Culture is often bound to the necessity for normalcy and order, a necessity to preserve a community under agreed or shared beliefs and values. While culture enhances the cohesiveness of the community to collectively respond to pressures and challenges, it may at times also function as a regulating limit to people’s behavior.
Culture, for instance, defines ethical standards according to which the community must behave. It also prescribes right ways and conducts by which the individual members of a community are, at best, expected to observe. This prescription may not be necessarily repressive; as long as culture appeals to a collective standard its ways are more subtle than imposing. It endorses models or ideal types of individuals that the community is expected to emulate; the kind of social rituals that the members of the community are expected to perform. The price of deviancy entails direct ostracization, or indirect isolation or alienation from the community, which owing to their indirectness gives a more forceful sense of guilt to the deviant. Guilt presupposes that a sense of violation is committed that the individual is expected to correct, and only by and through his/her self. In this instance, culture tends to suppress.
A conscious study of culture, that is, an informed approach to understanding the positive and negative potentials of culture, offers emancipatory promises to the individual. For one thing, culture is most efficient in its unconscious or semi-conscious influence upon the members of the community. The extra-rational charm of mythologies, for instance, to the community-members proves that their masked realities are more compelling than the bare realities of which they are imaginative extensions. The legends that the community believe in, such as in indigenous communities, represent for them the true nature of reality. Living in a highly advanced age such as ours does not mean that we have all maturely dispensed with myths and legends. Even modern societies maintain myths, although more sophisticated than the primitive’s. Such myths are present, for instance, in the modern concept of beauty where it is rendered more visual rathen than the aural emphasis of the ancients. The dominance of the visual in modern culture as proven by the omnipresence of MTVs, the internet, the global text messaging system, etc., is proof of this dramatic shift in culture. For the ancients, beauty is intuitive. For the modern, it is visual, if not secretly pornographic. (It must be emphasized that for both the ancients and the modern, beauty is believed to be something achievable. However, as we look into the various conceptions made of beauty across time, there has never been a single acceptable view of what beauty is. Proof of beauty’s elusive and contingent nature that humans have sought to essentialize).
The enabling promise of a conscious study of culture helps us realize the arbitrariness of shared beliefs, values, and customs. Arbitrariness means here the unexposed rationality of the idea of a collective. Culture works best when conformity is achieved with a minimum amount of resistance. And there is no visible reason to resist when the object of resistance cannot be altogether demonstrated. In the sociology of culture, it is most often the case that a particular myth is replaced by another myth, not singly for the latter’s more drawing or charming power over the other’s narrative strength, but for the former’s failure to preserve its being unexposed as to its true imaginative, therefore, arbitrary nature.
Conscious study means being able to achieve a transcendental level of understanding the extent to which one can become either an active endorser of a particular culture, or its informed critic. The exposition of the arbitrariness of culture does not promote a wholesale negative treatment of culture. Culture both serves the purposes of normalcy and positive deviancy. Where to draw the line, however, requires more than a rational proficiency of the many visible and non-apparent ways of culture. Most of the time, it demands an ethical stance such as a committed recognition of differences.