Systems of difference have never been more apparent to me than after going through this course, however, I think it is hard to separate systems of difference from how societies make meanings of certain concepts. This is not to say that cultures don’t have fluidity (i.e. cultures change over time), and that one trait found in culture A can’t be found in culture B, but it is to say that it’s these differences between cultures and their systems allow for the diversity that is seen across the world. When someone travels from the U.S. to Brazil, for example, they can expect, and certainly will encounter differences including a different language, different religious customs/rituals, and different systems of exchange. To demonstrate this further, I want to focus on weeks two (race), three (languages), five (making a living and building a life), and six (globalization/interconnected world).
In week two, not only are systems of difference apparent, but also meaning making. This is the most apparent in terms of societal classification systems and race. As we learned in the video Race: the Power of Illusion and White: a Memoir in Color, race has absolutely no biological origins, yet in the U.S. and in some European countries, it is still the main categorical factor in societies. This, however, is not the case in every society. India, for example, differs in that it is not skin color that determines someone’s status, rather where in the societal spectrum they were born/what occupation their parents have. Japan is a mother example; they do not necessarily use skin color to distinguish their population, but rather age. The older someone is in Japan, the more status and respect he/she is entitled to. Societies also categorize people based on how they assign meaning to these categories. In the U.S., we use skin color because we have a long history of dehumanizing people of color. By doing so, it was okay that they were at a lesser status in society and had less rights. We made meaning of their inhumane treatment and their status, and therefore allowed for skin color as a racial category to flourish.
In week three, we watched the film Languages Lost and Found. Throughout this film, the director focused on the diversity of languages around the world, including both drumming and whistling languages, which she referred to as the lost languages. These languages, while obviously not commonplace, each serve a purpose for their communities. English is far different from the clicking language of La Gomera, however, both allow the occupants of the culture to transmit knowledge and stories to others. It is the differences in the language that sometimes makes it difficult to embrace other cultures fully.
The video pointed out further that cultural identities and wisdom are passed on through language, and that language gives clues about the culture that it emanates from. “How we make meaning of language, and how we use language shapes the way in which we view the world” (lecture 3.2). This is apparent in the example of gendered words in other languages. In the U.S., we don’t really have gendered words, however, languages such as Spanish and French make conscious categories about what gender an object is. This often reveals more about the culture than suspected.
In week five, we watched the film Pig Tusks and Paper Money. This film highlighted the differences between systems of exchange (i.e. money) and how these systems are used, but more importantly, at least in my eyes, it also highlighted how items of seemingly little importance can have such an impact on society. In certain regions of Papua New Guinea, the communities use pig tusks or shells as a form of currency either instead of or in addition to paper money. To the community, the shells are more valuable than paper money, which is seen as entering their hands only once (i.e. once it is spent, it is gone forever), whereas the shells are in a continual cycle. This system is almost like a barter system, in my eyes. This is obviously different than almost every other society in the global sphere, which does use paper money in order to obtain objects, like in a market system. This system is being threatened, however, by the global economy.
Directly linking to this is the video in week six called Life and Debt. While this film does not directly deal with currency or the use of items in place of money, but it does deal with the impact that globalization had on communities, Jamaica specifically, and the devastating that globalization can bring to areas that are not necessarily self-sufficient. This is the last, and probably most significant difference. While globalization is viewed as this great driving force, it often causes utter distress and chaos in communities that cannot afford to compete in the world market. We as members of the U.S., often don’t realize this, even though we can impact their markets.