In his essay, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, Williams (2001), attempts to prove that culture is “a whole way of life” (p.6). He suggests that studies of culture should focus on the intricacies of communal life and the social conflicts that inform those (Williams, 2001).
In many senses Williams is correct, but this is only due to the fact that he is severely limiting his definition to cover only those aspects of human behaviour that are repeated so frequently they become conventional habits.
The term culture has several different meanings among which “a whole way of life”, though valid, is just one (Williams, 2001, p.6). Culture can also be defined as a common set of values and practices within a given organisation, as is seen in the term ‘corporate culture’.
This brings out the best of an organisation. Fairfield-Sonn states, “An organization’s employees and its key processes accomplish the work of the organization that yields its business results” (2001, p 74).
He goes on to explain this, “All actions point toward Business Results — a composite of customer, financial, and operational performance results, including human resource results and public responsibility” (Fairfield-Sonn, 2001, p. 76).
It could also mean a highly developed sense for fine arts and other modes of expression as in the term, ‘highly cultured’. However, the latter two definitions conform to societies in which the corresponding environment accommodates such a definition.
In fact, culture as a way of life is the more common definition across the world, to the extent that local communities in the remotest regions tend to have a word that means the same thing.
Culture as a way of life is simply an attempt by a group of people to adapt to a specific way of doing things in their day-to-day life thus making existence predictable.
The element of uncertainty is a factor of reality that man is especially averse to and whole industries and sectors such as insurance and banking address this phenomenon. To illustrate man’s helplessness in front of the future, Bonatti (1984) states as follows:
“The sense in which I am using the term is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain, or the price of copper and the rate of interest twenty years hence, or the obsolescence of a new invention… there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever and we simply do not know”.
Thus, man constantly seeks new and better habits that at first are his personal preferences, then shared modes of action with loved ones or a wider circle of friends, followed by a common viewpoint within a local community and finally, a culture in a society.
This makes routine activities predictable and the expectation of results reasonable. Common examples of this progression are evident in the Constitutions adapted by most countries in the world today.
Commonly referred to as the supreme laws of the land, these are simply customs and conventions that have become so widespread that they are adapted as a way of life for all the people within a given territory.
The same applies for every other subsidiary law that falls under the constitution; from the laws passed by parliament, local authority by-laws to the articles of association found in companies.
All seek to describe the way to conduct affairs in moments of agreement or conflict. Indeed, man’s attempts to define how things should be done – what results to expect – how life itself should be lived, often reaches ridiculous extremes in over-regulated societies.
The different realities that man has to confront are less obvious to him as he goes about his day-to-day activities. In certain societies such as those that are found across the Middle-East, cultural demands are so specific, they go as far as defining dressing codes, eating practices, socialisation between the sexes, etc (Maqsood, 2003).
In reality, these practices that are particularly common among a predominantly previously nomadic desert populace were originally meant to preserve some individual privacy and modesty given the unstructured manner of existence that prevailed.
This is further highlighted in the burial practices of Islam, a religion that originated in a desert setting, burial of the dead is often done as fast as possible.
There may be many explanations as to the social or spiritual significance of this but the practical reality is simply that, keeping a body for a long period without burial in the desert was undesirable due to the faster decomposition rates. As such, an issue of practical importance became a culture that soon even took on spiritual significance.
Clearly, many cultural practices are merely habits that became so widespread that whole communities adapt them as a way of life. This is in tandem with man’s quest to address the ordinary daily demands of life.
In the modern lifestyle, certain common habits ease life’s processes, making them predictable. The modern culture of educating children in schools has become quite widespread globally over the last century, such that countries even pass laws that forbid the denial of this process that is now a basic right.
Its purpose is to prepare the younger generations for life’s challenges. By being knowledgeable, today’s children know much more than octogenarians may have known 200 years ago.
This makes life more comprehensible for them such that they can navigate through society as better individuals, as Hayes (2006) explains, “The school curriculum should aim to promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and prepare all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life” (2006, p 59).
