Understanding the components and regional variations of cultural patterns and processes are critical to human geography. We studied the concepts of culture and cultural traits and learned how geographers assess the spatial and place dimensions of cultural groups as defined by language, religion, ethnicity, and gender, in the present as well as the past.
This module also explored cultural interaction at various scales, along with the adaptations, changes, and conflicts that may result. The geographies of language, religion, ethnicity, and gender are studied to identify and analyze the patterns and processes of cultural differences. We distinguished between languages and dialects, ethnic religions and universal religions, and folk and popular cultures, as well as between ethnic political movements. These distinctions help students understand the forces that affect the geographic patterns of each cultural characteristics.
Another significant emphasis of the module was the way culture shapes relationships between humans and the environment. We learned how culture is expressed in landscapes and how land use, in turn, represents cultural identity. Built environments enable the geographer to interpret cultural values, tastes, symbolism, and beliefs.
Concepts of culture frame the shared behaviors of a society.
- Explain the concept of culture and identity of cultural traits.
- Explain how geographers assess the spatial and place dimensions of cultural groups in the past and present.
- Explain how globalization is influencing cultural interactions and change.
Culture varies by place and region.
- Explain cultural patterns and landscapes as they vary by place and region.
- Explain the diffusion of culture and cultural traits through time and space.
- Compare and contrast ethnic and universalizing religions and their geographic patterns.
- Explain how culture is expressed in landscapes and how land and resources use represents cultural identity.
- Compare and contrast popular and folk culture and the geographic patterns associated with each.
8.1 Understanding Race and Ethnicity
Defining Race and Ethnicity
The idea of race refers to superficial physical differences that a particular society considers significant, while ethnicity describes shared culture. Moreover, the term “minority groups” describe subordinate groups, or that lack power in society regardless of skin color or country of origin. For example, in modern U.S. history, the elderly might be considered a minority group due to a diminished status that results from widespread prejudice and discrimination against them. Ten percent of nursing home staff admitted to physically abusing an older person in the past year, and 40 percent admitted to committing psychological abuse (World Health Organization 2011). In this chapter, we focus on racial and ethnic minorities.
Race, in biological terms, refers to a socially constructed way to identify humans based on physical characteristics, resulting from genetic ancestry. Shared genetic ancestry is a result of geographical isolation. Geographic isolation, since the era of colonization and even before then, has significantly decreased in most areas of the world. Less geographic isolation results in the mixing of racial groups. Thus, classifying people by their race with any accuracy is difficult.
Most biologists, geographers, and social scientists have all taken an official position rejecting the biological explanations of race. Over time, the typology of race that developed during early racial science has fallen into disuse, and the social construction of race is a more sociological way of understanding racial categories. Research in this school of thought suggests that race is not biologically identifiable and that previous racial categories were arbitrarily assigned, based on pseudoscience, and used to justify racist practices (Omi and Winant 1994; Graves 2003). When considering skin color, for example, the social construction of race perspective recognizes that the relative darkness or fairness of skin is an evolutionary adaptation to the available sunlight in different regions of the world.
Contemporary conceptions of race, therefore, which tend to be based on socioeconomic assumptions, illuminate how far removed modern understanding of race is from biological qualities. In modern society, some people who consider themselves “white” actually have more melanin (a pigment that determines skin color) in their skin than other people who identify as ”black.” In some countries, such as Brazil, class is more important than skin color in determining racial categorization. People with high levels of melanin may consider themselves “white” if they enjoy a middle-class lifestyle. On the other hand, someone with low levels of melanin might be assigned the identity of “black” if he or she has little education or money.
The social construction of race is also reflected in the way names for racial categories change with changing times. It is worth noting that race, in this sense, is also a system of labeling that provides a source of identity; specific labels fall in and out of favor during different social eras. For example, the category ”Negroid,” popular in the nineteenth century, evolved into the term “negro” by the 1960s, and then this term fell from use and was replaced with “African American.” This latter term was intended to celebrate the multiple identities that a black person might hold, but the word choice is a poor one: it lumps together a large variety of ethnic groups under an umbrella term while excluding others who could accurately be described by the label but who do not meet the spirit of the term. For example, actress Charlize Theron is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed “African American.”
PBS has created an exciting website called RACE – The Power of an Illusion that looks at whether race indeed is a biological characteristic of humans or a social construct. Take the Sorting People quiz and watch The Human Family Tree and Black in Latin America: An Island Divided to “witness” how migration and geography play a role in the complex issues surrounding race and ethnicity. Pay attention to how the racial and ethnic landscape of the island of Hispaniola impacts cultural identity and the geopolitics both within Hispaniola and beyond its shores.
Ethnicity is a term that describes shared culture – the practices, values, and beliefs of a group. This culture might include shared language, religion, and traditions, among other commonalities. Like race, the term ethnicity is difficult to describe, and its meaning has changed over time. Moreover, as with race, individuals may be identified or self-identify with ethnicities in complex, even contradictory, ways. For example, ethnic groups such as Irish, Italian American, Russian, Jewish, and Serbian might all be groups whose members are predominantly included in the “white” racial category.
Shared geography, language, and religion can often, but not always, factor into ethnic group categorizations. Ethnic groups distinguish themselves differently from one period to another. Ethnic identity can be used by individuals to identify themselves with others who have shared geographic, cultural, historical, linguistic, and religious ancestry; however, like race, ethnicity has been defined by the stereotypes created by dominant groups as a method of “Othering.” Othering is a process in which one group, usually the dominant group, views and represents themselves as “us/same” and another group as “them/other.”
Ethnicity, like race, continues to be an identification method that individuals and institutions use today—whether through the census, affirmative action initiatives, nondiscrimination laws, or simply in day-to-day personal relations.
Intergroup relations (relationships between different groups of people) range along a spectrum between tolerance and intolerance. The most tolerant form of intergroup relations is pluralism, in which no distinction is made between minority and majority groups, but instead, there is equal standing. At the other end of the continuum are amalgamation, expulsion, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide – stark examples of intolerant intergroup relations.
Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide
The 20th Century was also the deadliest century, regarding war, in human history. This century experienced two world wars, multiple civil wars, genocides in Rwanda (Tutsis and moderate Hutus), Sudan, Yugoslavia, and the Holocaust that decimated the Jewish population in Europe during WWII. In addition to WWI and WWII, this century experienced the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the first Gulf War. Additionally, this century saw regional and civil conflicts such as those experienced in the Congo (6 million people died), as well as an upsurge in child soldiers and modern slavery.
Some of the worst acts by humans have been concerning ethnic cleansing and genocide. The United Nations Security Council established Resolution 780, which states that ethnic cleansing is “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”
Genocide is usually defined as the intentional killing of large sums of people targeted because of their ethnicity, political ideology, religion, or culture. At first glance, it appears that ethnic cleansing and genocide are similar. With ethnic cleansing, the aim is to remove a group of people with similar ethnic backgrounds from a specific geographic region by any means possible. This could include forced migration, terror and rape, destruction of villages, and large-scale death. With genocide, the real intent is the death of a group of people at any scale possible until they are extinct. This has happened many times in recent history including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burma, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, and now Syria. Sadly, with all these ethnic conflicts, most were not officially declared as genocides by the United Nations Security Council, but the conditions on the ground and the reasons why they were occurring fit the definition.
