In our nature, or at least, our natural tendency to draw conclusions onto groups of individuals rather than individually assess or pass judgments, we naturally gravitate towards generalities. While generalities, which in some cases can become stereotypes, can prove to be true more often than not, they also need to be taken with a pinch of salt. But what makes these generalities come to life? What group behavior leads others to draw conclusions upon them? Many factors play a part. This article need not be a lesson in sociology or anthropology, but rather it is a couple of ‘big-bucket’ factors that shape what eventually becomes a set of cultural norms.
First and foremost, and perhaps a less evident factor is the natural environment that surrounds the people. By the simple nature of the environment, through the natural state of the climate, the provision of nourishment, and the state of the terrain; it has a direct impact on the way our minds wrap themselves around it and make sense of it. For example, in an environment devoid of proper nourishment, the value of conservation grows high, we find that people from harsh environments make use of all that they can get their hands on, just ask any Arab what his or her favorite part of the goat is – I promise you’ll find an interesting answer!
Harsh environments also promote a group culture, where individuals in the society tend to care for one another and ensure collective prosperity, much more than in an individualistic culture. We find that in modern times, with modernity allowing us the luxuries of life, we tend to deviate away from a group-oriented mentality and start thinking about our own needs and wants. This shift is a natural shift, group-orientation was necessary when times were tough, but as we find ourselves leading comfortable lives, the extended society has a lesser need.
Another key element that shapes cultures is each culture’s version of morality. Looking at world cultures from a large lens, we find that morality is as subjective as subjectivity gets. Every culture comes up with its own set of right and wrong, based upon the circumstances and consequences that they, as a group, have gone through. Of course, we aren’t talking about the basics here of ‘don’t-kill’, ‘don’t steal’ and any other rudimentary piece of morality that comes to us as instinct; but rather, the extended morality that we force upon ourselves and pass on to younger generations.
A simple example is that of gender roles, different cultures view the role of males and females from a different lens, depending on the needs and requirements of the environments they live in. Even the intensity of which those roles are enforced on people differs; some cultures take it upon themselves to force the roles on its individuals, and we find that that is more evident in group-oriented cultures, than a culture that allows the individual his or her freedom and space.
The beauty of analyzing cultures, in my eye, is that there is never one single factor that defines it all. Rather, it’s a series of interwoven elements that have, over time, build themselves on top of each other and come out with an end product that is truly incomparable with another. Scholars such as Geert Hofstede have done a good job (book reference: “Culture’s Consequences”) of creating a set of dimensions that all cultures can be judged or marked against; but again, these are generalities that aim to combine rather than dissect. The only way to truly understand how a culture operates, and more importantly why, is to delve deep.