Human geography examines how people are affected by their physical setting and how they create their own cultures or ways of life. Understanding culture helps us to understand cultural regions which are areas of the world with certain characteristics in common, such as history, language, food, beliefs and religion.
An example of a cultural region would be Southwest Asia which is more commonly known as the Middle East. While the Middle East is a physical region because the countries here share the same type of climate and physical features, it is also a cultural region because the people living here have a common history, heritage, language and religion. There are many other cultural regions in our world today. Based on this map, what cultural region is China part of? Mexico? India? Germany? New Zealand?
Culture includes customs which are things people usually do, such as how they dress, the foods they eat, how they celebrate holidays and turning points in life such as birth, coming of age, marriage, parenthood and death. Within our customs, we learn roles. Roles are based on rules for the proper behavior of individuals in particular positions and situations. For example a woman who has children is expected to take on a role of mother and treat her children a certain way based on her societies customs. Once a role is learned, people know how they are supposed to act in society. Holiday traditions vary from country to country. In the USA many families hang stockings from their fireplace and expect “Santa” to fill them. In Holland children put shoes (traditionally wooden shoes) outside their door or by their fireplace for Sinterklaas to fill with candy.
Culture is everything that makes people who they are. Culture not only affects our lifestyles but also how we perceive those from other cultures. For example someone from a traditional culture might have a hard time understanding a person from a more modern culture. These perceptions can lead to misunderstandings or conflicts. During the Cold War for example, people from communist and democratic cultures were suspicious and distrustful of each other. Today, we have a better understanding of each other partially due to cultural diffusion or the exchange of information and goods around the world.
Diffusion refers to how something diffuses or spreads. So cultural diffusion would be how culture spreads. One of the first ways that culture spread was trade along the Silk Road. The Silk Road was an overland trade route from China through Central Asia all the way Europe. Another example of cultural diffusion is the Columbian Exchange which was an exchange of goods between Europe and the Americas.
While diffusion started as the spread of material items such as silk, chariots and metallurgy (making things out of metals) now it has spread to include new technologies and even political ideas such as democracy. In what ways might ideas like democracy have a greater impact on culture than material goods?
Cultural diffusion often leads to cultural convergence, where different cultures become similar. It can also lead to globalization or the creation of a common global culture. Examples of cultural convergence and globalization are the spread of democratic ideas, the English language (lingua franca), new technologies and even global sports. What are some examples of sports that have become global?
One of the most important aspects of culture is religion. Religion is a set of beliefs about the meaning of life, the nature of the universe and the existence of the supernatural. There are seven major religions in the world today. They are Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism.
Religion is only one important aspect of culture. How people live together is also very important. In some cultures, people live mainly in the countryside or in rural settings with a traditional way of life, while other people live in large cities or urban areas with advanced levels of technology. Which picture would you most likely find people living in a greater proximity to one another? Why?
Another aspect of culture is its social structure. In every society, some members enjoy greater wealth and wider opportunities than others. People who share similar wealth, power and prestige are said to belong to the same social class. Most societies have the following social classes: Upper, Middle, Working, Peasant and Lower Classes. The difference between social classes vary from culture to culture and change over time. In some classes, people can move from one class to another. This is called social mobility. This pyramid shows the class system of Japan during its feudal period. Who is the political leader of Japanese society? Who are the warrior class? Who is at the bottom of this social structure? What was the largest class?
Yet another aspect of culture is family structure. In some societies parents live with just their children while in others grandparents, aunts, uncles and other extended family members all share a house. Within a family structure we find gender roles. Gender roles are duties assigned to men and women. In traditional societies gender roles often consist of men working outside the home while women are expected to take care of the family and to perform household chores. In this type of society, women lack the opportunities that men have. In modern societies, gender roles are changing and both men and women share the responsibility of work, raising children and household chores. While men and women are more equal in modern societies, women still remain under represented in top jobs in government and business.
In many traditional societies and cultures, the gender roles of men and women are very clearly defined. Not long ago the same was true in the USA. How have women’s (and men’s) gender roles changed in the USA? Why do some people see these changes as controversial ?
When looking at culture it is important to consider how a culture treats its ethnic and religious minorities. An ethnic group refers to a group of people with a common ancestry and common culture and minority means a group with less power, property and prestige than the dominant group. Around the world there are two basic types of societies: Homogeneous and Heterogeneous.
In homogeneous societies like Saudi Arabia and Japan almost everyone belongs to the same ethnic group and shares the same language and traditions. In a heterogeneous or multicultural society there is a mix of people and cultures. The USA and Brazil are examples of heterogeneous societies.
Every one of us is a product of our culture. What we eat, what we wear, how we worship and how we interact with each other are all based on the norms and values our society has deemed necessary. Understanding our culture and the culture of others allows us greater prosperity in this ever-globalizing world.