Varieties of middle C culture

Where is the dividing line between “Culture”, the kind we are obliged to respect, and “culture”, the pattern of living that distinguishes communities? Is a kettle Big C Culture if you use it to brew Earl Grey tea served with scones? Is the sound of a Harley Davidson’s engine revving just a shared reference point in a few countries? What if the main character of a TV show syndicated worldwide rides one?

In an effort to tie together somewhat thematically different chapters on “Culture” in a reading book one of my classes is using, I’ve introduced the concepts of “little c” and “Big C” culture and had the students examine the situations outlined in the chapters through that lens. If the terms are new to you, this or this are decent explanations. It’s been interesting, particularly when we’ve had a venn diagram on the whiteboard and the opportunity for students to put their own candidates for little c or Big C culture up for discussion – for example, students consider LGBT (for some reason, they didn’t want the Q) to be Big C because the term has become well-known and, to some, emblematic of first-world liberalism. Contrarily, they consider karaoke to be little c culture because, in their minds, everyone has it and no one considers it to be the legacy of any particular country.

Needless to say (for anyone who’s lived in Japan), students’ opinions about karaoke surprised me quite a bit, as karaoke is regarded in Japan to be a clear example of Japanese culture succeeding and spreading around the world, alongside sushi and anime. This has raised the question in my mind as to whether the little c/Big C dichotomy needs to be amended with consideration for the fact that different cultures have not only different artifacts and practices, but different perceptions of the importance of those artifacts and practices. What is Big C in the country that produced it may not be understood as a national symbol elsewhere, and what is unremarked upon in a country may be considered a national emblem of it elsewhere.

Adapted from here.

(For the purposes of this discussion, I am flattening and homogenizing countries and cultures.  I recognize that no symbol is truly equally and universally shared in any political, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural group.)

Below the jump are my additions to the little c/Big C scheme.

Big C at home, little c abroad

A symbol of a particular culture can succeed outside its home in two ways: as a product and as a product of culture. By that I mean that something like karaoke can become very widespread without it being considered the property of any particular culture.  To certain Americans, the iPhone is an embodiment of American ingenuity; to many others around the world, it’s just a new phone. Nationalists are hilariously put off by this phenomenon; if you ever want to annoy the nationalists in your life, just pretend not to know or care about the origin of something that he/she thinks shows the very best of his/her volk.

Little c at home, Big C abroad

As far as I can tell, Americans don’t think of hamburgers as a uniquely American food, although many think that Americans (specifically, Americans from their family) are uniquely good at making them. In some other places, hamburgers are considered an ethnic food from the United States.

An interesting phenomenon to keep one’s eyes on during a long residence abroad is the promotion of little c culture to Big C as it people become conscious (sometimes overly so) of its unusual or unique character.  During the 12 years I was in Japan, this happened to omotenashi (“hospitality”), kanji (even more than before), and takumi (“craftsman/craftsmanship”). As happened to anime, oftentimes these words take on a exonymic meaning as they are elevated to Big C status – takumi no longer refers to craftsmanship in general, but to a supposedly unique Japanese type of craftsmanship.

Big C for a subCulture gets a promotion

BBQ enthusiasts in the US don’t really eat anything called “American barbecue”. There are regional BBQs which are supremely important to identify – Carolina, Memphis, Texas, or at least Southern (because I have paid for a year of COCA access, I have actually investigated this question – “Carolina”, “Texas”, and “Southern” all collocate with “barbecue” more strongly than “American” does). These regions are self-conscious about the differences between “their” BBQ and that of other areas, but for people who don’t care about the regional distinctions within the US, they might just get lumped together as “American BBQ”.

According again to COCA, “Korean” collocates the highest of any adjective with “barbecue”. It’s no secret that Korean cuisine, including BBQ, has gained a much more visible profile in recent years, but what is interesting to me is that it might raise demand for an equivalent national (as opposed to regional) BBQ culture in the US. Much like the existence of “the Orient” feeds reference to an “Occident”, reference to one country’s Big C national culture might facilitate the recognition (i.e. creation) of another’s.