The treatment of aboriginal Australians is also an example of genocide committed against indigenous people. Historical accounts suggest that between 1824 and 1908, white settlers killed more than 10,000 native Aborigines in Tasmania and Australia (Tatz 2006).
Another example is the European colonization of North America. Some historians estimate that Native American populations dwindled from approximately 12 million people in the year 1500 to barely 237,000 by the year 1900 (Lewy 2004). European settlers coerced American Indians off their lands, often causing thousands of deaths in forced removals, such as occurred in the Cherokee or Potawatomi Trail of Tears.
Settlers also enslaved Native Americans and forced them to give up their religious and cultural practices. However, the primary cause of Native American death was neither slavery nor war nor forced removal: it was the introduction of European diseases and Indians’ lack of immunity to them. Smallpox, diphtheria, and measles flourished among indigenous American tribes who had no exposure to the diseases and no ability to fight them. Quite simply, these diseases decimated the tribes. How planned this genocide was remains a topic of contention. Some argue that the spread of disease was an unintended effect of conquest, while others believe it was intentional citing rumors of smallpox-infected blankets being distributed as “gifts” to tribes.
Genocide is not just a historical concept; it is practiced today. Recently, ethnic and geographic conflicts in the Darfur region of Sudan have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. As part of an ongoing land conflict, the Sudanese government and their state-sponsored Janjaweed militia have led a campaign of killing, forced displacement, and systematic rape of Darfuri people. Although a treaty was signed in 2011, the peace is fragile.
Today, there are a few situations that may be classified as a genocide. The first is in Myanmar, where the Buddhist government has been systematically driving out Muslim populations called Rohingya.
In July 2011, South Sudan became the world’s newest country when it voted to break away from Sudan. Yet by December 2013, fighting between the new government and rebel fighters created a new civil war within the new country. Thousands of civilians have been killed, with millions more displaced by the violence. Like Yemen, there is now growing concern that the civil war will create a nationwide famine.
Segregation refers to the physical separation of two groups, particularly in residence, but also in the workplace and social functions. It is essential to distinguish between de jure segregation (segregation that is enforced by law) and de facto segregation (segregation that occurs without laws but because of other factors). A stark example of de jure segregation is the apartheid movement of South Africa, which existed from 1948 to 1994. Under apartheid, black South Africans were stripped of their civil rights, and forcibly relocated to areas that segregated them physically from their white compatriots. Only after decades of degradation, violent uprisings, and international advocacy was apartheid finally abolished.
Pluralism is represented by the ideal of the United States as a “salad bowl”: a great mixture of different cultures where each culture retains its own identity and yet adds to the flavor of the whole. Genuine pluralism is characterized by mutual respect on the part of all cultures, both dominant and subordinate, creating a multicultural environment of acceptance. In reality, true pluralism is a challenging goal to reach. In the United States, the mutual respect required by pluralism is often missing, and the nation’s past pluralist model of a melting pot posits a society where cultural differences aren’t embraced as much as erased.
Assimilation describes the process by which a minority individual or group gives up its own identity by taking on the characteristics of the dominant culture. In the United States, which has a history of welcoming and absorbing immigrants from different lands, assimilation has been a function of immigration.
Most people in the United States have immigrant ancestors. In relatively recent history, between 1890 and 1920, the United States became home to around 24 million immigrants. In the decades since then, further waves of immigrants have come to these shores and have eventually been absorbed into U.S. culture, sometimes after facing extended periods of prejudice and discrimination. Assimilation may lead to the loss of the minority group’s cultural identity as they become absorbed into the dominant culture, but assimilation has minimal to no impact on the majority group’s cultural identity.
Some groups may keep only symbolic gestures of their original ethnicity. For instance, many Irish Americans may celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, many Hindu Americans enjoy a Diwali festival, and many Mexican Americans may celebrate Cinco de Mayo (a May 5 acknowledgment of Mexico’s victory at the 1862 Battle of Puebla). However, for the rest of the year, other aspects of their originating culture may be forgotten.
Assimilation is antithetical to the “salad bowl” created by pluralism; rather than maintaining their cultural flavor, subordinate cultures give up their traditions in order to conform to their new environment. Social scientists measure the degree to which immigrants have assimilated to a new culture with four benchmarks: socioeconomic status, spatial concentration, language assimilation, and intermarriage. When faced with racial and ethnic discrimination, it can be difficult for new immigrants to assimilate fully. Language assimilation, in particular, can be a formidable barrier, limiting employment and educational options and therefore constraining growth in socioeconomic status.
Amalgamation is the process by which a minority group and a majority group combine to form a new group. Amalgamation creates the classic “melting pot” analogy; unlike the “salad bowl,” in which each culture retains its individuality, the “melting pot” ideal sees the combination of cultures that results in a new culture entirely.
Amalgamation, also known as miscegenation, is achieved through intermarriage between races. In the United States, anti-miscegenation laws flourished in the South during the Jim Crow era. It was not until 1967’s Loving v. Virginia that the last anti-miscegenation law was struck from the books, making these laws unconstitutional.
8.2: Understanding Culture
Humans are social creatures. Since the dawn of Homo sapiens nearly 250,000 years ago, people have grouped into communities in order to survive. Living together, people form everyday habits and behaviors – from specific methods of childrearing to preferred techniques for obtaining food. In modern-day Paris, many people shop daily at outdoor markets to pick up what they need for their evening meal, buying cheese, meat, and vegetables from different specialty stalls. In the United States, the majority of people shop once a week at supermarkets, filling large carts to the brim. How would a Parisian perceive U.S. shopping behaviors that Americans take for granted?
Almost every human behavior, from shopping to marriage to expressions of feelings, is learned. In the United States, people tend to view marriage as a choice between two people, based on mutual feelings of love. In other nations and in other times, marriages have been arranged through an intricate process of interviews and negotiations between entire families, or in other cases, through a direct system, such as a “mail-order bride.” To someone raised in New York City, the marriage customs of a family from Nigeria may seem strange or even wrong. Conversely, someone from a traditional Kolkata family might be perplexed with the idea of romantic love as the foundation for marriage and lifelong commitment. In other words, how people view marriage depends mostly on what they have been taught.
Behavior based on learned customs is not a bad thing. Being familiar with unwritten rules helps people feel secure and “normal.” Most people want to live their daily lives, confident that their behaviors will not be challenged or disrupted — however, even action as seemingly simple as commuting to work evidences a great deal of cultural propriety.
Culture consists of thoughts and tangible things. Material culture refers to the objects or belongings of a group of people. Nonmaterial culture, in contrast, consists of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society. Material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas. These material and nonmaterial aspects of culture can vary subtly from region to region.
Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism
Despite how much humans have in common, cultural differences are far more prevalent than cultural universals. For example, while all cultures have language, analysis of particular language structures and conversational etiquette reveal tremendous differences. In some Middle Eastern cultures, it is common to stand close to others in conversation. North Americans keep more distance and maintain an ample “personal space.” Even something as simple as eating and drinking varies significantly from culture to culture. If your professor comes into an early morning class holding a mug of liquid, what do you assume she is drinking? In the United States, it’s most likely filled with coffee, not Earl Grey tea, a favorite in England, or Yak Butter tea, a staple in Tibet.
The way cuisines vary across cultures fascinates many people. Some travelers pride themselves on their willingness to try unfamiliar foods, like celebrated food writer Anthony Bourdain, while others return home expressing gratitude for their native culture’s fare. Often, people in the United States express disgust at other cultures’ cuisine and think that it is gross to eat meat from a dog or guinea pig, for example, while they do not question their habit of eating cows or pigs. Such attitudes are an example of ethnocentrism, or evaluating and judging another culture based on how it compares to one’s cultural norms. Ethnocentrism, as social scientists William Graham Sumner (1906) described the term, involves a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others. Almost everyone is a little bit ethnocentric. For example, Americans tend to say that people from England drive on the “wrong” side of the road, rather than on the “other” side. Someone from a country where dog meat is standard fare might find it off-putting to see a dog in a French restaurant—not on the menu, but as a pet and patron’s companion. An example of ethnocentrism is referring to parts of Asia as the “Far East.” One might question, “Far East of where?”
A high level of appreciation for one’s own culture can be healthy; a shared sense of community pride, for example, connects people in a society. However, ethnocentrism can lead to disdain or dislike for other cultures and could cause misunderstanding and conflict. People with the best intentions sometimes travel to a society to “help” its people, because they see them as uneducated or backward – inherently inferior. In reality, these travelers are guilty of cultural imperialism, the deliberate imposition of one’s own cultural values on another culture. Europe’s colonial expansion, begun in the sixteenth century, was often accompanied by a severe cultural imperialism. European colonizers often viewed the people in the lands they colonized as uncultured savages who needed European governance, dress, religion, and other cultural practices. A more modern example of cultural imperialism may include the work of international aid agencies who introduce agricultural methods and plant species from developed countries while overlooking indigenous varieties and agricultural approaches that are better suited to the particular region.
Ethnocentrism can be so strong that when confronted with all of the differences of a new culture, one may experience disorientation and frustration, called culture shock. A traveler from Chicago might find the nightly silence of rural Montana unsettling, not peaceful. An exchange student from China might be annoyed by the constant interruptions in class as other students ask questions – a practice that is considered rude in China. Perhaps the Chicago traveler was initially captivated with Montana’s quiet beauty, and the Chinese student was initially excited to see a U.S.-style classroom firsthand. However, as they experience unanticipated differences from their own culture, their excitement gives way to discomfort and doubts about how to behave appropriately in the new situation. Eventually, as people learn more about a culture, they recover from culture shock.
Culture shock may appear because people are not always expecting cultural differences. Anthropologist Ken Barger (1971) discovered this when he conducted a participatory observation in an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic. Initially, from Indiana, Barger hesitated when invited to join a local snowshoe race. He knew he would never hold his own against these experts. Sure enough, he finished last, to his mortification. However, the tribal members congratulated him, saying, “You really tried!” In Barger’s own culture, he had learned to value victory. To the Inuit people, winning was enjoyable, but their culture valued survival skills essential to their environment: how hard someone tried could mean the difference between life and death. Throughout his stay, Barger participated in caribou hunts, learned how to take shelter in winter storms, and sometimes went days with little or no food to share among tribal members. Trying hard and working together, two nonmaterial values, were indeed much more important than winning.
During his time with the Inuit tribe, Barger learned to engage in cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture. Practicing cultural relativism requires an open mind and a willingness to consider, and even adapt to, new values and norms. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies — ones in which women have political rights and control over their own bodies — would question whether the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of cultural tradition. Human geographers attempting to engage in cultural relativism, then, may struggle to reconcile aspects of their own culture with aspects of a culture that they are studying.
Sometimes when people attempt to rectify feelings of ethnocentrism and develop cultural relativism, they swing too far to the other end of the spectrum. Xenocentrism is the opposite of ethnocentrism, and refers to the belief that another culture is superior to one’s own. (The Greek root word xeno, pronounced “ZEE-no,” means “stranger” or “foreign guest.”) An exchange student who goes home after a semester abroad or a geographer who returns from the field may find it difficult to associate with the values of their own culture after having experienced what they deem a more upright or nobler way of living.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for geographers and other social scientists studying different cultures is the matter of keeping a perspective. It is impossible for anyone to keep all cultural biases at bay; the best we can do is strive to be aware of them. Pride in one’s own culture does not have to lead to imposing its values on others. Moreover, an appreciation for another culture should not preclude individuals from studying it with a critical eye.
Elements of Cultural Values and Beliefs
The first, and perhaps most crucial, elements of culture we will discuss are its values and beliefs. Values are a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society. Values are deeply embedded and critical for transmitting and teaching a culture’s beliefs. Beliefs are the tenets or convictions that people hold to be true. Individuals in a society have specific beliefs, but they also share common values. To illustrate the difference, Americans commonly believe in the American Dream—that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. Underlying this belief is the American value that wealth is useful and important.
Values help shape a society by suggesting what is right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, sought, or avoided. Consider the value that the United States places upon youth. Children represent innocence and purity, while a youthful adult appearance signifies sexuality. Shaped by this value, individuals spend millions of dollars each year on cosmetic products and surgeries to look young and beautiful. The United States also has an individualistic culture, meaning people place a high value on individuality and independence. In contrast, many other cultures are collectivist, meaning the welfare of the group and group relationships are a primary value.
Living up to a culture’s values can be difficult. It is easy to value good health, but it is hard to quit smoking. Marital monogamy is valued, but many spouses engage in infidelity. Cultural diversity and equal opportunities for all people are valued in the United States, yet the country’s highest political offices have been dominated by white men.
Values often suggest how people should behave, but they do not accurately reflect how people do behave. Values portray an ideal culture; the standards society would like to embrace and live up to. However, ideal culture differs from real culture, the way society actually is, based on what occurs and exists. In an ideal culture, there would be no traffic accidents, murders, poverty, or racial tension. However, in real culture, police officers, lawmakers, educators, and social workers continuously strive to prevent or repair those accidents, crimes, and injustices
One way societies strive to put values into action is through rewards, sanctions, and punishments. When people observe the norms of society and uphold their values, they are often rewarded. A boy who helps an elderly woman board a bus may receive a smile and a “thank you.” A business manager who raises profit margins may receive a quarterly bonus. People sanction certain behaviors by giving their support, approval, or permission, or by instilling formal actions of disapproval and nonsupport. Sanctions are a form of social control, a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms. Sometimes people conform to norms in anticipation or expectation of positive sanctions: good grades, for instance, may mean praise from parents and teachers. From a criminal justice perspective, properly used social control is also inexpensive crime control. Utilizing social control approaches pushes most people to conform to societal rules, regardless of whether authority figures (such as law enforcement) are present.
