Culture Essay

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Defining culture is not without controversy. The concept of culture has long been a topic of debate among social scientists. Anthropologists such as Edward Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Franz Boas were among the first to attempt to understand cultural differences among and between human societies and to develop comprehensive definitions of culture. Contemporary interpretations of culture aim to differentiate between the behavioral determinants of culture and thus view behavior as an expression of culture.

There have been many definitions and explanations aiming to understand the nature and meaning of culture. A common mistake is to equate race and/or ethnicity with culture. While demographics may play a role, culture is much more rich and diverse than such a simplistic definition would entail. For example, there are many cultures within different ethnic or racial groups. There is hip-hop culture, biker culture, urban culture, aristocratic culture, and police and criminal culture.

The United States is represented by a vast number of different cultures and subcultures. The cultural nuances and differences create ethical dilemmas for criminal justice practitioners, policy makers, and even scholars. Although each distinct cultural group and its members may have a different set of guidelines for codes of conduct, they are expected to adhere to the cultural patterns of the dominant culture. This obviously poses some ethical dilemmas for criminal justice practitioners who are expected to investigate breaches of the law, prosecute law violators, and incarcerate individuals who have violated the law. For instance, different cultural groups may have different interpretations of what is and is not criminal and even more difficulty interpreting the law of the land (in part since laws vary so dramatically in different jurisdictions).

One of the most detrimental ethical dilemmas presented to criminal justice practitioners is defining what acts and which people are to be considered “criminal.” One consequence of this definitional problem has resulted in the glorification of certain criminal cultures and the demonization of some other cultures. While this gross simplification is erroneous it is nonetheless widely accepted among distinct cultural groups. For example, a quick review of racial and ethnic perceptions of law enforcement suggests this. Clearly the police selectively enforce laws. Thus behavior, such as graffiti or tagging, might be accepted and promoted within a specific culture, and ignored by local law enforcement. However, the same act in a different neighborhood would be met with swift law enforcement reaction. This disparate treatment creates ethical dilemmas. More seriously, there are disparate sentencing guidelines for criminal possession of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine. These similar drugs may be preferred by different cultural and economic groups and are treated differently by the justice system.

Defining Culture

Over the years there have been many definitions of culture but the basic idea is that culture is a set of common ideological (what people think) and social (what people do) patterns and practices that members of a group engage in and adhere to. Knowledge about one’s culture is acquired and transmitted through learning. The process of learning culture is referred to as “enculturation” or “socialization,” and this process usually takes place during infancy or early childhood. This process is achieved formally or informally as new members of a cultural group learn culture from others members of the cultural group through communication, observation, simulation, and interpretation.

Edward Tylor is believed to have developed the earliest modern definition of culture when he defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Although there have been numerous definitions of culture since Tylor’s interpretation, most of these historical and contemporary definitions still contain the main propositions suggested by Tylor. These propositions consist of the belief that culture is learned, is shared by members of a group, gives way to distinctions in human civilizations, and shapes psychological and social (or human) development. In this sense, culture is not biological, as some historical social scientists and earlier interpretations of culture suggested. In fact, contemporary researchers suggest that culture is largely influenced by one’s social environment.

Social scientists have evolved in their understanding of culture. More contemporary definitions of culture emphasize the influence of culture on behavior. These definitions suggest certain behaviors are expressions of culture; therefore behavior is greatly impacted by culture. However, there is debate about how much control, or influence, culture may have over a person’s behavior. Social scientists and theorists disagree about the origins of human nature with regard to culture and behavior. Some accept the “free will” argument (which the U.S. criminal justice system is founded on), which posits that individuals are free to make their own choices and should therefore suffer the consequences for actions that violate the law (or bring harm to others). Cesare Beccaria first suggested this and the U.S. justice system was subsequently modeled on his ideas. Other theorists support the “deterministic” argument asserting that behavior is rooted in choices that are not fully voluntary because of the influence of internal and external factors that are often beyond an individual’s control. The most pertinent example of such a factor would include culture—given that each distinct culture has its own unique codes of conduct and behavioral patterns.

