I have both a tag and a category labeled “culture.” I’m thinking of changing it, if I can only think of a different word. “Culture” is a very popular blog tag. The trouble is, bloggers who use it and blog readers who click on it, almost always mean only one thing by it: contemporary culture, perhaps even just the culture reflected in contemporary media; and implicitly, whichever aspect of contemporary culture most interests or offends them.
For us worldbuilders, “culture” means the entire body of tradition, shared knowledge, religious belief and practice, art (in the broadest sense), language and behavior that distinguishes a particular group of people from other groups. Someone who clicks on my “culture” tag looking for posts about the “culture wars” is not going to find what they’re looking for here!
So I need another term for what I mean when I say “culture.” Trouble is, “culture” is indeed the correct term for that whole field of study. So what else can I use? My thesaurus suggests “society” “folkways” “customs” “culture patterns” “civilization.” None of these really fits. “Society” means the same as “culture” to most people (the implied sequel being “…and what’s wrong with it”); “folkways” might do, though it seems mainly to be a label for preindustrial traditions and crafts that have survived into modern times; “culture patterns” still has that word “culture” in it; “customs” is too narrow; and “civilization” isn’t equivalent to culture. The Mayans had a culture and a civilization; the Lakota have a culture, but not a civilization.
What’s a worldbuilding blogger to do? I’m already trying out a change of the “culture” tag to “alien cultures” which should at least warn off the culture warriors; but it probably will also discourage fantasy worldbuilders, since “alien” usually is equated with “extraterrestrial.”
I may just end up breaking the “culture” tags into smaller and more specific labels: customs, religion, crafts, traditions, etc. That’s going to be a lot of tags! And some of those will still be lightning rod words, like “Religion”
Unless some brilliant worldbuilder or anthropologist can suggest another term that’s as comprehensive as “culture”, but without all the contemporary cultural baggage?
Update 9/11/2012: you can find a follow up post here, with a more in-depth look at synonyms for culture, plus a name for the process of inventing imaginary cultures.