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1.5: Final reflections

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    How does the simple definition of culture offered at the beginning of the chapter intersect with those of Faulkner and colleagues? If you go back and review the simple definition carefully, you will see that it encompasses items 1 and 4 from the list, with a nod to item 6 as well. It emphasizes that culture is a product of human making. It allows that those products can be material artifacts, or merely expressions of cognitive activities, i.e., thoughts, or both. A story passed along by word of mouth is a product of thought. Retelling the story to an audience is an action. A story written down on a scroll or printed in a book means that the thoughts of the story-teller are preserved in material form. In emphasizing that culture consists of elements, we have tried to reduce those elements down to two basic categories: thought and action. In later chapters, we will expand upon each category.

    Our definition does not rule out the possibility that some elements of culture, what we call material culture, can remain long after the people that produced it are gone, e.g., stone tools from prehistoric times. On the other hand, it implies that material artifacts do not come into being without human intervention. Somebody made the stone tools. And it leaves open the possibility that some elements of culture are behavioral; in other words, they are performances that require no props, e.g., shaking hands in greeting. Finally, my simple definition acknowledges that in so far as people are not solitary animals but live in groups, culture is a collective phenomenon. We will revisit all of these themes in the chapters that follow.

    As for definitions that emphasize culture as a function or culture as a process, my definition is silent. I would say, of course, one can look at culture from a functional point of view, or one can emphasize the processual aspects of cultural phenomena. But are these not secondary considerations? Don’t they follow only after some initial observation and description? We find a stone arrow head buried in the ground. Isn’t the first order of business to gaze in wonder at the object, to describe it and name it? Of course, we soon want to know: What was this used for? What was its function? In what ways does it fit together with other objects? And how was it made? And knowing full well that crafting a tool requires learning, we wonder, how did novices learn this craft, by what process? But in the interest of brevity, I have purposely tried not to cram every conceivable qualification into the basic definition.

    Looking over Faulkner et al’s list for other items about which our opening definition is silent, we also note the preservation of one of the oldest notions of culture, culture as refinement. With the career of Franz Boas freshly in mind, we might imagine that Boas would wonder how such an anachronism appears in our modern context. (An anachronism is something old-fashioned, something belonging to an earlier time and place than the one portrayed.) However, while Tylor may have been wrong to think that the culture of Native Americans or Africans was rudimentary compared to that of Englishmen, perhaps we should not be too quick to banish the idea of refinement as an integral aspect of culture. One could well imagine our stone-age tool master, for instance, becoming better and better at the craft and teaching others the finer points of arrowhead making. Indeed, human culture may have built into it the urge to perfection, and so the idea of culture as refinement need not necessarily be an elite pretension of either Western (or imperial Chinese) “high society.”

    Finally, there is the idea that culture is an expression of group-based domination and power. In my first reflections on this theme I was inclined to say that surely this does not reflect the most basic definition of culture but is instead an observation about a dynamic that might come about when populations grow and splinter into multiple groups that inevitably vie with each other. (Come to think of it, isn’t that exactly what a study of Neolithic China will reveal.) And so I may be forced to acknowledge that perhaps culture as power and domination over others deserves a more prominent place in my scheme of things, but for now I will have to leave things stand as they are, i.e., incomplete.

    To sum it all up, the English word, “culture,” has a long history, and it has also undergone many modern developments. In contemporary discourse, it continues to be used in all the old ways, even as it has acquired new meanings. It is a product of human thought and action. Some products are tangible and some are not. Culture is learned. Culture is passed from one generation to another. Sometimes culture is invented anew. Culture is the instrument by means of which humans both adapt to the physical environment and regulate their lives in groups. Culture is not fixed once and for all but changes in response to changing circumstances. Culture can be a source as well as an instrument of conflict. Culture is complicated.