With regard to the relationship between culture and behavior there are two types of determinants of behavior theories, “soft/external” and “hard/internal.” Theorists who favor the “soft/external” explanation for behavior argue that individuals use culture “after the fact” (or after the action/behavior has occurred) in order to excuse or justify behavior that deviates from the norm or standards set forth by a particular culture. On the other end of the spectrum, are the “hard/internal” theorists, who assert that culture is so deeply entrenched in individuals’ identities that they lose agency or responsibility over their actions/behavior because they have been psychologically and socially conditioned to think and behave in particular ways. Centering this continuum of behavioral explanations is Sherry Ortner’s notion of “cultural schema.” This concept combines aspects of the soft/external and hard/internal positions positing that an individual’s behavioral intentions shift from an external to internal position when their actions are able to fit within a given cultural schema. Others have referred to this as soft determinism.


There are also distinct cultural groups that coexist and operate within a larger society alongside other cultural groups—these are known as “subcultures.” The concept of subcultures has become very complex in modern society. For instance, subcultures can take many forms and include social entities as well as human civilizations. These can include corporations (e.g., Apple, Starbucks), technology (e.g., computers, cell phones), social network sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter), gangs (e.g., urban street gangs, motorcycle gangs), and religions (e.g., Christianity, Islam). Essentially, subcultures (and cultures) can take on infinite varieties that have their own set of standards, values, language, and behavioral patterns. In the United States there are an endless number of subcultures that operate within the larger cultural schema. Some of these subcultures, particularly those that take on the criminal form, raise specific concerns for criminal justice professionals.


Culture is often confused with the term ethnicity or ethnic group, which refers to a group with a common ancestry, nationality, and culture. Other elements of ethnicity are referred to as “ethnic boundary markers” or those overt expressions of one’s ethnic group such as language, physical traits, style of dress, and other characteristics that signify ethnicity. The concept of ethnicity can be quite confusing since in some cases culture and ethnicity can be used interchangeable. For instance, Jews are considered both a religious (cultural) group and an ethnic group because Jewish individuals share common cultural and ethnic attributes. Another example pertains to individuals who identify as Latino because this term can denote both cultural and ethnic distinctions. For example, a Latino individual can be of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Peruvian descent because American subgroups with roots in the various Latin American countries each compose a discrete cultural and ethnic group.

The Concept of “Race”

Another concept that is often confused with culture and ethnicity is the concept of “race.” The concept of race consists of classifying individuals or groups into distinct categories based on cultural and ethnic characteristics. The concept of race is a social construction that has no biological basis. However, the concept of race is a reality in many human civilizations and often results in stereotyping and discrimination that delegates or assigns individuals or groups specific roles and/or positions in society based on their “racial” classification. For instance, certain groups are variously considered to be more intelligent, hardworking, athletic, or musically inclined than other groups. The concept of race has many connotations and implications for the field of criminal justice and U.S. culture as a whole. Of particular concern for criminal justice practitioners is the stereotype that specific groups may be more prone to criminal behavior than others. Consequently, stereotyped groups are often regarded with a different set of ethical codes in the criminal justice system.

Holism, Comparison, and Relativism

To further complicate things culture is not static. Culture is dynamic and fluid (always changing). Because of the endless forms of cultural and sub cultural patterns that can form in any given society, social scientists suggest studying cultures in their historical and cultural context in order to understand cultural change adequately. Social scientists propose specific methods for examining issues related to culture that include the holistic perspective, comparative perspective, and relativism perspective.

The holistic perspective consists of studying everything about a culture in order to gain an in-depth understanding of the culture. This technique is usually achieved through “ethnographic” methods—a qualitative methodology in which researchers spend significant amounts of time with a cultural group, often engaging in a technique referred to as “participant observation.” Participant observation is a research methodology that consists of engaging in some of the cultural practices and/or activities of the culture being examined. Comparative perspective consists of comparing different cultures in order to identify differences and similarities between different cultural groups.

The relativistic perspective is the mind-set that social scientists (and one could add criminal justice professionals) must have when studying cultural groups different from their own. It is the belief that no culture is superior to another. The opposite of this notion is “ethnocentrism” or the belief that one’s culture is superior to all others. A certain degree of ethnocentrism is acceptable because it means that an individual values his or her own culture and can therefore find in it a source of pride. However, too much ethnocentrism may manifest as a person’s belief that his or her way of life (culture) is best and all other cultures or cultural groups should be held to the same cultural standards. This has many implications for ethical dilemmas in the field of criminal justice because it can result in prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance of other cultural groups.

