According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of culture is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.”
Many interpretations of culture are presented in anthropology. And I’m going to present one more. In the spirit of effective metaphors, here are five reasons why culture is like water.
- This is a reason that you may have heard of before–culture is water and people are the fish. You can find many pieces of writing on this topic on the internet, for example, here and here. The gist of this concept is that people are not aware of the culture that they are in until they venture out of it, and yet the culture they live in is crucial to their life (or work, education etc.). Your native culture is often as natural to you as breathing. You follow its rules and customs without conscious thought. When you step out of your native culture, you may experience culture shock. But after a while, parts of your native culture may start to seem odd when compared to the new culture that you are in. Like a fish in water, you can’t easily see the ingrained aspects of your home culture and what those aspects mean to you until you leave it.
- Like water, culture is essential to life. Culture is a major part of how people develop their worldview, their morals and their beliefs. It also governs how groups of people function as a society. It shapes what is considered “acceptable” and what is considered worthy of shunning. It establishes the unwritten rules for getting along with those around you.
- Also like water, culture is everywhere. Ethnic groups, religious groups and nation-states have cultures. States, cities and towns have their cultures. Companies and corporations have cultures too. So do clubs, organizations and other groups of people with the same passion or goals. Even communities that solely exist online have their cultures (just take Reddit for one example).
- Culture is fluid and ever-changing. It changes according to both internal and external factors. It adapts to new challenges and opportunities. It can be shaped by forces both human and not human. It can mix with other cultures to form totally new cultures. It hardly ever stays in one form form for very long.
- Have you ever heard the riddle that lists everything bad about a substance and questions why it is not banned…only to reveal that the substance is none other than H2O?If you get it in your lungs, you’ll drown. If you drive on it, your car could crash. If you’re exposed to the snow for too long, you’ll freeze. But despite all its potential risk factors, water is still essential for thousands of positive purposes.
The same can be said for culture. It is my belief that cultural relativism should not be confused with moral relativism. And culture can be harmful. Throughout history, cultures have held on to traditions, expectations and practices that are harmful to people within their own group. Culture can most definitely be a source of conflict and debate, even within itself.
What do you think of water as a metaphor for culture? Are there any other effective metaphors for culture that you have come across or come up with? Leave a comment!