Part 1

Why do Humans Need Culture?

One evening, my four American roommates and I decided to have dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant near our dorm. They put on makeup and perfume as I watched them in our bathroom. Neither item was familiar to me, because Chinese high schools did not allow them at the time. As we walked briskly along Chapel Street, they sang a song they had all learned as kids. I couldn’t sing along, but when people smiled at us, I felt for a moment as if I belonged.

At the restaurant, I found the menu confusing, so one of my roommates ordered ravioli for me. But when it came, the first bite sent me sprinting to the bathroom. I wanted to throw up. I had never imagined that the harmless looking dumplings, filled with cheese, would make my stomach turn. And when the check came, it occurred to me that the meal I had hardly touched cost enough to feed my family for a week.

Later, even as I started to experiment with cheese and to curse occasionally in the American way, I found that I badly missed my high school buddies. Americans are different. For them, good friends are people who want to “get together” once a week or so, but the Chinese are always together. Maybe this is what people mean when they say Americans are more individualistic and independent.

(Yilu Zhao, a foreign student from Shanghai, China describing her experience with culture shock in America. Copyright New York Times Company Jan 13, 2002)

As illustrated in the excerpt above, culture is an important part of our lives. It tells us how to cooperate among groups of people and how to survive as a species. Culture is defined as a body of learned behaviors shared by individuals within a society. It is made up of shared values, norms, and beliefs as well as material objects such as tools, automobiles, televisions, shoes, and anything else that is made by humans. The Latin root of the word cultura means “to cultivate.” We humans shape or cultivate the world around us to suit our needs. Culture is something that we cannot live without.

Culture is also about species survival. What makes us different from other animals is that rather than living on instincts, we must rely on culture for survival. Birds instinctively know to fly south for the winter, and bears know that they need to hibernate to survive harsh climates. Humans, however, cannot survive harsh climates unless we learn from one another how to change our environment to suit our needs. If you were to be dropped off in the desert with no knowledge of how to survive, would you be able to? The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert have survived the climate of the desert for many years. Their culture is an important tool for survival. They have extensive knowledge of their environment and can locate water sources and identify animal tracks in the sand. They are a Hunter/Gatherer society which is one of the oldest and smallest societies in the world. They are a sharing culture and live as nomads, traveling in small bands or tribes. Every element found in their culture is a tool for survival.


Many of us exhibit ethnocentrism when looking at the practices of certain cultures. Ethnocentrism is when we judge another culture from the viewpoint of our own. The truth is however, that even though we may not agree with certain cultural practices, they make sense within their own context. In the excerpt below, Yilu Zhao explains her own experiences with ethnocentrism:

I had my first Thanksgiving dinner in Connecticut, at a friend’s family house on the beach…. The Chinese translation of turkey is literally “fire chicken,” and I thought turkey was really a breed of chicken. Minutes later, as I clumsily cut the white meat with the newly familiar knife and fork in the soft yellow light of a home—the first I had seen since I left my own—one guest denounced the Chinese one-child policy as a violation of human rights.

That wasn’t the first time I heard such a charge. I am an only child, and so are the majority of my high school classmates. How could Americans idly excoriate this policy when they had never experienced the misery caused by overcrowding? How could they speculate that only children become psychologically damaged when my friends and I had grown up very happily?
“What alternative does China have?” I shot back. “Everybody does what he or she pleases, and then have a lot of people starve?”

Regardless of the consequences, the guest said, no one’s right to family planning should be violated.

“But didn’t Aristotle, one of your guys, say men are political animals?” I was galvanized. “Why shouldn’t people make some sacrifices for their community? The individual good will not be realized without the collective good.”

I would defend my government’s policies passionately many times, in front of friends, professors and classmates. Growing up in Shanghai, China’s richest city, I had seen a society becoming only more prosperous. People moved to bigger apartments (my senior year, my parents moved from a single room to a two-bedroom duplex), earned higher salaries, wore more stylish clothes and ate more meat.

The wounds and scars of China talked about so often in the West were not mine to see.

Although there is a diversity of norms and beliefs between cultures, there are also cultural universals, or cultural practices found in every society, which meet the same human needs. Every society, for instance, develops language and symbols for communication.  We also find that every culture has rites of passages or rituals that help individuals transition from one stage in life to another. Marriage is a good example of a rite of passage that prepares individuals for adulthood and helps create an atmosphere where a couple can start a new life together. Sociologists and anthropologists are interested in these universals because they help us understand more about human organization and human needs. Can you think of more cultural universals? What needs are met by these practices?