Through the looking glass

On Culture and Cultural Identity

Yang Sheng and Chinese medicine are two aspects of Chinese culture. It quickly becomes clear that if you want to study Yang Sheng and Chinese medicine, you first need to understand some core aspects of Chinese culture. Culture is a well-known concept that we encounter frequently in our current “multicultural” society. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about culture? And how does it impact how we see ourselves as cultural identities? In this article, we want to delve into that question and study the relationship with cultural identity.

twee oudere chinese dames die taiji beoefenen in het parkWhich perspective do we take?

The first question we need to answer is: what is culture? But which culture are we talking about? Are we talking about Western culture, Dutch culture, …? The way we describe culture depends on the lens we use to study this concept, while at the same time it also creates a lens for looking at the world. Culture is therefore defined by the perspective we take, but at the same time, that same culture creates that perspective. The larger our perspective, the larger the area being described. If, for example, we discuss culture in relation to other countries such as Germany and Belgium, then we talk about Dutch culture. If we make it even smaller, we might talk about The Hague culture versus Amsterdam culture. When we compare it to other parts of the world, such as Asian countries as a whole, we would refer to Western culture. So, we can go from a global perspective to a local perspective and vice versa. Another variable in the approach to culture is the “field” to which it belongs. Thus, we speak of corporate culture, political, economic, social, or sports culture, etc…

When we talk about culture, it is therefore important to first determine the context within which we treat the concept of culture. That also means that before we can evaluate a culture, we must be aware of other cultures. In this regard, you have two options: 1) If we use an ethnocentric approach, we use our own culture as a standard. However, if we use “cultural relativism,” we see the different cultures as equal because they are all a development of the area where they originated. This can be a challenge for the researcher, especially when the researcher comes from an ethnocentric culture. Additionally, it should be noted that in a pluralistic society, there cannot be a single culture identified as the true culture of that person. 2) Due to the globalization process and the increasing presence of media in our daily lives, the world and all its different cultures are coming closer to our living room than ever before. Often, we already act based on principles that do not originate from our own culture. Since television and films all over the world are largely American in nature, there is a great influence of that American culture in our daily lives. On the other hand, you could also say that American culture has a strong foundation in European culture because of the massive immigration of Europeans. The increasing popularity of Eastern principles and practices in the Western world is also changing the face of our culture more and more. Just look at how many popular magazines and books address subjects such as spiritual enlightenment, yoga, Ayurveda, acupuncture, etc. From the above, we can conclude that culture is a broad concept that is often difficult to delineate and has different approaches. Therefore, let’s look at some definitions to get us started.

Defining Culture

Throughout history, many definitions of culture have been formulated. Some are very similar, while others take clearly different approaches. An important differentiation to be made is that between material and immaterial culture. Material culture includes things like architecture, art, literature, etc. Immateriale culture, on the other hand, deals with people’s norms and values, how they think and behave. Material culture is often a representation or critique of immaterial culture. Ultimately, culture is not about the objects themselves, but about what they represent.

pen die kalligrafie schrijftPeter Burke describes culture as a system of shared meaning, attitudes, and values, expressed or embodied in objects, representations of practice. This is in line with the distribution made by Talcott Parsons. He defines cultural content as knowledge, values, and symbolic forms of expression. Vinke J. describes culture in a similar way, distinguishing four characteristic features. These are: cultures are learned, they are shared (to some extent – think of the existence of subcultures and countercultures), they are adapted to the circumstances in which people live, and they are more focused on ideas than on material production.

One concept that must be mentioned when we speak of culture is that of institutions. Institutions have been developed by society and are a reinforced way of acting. An institution can be described as any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation, directing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given community. Institutions regulate a number of universal aspects of society by perpetuating desired interaction patterns. Examples of these are marriage, religion, education, law and justice system, mass media, etc. Blockmans describes the great influence that religion has had on the development of Western culture, how a powerful institution like the church can influence so many aspects of society. He also discusses the increasingly important role of the media in this development. Another important player is education. These institutions are very determinative for the way in which young people develop themselves and thus also for how our culture develops further. In addition, legislation plays an influence as it often determines which actions are acceptable or not within society.

