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The Role of a Family in Cultural Transmission

Buy custom The Role of a Family in Cultural Transmission essay

Social transformations of recent decades cannot remain unnoticed in relation to the institution of family. Cultural changes of the Western civilization affect the nature and function of family, so it is obvious that the values transmitted by family are undergoing transformation as well. However, undoubtedly, family remains an important way of cultural transmission nowadays because the institution is crucial in society. According to a theorist Margaret Mead, family line can be a natural source of transmission of particular gifts, or at least can prepare prolific ground for developing them. Thorstein Veblen pays attention on family’s role in passing standards of beauty and fashion from one generation to another one. Goffman, in his turn, pays attention to the role of rituals in passing values from one generation to another one.

When speaking of cultural transmission, one usually means passing relevant information from one generation to another one. Because communication between generations is mostly concentrated within the unit of a family, it allows speaking about it as the most effective means of cultural transmission. As scholars point out, culture has multiple aspects, not all of which are transmittable. This means that cultural development is not linear and not homogeneous, which reflects in the fact that some beliefs or values remain artifacts of a certain epoch, while others last for many generations. The explanation for this phenomenon lies in the sphere of cultural transmission, which determines the future of any cultural object. As a researcher states, “ The transmitted culture refers to the spreading of mental representations from one person to the next. Other aspects of culture might be innovations that emerge in one epoch and are forgotten in the next” ( Schoenpflug 3).

It is also noticed by scholars that the more homogeneous society is and the more traditional it is, the more important role is played by family in cultural transmission. In fact, most of information is transferred through family in this case because of its cultural monopoly and the vast scope of its influence. On the contrary, the more heterogeneous society is, the more likely it is that a range of cultural agents will be more complex and varied. This is why it would be fair to state that western civilization undergoes weakening of family’s influence, as a person is open to many other cultural influences as well, including media, education and peers. Anyway, family is a co-agent, even if it works in correlation with other elements of society.

In order to determine the essence of information that is transmitted from one generation to another one, a term “cultural capital” was introduced . The scope of data which stand behind the notion depends on the approach that a scholar has to the discussed issue. Thus, some of researchers consider family in its correlation with education, so cultural capital is treated from social perspective in this case. This means that culture acquisition is closely related to the process of socialization, which is necessary to adjust to living in a particular society by adopting its norms and patterns and behavior. Many scholars believe that this is hardly possible through interaction that takes place only inside a family because socialization does not mean only dealing with the standards but also dealing with a variety. Only by means of exposer to a wider range of situations it is possible to acquire knowledge about which is right and which is wrong in a particular society, and to work out immunity against inadequacy. Moreover, some experts claim that narrowing cultural transmission solely to family can be harmful for society: “ The unenlighted society continues to insist on “cultural homogeneity” and strict reproductive transmission; in doing so, it fosters its own demise” (Schoenpflug 4)

In the context of cultural transmission, the carriers of transmission are usually distinguished. Family, especially parents, is amongst the most important facilitators of this process. It is also worth saying that depending on a particular culture mothers and fathers can be of different importance in this role. Other aspects such as gender and religion can be significant too, as they can determine the role of one or another parent in a child’s upbringing. For instance, mother can play a more significant role in relation to daughters, while fathers are considered to be responsible for sons’ upbringing in many cultures. At the same time, any child regardless gender has more interaction with a mother as an infant than with a father. On the other hand, in patriarchal society male family members might have more authority for both sons and daughters. Speaking more about transmitters, researchers point out that the effect depends on whether they are homogeneous or heterogeneous. So, if family values are in alignment with those of the whole society, that the effect of transmission will be quite high. On the contrary, when they clash, there will be ambiguity about cultural transmission and most likely a person will not be part of mainstream culture. A good example to illustrate this point is immigration: when a family is part of its native culture, the resulting bias will be more significant because the influence of a family will be reinforced by similar aspects of overall social environment. In contrast, when a family moves to another country or culture, there will be an opposition between them. This means that a child will be subject to influence from a variety of culture carriers, which might transmit opposite values. So, because of this ambiguity a new kind of culture emerges at the crossroads of several cultures. At the same time, the person will be more culturally flexible and adaptable to changes. Bilinguism is one of the aspects that reflect cultural plurality in such cases. Yet, another side of the situation is possible identity issues, when a person’s belonging is questionable. Torn between family and community, one can arrive at the situation when neither of the two cultural patterns looks acceptable.

Three types of cultural transmission are usually classified depending on the nature and hierarchy between a transmitter and a recipient: horizontal transmission, vertical transmission, and oblique transmission (Schoenpflug 4). In the context of family as a carrier of culture, vertical transmission is usually the case, as it covers relationship between parents and children. This way of passing knowledge is the most traditional one as it is the most natural one, or rather biologically determined, in contrast to other, more social ways of transmission. However, horizontal transmission can work for a family too, in case siblings or cousins participate in the process. Oblique, or indirect, transmission typically refers to other institutions such as school or nursery school. In this case teachers can work as agents of transmission, though they rarely have the same level of influence as parents. Yet, this level of influence can be close in case a person lives away from his nuclear family on a permanent basis, for instance in boarding schools.