The other practise of shopping on specific days is also a cultural phenomenon that has caught on quite well, creating a whole industry of shops commonly referred to as supermarkets. In setting up these outlets, retail companies are able to tap into the habit of individuals and families to obtain their needs on days such as weekends when work demands are lowest.
The supermarket also enables people to obtain conveniently all that they need in one place, simplifying a process that could possibly consume quite a bit of time.
Seth and Randall (2001) illustrates this when they state, “Such markets as those which prevail in the towns of eastern Pennsylvania make the expenses of living materially lower than the system of expensive corner stores, whose proprietors the community supports because there is no foresight in the municipal policy” (2001, p 12 ). In a sense, this has become a way of life all across the world.
The most common habits within a given community become cultures that address the ordinary requirements of people who want to simplify life.
As Williams said, culture is ordinary and this is evident by man’s constant effort to turn his habits into commonplace actions, acceptable conventions and even business opportunities. The inherent reality of predictability aids this process and gives impetus to the permanence.
The primary method in which cultures evolve is by improvement. Whenever there is a breakthrough that simplifies a particular cultural practice or makes it easier to practice, the breakthrough is often adapted in place of the previous approach.
If the culture is an ordinary, common process such as shopping or other social activities, then the change may often happen quite fast since there are no particular arbiters to the matter except convenience. Cultural transformations are often contentious whenever there is a symbolic guardian of the system or whenever those who practise it are do not formulate alternatives that are more desirable.
This comes about in the case of traditional societies that practice female circumcision or child marriage. These habits are usually so deeply ingrained that despite their despicability, practitioners consider them a part of their identity and embrace them even if it is against the law.
When not given alternatives such as other forms of social initiation or economic alternatives, the offending communities always cling on to their familiar paths with the excuse that they do not know any other way.
Another way in which cultures evolve is by replacement. If an alternative or better practice totally replaces a certain ordinary act, the new process takes on primacy over the original way of life. This is evident in the globally common practice of having smaller families (4 or less children).
A mere century ago, no country on earth had adapted this culture. But today, with the increase in education, wealth, knowledge and information, many countries in the world are seeing a cultural shift in attitudes towards compact family units as East explains, “Population invariably increases where the means of subsistence increase, unless prevented by some very powerful and obvious checks” (East, 1924).
The realisation that as society becomes more prosperous, child mortality rates reduce drastically, has fuelled this change in mind-set. As a result, the ordinary household these days usually has less than 4 children across the world. Social realities have also significantly affected the cultural practise of large families in a conspicuous way.
More and more people live in cities rather than the countryside, where the normal dwelling units cannot accommodate the large families of a century ago (Bilsborrow, Oberai, & Standing, 1984 ). The cost of maintaining a high quality of life thus spurs many to have relatively smaller families
In conclusion, culture is part of man’s mind-set no matter his race, location, creed or even period in history. All nations have strong proponents of certain cultural practices whether reason or other motives inform this.
As man evolves, so do the boundaries, which define his cultural directions and the sophistication of the habits he adapts as conventional constructs within society. Therefore, Williams’ claim that ‘culture is ordinary’ stands on firm ground if viewed from the perspective of culture as a way of life that guides normal people in the day-to-day performance of their activities.
Bilsborrow, R. E., Oberai, A. S., & Standing, G., 1984. Migration Surveys In Low Income Countries:Guidelines for Survey and Questionnaire Design. Sydney: Routledge.
Bonatti, L., 1984. Uncertainty : Studies in Philosophy, Economics and Socio-political Theory. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
East, E. M., 1924. Mankind at the Crossroads. New York: Ayer Publishing.
Fairfield-Sonn, J. W., 2001. Corporate Culture and the Quality Organization. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Hayes, D., 2006. Primary Education: The Key Concepts. New York : Taylor & Francis.
Maqsood, R. W., 2003. Teach Yourself Islam. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Seth, A., & Randall, G., 2001. The Grocers: The Rise and Rise of the Supermarket Chains. London: Kogan Page Publishers.
Williams, R., 2001. Culture is Ordinary. In R. Williams, & J. Higgins, The Raymond Williams reader (p. 304). Oxford and Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell.