Published on 31 March 2006
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The concepts of Culture and Responsibility

by Edith SIZOO
Associated Central Topics: Cross-culturalism, dialog and multilingualism . Cultures and responsibility .
Associated General Topics: Cross-cultural . Culture .

In this article we will focus in particular on the relationship between Cultures and Responsibility in connection with the new challenges humankind has to face. This requires to be clear about the two concepts.

Culture : content and functions

In the course of the history of the social sciences, the concept of “culture” has been defined in many different ways. The working hypothesis of Network Cultures and Development, which was developed and tested with my colleagues in this international network during some ten years, was found to be useful. It proposes to distinguish the content and the functions of Culture.
The content could be seen as being formed by :

"the complex whole of responses groups of people give to challenges posed by their social and natural environment”.

The content of Culture is expressed at different (but interwoven) concentric levels which range from the tangible and visible to the intangible and invisible :

- Technical / material (all forms of technology, arts)

  • Social organisation (economy, politics, power relations)
    • symbolic representations (archetypes, myths, concepts of time, perceptions of the human being and of his relation with nature and the cosmos, the sense of life, values)

The three circles form a "complex whole" . This implies that all aspects of a culture are part of the whole and that there is interaction between them. (For instance : a funeral reveals a "technical" way of doing things, a way of social organisation and a vision on the human being in relation to what goes beyond his individual life).

The responses to the challenges are inherited (from ancestors), borrowed (from others) or invented by people themselves.
As the challenges people have to face are always in a process of change because the natural as well as the social context are in constant evolution, culture is by definition a dynamic process. People are shaped by their culture and are shaping it as well.

In this process of constant change, culture "serves" people by fulfilling a number of functions . Culture provides a feeling of belonging to others (self-esteem). It helps to situate oneself in a historical itinerary shared with others (identity). It helps to select between alternatives when choices have to be made and to define strategies for struggle which have been experimented by the group one belongs to. It provides a feeling of psychological security in the sense that those who belong to a culture know its implicit unspoken codes. But the essential function of culture is probably that a culture provides sense to the course people strike when responding to challenges in their natural and social environment. In English and French, the word “sense” signifies “meaning” as well as “direction”. The specific role of intellectuals, artists, poets, writers, and philosophers is to articulate this twofold sense, each in their own capacity. They thus contribute to a clearer understanding why their society functions as it does and how it orients its future.

All this being said, one should not loose sight of the fact that people nowadays tend to be associated with different groups and sub-groups each with their own (sub-)cultures, some being more dominant than others. And in that web of (often partly overlapping) groups and cultures people are on the move. Their position in that web tends to change over time. Depending on time and place a person may show a culturally determined way of behaving, typical of one group rather than another one. For instance : at home a young soldier will behave according to a family code which is likely to be quite different from the code of conduct in the army.

Responsibility: a twofold commitment

"Love, freedom, responsibility do not exist : Only the proofs of love, freedom and responsibility exist"
Jean-Claude Brémaud [1]

In the European languages derived from Latin the profoundly human notion of RESPONSIBILITY has two complementary etymological dimensions : the first one comes from the Latin verb "spondere" which means to promise to stand guarantor for something or someone or to take charge of someone or something. Parents stand guarantor for their children and any kind of (social, political, religious) leader is supposed to stand guarantor for the well-being of the people they are in charge of. In other words they assume responsibility. The second dimension comes from the Latin verb "respondere" which implies to account for the way in which one exercises the entrusted tasks. Responsibility therefore is a twofold commitment. (cp. J-C Brémaud). It is by definition a relational concept as it always refers to ways of behaviour between human beings, and by extension to ways of behaviour of human beings in relation with the wider world of living beings and nature.

The Historical Dictionary of the French Language (Le Robert) states that in European feudal times the noun "the responsible" (person) referred to the man who was bound for life to pay to a lord the rent of an ecclesiastical domain. In the XIVth century the adjective "responsible" refers to a person who has to account for his acts and for those he is in charge of. While initially the word was used only within a juridical framework, it became later part of accepted moral values.
In the XVIIIth century the adjective "responsible" is also used in a political context referring to rulers who are held accountable for their acts. The word appeared first in English constitutional law, and then more generally, to indicate the obligation of ministers to step down when the legislative body withdraws their confidence.

Comparing the two concepts of Culture and Responsibility one could say -interestingly enough- that both notions contain the idea of “responding to” (challenges, tasks). But, while culture provides common ways of responding to social and natural challenges and gives sense to them, the notion of responsibility points to more specific reactions as it includes the individual assumption of and accountability for specified tasks.

[1] Jean-Claude BREMAUD : Etre responsable dans un monde en mutation. L’Harmattan, 2005.
ISBN 2 7475 7855 0


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