There are nowadays a number of reasons to encourage sociologists to study culture in order to seek a deeper understanding of the nature and manifestations of culture in the behaviour of individuals and societies. Globalisation has become a hot topic for all at the beginning of the twenty-first century (al-Khuli 2000, p.515). In today’s world, economic globalisation is particularly prominent. But it is no exaggeration to say that most people on the five continents feel that cultural globalisation is even more present. The information and communication revolutions naturally play a decisive role in the greater prevalence of communication, which serves to disseminate the hallmarks of cultural globalisation to all corners of the globe, east, west, north and south.
With regard to specialised branches of sociology, the study of culture is today one of the most prominent, leading to the emergence in this discipline of a field known as cultural studies, which focuses on the study of the cultural manifestations of human groups (During 1999, p.610; Long 1997, p.529).
With regard to the cutting-edge fields in both psychology and sociology, we find, on the one hand, cognitive psychology (which is closely concerned with the individual, above all as a cultural being) which is a pioneering branch of psychology (Martin and Rumelhart 1999, p.391); and on the other hand, we find the branch of cultural sociology increasingly prominent among sociologists (Bonnel and Hunt 1999, p.350).
These factors alone confer legitimacy on efforts to devote greater attention to the study of culture and its contribution in order to highlight certain aspects that have been neglected by contemporary social science research. As we shall see, these are aspects of crucial importance for undertaking in-depth research on the essence of culture, which is the prime characteristic of the human race, and which has given it pre-eminence in the universe.
Subject and purpose of this study
Such a methodology will naturally prompt us to compare the concept of culture as seen from the Islamic epistemological viewpoint and from its western equivalent. Comparative studies frequently shed fresh light on phenomena that may be difficult for the social sciences to understand and explain, and thus help scientific knowledge to move forward. This is the primary goal that the researcher seeks to attain. Our ambition here is above all to help to build a solid background for what has been called culturology (White and Dillingham 1973, pp.32–33) which, in our view requires a critical examination encompassing epistemology, theories and concepts.
This study is aimed at carrying out in-depth basic research on the essence and foundations of culture from an Islamic epistemological viewpoint, which differs from its equivalents in the contemporary social sciences. However, that cannot be accomplished without addressing the concept of culture in contemporary western sociological literature, which has been investigating culture and its manifestations since the nineteenth century, especially by means of anthropology and sociology.
The fogginess of definitions of culture in the social sciences
Anthropologists and sociologists have numerous definitions of the concept of culture. This suggests at least two things: either that culture is difficult to define, particularly when using the positivist criteria of sociology, or that culture is a phenomenon that is in itself complex.
We limit ourselves here to three definitions from anthropology and sociology. The most famous definition of the concept of culture was given by the British anthropologist Edward B. Tylor in Primitive culture (1871): ‘‘Culture, or civilisation, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’’ (quoted in Encyclopedia of sociology 1974, p.69).
The American anthropologist Leslie White connects the concept of culture among human beings to their ability to imbue things with meaning, which he calls the ability to symbol. This allows individuals to understand the meaning of things and also how they were created and how they are used (White and Dillingham 1973, p.29). This ability in individuals is then defined as culture (White and Dillingham 1973, p.9) and there is no individual without culture, and no culture without individuals (White and Dillingham 1973, pp. 15–16).
According to the renowned anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, his American colleagues who studied culture and personality failed to give a conclusive and clear definition of the nature of culture. In his view, the debate on the matter remains open, despite the work of anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, Ralph Linton, Abram Kardiner, and Franz Boas (Cuche 1996, p.117). Furthermore, for some the problem is not only the absence of a credible anthropological definition of culture, but rather, serious questions about the difficulty of studying culture in the spirit of modern science and using its methodology. Radcliffe-Brown was of the view that culture does not have a material presence, but rather a very abstract presence. On that basis, others like him wonder how there can be a science of something that cannot be seen, since there can be no science based on a reality which is neither perceptible nor visible (White and Dillingham 1973, p.26).
For some anthropologists, the difficulty of studying culture goes beyond its definition to encompass other important aspects, such as: does culture exist? Where is culture to be found? There have been various answers to these questions. Some authors have claimed that it is to be found in the mind; others believe that culture is found in behaviour, and yet others say that culture is a manifestation which is separate from of behaviour, and there are even those who deny the existence of culture altogether. White holds that culture is located at three different levels: within humans, such as in their thoughts and feelings, in interpersonal behaviour, and in objects, in accordance with his concept that culture consists of objects and actual events that may be observed.
Sociologists, on the other hand, have narrowed down the scope of the term ‘‘culture’’, which they take to mean what they call the main ideas of society. These include the beliefs, symbols, values and customs of society. This standard sociological definition of culture is current, for instance, in the most US sociology textbooks aimed at university students.
The foregoing brief survey of the concept of culture, in particular in modern anthropology, shows that the notion of culture remains opaque and is almost completely silent about what we wish here to call the metaphysical aspects (Dhaouadi 1997) of cultural elements, or what we call cultural symbols, which are language, thought, belief, knowledge, values, cultural usages and myths. In this study we use the concept of cultural symbols as a synonym for the concept of culture widely used in modern social science. For us and for most researchers in the social sciences cultural symbols represent the main elements that distinguish the human race from other living species.
There is, for instance, an almost complete failure on the part of contemporary anthropologists and sociologists to address the metaphysical nature of cultural symbols. Only with a small minority of scholars do we find rare and ambiguous terms suggesting that culture is a super-organic human element, as affirmed by the sociologist Herbert Spencer and by Kroeber (White and Dillingham 1973, p.47), or that it is non-biological, as suggested by Tylor, or ‘‘extrasomatic’’, following White or external and ‘‘supra-biological’’, to use a term adopted by a number of sociologists.
These few, timid suggestions that culture is a super-organic and super-biological element remain ambiguous with regard to the nature and essence of the cultural symbols that characterize the human race. Things are little better when some anthropologists and sociologists see culture as an ‘‘abstraction’’ (White and Dillingham, 1973, p.24) or as something that ‘‘has no ontological reality’’ (1973, p.26). Given the general failure to clarify these terms, contemporary social science literature is devoid of epistemological theories of the system of cultural symbols. The tremendous intellectual fund of knowledge accumulated by the modern social sciences on culture remains content to describe cultural elements. Indeed, most anthropologists and sociologists agree that the world of culture differs from the world of human biology, as suggested by the terms used above. Therefore, culture, as a contemporary western concept widely used in the social sciences in particular, is not dealt with using the metaphysical point of view that we find in the Islamic approach.
In view of the neglect and absence of metaphysical touches in cultural symbols, contemporary social science is hardly objective, in the sense of a cognitive state that allows one to ascertain the truth as such quite independently of the mind of the researcher, unmarred by prior emotions, values, concepts or desires (Fay 2001, pp.202–220). The presence of metaphysical hallmarks, as will be shown, is an inherent truth that lies at the core of cultural symbols. The various individual and social factors affecting the minds of western researchers in the social sciences have prevented them from undertaking analyses and studies of culture from an epistemological viewpoint that gives full legitimacy to the presence of metaphysical touches. Thus, the tremendous body of knowledge accumulated by those sciences since the nineteenth century offers a deficient reality of the true specifications of cultural symbols. Western social science ultimately says more about itself than it does about the inherent reality of culture.