When people go against a society’s values, they are punished. A boy who shoves an older woman aside to board the bus first may receive frowns or even a scolding from other passengers. A business manager who drives away customers will likely be fired. Breaking norms and rejecting values can lead to cultural sanctions such as earning a negative label—lazy, no-good bum—or to legal sanctions, such as traffic tickets, fines, or imprisonment.
Values are not static; they vary across time and between groups as people evaluate, debate, and change collective societal beliefs. Values also vary from culture to culture. For example, cultures differ in their values about what kinds of physical closeness are appropriate in public. It is rare to see two male friends or coworkers holding hands in the United States, where that behavior often symbolizes romantic feelings. However, in many nations, masculine physical intimacy is considered natural in public. This difference in cultural values came to light when people reacted to photos of former president George W. Bush holding hands with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2005. A simple gesture, such as hand-holding, carries significant symbolic differences across cultures.
So far, the examples in this chapter have often described how people are expected to behave in certain situations – for example, when buying food or boarding a bus. These examples describe the visible and invisible rules of conduct through which societies are structured, or what social scientists call norms. Norms define how to behave in accordance with what a society has defined as good, right, and important, and most members of the society adhere to them.
Formal norms are established, written rules. They are behaviors worked out and agreed upon in order to suit and serve the most people. Laws are formal norms, but so are employee manuals, college entrance exam requirements, and “no running” signs at swimming pools. Formal norms are the most specific and clearly stated of the various types of norms, and they are the most strictly enforced. However, even formal norms are enforced to varying degrees and are reflected in cultural values.
For example, money is highly valued in the United States, so monetary crimes are punished. It is against the law to rob a bank, and banks go to great lengths to prevent such crimes. People safeguard valuable possessions and install anti-theft devices to protect homes and cars. A less strictly enforced social norm is driving while intoxicated. While it is against the law to drive drunk, drinking is, for the most part, an acceptable social behavior. Moreover, though there are laws to punish drunk driving, there are few systems in place to prevent the crime. These examples show a range of enforcement regarding formal norms.
There are plenty of formal norms, but the list of informal norms – casual behaviors that are generally and widely conformed to – is longer. People learn informal norms through observation, imitation, and general socialization. Some informal norms are taught directly, while others are learned by observation, including observations of the consequences when someone else violates a norm. However, although informal norms define personal interactions, they extend into other systems as well. Most people do not commit even benign breaches of informal norms. Informal norms dictate appropriate behaviors without the need for written rules.
Culture is always evolving. Moreover, new things are added to material culture every day, and they affect nonmaterial culture as well. Cultures change when something new (say, railroads or smartphones) opens up new ways of living and when new ideas enter a culture (say, as a result of travel or globalization).
Innovation: Discovery and Intervention
Innovation refers to an object or concept’s initial appearance in society – it is innovative because it is markedly new. There are two ways to come across an innovative object or idea: discover it or invent it. Discoveries make known previously unknown but existing aspects of reality. In 1610, when Galileo looked through his telescope and discovered Saturn, the planet was already there, but until then, no one had known about it. When Christopher Columbus encountered America, the land was, of course, already well known to its inhabitants. However, Columbus’s discovery was new knowledge for Europeans, and it opened the way to changes in European culture, as well as to the cultures of the discovered lands. For example, new foods such as potatoes and tomatoes transformed the European diet, and horses brought from Europe changed hunting practices of Native American tribes of the Great Plains.
Inventions result when something new is formed from existing objects or concepts—when things are put together in an entirely new manner. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, electric appliances were invented at an astonishing pace. Cars, airplanes, vacuum cleaners, lamps, radios, telephones, and televisions were all new inventions. Inventions may shape a culture when people use them in place of older ways of carrying out activities and relating to others, or as a way to carry out new kinds of activities. Their adoption reflects (and may shape) cultural values, and their use may require new norms for new situations.
Consider the introduction of modern communication technology, such as mobile phones and smartphones. As more and more people began carrying these devices, phone conversations no longer were restricted to homes, offices, and phone booths. People on trains, in restaurants, and other public places became annoyed by listening to one-sided conversations. Norms were needed for cell phone use. Some people pushed for the idea that those who are out in the world should pay attention to their companions and surroundings. However, technology-enabled a workaround such as texting, which enables quiet communication and has surpassed phoning as the leading way to meet today’s highly valued ability to stay in touch anywhere, everywhere.
When the pace of innovation increases, it can lead to generation gaps. A skeptical older generation sometimes dismisses technological gadgets that catch on quickly with one generation. A culture’s objects and ideas can cause not just generational but cultural gaps. Material culture tends to diffuse more quickly than nonmaterial culture; technology can spread through society in a matter of months, but it can take generations for the ideas and beliefs of society to change. Sociologist William F. Ogburn coined the term culture lag to refer to this time that elapses between the introduction of a new item of material culture and its acceptance as part of nonmaterial culture (Ogburn 1957).
Culture lag can also cause tangible problems. The infrastructure of the United States, built a hundred years ago or more, is having trouble supporting today’s more densely populated and fast-paced life. There is a lag in conceptualizing solutions to infrastructure problems. Rising fuel prices, increased air pollution, and traffic jams are all symptoms of culture lag. Although people are becoming aware of the consequences of overusing resources, the means to support changes take time to achieve.
Diffusion and Globalization
The integration of world markets and technological advances of the last decades have allowed for greater exchange between cultures through the processes of globalization and diffusion. Beginning in the 1980s, Western governments began to deregulate social services while granting greater liberties to private businesses. As a result, world markets became dominated by multinational companies in the 1980s, a new state of affairs at that time. We have since come to refer to this integration of international trade and finance markets as globalization. Increased communications and air travel have further opened doors for international business relations, facilitating the flow not only of goods but also of information and people as well (Scheuerman 2014 (revised)). Today, many U.S. companies set up offices in other nations where the costs of resources and labor are cheaper. When a person in the United States calls to get information about banking, insurance, or computer services, the person taking that call may be working in another country.
Alongside the process of globalization is diffusion, or the spread of material and nonmaterial culture. While globalization refers to the integration of markets, diffusion relates to a similar process in the integration of international cultures. Middle-class Americans can fly overseas and return with a new appreciation of Thai noodles or Italian gelato. Access to television and the Internet has brought the lifestyles and values portrayed in U.S. sitcoms into homes around the globe. Twitter feeds from public demonstrations in one nation have encouraged political protesters in other countries. When this kind of diffusion occurs, material objects and ideas from one culture are introduced into another.
Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
Music, fashion, technology, and values—all are products of culture. However, what do they mean? How do human geographers perceive and interpret culture based on these material and nonmaterial items? Let us finish our analysis of culture by reviewing them in the context of three theoretical perspectives: functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.
