Monday, January 26, 2009

One mirror of a disco ball

Culture. Identity. Politics. Health.

Four different concepts and ideas and yet they are so intertwined. What is culture? Although this question may sound simple to many people, social scientists consider this to be one of the key questions in the field. Many social scientists have tried to define this in their own way, but have failed to come to any solid conclusion. Interestingly, I had this long debate with someone recently about how many people it needs to create a 'culture.' I agreed with the author (cannot remember the name right now) who said that it only takes two people to create a culture. But my 'opponent' did not agree with me and she resisted this notion of at least two people strongly. Her opinion was that such a concept can perhaps (and only) define a sub-culture, as those two people will have many things in common with other 'major' cultures.

I tried to convince her that, just as Airhihenbuwa (2007) says, any culture cannot be entirely unique of so different that it can exist exclusively of the outside world. And at the same time, such similarities are not enough to universalize it - its values and practices and qualities. But does that mean the way we both go bout understanding our identities are different? Or are they the same? Can two people who vary to a large extent on what culture is to them agree on one concept of identity?

it is my opinion that identity can only be considered/understood in terms of one's cultural values and beliefs. Such values and beliefs are always political to some extent I think. As Dutta (2008) says, nothing can be completely apolitical. And politics in itself is bound strongly with context and history. So not only does culture vary with context, history, power structure and politics, it also contributes in shaping people's identities. But this in turn raises another question that can one culture be more important than another simple because the members have more power?

As Geertz says, one needs to look thoroughly into the context and make detailed observations before making any argument like that. He says that whether one is studying the fishing behavior of the Eskimos, or the relationship between toilet training and theories of disease, a huge accumulation of observation is needed so that the underlying reasons could be understood better. No two cultures are alike and Geertz says that anything that starts with “all societies have” should be questioned. Such questioning will help to understand the context and thus the culture of a group. Such understanding of culture has implications on health. "Discourse on transcultural health and behavior has entered a new phase as the boundaries of identity (individual and collective) and cultural sovereignty are increasingly being questioned and redefined" (Airhihenbua, 2007, p. 5). Such re-definitions also question the logic of using Eurocentric ideas to explain non-Eurocentric cultural productions.

This leads well into Lewton and Bydone's (2000) essay on the Navaho concept of SNBH. We see there that just taking a pill (the Eurocentric way) is not a cure for illnesses in that culture. We see that the SNBH is comprised on many social, cultural, spiritual, and physical elements that perhaps the Western medicine has failed to appreciate for centuries.

So overall, it is a matter of interpretations and understanding of contexts and practices. Key components of Navaho philosophy such a the SNBH is only a part to understanding the whole. Culture cannot be understood, identities cannot be created, or health issues cannot only be addressed is a static form. And every bit of knowledge cab only lead to the quest for more.

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