Western culture refers to the cultural traditions, societal norms, and values of the Western world, which generally encompasses Europe, the United States, and like-minded regions.
The term “Western” generally refers to Europe and parts of the world heavily shaped by its inhabitants through immigration, colonization, or influence. But it is not a clearly defined geographical area. Instead, a state’s ideology is what usually makes it Western.
Western culture has roots in ancient Greece and Rome, and later medieval and modern Europe shaped it into its present form. Some of its central values include individualism, consumerism, democracy, etc. Due to colonialism and globalism, the values and practices of western culture have now spread to the entire world.
The dominance of the Western culture has led to cultural hegemony, but it is now being increasingly challenged by non-European perspectives. Moreover, western values themselves are now questioned.
Western Culture Definition
In his book Culture and Society, David J. Smith defines western culture as:
“the culture of the modern West, which is characterized by a dominant set of values, beliefs, and practices that have their roots in the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the expansion of European imperialism.” (Smith, 2013)
As Smith’s definition highlights, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and European imperialism have played a key role in defining Western culture.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in Europe around the 17th and 18th centuries. It emphasized reason and individualism with a focus on scientific progress and a belief in the inherent goodness of humanity. By doing so, it challenged traditional values and had a significant impact on Western culture.
The Industrial Revolution also happened in the 18th century. It was a period of rapid technological development (such as the steam engine & the power loom) that brought significant economic & social change. It led to the creation of capitalist economies, increased urbanization, and the growth of the middle class.
Finally, between the 15th and 20th centuries, European powers (especially Great Britain, France, and Spain) established colonies in many parts of the world, imposing their political system, religion, and culture on the natives. Imperialism had a massive influence on Western culture and shaped our contemporary world.
Western Culture Examples
- Rationalism: Rationalism emphasizes the importance of reason and logic in understanding the world. Its roots go back to the Enlightenment period, during which it became a way to break from traditions and promote progress. It is a central value of Western culture and continues to guide decision-making in most fields today.
- Christianity: Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, and it has played a defining role in the moral & ethical values of Western culture. It also shaped the development of Western law, governance, and the way people live. Christianity also significantly impacted Western art, literature, and cultural practices.
- Individualism: Individualism emphasizes the importance of the individual and their freedoms. It also has its roots in the Enlightenment, during which it was seen as a way to promote human achievement & progress. Individualism is a central value of Western culture, although some criticize it for promoting a lack of social cohesion and inequality.
- Democracy: Democracy enables the public’s participation in decision-making and protects the rights of individuals. It originated in Ancient Greece, although the democracies of today are different since they’re representative. Democracy is built on the idea of political equality, and it is widely adopted throughout the world.
- Capitalism: Capitalism is an economic system based on private ownership and the pursuit of profit. It developed during the Industrial Revolution when competition between private enterprises played a key role. Despite being criticized for creating social inequality & its instability, capitalism remains a central value in Western culture.
- Natural Rights: Natural rights are the presumed rights people are born with. The concept intends to preserve the fundamental individual freedoms of individuals, irrespective of nationality, race, religion, etc. This idea also originated during the Enlightenment in the works of Jean-Jacques Rosseau and John Locke. They are vital to protecting the dignity & autonomy of individuals.
- Consumerism: Consumerism encourages the acquisition of goods/services with an emphasis on consumer choice. Growing out of the Industrial Revolution, it developed in the context of 20th-century mass production. Many criticize it for environmental degradation and promoting excess, but it remains central to Western culture.
- Education: Education is a value that highlights the importance of acquiring knowledge for both personal & professional development. Western culture delivers education formally with a focus on structured institutions (such as schools & universities) based on an established & systematic body of knowledge.
- Mass Media: Mass Media disseminates information through media outlets like TV, radio, and the internet. It has its roots in the 20th century when technology revolutionized communication. By providing a platform to exchange ideas, it serves as a key pillar of democracy, and despite criticisms about its bias, it remains a central value.
- Syncretism: Syncretism is a value that encourages incorporating and blending diverse cultural influences. It is based on the idea that different traditions create a more vibrant cultural landscape and promote understanding between groups. Despite the history of imperialism, syncretism is a central value of Western culture.
What is Western Cultural Hegemony?
Western cultural hegemony refers to the dominance of the Western world’s values, beliefs, and practices over those of other societies. It can take various forms, such as political, economic, and cultural.
The West’s dominance gave rise to a western theory known as hegemonic stability theory that argues a single powerful hegemony leads to greater global stability and prosperity.
Between the 15th and 20th centuries, European nations like Great Britain, France, and Spain established colonies around the globe. They imposed their politics, religion, and culture on the people, which usually meant the suppression of indigenous culture and the promotion of Western practices & values. We call this cultural imperialism.
By the 19th century, due to the combined impact of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and imperialism, the Western world had become the wealthiest and most powerful civilization in a phenomenon known as the Great Divergence (Pomeranz, 2000). This economic dominance continues today, as many Western companies and products rule the global market.
The Great Divergence also led Westerners to believe their society was superior to others. So, they felt justified not just in conquering other nations but also in stating that their culture (including its literature, music, arts, etc.) was the best in the world.
So, political & economic power led to cultural authority, and even today, Western cultural products dominate the global art industry. It also led to Western values such as individualism and consumerism becoming synonymous with universal values.
This cultural hegemony is now being increasingly challenged through globalization, which has led to a greater cultural exchange and given a voice to non-Western societies. Many of these have also experienced economic & political growth in recent years, becoming more influential. Finally, activism & social movements have also promoted cultural diversity.
Criticisms of Western Culture
The main criticisms of Western culture stem from its role in imperialism and the attitude of eurocentrism.
Between the 15th and 20th centuries, European powers established their colonies around the globe. Along with economic exploitation, colonialism also led to cultural imperialism: the Westerners imposed their civilizational values and destroyed indigenous cultures (Said, 1978).
Colonialism was also linked to eurocentrism—the tendency to view the world from a narrow European perspective, even when that lens is inadequate. It often comes with a belief in the superiority of Western culture and its values, leading to a marginalization of non-Western perspectives.
This eurocentrism often leads Western culture to put forward its values as universally applicable. For example, individualism—the belief in the importance of an individual over society—is a central value of Western culture. However, it can lead to a lack of social cohesion and may not be applicable everywhere.
Consumerism, another significant value in the West, is often criticized for focusing solely on material possessions and ignoring other important things such as relationships, community, environment, etc.
Any cultural value will have its positives and negatives. However, the problem arises when some of these are said to be universally applicable. So, the foundational problem with Western culture stems from eurocentrism, which is also related to the history of imperialism.
Western culture refers to societal norms, cultural traditions, and values of the Western world. We talked about the three significant events—the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and European imperialism—that defined Western culture and heavily influenced the whole world.
We discussed how the West’s immense political, economic, and cultural power led to global Western hegemony. As Appiah rightly argues, this dominance has caused an erosion of cultural diversity and promoted a monolithic worldview (2006).
So, in today’s context of globalization and increasing interconnectedness, we must find ways to look beyond the dominant Western perspectives. Instead of suppressing non-European voices, we must listen to and provide a platform to them so we can learn from the rich diversity of human life.
Finally, we also took into account some criticisms of Western culture, which mainly stem from the history of imperialism. While no cultural value can be perfect, their forceful imposition—often due to eurocentrism—deserves to be challenged.
Appiah, K. A. (2006). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers. W. W. Norton & Company.
Pomeranz, K. (2000). The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the making of the modern world economy. Princeton University Press.
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Vintage Books.
Smith, D. J. (2013). Culture and Society: An Introduction to cultural geography. Routledge.