IB TOK: How does the concept of culture relate to knowledge and knowing?

It is easy to so spot what is different and unfamiliar about someone else’s cultural norms, practices and habits, but not so easy to spot the idiosyncrasies of our own cultural narratives that we inhabit. From tattoos, to body piercings, why is it a cultural norm for men to shave their beards, or for women to wax their legs? Simone de Beauvoir exposed the fiction of feminine beauty, a theme explored in this BBC History of Ideas clip.

Culture is a central concept in TOK, and in essays and presentations you are invited to show awareness of how cultural perspectives impact on the question you are addressing. So how do we define and understand culture, and how does culture shape what we know?

Firstly, culture refers to something collective, artistic and intellectual, for example ‘21st century western culture’. There’s a cultural distinction between a person who reads popular tabloid newspapers over a pint of lager, and a person who reads Montaigne’s essays and drinks their tea from a fine porcelain cup. One is not necessarily better than the other, and yet culture can describe something related to social diversity. Bengali culture is a rich, high, intellectual culture and an example of this is Gitangali written by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. There is high culture (ballet, opera) and low culture (soap operas, and reality TV). Significantly Shakespeare’s plays which are regarded now as high culture would have been performed originally in a playhouse synonymous with the low culture of the tavern and brothel.

You might explore how our own artistic and intellectual norms impact on how we think, our attitudes and what we do. Since culture is not just a question of superficial taste – fashion and preference – culture is about the world we inhabit, the books we do, or don’t read, the company we keep, the influences on us. In this way culture is the world we inhabit as well as a choice we make or a preference that we have.

Secondly, culture refers to the attitudes and behaviour that belongs to a social group. Examples include a ‘culture of bullying’, or a ‘cosmopolitan culture’, ‘consumerist culture’ or a ‘corporate culture’ – each of them connote certain attitudes and behaviours.

There is an interesting link between culture, indigenous knowledge and religious knowledge systems. For example, in Muslim culture the tradition of zakat or giving, typically 2.5% of annual savings, which is neither tax nor charity, is one of the five duties of a Muslim, which has a clear ethical dimension. The Muslim narrative of ethical obligations to others translates into social action and helping those in need.

In Christian culture, the narrative of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is often interpreted as a call to social justice and to love one’s neighbour. The Christian narrative tells a story of liberation from one’s own false idols, those things that we think we cannot live without, and that we would elevate and put in the place of God. In the novel The Great Gatsby, Gatsby’s infatuation for Daisy lead to the ‘colossal vitality of his illusion’ and he utterly idolised her. The theologian Paul Tillich talks about ‘matters of ultimate concern’ and our culture expresses what is of ultimate value. At face value this may be youth, appearance, fame or fortune. In contrast to this, Christian tradition tells a narrative of agape (self-giving, sacrificial love for all people), personal transformation and social revolution.

Nigerian writer Chris Abani, in his TED talk on African stories comments that ‘the agents of our imagination shape who we are’.

To conclude, culture is often understood as the ultimate paradigm. If a paradigm is a ‘knowledge filter’ or ‘a model for understanding’ then it follows that the culture that we inhabit shapes the narratives that we tell ourselves. So what is the truth about our communities – family, school or our wider national or international community? What stories do we tell about them, and about ourselves?

Questions and Knowledge questions:

  • To what extent does our language shape what we know?
  • To what extent is our knowledge dependent on our culture?
  • Are there ethical standards that everyone should accept regardless of their cultural differences?
  • What stories do we tell ourselves about what really matters to us and other people? What are the stories that you tell and would like to tell to others in the future?
  • ‘The culture that the IB promotes, with the learner profile, CAS, EE and TOK are important precisely because they tell an educational story about international-mindedness and the value of breadth and depth of knowledge.’ To what extent do you agree?
  • ‘Our culture shapes what we know, and in turn we shape our culture.’ How far do you agree?
  • ‘We need to tell stories that that promote communication and narratives about what we have in common, that celebrate diversity.’ How far do you agree?

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