Functionalists view society as a system in which all parts work—or function—together to create society as a whole. In this way, societies need culture to exist. Cultural norms function to support the fluid operation of society, and cultural values guide people in making choices. Just as members of a society work together to fulfill a society’s needs, culture exists to meet its members’ basic needs.
Functionalists also study culture in terms of values. Education is an essential concept in the United States because it is valued. The culture of education—including material culture such as classrooms, textbooks, libraries, dormitories—supports the emphasis placed on the value of educating a society’s members.
Conflict theorists view social structure as inherently unequal, based on power differentials related to issues like class, gender, race, and age. For a conflict theorist, culture is seen as reinforcing issues of “privilege” for certain groups based upon race, sex, class, and so on. Women strive for equality in a male-dominated society. Senior citizens struggle to protect their rights, their health care, and their independence from a younger generation of lawmakers. Advocacy groups such as the ACLU work to protect the rights of all races and ethnicities in the United States.
Inequalities exist within a culture’s value system. Therefore, a society’s cultural norms benefit some people but hurt others. Some norms, formal and informal, are practiced at the expense of others. Women were not allowed to vote in the United States until 1920. Gay and lesbian couples have been denied the right to marry in some states. Racism and bigotry are very much alive today. Although cultural diversity is supposedly valued in the United States, many people still frown upon interracial marriages. Same-sex marriages are banned in most states, and polygamy—common in some cultures—is unthinkable to most Americans.
At the core of conflict theory is the effect of economic production and materialism: dependence on technology in rich nations versus a lack of technology and education in emerging nations. Conflict theorists believe that a society’s system of material production affects the rest of the culture. People who have less power also have less ability to adapt to cultural change. This view contrasts with the perspective of functionalism. In the U.S. culture of capitalism, to illustrate, we continue to strive toward the promise of the American dream, which perpetuates the belief that the wealthy deserve their privileges.
Symbolic interactionism is a sociological perspective that is most concerned with the face-to-face interactions between members of society. Interactionists see culture as being created and maintained by the ways people interact and in how individuals interpret each other’s actions. Proponents of this theory conceptualize human interactions as a continuous process of deriving meaning from both objects in the environment and the actions of others. This is where the term symbolic comes into play. Every object and action has a symbolic meaning, and language serves as a means for people to represent and communicate their interpretations of these meanings to others. Those who believe in symbolic interactionism perceive culture as highly dynamic and fluid, as it is dependent on how meaning is interpreted and how individuals interact when conveying these meanings.
We began this chapter by asking what culture is. Culture is comprised of all the practices, beliefs, and behaviors of a society. Because culture is learned, it includes how people think and express themselves. While we may like to consider ourselves individuals, we must acknowledge the impact of culture; we inherit thought language that shapes our perceptions and patterned behavior, including about issues of family and friends, and faith and politics.
To an extent, culture is a social comfort. After all, sharing a similar culture with others is precisely what defines societies. Nations would not exist if people did not coexist culturally. There could be no societies if people did not share heritage and language, and civilization would cease to function if people did not agree on similar values and systems of social control. Culture is preserved through transmission from one generation to the next, but it also evolves through processes of innovation, discovery, and cultural diffusion. We may be restricted by the confines of our own culture, but as humans, we can question values and make conscious decisions. No better evidence of this freedom exists than the amount of cultural diversity within our society and around the world. The more we study another culture, the better we become at understanding our own.
Environmental determinism argues that both general features and regional variations of human cultures and societies are determined by the physical and biological forms that make up the earth’s many natural landscapes. Geographers influenced by Semple and Huntington tended to describe and explain what they believed to be “superior” European culture (civilization) through the application of the theory of environmental determinism. From their writings, it does not seem that they ever recognized the inaccuracies of their position, let alone the arrogant, racist foundation upon which it rested.
Although modern geographers rarely discuss the impacts of environmental determinism except to note its serious flaws as a model for spatial analysis, its basic concepts were used by the Third Reich to justify German expansion in the 1930s and 1940s. Friedrich Ratzel, a German geographer (American geographer, Ellen Churchill Semple was one of his students) argued that nation states are organic and therefore, must grow in order to survive. In other words, states must continually seek additional “lebensraum” (living room). The state, a living thing, was a natural link between the people and the natural environment (blood and soil). Moreover, the state provided a living tie between people and a place. This application of environmental determinism, and Social Darwinism, eventually came to be more than a mere academic exercise because it was used to justify, or legitimize, the conquering of one people by another. At the height of European imperialism, academics depicted the tremendous colonial empires as natural extensions of superior European cultures that had developed in the beneficial natural surrounding of the mid-latitudes. The concept of “manifest destiny” was used similarly to justify the expansion of the United States from the Atlantic to Pacific shores, at the expense of indigenous people.
Although Ratzel, Semple, and Huntington never expected their ideas to be used to justify Adolf Hitler’s conquest of Europe, Nazi geographers and political scientists built upon their work to develop theories of Nordic racial and cultural superiority. Semple and Huntington wanted nothing more than to define the boundaries of their discipline and to explain the differences in “cultures” and “places” throughout the world. They were merely striving to carve out a piece of academic or intellectual turf for themselves and like-minded colleagues.
By the 1920s, environmental determinism was already under attack by people such as Carl Sauer (at the University of California, Berkeley). Nevertheless, many scholars continued to base their work on the belief that human beings are primarily a product of the environment in which they live. Frederick Jackson Turner, the American historian who eloquently described the westward expansion of the United States, and Sir Halford Mackinder, the British political scientist who developed the “Heartland Theory,” explained away the conquering of indigenous people by Europeans as perhaps regrettable, but nonetheless, natural and unavoidable (given the superiority of cultures spawned in the mid-latitude environs of Western Europe).
The Cultural Landscape
Carl Sauer was probably the most influential cultural geographer of the twentieth century. Sauer’s work is characterized by a focus on the material landscape tempered with an abiding interest in human ecology, and the damaging impacts of humans on the environment. Additionally, and of equal importance, Sauer worked tirelessly to trace the origins and diffusions of cultural practices such as agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the use of fire.
Although there is no question that Sauer’s contributions to cultural geography are of great worth, some also criticize him for an anti-modern, anti-urban bias. Even so, his efforts to correct the inherent flaws associated with “environmental determinism” significantly strengthened the discipline of geography, and cultural geography in particular.
In 1925, Sauer published The Morphology of Landscape. In this work, he sought to demonstrate that nature does not create culture, but instead, culture working with and on nature, creates ways-of-life. Sauer considered human impacts on the landscape to be a manifestation of culture. Therefore, he argued, in order to understand a culture, a geographer must learn to read the landscape.
Sauer looked at “culture” holistically. Simply put, Sauer regarded “culture” as a way of life. Sauer, however, did not fully develop an explanation of what “culture” is. Instead, he left it to anthropologist Franz Boas to debunk “environmental determinism” and “social Darwinism” and to call for the analysis of cultures on “their” own terms (as opposed to using a hierarchical ranking system). Although mildly rooted in “cultural relativism,” he was not interested in necessarily justifying cultural practices. To the contrary, he wanted to eliminate the application of personal biases when studying cultures (as in Mitchell, Don, Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction).
