Group and community identity, gender roles, the relative importance attached to different forms of authority and the ways in which it is exercised are all influenced by culture, i.e., all that is passed down by human society including language, laws, customs, beliefs and moral standards. Culture shapes human behaviour in many different ways including the status attached to different roles and what is deemed to be acceptable personal and social behaviour. In many cultures, for example, the elderly command traditional authority and influence within the family and community.
As regards sanitation behaviour, defecation is often a private matter which people are unwilling to discuss openly, while the burying of faeces is widely practised to ward off evil spirits. Contact with faecal matter is unacceptable to certain individuals in societies where it is the responsibility of low-income or low-caste groups, while taboos may dictate that separate facilities should be provided for particular social groups.
A particular cultural practice to be considered, which has direct technical consequences, is the method of anal cleansing used by the community. Whether water, stones, corncobs or thick pieces of paper are used will affect the design of the sanitation system.
Culture also influences how people interpret and evaluate the environment in which they live. Investments in sanitation seek to improve health by providing a clean physical environment for households. There is a logical series of technical questions that need to be asked in order that acceptable technical solutions can be found. It may be confusing, therefore, when sanitation behaviour is found to vary widely between communities within the same physical environment. Predetermined rules cannot be applied. However, the sanitation behaviour of individuals usually has a rational basis, and people are often aware of the environmental causes of ill-health. Many societies have a detailed knowledge of the physical environment as a provider of resources for curative and preventive medicine and as a cause of illness. More than this, they have an understanding of the environment, not only in its physical sense, but also in relation to social and spiritual factors. This holistic view of the environment permeates many of the cultural beliefs and customs that impinge on both water use patterns and sanitation behaviour. Some illustrations of these beliefs are given below.