The scope of cultural aspects is also different depending on what type of transmission is on the way. Vertical transmission, which refers to parent-children transfer of data, usually has the following contents: “personality traits, cognitive development, attitudes, attainments, educational and occupational status, patterns of upward/downward mobility, sex-role conceptions, sexual activity, attitude towards feminism, political beliefs and activities, religious beliefs, dietary habits, legal and illegal drug abuse, phobias, self-esteem, and language and linguistic usage”( Schoenpflug 5). As can be seen, the scope of aspects that can be passed from parents to children is very broad. At the same time, enlisting them as aspects of vertical transmission does not mean that they cannot be passed in other media too. The point about culture is that a person occurs in a number of cultural contexts simultaneously. In different ages and situations of one’s life a person is more sensitive to either cultural transmitter, so family’s role can vary. Margaret Mead points out that the chances having a genius occur more often in a family where ground has been prepared in a certain field for generations. Thus, for instance, famous scientists or musicians were often brought up in the atmosphere where their art was cultivated for at least decades: “Before Johann Sebastian Bach and Charles Darwin reached maturity, there was already a family tradition in which their particular gifts could flourish” ( Mead 183). This example demonstrates that genius is a sum total of genetic and social factors, which can equally affect a person in a certain environment. It is impossible to check now whether Bach and Darwin would be successful otherwise, yet the approach makes sense. At the same time, the generations which followed them were expected to at least take interest in the same areas and at most demonstrate the same talents. It is not that the descendants had no choice, they just undergone cultural transmission, in which a family played a distinguished role.

Another famous theorist, Thorstein Veblen, speaks about the role of a family in a psychological context. Thus, he explores the phenomenon of fashion and beauty standards as being part of family values. He believes that fashion that is often cultivated by parents in their children is a way of narcissism. In fact, he believes that there are suppressed desires that stand behind attempts of parents to dress their children the best way. Such values as status and urge to being approved as means of socialization are explored by Veblen. He believes that parents are involved in planting the values of consumption into modern culture through their children. In fact, he speaks about “leisure, waste, and consumption as also seeking to be liked and appreciated by others, as feeling very insecure, and as seeking conformity even  as he or she sought marginal differentiation  from others” (Mestrovic 8).

When speaking about cultural transmission, Erwin Goffman’s approach should be mentioned. He was the one who believed that rituals were not only a means for passing cultural values but also that they helped families survive. Indeed, he believes that excess involvement would not necessarily lead to a new quality of life. Sometimes ready-made patterns and acting through them are more effective in achieving one’s goal of effectiveness. In the context of a family, he states that “people’s engagement in the rituals  of  everyday  life  is  largely  consonant with their self-conceptions. With regard to the topic of family, in particular, we assert that it is not the motives but the actions that this line of research is most interested in. These actions, or performances, serve as the basis for definitions of situations and shape social life” (Collett 691). The scholar believes that there are certain roles which people play in a family that are dictated by tradition rather than individual influence. In this context, family roles are close to stage acting

Most typically, researchers agree about cultural transmission having two major stages: the first one dealing with becoming aware of a certain information, and the second one during which a person can decide whether he or she is going to absorb and integrate the considered information or not. However, this happens only in case when cognition process is conscious, while in many situations decision stage is omitted because cultural transmission can be subconscious too. It is also important to note that effectiveness of the process depends on to what extent a transmitter and a recipient is interested in passing the information. Either of the sides can affect the process in a positive or negative way equally. At the same time, speaking about the family as a media for cultural transmission, one can admit that parents are in stronger position until a child gets mature. At a certain age, it is difficult for a person to resist the transmission carried out by a family because of deep emotional dependence. Even though later, usually in one’s teens, a person can look for other groups to belong too, rebellion against the family does not decrease its influence. On the contrary, the fact of rebellion demonstrates a high level of significance and focus on the family, which cannot be repressed by demonstrative choice of other values.

As anthropologists points out, cultural transmission through a family can be useful but at the same time it can hamper a personality’s development. The reason for this is that there should be an adequate balance between stability and innovation in society. Whenever either of these two elements dominates, a crisis can take place. Family is a realm that is still more conservative than any other of social groups, as its main function is to transmit culture unchanged, which derives from its biological purpose to preserve the species. However, there might be some issues too: “The problem with “a learn from parents only” gene, though, is that its bearers will ignore innovations introduced by anyone other than their own parents” ( Rowe 196).

In conclusion, it is worth saying that family is an important medium of cultural transmission and no less important agent of transmission too. Scholars focus on different aspects which make family so influential. As a tool of vertical cultural transmission, family helps pass a whole range of cultural data, which is later applied in practice.  Speaking about family, one should mention that its influence lies on the brink of genetic and cultural fields, so several factors are responsible for shaping certain features and talents. Family can prepare ground for reinforcing a certain talent in a representative of one generation taken that other generations support it and even make this gift their family tradition. A metaphor of drama art is also used to describe the mechanism of knowledge and emotional transmission in a family. Besides, social discontent as a basis for fashion and implementing it on children is also discussed in the context of cultural transmission.

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