8.3: Geography of World Languages
Language and religion are two essential cultural characteristics for human geographers to study. Geographers describe the historical and spatial distributions of language and religion across the landscape as a way of understanding cultural identity. Furthermore, when geographers study religion, they are less concerned with theology and more concerned with the diffusion and interaction of religious ideologies across time and space and the imprint it has on the cultural landscape.
Language and religion are two essential cultural characteristics for human geographers to study. Geographers describe the historical and spatial distributions of language and religion across the landscape as a way of understanding cultural identity. Furthermore, when geographers study religion, they are less concerned with theology and more concerned with the diffusion and interaction of religious ideologies across time and space and the imprint it has on the cultural landscape.
Languages relate to each other in much the same way that family groups (think of a family tree) relate to each other. Language is a system of communication that provides meaning to a group of people through speech. Nearly all languages around the world have a literary tradition: a system of written communication. Most nations have an official language. Most citizens of a nation with an official language speak and write in that language. Additionally, most official or governmental documents, monetary funds, and transportation signs are communicated in the official language. However, some regions, such as the European Union have 23 official languages.
A language family is a collection of languages related through a common prehistorical language that makes up the main trunk of language identity. A language tree will have language branches, a collection of languages related through a common ancestral language that existed thousands of years ago. Finally, a language group is a collection of languages within a single branch that shares a common origin from the relatively recent past and displays relatively few differences in grammar and vocabulary.
There are various dialects within any language, and English in the United States is no exception. A dialect is a regional variation of a language, such as English, distinguished by distinctive vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation. In the United States, there is a dialect difference between southern, northern, and western states. We can all understand each other, but the way we say things may sound accented or “weird” to others. There is also a dialect difference between American English and English spoken in Britain, as well as other parts of the British Commonwealth.
Origins and Diffusions of Language
All modern languages originate from an ancient language. The origin of every language may never be known because many ancient languages existed and changed before the written record. Root words within languages are the best evidence that we have to indicate that languages originated from pre-written history. The possible geographic origin of ancient languages is quite impressive. For example, several languages have similar root words for winter and snow, but not for the ocean. This indicates that the original language originated in an interior location away from the ocean. It was not until people speaking this language migrated toward the ocean that the word ocean was added to the lexicon (a catalog of a language’s words).
There are many layers within the Indo-European language family, but we will focus on the specifics. Though they sound very different, German and English, come from the same Germanic branch of the Indo-European language group. The Germanic branch is divided into High German and Low German. Most Germans speak High German, whereas English, Danish, and Flemish are considered subgroups of Low German. The Romance branch originated 2,000 years ago and is derived from Latin. Today, the Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian. The Balto-Slavic branch uses to be considered one broad language called Slavic in the 7th Century, but subdivided into a variety of smaller groups over time. Today the Balto-Slavic branch is composed of the following groups: East Slavic, West, Slavic, South Slavic, and Baltic. The Indo-European language branch spoken by most people around the world is Indo-Iranian with over 100 individual languages.
The origin of Indo-European languages has long been a topic of debate among scholars and scientists. In 2012, a team of evolutionary biologists at the University of Auckland led by Dr. Quentin Atkinson released a study that found all modern IE languages could be traced back to a single root: Anatolian — the language of Anatolia, now modern-day Turkey.
Distribution of Language Families
The next question that must be asked is why languages are diffused where they are diffused? Social scientists, specifically linguistics and archaeologists, disagree on this issue because some believe that languages are diffused by war and conquest, whereas others believe diffusion occurs by peaceful/symbiotic means such as food and trade. For example, English is spoken by over 2 billion people and is the dominant language in 55 countries. Much of this diffusion has to do with British imperialism. The primary purpose of British imperialism was to appropriate as much foreign territory as possible to use as sources of raw materials. Imperialism involves diffusion of language through both conquest and trade.
The linguistic structure of the Sino-Tibetan language family is very complex and different from the Indo-European language family. Unlike European languages, the Sino-Tibetan language is based on hundreds of one-syllable spoken words. The other distinctive characteristic of this language is the way it is written. Rather than letters used in the Indo-European language, the Chinese language is written using thousands of characters called ideograms, which represent ideas or concepts rather than sounds. Sino-Tibetan language family exists mainly in China—the most populous nation in the world—and is over 4,000 years old. Of the over 1 billion Chinese citizens, 75 percent speak Mandarin, making it the most common language used in the world.
There are a large variety of other language families in Eastern and Southeast Asian. There is Austronesian in Indonesia, Austro-Asiatic that includes Vietnamese, Tai Kadai that is spoken in Thailand and surrounding countries, Korean and Japanese. In Southwest Asia (also called the Middle East), there are three dominant language families. The Afro-Asiatic languages are spoken by over 200 million people in several countries in the form of Arabic and are the written language of the Muslim holy book called the Quran. Hebrew is another Afro-Asiatic language and is the language of the Torah and Talmud (Jewish sacred texts).
The largest group of the Altaic language family is Turkish. The Turkish language used to be written with Arabic letters, but in 1928 the Turkish government required the use of the Roman alphabet in order to adapt the nation’s cultural and economic communications to those in line with their Western-European counterparts. Finally, the Uralic language family originated 7,000 years ago, near the Ural mountains in Siberia. All European countries speak Indo-European languages except Estonia, Finland, and Hungary, which speak Uralic instead.
The countries that make up Africa have a wealthy and sophisticated family of languages. Africa has thousands of languages that have resulted from 5,000 years of isolation between the various tribes. Just like species that evolve differently over thousands of years of isolation, Africa’s languages have evolved into various tongues. However, there are three major African language families to focus on. The Niger-Congo language family is spoken by 95 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa. Within the Niger-Congo language is Swahili, which is the official language of only 800,00 people, but a secondary language is spoken by over 30 million Africans. Only a few million people in Africa speak languages from the Nilo-Saharan language family. The Khoisan language family is spoken by even fewer, but is distinctive because of the “clicking sounds” when spoken.
In a world dominated by communication, globalization, science, and the Internet, English has grown to be the dominant global language. Today English is considered a lingua franca (a language mutually understood and commonly used in trade by people who have different native languages). It is now believed that 500 million people speak English as a second language. There are other lingua fraca such as Swahili in Eastern Africa and Russian in nations that were once a part of the Soviet Union.
Endangered Languages and Preserving Language Diversity
An isolated language is one that is unrelated to any other language. Thus it cannot be connected to any language family. These remote languages, and many others, are experiencing a mass extinction and are quickly disappearing off the planet. It is believed that nearly 500 languages are in danger of being lost forever. Think about the language you speak, the knowledge and understanding acquired and discovered through that language. What would happen to all that knowledge if your language suddenly disappeared? Would all of it be transferred to another language or would major components be lost to time and be rewritten by history? What would happen to your culture if your language was lost to time? Ultimately, is it possible that the Information Age is causing a Dis-information Age as thousands of languages are near extinction? Click here to view an Esri story map on Endangered Languages.