Culture in the United States

Every society and country has culture. The United States, for example, has often been referred to as a “melting pot” because it consists of many different cultures and subcultures (especially ethnic groups) and presumably these are all assimilated (melted) into the dominant culture (however recent history shows this to be flawed logic). According to the 2010 census, the total U.S. population was 308,745,538 with 196,817,552 individuals identifying themselves as being white, 50,477,594 as Hispanic or Latino, 37,685,848 as black or African American, 14,465,124 as Asian, 2,247,098 as American Indian or Alaskan Native, 481,576 as Native Hawai‘ian or Other Pacific Islander, and those who identified with two or more races (5,966,481) or as some other race (604,265).

When there are that many diverse cultural groups coexisting in the same region, ethnic relations are likely to result in tension and conflict. The United States has historically been enmeshed in a culture of violence and cultural domination indicative of ethnic relations characterized by genocide, slavery, racism, and mass incarceration. Of particular interest is the conflict that results from different cultural groups being governed by the same legal sanctions. Each cultural group has its own interpretation of what manner of conduct should, and should not, be considered criminal. However, the U.S. legal system is largely dominated by the cultural interpretations of the dominant group, sometimes at the expense of less represented groups. Therefore, specific ethical dilemmas are inevitable.

Additional Ethical Dilemmas Manifested by Culture in the United States

When individuals from different cultural groups come in contact with the U.S. criminal justice system they may try to use culture as an excuse for behavior that is illegal. Researchers have found that in some cases culture can serve as a defense for the accused, but defendants must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their behaviors were the result of a hard/internal cultural reliance. The use of cultural norms to explain, excuse, or justify conduct that the U.S. legal system regards as criminal has been referred to as a “cultural defense.” Kay Levine has identified three types of cultural defenses a defendant can use in the courtroom. The first is “cultural reason,” and this defense consists of justifying engagement in a specific cultural practice that resulted in an unintended harm (e.g., aritual practice intended to ward off evil spirits that resulted in an accidental death).

The second defense is “cultural tolerance,” which aims to justify or excuse deliberately harmful behavior that is otherwise tolerated or acceptable by the defendant’s cultural standards but illegal by U.S. legal standards (e.g., the honor killing of an unfaithful wife). This defense is often viewed as an “after the fact” explanation for misconduct. Therefore, Levine suggested courts not consider this as a legitimate defense if the person intended to do harm. Finally, “cultural requirement” is a defense that consists of two categories, “ritual requirement” and “cultural obligation.” Ritual requirement entails components of the cultural reason defense in the sense that the act under question resulted in an unintended harm on the part of the defendant. The defendant may have simply been adhering to a ritualistic cultural practice, such as applying ritual markings to another person, which resulted in the unintentional injury. Cultural obligation is a situation in which a defendant intended to harm another person to meet cultural expectations and avoid shame or dishonor.

When using a cultural defense a defendant must prove that the illegal behavior was the result of a hard/internal position, which would indicate his or her actions were purely the result of a cultural background that essentially dictated, or caused, the behavior. The defendant must also have a reasonable explanation for relying on his or her culture as opposed to the sanctions set forth by the U.S. legal system. Additionally, the defendant must prove that the behavior was in line with current and existing cultural values and patterns. It remains an empirical question how often such defenses are successful in criminal court.


Culture is a conglomeration of knowledge about one’s group. Culture is acquired through learning; therefore, individuals can learn new cultural practices. For example, over time some individuals setting policy and working within the criminal justice system have been culturally conditioned to view specific cultural (and ethnic) groups as more likely to be criminal. This has resulted in many ethical dilemmas for policing, corrections, courts, forensic science, and policy. Culture influences the way in which individuals view, feel, and interact with other individuals. Therefore, having a greater understanding of cultural differences can be expected to result in more tolerance for culturally driven behaviors and less conflict in the field of criminal justice.


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