Solipsistic Big C

Japan has 4 seasons. This is supposed to be something unique about Japan. Did you know that? If you visit Japan during the fall, someone may ask you whether your country also has one – meaning “a fall”.

Sometimes an idea or practice that is actually fairly widespread is “claimed” by one culture as its unique contribution to the world. This, of course, may be apocryphal or ahistorical, as national myths are. Solipsistic Big C Culture goes even further by claiming that the widespread practice doesn’t actually exist anywhere else.

The simple explanation for this, that isolated cultures may naturally come to believe in their own uniqueness, actually doesn’t explain this phenomenon at all. Solipsistic Big C Culture isn’t a product of ignorance so much as a dichotomous view of culture – it recognizes that others exist, but assumes that those others have nothing in common with us, and if we have (insert cultural practice here), they must not.

This can also be the natural endpoint of a process that begins with the process of naming described above, wherein “anime” stops being just the Japanese word for animation and starts being a word for a Japanese kind of animation. Separate words being a cognitive shorthand for separate concepts, once the name in one language begins referring to that culture’s particular version of that concept, it’s a short leap to the locally defined concept itself being seen as unique. “Here, we call animation anime” has changed to “we have our own version of animation called anime” and finally to “no other culture has anime“.

Nonexistent Big C

There are some cases where Big C Culture, almost as an emergent property of its Big C status, is actually practiced by a vanishingly small number of people. Classical music, for example, is probably considered important partly because only a small group of people have the ability or inclination to learn it. In extreme cases, a one-off news story or meme makes a permanent mark on a culture’s international image, even if the practice outlined in that story or meme lived only as long as the news cycle, was barely known or unknown in the culture it now represents, and may never have existed at all.

Sticking with Japan again, there was a flurry of news stories several years ago about a hot new body modification trend called “bagel head” – a donut-shaped subcutaneous saline bump that was incorporated into what you might call the “weird Japan” memeplex and stuck in people’s impressions of Japan far out of proportion to the prevalence of the actual practice. It certainly helped that people’s impressions of Japan are already laden with other oddities, some real and some imagined – this blip was made into a stain partly because people are permanently primed to believe oddball news about Japan.  It makes an interesting case study for the representativeness fallacy – there are probably as many actual bagel heads in Japan as there are living samurai, and both survive as emblems of Japan because of compatibility with existing stereotypes. In any case, it is the cultural equivalent of a sign put up on someone’s lawn without their permission.

…By the way, I’m in a pretty good place this semester in being able to discuss topics like this without anyone feeling slighted or upset. It has not always been so, but that is a post for another day.


4 thoughts on “Varieties of middle C culture

  1. Should there be a dividing line between the two? I would think it’s natural (and optimal) for differences between these related concepts to be fluid, and influenced by experience – an idea your discussion supports.

    Your example of American BBQ reminded me of the role of prototypes in representation, i.e. the view that categories are structured in terms of relationships among exemplars, with some exemplars viewed as more central or representative (Rosch & Lloyd, Cognition and Categorization, 1978 provides an early discussion of findings that remain relevant to current theory). Different individuals and/or people in different regions could be expected to encounter different exemplars and thus structure categories somewhat differently; at the same time, their concepts at any level should also be open to change based on later experience. For example, for me, as someone who grew up in the Midwest, Kansas City-style barbecue is the central or prototypical exemplar of barbecue; I didn’t know other types existed until I was well into middle age, and my limited experience is why articles like the one at ( are interesting and informative.

    So I don’t think it will be possible to draw a hard and fast line between big-C and little c because there isn’t one. These concepts, like many, are vague (Peirce, Philosophical Writings, 1955). Venn diagrams, which are based on the logic of the excluded middle (X or not-X), won’t be able to capture this.


    • The more I think about it, I think the whole concept is meant as a consciousness-raising tool for undergrads to get them to stop thinking of “culture” exclusively in terms of paintings and literature. Thanks for the comment! Hope to see you later this year!


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