology. It's an ever-present context and pressure that influences how people think and act. For research and clinical work alike, culture is something that we need to understand, take into account, and adapt to as necessary. Yet, we haven't done a very good job of fully appreciating culture in the past, generally equating it to race/ethnicity rather than taking into account how culture can be experienced differently by individuals. So, let's take a look at some of the things that define culture for a person.
When thinking about culture, it's important to consider the larger culture of an entire society. At this level of culture, people may or may not identify strongly, but it cannot be denied that the culture influences every person. For example, there is a culture in the United States, and even if "American" isn't at the forefront of someone's identity they are still influenced by the social norms in the U.S. culture.
What gets counted as "culture" at this level is up for debate, but one could argue that laws are one representation. Laws act as a declaration of values for a group of people that they agree to abide by. In that way, there is a worldview and opinion that is associated with the laws. These laws, even if people do not necessarily agree with them personally, obviously shape the way we behave and interact with one another.
National media can also fit in this category. There are cultures around what is popular, attractive, desirable. Much like all other aspects of culture, they influence people to varying extents, but they influence everyone to some extent. For example, even if someone disagrees with what is considered fashionable at the time, others may judge that person based on what they are wearing, and may treat them differently as a result.
Societal-level culture is arguably the least relevant in terms of how people self-identify, but it's also one of the most pervasive and difficult-to-change aspects of culture. It also tends to be much more ubiquitous, background/invisible, and ingrained. Many people assume that some of their societal-level cultural values are universal, and are very confused when people from other societies do not share the same views (and history has shown that this lack of understanding can be problematic).
Going down a level, there are groups within the larger society that share some sort of common link to one another. Some of these are not chosen (e.g., race, sexuality), but others can be (e.g., fans of specific music genres, religious groups, political parties). Something to keep in mind at this level is that the group is not necessarily in close proximity. That is, members of the group may be spread out across the world, but they can still identify with one another based on something shared.
This level of culture can play a major role in how people identify, especially if they have chosen their group membership (or unfortunately, even if it just plays a large role in how others treat them, like race). People generally work very hard to be accepted into the groups they want to identify with, so collective opinions within these groups can have a major influence on the decisions people make. For example, people buying certain clothes to help show that they fit in with their group.
Here, things can start to get a little complicated, and arguably dangerous. Once people identify with an in-group, they want to stay within that group. Even if the group itself changes over time (e.g., a political party's views), it can be difficult for people to disagree with the group and, as a result, they may follow along without realizing it.
Going down another level, people are influenced by their community. Communities, unlike the in-groups mentioned above, are based on proximity and less by choice (though people often try to choose communities that they can identify with more easily if they have a choice).
Getting down to this level, we begin to see that the community culture has a more direct influence on people. We hear the thoughts of those nearby, and we may rely on them for support.
Within the community, there are peers, classmates, and coworkers. These are people we interact with daily. The culture of the community may be more subtle, but it does play a role in day-to-day life. For example, is it common for kids to wander around the neighborhood alone, and it's understood that all adults act as supervisors for them, or should kids always have their parents with them? These types of cultural components can influence things like autonomy, trust in others, and so forth.
Finally, we get down to the family, which is one of the most influential components of culture. The culture of the family is represented in its values, which are often passed down intergenerationally (whether family members realize it or not). For example, does the family value time together and openness, or independence and productivity? Is there a culture of discipline, or reward? Are children expected to help around the home, or do parents take care of that?
Family structure can also play a role in a person's culture. Is the family a more stereotypical family with heterosexual parents who are married, or some other combination like same-sex parents, unmarried parents, or a single parent? These structures can influence expectations for family members, but also change how children grow up viewing family and what it means to be a "family."
In some ways, the family has the most direct influence on individuals in terms of culture. Parents often set the rules and expectations for the family members, which children can internalize over time. If a child disagrees with something that is part of the culture in the family, it may be more difficult to be open about the different viewpoint than at the other levels of culture (which involve the opportunity for more distancing from those who they disagree with).
There are also a lot of family dynamics that influence all family members. However, that's a big subject which I will save for another post.
Something that is often forgotten when thinking about culture is the actual individual person. When we talk about culture, we generally think about a group of people influencing one another in some way. But we need to remember that those groups are a collection of individuals! Each person has their own views and beliefs, and that's how the larger cultures can develop. For example, if members of a community mostly hold the same opinion in regards to how neighbors should interact, that type of interaction will become the norm for the community and others will be pressured to follow along.
It's also important to always remember that a person may have different thoughts and beliefs from other members of the groups they belong to. A lot of stereotypes lead us to make assumptions, but nobody is forced to hold a viewpoint or be a certain way just because they live in a culture where it's popular (though they may feel forced to say they do).
This is where culture becomes important for psychology. Each person has their own worldviews and beliefs, but they exist within a sea of other views and opinions that are being imposed on them to varying extents. Sometimes the views line up and create a feeling of solidarity, but other times they don't and can lead to feelings of isolation.
There is a lot more that could be said here. There are so many other aspects to culture, like language. People can live in many different cultures, and they may switch between them (e.g., the culture in the household and the culture in the school). But my intention with this post wasn't to address every part of culture. Instead, I wanted to highlight that culture is a very complicated thing that influences people in many different ways, and we need to do a better job of appreciating cultures and how they both represent and shape the people within them.