Differences between culture, institutions, and platters

When people talk about the culture it seems like they are referring to a product. It is something you can point to and see its shape. For instance, the term popular culture conjures up images of the latest doo-wop band or a well-viewed film series or the latest forms of dance. It is the culmination of artistic products consumed by the masses.

High culture on the other hand tips a hat to a cappella choir singing St. Mathew’s Passion accompanied by a local chamber orchestra. Or to well-dressed patrons sipping white wine at an art gallery opening. The idea of culture summons up what there is to be consumed in a city dedicated to the arts. It is the experiential outcome.

Institutions also reside in the societal space. But the term emphasizes the commitment rather than the outcome. Political institutions are those dedicated to the appropriate functioning of a political system. The institution of the family refers to the rules and norms which enhance rather than detract from family relations. There are institutions which support the armed forces, or the justice system, or k-12 education.

Since institutions are defined by their objective, they are often qualified in terms of being strong or weak. This qualification refers to how well the society in question is meeting its objectives. Whereas culture is the end product– a work culture, a drug culture– institutions are the social goals people are willing to organize around and enforce at a high level. Yet both of these terms are used in the broadest sense. There is a vagueness of how it all works beyond naming the task at hand.

The one thing we can say about both cultural goods and institutional goods is that they are both public goods, in the modern sense. If a neighborhood has a drug culture, it may roam through all its streets. If a business has a paternalistic culture, all its employees will benefit from matching pension plans or flexible family leave. We are not talking about individual agents; we are talking about individuals who are just one in a group of many.

What both terms fail to include is any type of tie-in to resource limitations. And that is where platters come in. For the purposes of analysis, one must narrow down the view. One must pick a passion and a people and account for what they have to contribute to such endeavors. And once you do this it is easier to see how the competing interests in people’s lives only allow for so much dedication to cultural activity or institutional enforcement. The platter is a slice of communal activity to be placed under a microscope and analyzed.

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