culture & subculture

Bill Benzon (
Thu, 9 Oct 1997 06:41:04 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 9 Oct 1997 06:41:04 -0500
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: culture & subculture

A week or two ago someone in Salon Magazine's "Table Talk" forum posted a
question to the effect: Is African-American culture a subset or superset
of American culture? Here's what I posted in response. Any comments?


Let's say a culture consists of a set of traits, where traits can be
marriage practices, clothing styles, methods of pot making, speech habits,
etc. So we could American culture as all those traits exhibited by
Americans. If we wish to ennumerate this set of traits we could arrange
all Americans in alphabetical order and then, starting at the top of the
list, compile a list of all the traits exhibited by the people on this
list. Of course, many people have traits in common so there will be a good
deal of repetition from person to person, but that's OK. We want to be
inclusive and this exhaustive listing ensures that inclusiveness. In this
sense African-American culture is, by definition, a subset of American
culture, for African-Americans are just a subset of Americans. And so it
would be with Irish-Americans and Polish-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans
and so on. (Notice that we're now talking about sets of traits, and sets of
people, where the people exhibit the traits.)

But, who makes it on to this list of Americans? Are we talking about
American citizens? -- thus leaving out a large population of illegal
immigrants. Are we talking about long-term residents of the United States?
In either case we are surely going to have small numbers of people from
just about anywhere in the world. And that means that our list of the
traits of American culture will include traits from most of the world's
peoples, but many of these traits will be shared by only a relatively small
number of people. Including all of these traits within American culture
would surely counts as some kind of intellectual imperialism.

So let's go back to our listing procedure. What we're going to do is, for
each trait, list how many people exhibit it. For the trait "speaks
English" the number is going to be quite large while for the trait "speaks
Tagalog" the trait will be somewhat smaller. And so forth.

Now we can define American culture by setting some kind of trait-inclusion
threshold. That is, we can say that a trait is considered to be a trait of
American culture if it is exhibited by, for example, 90% (or 75% or 95%) of
Americans. Our trait list which defines American culture no longer
consists of those traits exhibited by anyone who is an American. Rather it
consists of those traits exhibited by some relatively high percentage.

Given such a definition we can now consider the African-American subset of
Americans and list all and only those traits for them. Note that talking
about a subset of individual people IS NOT, in this case, equivalent to
talking about a subset of culture. We'll probably want to do the
trait-inclusion threshold thing here as well; that is, African-American
culture is that set of traits exhibited by some percent (%50, %75, %90,
whatever) of African-Americans. (And, we also have to figure out just who
qualifies as African-American. This issue obviously interacts with the
threshold issue.)

Now, if if turns out that African-American culture, defined in this way,
contains exactly the same set of traits as American culture, then the two
cultures are the same. If African-American culture has all the traits of
American culture, plus some others, then it is a superset. If
African-American culture contains no traits that aren't in the Amercan set,
and doesn't containt some that are in the set, then it is a subset of
American culture. There is one more possibility, which is that African
American culture contains some traits which are in general American
culture, but not all those traits, and some traits which are not in general
American culture. In this case it is neither a subset nor a superset of
American culture.

I don't know which of these is the case, but it's the last which I find
most interesting. In any event, it is obvious that a lot depends on how
one sets the trait-inclusion thresholds for American and African-American
culture. One could, of course, play the same intellectual game for
Irish-Americans and Polish-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans and so on.

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA

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