As we can see, culture is a broad concept that is woven through all aspects of our lives. Shaped by our environment and the institutions of our society, it also influences the development of that same environment and institutions in a reciprocal relationship. Culture is about behavior and morality, meaning and knowledge. Reflected in the material world around us. And because it is so present in all aspects of our existence, it plays a crucial role in how we define ourselves, our identity.

Cultural identity

Identity is the question “Who am I?” Vincke J.13 describes identity as a mental construct that brings order to the multitude of feelings generated in the many social relationships we undergo. It is also a way in which we perceive ourselves. Coolsaet14 shares a similar viewpoint. He uses the metaphor of a boat anchored to four different mooring masts: the world in which we live, our daily life, the state, and the community itself. We are influenced by our immediate environment, such as our parents, upbringing, work, place of residence, or the problems we undergo. We are influenced by social factors such as politics, forms of interaction, art, as well as language and religion. In other words, by the whole of the world in which we live, especially now that the world is becoming “smaller and smaller” and developments at the macro level often find their way to the micro level of society.

As we can see, there are many aspects of life that influence our identity and thus who we are, how we behave, what ideas we carry with us, and how we view the world around us. Therefore, it is important to realize that no matter how aware we are or try to be of the influences in our lives and the things that make us who we are, there is always a part that is formed at an unconscious level and that certain characteristic features we carry within us are inherent to the culture and environment in which we live. Whether we like it or not, the skill here is to develop a transcultural perspective so that we can first and foremost evaluate our own identity and behavior.

Once we have developed the tools to evaluate ourselves, we can look for alternatives and try to recreate our identity as we think it should be formed. Evaluating ourselves and the world, and then taking active and conscious steps towards becoming a better person and thus creating a better world. To do this, we obviously need an image of what we think is good and just, how the world should work. Of course, this is determined by the culture in which we live and the cultures we encounter. The key to improvement is therefore to consciously decide and shape our culture as we think it should be. Since this image is always culturally determined, one could say that cultural development is a circular pattern. The question is whether we want to actively participate in this process or let the rest of the world decide in which direction the evolution of culture and the development of humanity will continue.

We determine culture – Culture determines us.

As we have seen in this article, culture is present in every aspect of our lives. It creates the lens through which we view the world. This lens consists of the values, knowledge, and morality by which we judge the world around us. But this lens also partly determines the future development of the same culture that shapes it. Our ideas about this world can be found in the way we shape our environment and social structures through which we move, the institutions we bring to life. You can find it in art, literature, and language. All these aspects of our lives influence who we are. A reciprocal relationship in which who we are also gives direction to the culture we shape and the environment in which we live. The question here is: do we create the world around us ourselves or do we let the world around us determine who we are? Awareness brings this choice to you. Knowledge of your own culture and that of others, knowing yourself and the history that has brought you and your environment to this point. These are the conditions for giving direction to the future you want.

1.Vinke J. 2002 – p.48   2. Vinke J. 2002 – p.59   3. Coolsaet R. 2009  4. Blockmans 1998   5. Vincke J. 2002 – p.47   6. Vincke J. 2002 – p. 55   7. Blockmans 1998 – p.8   8. Talcott Parons 1961   9. Vincke J. 2002 – p. 27    10. Vincke J. 2002 – p.27   11.   12. Blockmans 1998   13. Vincke J. 2002 – p. 111   14. Coolsaet 2009


– Blockmans, W.P., Cultuur en commercie: Beschouwingen over onze cultuur en haar wetenschappen, NWO/OKW voorjaarslezing, 21 april 1998, Universiteit Leiden.  (Gevonden via
– Cobbenhagen, M.J.H., Techniek en cultuur, 1937, Maandschrift Economie Vol. 2 No. 9, p. 427-442 ISSN 00130486 (Gevonden via
– Coolsaet R., De Geschiedenis van de wereld van morgen, Uitgeverij van Halewyck, 4e  druk April 2009, ISBN 978 905617 825 3
– Cramer, J.M., Duurzaam ondernemen in een mondiale wereld: laveren tussen cultuur relativisme en cultuur imperialisme, 2005, Universiteit Utrecht. (Gevonden via
Parsons T., Shills, A.E. & Naegele, K.D., et al.  Theories of Societies.  New York: The Free Press 1961.
– Vincke J., Sociologie – een klassieke en hedendaagse benadering, Academia Press, 2002, ISBN 90 382 0402 7

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