Culture has been defined as the human-made part of the environment and as the group’s dynamic response to its geographical and historical circumstances. Culture encompasses both shared interpretations of reality as well as shared behavioral patterns among those who speak a particular language dialect, in a particular geographic region, during a specific historic period (Triandis, 1994). Kluckhohn (1954) stresses that culture is to society what memory is to individuals, while Sodowsky, Kwan, and Pannu (1995) describe culture as a unifying influence that combines the different aspects of life into a logical whole and therefore also integrates psychologically the members of a culture.
Shweder and LeVine (1984) emphasize culture as shared elements (categorizations, beliefs, attitudes, norms, role definitions, values) that provide the standards for perceiving, believing, communicating, and acting among those who share a language, a historic period, and a geographic location. These shared elements are transmitted from generation to generation with modifications. In addition, culture arouses a sense of attachment or identification with the group.
Culture’s definitions usually reflect a static view of culture as the distinctive set of beliefs, values, morals, customs, and institutions that people inherit through growing up in a specific societal environment. However, recent views of culture, although not discarding the importance of a person’s cultural inheritance of ideas, values, feelings, ways of relating, and behaviors, have focused equally on the importance of viewing culture as a process in which views and practices are dynamically affected by social transformations, social conflicts, power relationships, and migrations (Geertz, 1973; Good, 1994).
Finally, since cultural change is a worldwide phenomenon and diverse intracultural variations can be expected in all societies, including those of Latin America (Vega, 1990), another approach to the study of culture could be one that focuses on its emergence from the daily social practices and life experiences of individuals and small groups.
In conclusion, culture might be defined as both a product of common and shared group values, customs, habits and rituals, ways of perceiving, labeling, explaining and relating with all of the different aspects of reality, norms and social rules of behavior that individuals learn through the process of socialization, as well as the continually evolving and changing group’s responses to the historical and environmental challenges.
Three important components of culture are ethnicity, language, and values, traditions, and customs.
As members of an ethnic group interact with each other, their ethnicity becomes a means by which culture is transmitted. According to Phinney (1993), only three aspects of ethnicity could be assumed to account for its psychological importance; they are: (a) the norms, values, attitudes, and behaviors that are typical of an ethnic group and that stem from a common culture of origin transmitted across generations; (b) the subjective sense of ethnic group membership that is held by group members; and (c) the experiences associated with minority status, including powerlessness, discrimination, and prejudice. These three aspects are not independent; rather, they are overlapping and confounded.
Language can be considered both the main aspect of human development since it provides the opportunity to engage in social interaction, and the main aspect of cultural development since it serves as an agent for generational integration. Jointly shared symbolic expressions that are articulated through language are the means of socialization; they create a social bond between individuals, social groups, and institutions, and the roles and social relations available in society are transmitted and internalized through language (Aponte, 1976).
Similarly, language is the means by which people internalize experience, think about it, try out alternatives, and conceptualize and strive toward future goals. Language is a powerful vehicle for expressing emotions and even though we think with visual symbols as well as with other sensations and perceptions, words make reflective and conceptual thinking possible.
Language use is affected by regional variations, social class, education, migration, and multiculturalism within many Latin American countries. Different Latin American countries use different words for the same things and concepts, and have different expressions and different emotional weight on the same words.
Values, Traditions, Customs
The external factors of geography not only place further limits on a person’s choice but also work out his/her own value system. Customs and habits develop within the reality of human survival in the environment. Similar statements can be said with regard to history, time perspective, and orientation to space. Consequently, each culture has its own value system, its own enduring organization of beliefs concerning preferable modes of conduct or end-states of existence along a continuum of relative importance.
Value system exerts its influence upon all aspects of the social structure and organizes the individual’s thinking, feeling, and acting. Major life transitions (such as births, weddings, deaths), the relationship between people and the natural and spiritual worlds, the relationships among people and the kinds of supports they provide each other, as well as public celebrations, both religious and secular, provide insight into community and national identity, and the social, economic, and political dynamics of groups. They reflect a culture’s view of the world, the ways that people create meanings for their lives, reinforce old or establish new social ties, manage social conflicts, or resist social oppression. However, value orientations are also high social ties, manage social conflicts, or resist social oppression. However, value orientations are also highly situation dependent and are maintained and reinforced by certain social context.
(*)This article is based on the Chapter II of the Qualitative Study of the Acculturative Process of Immigrant Hispanic Families. Marquez (2000). Doctoral Dissertation.