Consider the impact of language on culture, particularly religion. Most religions have some form of written or literary tradition or history, which allows for information to be transferred to future generations. However, some religions are only transferred verbally, and when that culture disappears (which is happening at a frightening rate), so does all of the knowledge and history of that culture.
The Endangered Languages Project serves as an online resource for samples and research on endangered languages, as well as a forum for advice and best practices for those working to strengthen linguistic diversity.
8.4: Geography of World Religions
Origins and diffusion of World Religions
Our world’s cultural geography is very complex with language and religion as two cultural traits that contribute to the richness, diversity, and complexity of the human experience. Nowadays, the word “diversity” is gaining a great deal of attention, as nations around the world are becoming more culturally, religiously, and linguistically complex and interconnected. Specifically, in regards to religion, these prestigious cultural institutions are no longer isolated in their place of origin, but have diffused into other realms and regions with their religious history and cultural dominance. In some parts of the world, this has caused religious wars and persecution; in other regions, it has helped initiate cultural tolerance and respect for others.
These trends are, in some ways, the product of a history of migratory push and pull factors along with a demographic change that have brought together peoples of diverse religious and even linguistic backgrounds. It is critical that people critically learn about diverse cultures by understanding important cultural traits, such as the ways we communicate and maintain spiritual beliefs. Geographers need to be aware that even though our discipline might not be able to answer numerous questions related to language structure or address unique aspects of theological opinion, our field can provide insight by studying these cultural traits in a spatial context. In essence, geography provides us with the necessary tools to understand the spread of cultural traits and the role of geographic factors, both physical and cultural, in that process. People will then see that geography has influenced the distribution and diffusion of differing ideologies, as well as the diverse ways they practice their spiritual traditions.
As is the case with languages, geographers have a method of classifying religions so people can better understand the geographic diffusion of belief systems. Although religions are by themselves complex cultural institutions, the primary method for categorizing them is simple. In essence, there are two main groups: universalizing religions, which actively invite non-members to join them, and ethnic religions, which are associated with particular ethnic or national groups. Everyone can recount moments in his or her life in which there was interaction with individuals eager to share with others their spiritual beliefs and traditions. Also, that same person might have encountered individuals who are very private, perhaps secretive, when it comes to personal religious traditions deemed by this individual as exclusive to his or her family and the national group. A discussion of these life experiences can generate fascinating examples that serve as testimony to our world’s cultural richness when it comes to different religious traditions.
Origins of World Religions
A significant portion of the world’s universalizing religions has a precise hearth or place of origin. This designation is based on events in the life of a man, and the hearths where the largest universalizing religions originated are all in Asia. Of course, not all religions are from Asia. The three universalizing religions diffused from specific hearths, or places of origin, to other regions of the world. The hearths where each of these three largest universalizing religions originated are based on the events in the lives of key individuals within each religion. Together, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have over 2.5 billion adherents combined.
Religion is often the catalyst of conflict between local values or traditions with issues and values that come with nationalism or even globalization. Religion tends to represent core beliefs that represent cultural values and identity, which, along with language, often represent local ideology rather than national or international ideology. There are some reasons why, but some include:
- Culture is often the manifestation of core belief systems determined by the interplay between language and religion.
- Universal religions try to appeal to the many, whereas ethnic religions focus on the few in a specific region.
- Cultural landscapes or language and religion are often represented in the physical landscape. When opposing forces come and threaten the physical landscape, it threatens the cultural landscape.
- Universal religions require the adoption of values that make conflict with local traditions and values. If the universal religion is forced upon another universal religion or ethnic religion, conflict may ensue.
- Migrants tend to learn and simulate the language of the region they migrate to, but keep the religion they originated from. This can be viewed as a threat to the people the migrant moved to.
Types of World Religions
The major religions of the world (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Christianity, Taoism, and Judaism) differ in many respects, including how each religion is organized and the belief system each upholds. Other differences include the nature of belief in a higher power, the history of how the world and the religion began, and the use of sacred texts and objects.
Note that some religions may be practiced – or understood – in various categories. For instance, the Christian notion of the Holy Trinity (God, Jesus, Holy Spirit) defies the definition of monotheism, which is a religion based on a belief in a single deity, to some scholars. Similarly, many Westerners view the multiple manifestations of Hinduism’s godhead as polytheistic, which is a religion based on a belief in multiple deities,, while Hindus might describe those manifestations are a monotheistic parallel to the Christian Trinity. Some Japanese practice Shinto, which follows animism, which is a religion that believes in the divinity of nonhuman beings, like animals, plants, and objects of the natural world, while people who practice totemism believe in a divine connection between humans and other natural beings.
It is also important to note that every society also has nonbelievers, such as atheists, who do not believe in a divine being or entity, and agnostics, who hold that ultimate reality (such as God) is unknowable. While typically not an organized group, atheists and agnostics represent a significant portion of the population. It is essential to recognize that being a nonbeliever in a divine entity does not mean the individual subscribes to no morality. Indeed, many Nobel Peace Prize winners and other great humanitarians over the centuries would have classified themselves as atheists or agnostics.
Religions have emerged and developed across the world. Some have been short-lived, while others have persisted and grown. In this section, we will explore seven of the world’s major religions.
The oldest religion in the world, Hinduism originated in the Indus River Valley about 4,500 years ago in what is now modern-day northwest India and Pakistan. It arose contemporaneously with ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. With roughly one billion followers, Hinduism is the third-largest of the world’s religions. Hindus believe in a divine power that can manifest as different entities. Three main incarnations—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—are sometimes compared to the manifestations of the divine in the Christian Trinity.
Multiple sacred texts, collectively called the Vedas, contain hymns and rituals from ancient India and are mostly written in Sanskrit. Hindus generally believe in a set of principles called dharma, which refers to one’s duty in the world that corresponds with “right” actions. Hindus also believe in karma, or the notion that spiritual ramifications of one’s actions are balanced cyclically in this life or a future life (reincarnation).
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama around 500 B.C.E. Siddhartha was said to have given up a comfortable, upper-class life to follow one of poverty and spiritual devotion. At the age of thirty-five, he famously meditated under a sacred fig tree and vowed not to rise before he achieved enlightenment (bodhi). After this experience, he became known as Buddha, or “enlightened one.” Followers were drawn to Buddha’s teachings and the practice of meditation, and he later established a monastic order.
Buddha’s teachings encourage Buddhists to lead a moral life by accepting the four Noble Truths: 1) life is suffering, 2) suffering arises from attachment to desires, 3) suffering ceases when attachment to desires ceases, and 4) freedom from suffering is possible by following the “middle way.” The concept of the “middle way” is central to Buddhist thinking, which encourages people to live in the present and to practice acceptance of others (Smith 1991). Buddhism also tends to deemphasize the role of a godhead, instead of stressing the importance of personal responsibility (Craig 2002).
Confucianism was the official religion of China from 200 B.C.E. until it was officially abolished when communist leadership discouraged the religious practice in 1949. The religion was developed by Kung Fu-Tzu (Confucius), who lived in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. An extraordinary teacher, his lessons—which were about self-discipline, respect for authority and tradition, and jen (the kind treatment of every person)—were collected in a book called the Analects.
