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What is “culture”

What is culture? Is it static or dynamic? In this step, we will take a step back to consider these questions.
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SYLVIA ESTRADA-CLAUDIO: My understanding is, for some reason, feminists and academics like myself, situated in what we would call non-Western countries and cultures, are always met with this accusation when we fight for gender equality, women’s equality. And my way of dealing with it has always been very simple, by saying, look, I’m a Filipina. I was born here. I work here. I serve the country as much as any other person does. And I’m saying this– it’s my culture too. And that was another beautiful side of our struggle when I talk about different arguments made to different people.
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It was also a struggle about, what is culture, who owns it, and how does one change culture, and whether cultural change is good or bad or necessary. And we would always say, well, we can’t just accept what has been given to us in the past if it’s no longer the kind of culture that will bring us health, and give us a good life, and make us all happy, and bring us development. So it is very interesting in terms of– my answer would be to insist on my identity as Filipina and then to say, what’s Western about that if I, as a Filipina, feel this way and feel that this is very important for the country.
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So that’s one of the answers that we would give. And then we would say, we understand we are trying to change traditional culture, but traditional culture has not given to us just for us to follow without thinking because the reason this was given to us by the wisdom of the generations is because they told us this is what worked for us. This is how we flourished. They didn’t tell us, don’t change it if it’s no longer working for you. You have to change it and pass on a different set of cultural values for the next generation to flourish, as well.

In the video here we see how Dr Estrada-Claudio responds to accusations that SRHR concerns are a Western imposition. But what is culture? In the previous steps we have used this word generously and we see it whenever differences between groups of people come out.

In the first week we saw that this word is often used in debates on sexual and reproductive rights as well: traditional values and culture against ‘ progressive’ values. Some (religious) actors frame sexual and reproductive health and rights, expanded freedom for women and rights for sexual minorities as an imposition of ‘western culture’.

Strictly speaking, ‘ culture’ encompasses everything people learn after they are born, from certain ways of doing things, to certain taken for granted ways of understanding what it is to be a woman, a man, or something else. It is highly variable both historically and across the contemporary world. And it is often valued in certain ways: people often posit one way of doing things or understanding things as ‘ better’ than another way and link this to the ‘ in group’ and one or more ‘ out groups’.

In exploring the cultural landscape of the Cordillera we referenced local culture, youth culture, global culture, etc.. These terms are often quite fluid and overlapping: if Filipinos are the world’s most avid cell phone users, should we consider this to be local culture? Or global culture, since the cell phone was not invented there, nor the social media platforms that are most frequently used? Or both?

Yet, sometimes ‘ cultures’ may suddenly come to be understood as static and bounded: ‘western culture’ (including human rights, SRHR) is bad, tradition is good. Or the other way around: traditional practices are harmful, human rights are good. People start arguing about what is authentic, and what is not. These discussions may quickly spiral into grand abstractions that do not connect to the issue at hand anymore, as dr Claudio shows: ‘am I not a Filipina? And I am advocating for reproductive rights’.

There are several considerations to keep in mind when it comes to appeals to culture and related terms such as tradition:

  • Culture is never static, but changes continuously. Often, what is called ‘tradition’ has a much shorter history than we think, and used to be quite changeable before it was labelled as a tradition and as something that should not be changed.
  • Culture is often contested: who defines what ‘the culture’ of a particular group is? what influences are permitted and developed eagerly, which are not?
  • It is often much more plural in practice than how it is presented to outside groups.

In conclusion: to call SRHR an imposition of western culture does not do justice to the enormous energy and activism developed outside the ‘western’ context around these themes and to the fact that cultures are never static or uniform.

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Religion and Sexual Wellbeing: Pleasure, Piety, and Reproductive Rights

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