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British Culture

 

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1. What is British culture? How can British culture be defined? ...read

 

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Books recommended to help you understand British culture better

Recommended films, literature and music for exploring British culture a little further

 

How can British culture be defined?

   

It is by no means an easy task to define what British Culture is. Some people tend to see British culture mainly in terms of traditions and symbols : they might, for instance, use ‘Big Ben’ and the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace to define ‘Britishness’; others may simply describe British culture in terms of its component institutions, such as the ‘British education system’, the parliamentary system, food and drink, etc.

In recent decades, the Royal Family has served as a strong focal point for the nation, able to bring together a diverse group of people from different faiths, religions and traditions. In many ways, the British monarchy has been very successful in galvanising a diverse population within Britain and providing a common focus at special times. Yet there are signs that while the monarchy continues to be much admired across Britain, regardless of age, class and even ethnicity, its function is a changing one, and it cannot be used straightforwardly to connote British culture either.

The recent Olympic games in London, especially the opening and closing ceremonies, provided an opportunity to look again at what defines 'Britishness' and 'British culture'. Both ceremonies provdided a delicate balance between tradition and modernity, and took account of a diverse history, with multiple definitions of what it means to be 'British'.

The main issues to bear in mind, when defining British culture, are as follows :

  • National culture is not an ‘objective reality’ : rather, a nation’s identity is filtered through the perspective of its many diverse inhabitants. So in theory, there are as many definitions of ‘Britishness’ as there are people who are seeking to define it, although cultural groups often come together for 'big' events, such as the Olympic Games.
  • British culture, like other national cultures, is not readily reduced to a collection of established ‘artefacts’ or texts that have been arbitrarily designated as being valuable or important. It is, in reality, much more personal than this, and can be shaped by individuals and groups.
  • British culture is strongly affected by Britain’s specific history as a former colonial power and its passage through a post-colonial epoch.
  • Within Britain, the English language has many varieties, each of which is instrumental in shaping a slightly different view of British culture.
  • In Britain, as in other countries, definitions of national identity differ widely according to one’s age, faith and ethnicity, as well as one's gender, and the exact geography of where one lives.
  • The term ‘Culture’ is itself open to debate and interpretation : for example, does one mean ‘high culture’ or ‘popular culture’? What kinds of artefacts and activities are included within the term?
  • Affiliations in Britain are strongly regional and local, as well as national. This is particularly so for people within England. For example, someone who was born in a particularly city, town or rural area will feel a particular affinity with other people from the same geographical location – this often overrides any strong loyalty to ‘Britain’ as a homogeneous unit.
  • There are useful versions of British culture that can be articulated by movements such as feminism and Marxism.

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books recommended to help you understand British culture better

We recommend the following books, all of which take into consideration the fluid, malleable definition of ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’. All books should be available in most university libraries.

What’s it Like? Life and Culture in Britain Today 

Joanne Collie and Alex Martin, 2000. What’s it Like? Life and Culture in Britain Today. (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press).

This is an extremely useful book for intermediate and upper-intermediate students of English. The book looks at topics such as cultural diversity, and explores at the same time topics such as food, education, leisure, holidays, nature and the environment. Through authentic reading passages and listening texts, it is possible to build up a more coherent picture of what is meant by ‘British culture’ and how it can be observed.

We recommend What's it Like? for our pre-sessional English course.

 

British Cultural Identities 

Mike Storry and Peter Childs. 2002. British Cultural Identities. (London and New York : Routledge).

This book analyses British identity from the various and changing ways in which people who live in the UK position themselves and are positioned by their culture today. Chapters cover the following topics and themes : place and environment, education, work and leisure, gender, sex and the family, youth culture and style, class and politics, ethnicity and language, religion and heritage. In the second edition, phenomena such as Posh and Becks, Jamie Oliver, Big Brother, the Millennium Dome and Harry Potter are considered. Each chapter provides a very useful list of cultural examples.

Studying British Cultures: An Introduction  

Susan Bassnett. 2003. Studying British Cultures : An Introduction (London and new York : Rutledge).

This is a collection of essays which explore a wide range of critical debates on cultural identity and deconstructs the myth that Britain is made up of a homogenous people. The first half of the book examines how British culture may be studied in disciplines variously known as British Studies, Cultural Studies or British Cultural Studies. The second half of the book looks at developments in Scottish, Welsh and Irish Studies, and the roles of Shakespeare and West Indian literature in the study of British cultures. The authors show that 'culture' is a fluid, rather than fixed, unitary concept.

 

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films, literature, music, etc, recommended for exploring British culture a little further

 

When you studied the English language in your own country, especially if you studied it to an advanced level, you may well have been introduced to the writings of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, or Charles Dickens. Other modern writers that are often studied are D.H.Lawrence, Jospeph Conrad, James Joyce, etc.

There is of course nothing ‘wrong’ with studying these authors. However, it is important to be aware that they form part of a relatively traditional ‘canon’ of literature which post-structural approaches have more recently sought to displace.

With post-colonial times have also come more explicit studies of post-colonial literature, and other cultural products have also sought to displace an undue focus on literature itself.

 

Some cultural examples you may enjoy exploring.

Remember - this is just a small selection of examples. There will be many others.

 

Anita & meWriters that you may like to try reading are Anita Desai, Caryl Phillips and Meera Syal, amongst others. Meera Syal wrote a well known novel called ‘Anita & me’, which charts the growing up of a young Punjabi girl in Britain of the 1960s. This book was made into a film.

 


 

Bend it like Beckham You may enjoy watching films by the director Gurinder Chadha (her best known film is Bend it like Beckham (2002) – a film about a Sikh girl who wants to be a famous football player). Bride and Prejudice (2004) is also worth a watch. These films should be widely available on DVD.

 


Beyond SkinMusic-wise, it is worth listening to albums by Nitin Sawhney, especially the album Beyond Skin which deals with ethnicity issues through a mixture of Indian classical music, flamenco, drum & bass music, hip-hop, jazz and soul.

 


 

 

Saffron TeaIf you are interested in exploring poetry, you may like to read a collection of poems called Saffron Tea, edited by Kampta Karran and George Tolis. This is a collection of poems written by nine South Asian poets from the West Midlands. There is also a very good collection of short stories edited by Dabjani Chatterjee called Mango Shake. All writers are first or second generation immigrants in Britain.

 

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The text was prepared by Dr Gerard Sharpling.
Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick