Can You Own Culture?


Recently, I was faced with an interesting dilemma: A strongly-worded request to not share photos of an ancient site on grounds that members of a group laying cultural claim to it also wished to reserve usage claim to the knowledge about it.

Now, I do understand where this is coming from. It is undeniably true that small populations and cultures under threat of being subsumed by other populations and cultures can feel under siege, and in so doing there is a temptation to entrench and monopolize claim to identifiable elements of one’s culture.

Ultimately, however, I believe this represents a profound misunderstanding of what culture is, how it is formed, how it changes and the individual’s relation to it.

cul·ture [kuhl-cher]
1. A particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture.
2. The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.

(There are, of course, other definitions of culture, but I want to be clear that this is the aspect of the term I am focusing on in this post.)

In fact, I would go further and propose the following, more memetically-specific definition of culture: “A culture is a set of prevalent memes found amongst a set of individuals who identify themselves as a group.”

Culture is, thus, nothing more and nothing less than a set of ideas, techniques, aesthetics, and styles held in common by a self-defined grouping of individuals. Cultures do not form Athena-like from Zeus’ head – they are born by blending with or fissioning from other cultures, as well as evolving to better match their environment.

In much the same way as parallel evolution happens biologically, so too do disparate cultures come up with very similar, even identical solutions, particularly when their respective challenges are similar. In other words, just because two different cultures have a similarity doesn’t mean one copied that aspect from the other. It might be, but it just as easily might not be. Original evolutions, moreover, are far less common than copied adaptations – witness the speed at which various art styles or technologies have been repeatedly spread between various populations.

How does this relate to the original question?

A cultural group may legitimately lay claim to a location and the access and direct usage of that location. In appropriate circumstances, control of commercial exploitation of associated specific images and iconography may also be justified.

A cultural group may not, however, lay claim to the knowledge, form, aesthetic or shape of cultural elements, whether this be a location, a practice, or an aesthetic style.

Yes, this means that people will sometimes copy or adapt cultural elements in a way that some will find offensive or disrespectful. At the end of the day, however, cultural elements are fundamentally memes and ideas. They will mutate, they will evolve, they will see usage of both a profound and profane nature.

Someone may say, “We claim/built this temple/church/sacred site and reserve the right to control access to it.”

Someone may not say, “We claim this symbol/idea/concept and reserve the right to control access to it.”

Ideas cannot be subject to monopolization, but are the birthright of everyone; to maintain otherwise is to deny our individual and collective right to learn, grow, adapt, create art, develop philosophy and construct out of the building blocks of today the aspirations of our tomorrows.

Sensitivity, respect, and courtesy are all things that should be striven for and held up as an example of ethical behavior. Unfortunately, such has frequently not been particularly in evidence throughout the history of anthropological research, not to mention the myriad less academic cultural contacts over the course of history.

Regardless, the best thing one can do for the expression of culture is to recognize it as a living, breathing, evolving creature, and not some strange kind of immutable memetic fossil. Embracing growth, adaptation and change are as necessary for cultural health as they are for biological growth.

2 thoughts on “Can You Own Culture?

  1. I found this a very interesting answer but would like to submit that these thoughts are your own, correct? The reason I ask is this, within the framework of your understanding you have come to this conclusion. But if you are an American which I am also we feel we have the right to these sort of things. But in other cultures and other countries as I am finding their thinking can be different. The importance of being respectful of other cultures is paramount when looking at them from an anthropological point of view. When I was attending college this was one of the most important things I learned. Cultures maybe similar but there will always be the nuances and subtle difference that make them uniquely different. I’m not trying to tell you that you are incorrect but show you how those from other cultures might think. Thanks for the post.

    • This isn’t copied from anywhere else, correct.

      I appreciate the feedback, though I admit I don’t quite understand the counter-argument being proposed. The observation I am putting forward is not an issue of American (or any other) entitlement, it’s a question of sociodynamical necessity and inevitability. Essentially, cultures are not static entities, but living, changing things that are constantly borrowing individual memes from other cultures.

      In other words, I would suggest that “culture” is the wrong unit of measure. Culture is just an aggregation of individual memes. You don’t share or appropriate culture, you adopt or discard memes.

      Note, I am NOT saying people shouldn’t be respectful to other cultures. It is, as well, certainly true that as with everything else, some people will choose to profit off of things other people find sacred, and I think incidents such as that can and should be legitimately critiqued.

      That being said, the idea that the memetic units of a culture can somehow be owned by a specific culture is just silly. By that logic, none of us existing today would be using the Latin alphabet, painting portraits, wearing pants, exercise judicial rule of law, or practicing codified systems of ethics that all look suspiciously like each other because they are all the result of someone at some point going, “Hey, that’s a great idea! I’m going to do that, too.”

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