Some religious scholars consider Confucianism more of a social system than a religion because it focuses on sharing wisdom about moral practices but does not involve any specific worship; nor does it have formal objects. Its teachings were developed in the context of problems of social anarchy and a near-complete deterioration of social cohesion. Dissatisfied with the social solutions put forth, Kung Fu-Tzu developed his model of religious morality to help guide society (Smith 1991).
In Taoism, the purpose of life is inner peace and harmony. Tao is usually translated as “way” or “path.” The founder of the religion is generally recognized to be a man named Laozi, who lived sometime in the sixth century B.C.E. in China. Taoist beliefs emphasize the virtues of compassion and moderation.
The central concept of tao can be understood to describe a spiritual reality, the order of the universe, or the way of modern life in harmony with the former two. The ying-yang symbol and the concept of polar forces are central Taoist ideas (Smith 1991). Some scholars have compared this Chinese tradition to its Confucian counterpart by saying that “whereas Confucianism is concerned with day-to-day rules of conduct, Taoism is concerned with a more spiritual level of being” (Feng and English 1972).
After their Exodus from Egypt in the thirteenth century B.C.E., Jews, a nomadic society, became monotheistic, worshipping only one God. The Jews’ covenant, or promise of a special relationship with Yahweh (God), is an essential element of Judaism, and their sacred text is the Torah, which Christians also follow as the first five books of the Bible. Talmud refers to a collection of sacred Jewish oral interpretation of the Torah. Jews emphasize moral behavior and action in this world as opposed to beliefs or personal salvation in the next world.
Probably one of the most misunderstood religions in the world is Islam. Though predominantly centered in the Middle East and Northern Africa, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world with 1.3 billion and is only second to Christianity is members. Islam is also divided into two major branches: Sunni and Shiite. The Sunni branch is the largest, composed of 83 percent of all Muslims. The Shiite branch is more concentrated in clusters such as Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan.
Islam is monotheistic religion and it follows the teaching of the prophet Muhammad, born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 570 C.E. Muhammad is seen only as a prophet, not as a divine being, and he is believed to be the messenger of Allah (God), who is divine. The followers of Islam, whose U.S. population is projected to double in the next twenty years (Pew Research Forum 2011), are called Muslims.
Islam means “peace” and “submission.” The sacred text for Muslims is the Qur’an (or Koran). As with Christianity’s Old Testament, many of the Qur’an stories are shared with the Jewish faith. Divisions exist within Islam, but all Muslims are guided by five beliefs or practices, often called “pillars”: 1) Allah is the only god, and Muhammad is his prophet, 2) daily prayer, 3) helping those in poverty, 4) fasting as a spiritual practice, and 5) pilgrimage to the holy center of Mecca.
In Western nations, the primary loyalty of the population is to the state. In the Islamic world, however, loyalty to a nation-state is trumped by dedication to religion and loyalty to one’s family, extended family, tribal group, and culture. In regions dominated by Islam, tribalism and religion play determining roles in the operation of social, economic, cultural, and political systems. As a result, the nation states within the Islamic civilization are weak and generally ineffectual. Instead of nationalism, Muslims are far more interested in identifying with “ummah,” (Islamic civilization).
Furthermore, despite the lack of a core Islamic state, the leaders of the many Muslim nations created (1969) the Organization of the Islamic Conference in order to foster a sense of solidarity between Muslim states. Almost all nations with large Muslim populations are now members of the organization. Additionally, some of the more powerful Muslim states have sponsored the World Muslim Conference and the Muslim League to bring Muslims together in a unified block.
Today the largest religion in the world, Christianity began 2,000 years ago in Palestine, with Jesus of Nazareth, a charismatic leader who taught his followers about caritas (charity) or treating others as you would like to be treated yourself.
The sacred text for Christians is the Bible. While Jews, Christians, and Muslims share many of same historical religious stories, their beliefs verge. In their shared sacred stories, it is suggested that the son of God—a messiah—will return to save God’s followers. While Christians believe that he already appeared in the person of Jesus Christ, Jews and Muslims disagree. While they recognize Christ as a prominent historical figure, their traditions do not believe he is the son of God, and their faiths see the prophecy of the Messiah’s arrival as not yet fulfilled.
Different Christian groups have variations among their sacred texts. For instance, Mormons, an established Christian sect, also use the Book of Mormon, which they believe details other parts of Christian doctrine and Jesus’ life that is not included in the Bible. Similarly, the Catholic Bible includes the Apocrypha, a collection that, while part of the 1611 King James translation, is no longer included in Protestant versions of the Bible. Although monotheistic, Christians often describe their god through three manifestations that they call the Holy Trinity: the father (God), the son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a term Christians often use to describe the religious experience, or how they feel the presence of the sacred in their lives. One foundation of Christian doctrine is the Ten Commandments, which decry acts considered sinful, including theft, murder, and adultery.
HOLY RELIGIOUS PLACES
Some of the places that in some ways contributed to the foundation and development of a faith frequently gain sacred status, either by the presence of a natural site ascribed as holy, or as the stage for miraculous events, or by some historical event such as the erection of a temple. When a place gains that “sacred” reputation, it is not unusual to see peoples from different parts of the world traveling or making a pilgrimage to this site with the hope of experiencing spiritual and physical renewal.
Buddhists have eight holy sites because they have special meaning or essential events during the Buddha’s life. The first one is in Lumbini, Nepal where the Buddha was born around 563 B.C. The second holy site is in Bodh Gaya, Nepal, where it is believed Siddhartha reached enlightenment to become the Buddha. The third most important site is in Sarnath, India where he gave his first sermon. The fourth holiest site is Kusinagara, India where the Buddha died at the age of 80 and became enlightened. The other four holy sites are where Buddha performed/experienced specific miracles. People who practice Buddhism or Shintoism erect and use pagodas to house relics and sacred texts. Pagodas are also used for individual prayer and meditation.
Islam’s holiest sites are located in Saudi Arabia. The holiest city is Mecca, Saudi Arabia where the Prophet Muhammad was born. It is also the location of the religion’s holiest objects called the Ka’ba, a cube-like structure believed to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael. The second holiest site to Muslims in Medina, Saudi Arabia where Muhammad began his leadership and gained initial support from the people. Every healthy and financially able Muslim is supposed to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in their lifetime. For Muslims, a mosque is considered a holy site of worship, but also a place for community assembly. Usually assembled around a courtyard, the pulpit faces Mecca so that all Muslims pray toward their holiest site. Mosques will have a tower called a minaret where someone summons people to worship.
Meaning lord, master, or power, a Christian church is a place of gathering and worship. Compared to other religions, churches play a more important role because they are created to express values and principles. Churches also play a vital role in the landscape. In earlier days and smaller towns, churches tend to be the most significant buildings. Also because of their importance, Christian religions spend lots of money and commitment to the building and maintenance of their churches.
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