    For Further Thought and Discussion

    Below are some excerpts of definitions from various sources, organized in seven groups. Keep in mind the proposal of Faulkner, Baldwin, Lindsley and Hecht that scholarly definitions tend to fall into one (or more) thematic categories:

    1. Structure
    2. Function
    3. Process
    4. Product
    5. Refinement
    6. Group Membership
    7. Power/Ideology

    For each cluster of definitions below, name the category from above that best describes the theme represented by the items included in the cluster.

    Cluster 1: Culture as _______________

    • the moral and social passion for doing good; it is the study and pursuit of perfection, and this perfection is the growth and predominance of our humanity proper, as distinguished from our animality (Harrison, 1971)
    • the attainment of higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations (Gramsci, 1981)

    Cluster 2: Culture as _______________

    • what happens when people makes sense of their lives and the behavior of other people with whom they have to deal (Spindler and Spindler, 1990)
    • how information is transmitted, particularly in teaching and learning (Bonner, 1980)

    Cluster 3: Culture as ________________

    • a community or population sufficiently large enough to be self-sustaining, i.e., large enough to produce new generations of members without relying on outside people (Jandt, 2016)
    • people who share learned patterns of behavior (Winkelman, 1993)

    Cluster 4: Culture as ________________

    • a contested zone in which different groups struggle to define issues in their own interests (Moon, 2002)
    • a field on which a cacophonous cluster of diverse voices plays itself out (Shore, 1996)

    Cluster 5: Culture as ________________

    • the deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving (Samovar and Porter, 1991)
    • an organized group of learned responses characteristic of a particular society (Linton, 1955)
    • a commonly shared system of symbols, the meanings of which are understood on both sides with an approximation to agreement (Parsons, 1964)

    Cluster 6: Culture as ________________

    • that which gives people a sense of who they are, of belonging, of how they should behave, and of what they should be doing (Harris & Moran, 1996)
    • means and mechanisms through which the general biological nature of the individuals comprising the society is regulated, their behavior is programmed and directed … (Markarian, 1973)

    Cluster 7: Culture as _________________

    • the artifacts that are produced by society, e.g., clothing, food, technology, etc. (Barnett & Kincaid, 1983)
    • popular production of images . . . as part of a larger process which . . . may be called popular culture (Fabian, 1999)


    Arnold, M. (1896). Literature and dogma. (Preface). New York, NY: The Macmillan Co.

    Baldwin, J. R., Faulkner, S. L., Hecht, M. L. & Lindsley, S. L. (Eds.), (2006). Redefining culture: Perspectives across the disciplines. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Billington, R. A. (1985). Land of savagery, land of promise: The European image of the American frontier in the nineteenth century. University of Oklahoma Press.

    Dikötter, F. (1992). Discourse of race in modern China. Stanford University Press.

    Faulkner, S. L., Baldwin, J. R., Lindsley, S. L. & Hecht, M. L. (2006). Layers of meaning: An analysis of definitions of culture. In Redefining culture: Perspectives across the disciplines. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Franz Boas. (2017, June 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

    Goddard, C. (2005). The lexical semantics of ‘culture’. Language Sciences, 27, 51–73.

    Jahoda, G. (2012). Critical reflections on some recent definitions of ‘‘culture.’’ Culture & Psychology, 18(3), 289–303.

    Kroeber, A. L., & Kluckhohn, C. (1952). Culture: A critical review of concepts and definitions. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum.

    Liron, T. (2003). Franz Boas and the discovery of culture. Senior Honors Thesis, Amherst College.

    Tylor, E. B. (1871/1958). The origins of culture. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

    Image Attribution

    Image 1: “Edward Burnett Tylor” by The GNU Project is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

    Image 2: “Franz Boas” from the Canadian Museum of Civilization is licensed under Public Domain-1923

    Image 3: “Blind monks examining an elephant” from Wikimedia Commons is licensed under Public Domain-1923

    This page titled 1.5: Final reflections is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Nolan Weil (Rebus Community) .

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