Diversity dialogue: America as a foreign culture


Photo by Nicole Guillen

On Jan. 31, 2019, a diversity dialogue led by anthropology instructor Ann Kos Edwards focused on America and its culture from an anthropological perspective.

Nicole Guillen, Managing Editor

“What is culture?”

Long-time professor Ann Kos Edwards of UNO’s anthropology department asked a provocative question to a handful of students at the Diversity Engagement Center. Those who attended the discussion looked nervously at each other. Edwards used their apprehensiveness as an opportunity to make the discussion more intimate.

She approached each student with a curious smile and asked more specifically, “What does culture mean to you?”

Edwards got a range of responses, from the predictable academic answer of “a set of beliefs” all the way down to what one wears. With these brainstormed definitions, she clarified that culture is everything. A definition she uses to describe culture comes from the father of anthropology himself, Edward B. Tylor. In Tylor’s famous 1871 book Primitive Culture, he claims that culture is “the complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, law, morals, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

Edwards stressed that culture is all around without us knowing it. Culture lives in how one greets others. Culture thrives in the steam rising from a homemade meal. Culture is embedded in each thread that is sewn together to produce a unique piece of clothing. Culture even comes down to the everyday things we use, like paper.

Edwards grabbed a simple white piece of paper and explained, “Hunter-gatherers didn’t have this. It was invented. All of what is invented is a part of material culture.” Simple things that are used to supplement daily life contribute to the culture that represents our society as a whole. Similar to the ever-changing status of trends, cultures change as a result of technology.

Aside from culture in general, the conversation focused on American culture. Edwards based the discussion on a class she taught previously that was of the same name. The class was designed to get international students well-acquainted with American culture while giving domestic students the chance to evaluate their culture from an objective standpoint.

American culture is commonly associated with individualism, freedom and diversity. The forefathers who wrote the Constitution this country was founded upon bled the concept of freedom. American culture once captured the ideal of the four-and-a-half family household with a hard-working husband and loving stay-at-home wife.

Now, America has been influenced by the millennial generation and its money-conscious mindset. Edwards notes that now more than ever, “houses are getting bigger while families are getting smaller.” Adults under 35 tend to value their careers and the prospects of increased income more than starting a family. Those who are hesitant to start a family are aware of the financial consequences of offspring and prefer to spend money on a good home now.

Like cultures from other countries, America is unique in style and behavior patterns. It changes from year to year, but it’s important to look for the constant attributes of one’s culture from time to time. The Diversity Engagement Center encourages further analysis on how our culture and other cultures are perceived. These discussions aim to evaluate our current culture and how it can serve as a safe bridge for cultures of different countries due to our “melting pot” association.