Dimensions of Culture

Let’s continue exploring the question: What is culture? I hope you have spent time thinking about this important question and writing down those cultural dimensions of your life that have shaped and guided your worldview.

You’ll find that there are many different ways to teach about culture. One popular approach is to think of culture like an iceberg. The main idea is to remind people that the visible aspects of culture (food, clothing, language, skin color, etc.) often make up a small part of a person’s culture. There are also invisible aspects of culture that are below the surface and invisible to an observer. These dimensions of culture are more numerous and contain more depth. The key is to remember that people are more complex and complicated than we often realize. Assumptions based on the visible dimensions of culture often end up missing the depth and richness that culture bestows upon all of us. The iceberg may not be a perfect model, but it is another helpful way to think about culture.

Years ago, I developed a graphic to help illustrate 14 different dimensions of culture. Over the course of time and through many enlightening conversations, my list has grown and it continues to grow. I am aware that this old graphic is not all-inclusive. It does, however, provide a good starting point for our discussion about the dimensions of culture. Let’s start at the top and continue clockwise. As you consider each of these dimensions, be sure to ask yourself these questions:

Graphic with dimensions of culture

  • Ability: Do you have any physical, mental, developmental, or psychological limitations or disabilities?
  • Sexual Orientation: Do you identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender or questioning?
  • Time of Arrival in the U.S.: How long have you and/or your family lived in the U.S.?
  • Age/Cohort: How old are you? What world events have occurred in your lifetime that help define the way you view the world?
  • Education: How much formal and/or informal education do you have?
  • Religiosity/Spirituality: Do you have any religious, spiritual, and/or philosophical beliefs?
  • Family of Origin: What roles and rules did you learn from your family while you were growing up?
  • Skin Color: How would you describe your skin color?
  • Gender: Do you identify as female, male, transgender, non-conforming, or something else?
  • Social Class: How would you define your socioeconomic background?
  • Migration Experience: Did you or your family migrate to the U.S.? Why? Was it forced or was it a choice?
  • Language: What language or languages do you speak?
  • Family Structure: Who is in your family?
  • Ethnicity: What ethnic group(s) do you identify with?

I wonder how this compares to the list you wrote down. I learn something new each time I do this exercise and am truly interested in your answers. Remember, you can’t be wrong. We’ll continue to talk about the dimensions of culture in the next post. Until then, here is my question: did you write anything down that isn’t included in this graphic?

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4 Comments

  1. Steve Duff June 6, 2017 at 8:01 am - Reply

    Thank you Laura. It’s cool how you have described so many important differences beyond the color of one’s skin. Your definitions and dimensions have helped me understand that I, too, have culture. I think my family of origin has played a big role in who I am today. My age, ability, and social class I think also heavily influence how I see the world. I wonder… are these dimensions of culture changeable over time or are they sort of locked in for life?

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    • Laura Stanton June 6, 2017 at 12:42 pm - Reply

      Great question. We’ll talk about this more, but culture is certainly fluid and changes over time for some people. For others, it doesn’t change much at all. It’s another aspect of diversity!

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  2. Larry June 6, 2017 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    I enjoyed your iceberg analogy to culture. I had never thought of a person’s culture/total self in that way. Having taught in a large multicultural high school for over 30 years, certainly enriched my education and experience, allowing me to develop an appreciation for the different cultures of my students and their families. Having been raised by uneducated (8th grade max.) parents, I’ve had much to learn and am richer for it.

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    • Laura Stanton June 7, 2017 at 1:11 am - Reply

      When we have the opportunity to be surrounded by diversity, we can either shy away from it or embrace it. I also believe that being around diversity is a very enriching experience. I am grateful for the differences between us, but also want to remind everyone that we have far more in common with each other than we often realize.

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