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2.1: Cultural Systems

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    Imagine a tree as a metaphor for a cultural system—all the things that make up who you are. The roots of a tree are essential for the survival of the tree. They carry the nutrients needed for the growth of the tree and store nutrients for later feeding. Roots of trees are generally located in the top 6 to 24 inches of the ground, not too deep from the surface. The roots are impacted by their surrounding, and environmental factors contribute to their health and vitality.

    Just like the roots on a tree, cultural systems have roots that are impacted by their surroundings. A culture’s rituals, traditions, ceremonies, myths, and symbols provide it with the nutrients it needs to survive. Environmental factors can change a tree by uprooting it or letting it die off, making space for new life in its place. Similarly, environmental changes impact cultural systems, forcing it to adapt and change to its surroundings or transition into death, creating new cultural stories that carry new life.

    But unlike trees and their roots, we get stuck in our cultural systems and do not budge even when our surroundings have changed. Trees, like anything in an ecosystem, have natural cycles of renewal and rebirth. Sometimes this renewal and rebirth is gradual and gentle, while other times it is fast, disruptive, and violent. Trees, because they share their environments with others, will learn to adapt and allow change to occur, no matter what the direction of change may be. Change in their cultural environments is inevitable and a part of the life cycle.

    In similar ways, we can think about our cultural systems as part of a larger system. Some cultural anthropologists would describe the cultural systems as “big C” (macroculture) and “little C” (microculture). The macroculture refers to a larger cultural system, for example, Catholicism is a culture that is not bounded by geography. Within the macroculture of Catholicism are smaller units of culture called subcultures. Change is constant in each cultural system, and transitions, renewal, and rebirth are endless cycles. As cultural shifts occur in the macro- and microcultures, small and large, gradual and disruptive, the entire system learns to adapt in different ways.