Academic interest in culture flourished in the 20th century and still continues today. Scholars who try to define the subject often begin with the classic work of Kroeber and Kluckhohn who in 1952 reviewed over 160 definitions from the literature of their day. And as if 160 definitions were not enough, Kroeber and Kluckhohn went on to offer their own:
Culture consists of patterns … of … behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional, … historical … ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action. (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 181)
Since Kroeber and Kluckhohn, scholars have continued to revise old definitions and invent new ones. A recent survey identified 313 definitions in the scholarly literature comprising seven distinct themes! These included definitions framed in terms of:
- Structure/pattern – culture as a system or framework of elements (e.g., ideas, behavior, symbols, or any combination of these or other elements)
- Function – culture as a means for achieving some end
- Process – culture as an ongoing process of social construction
- Product – culture as a collection of artifacts (with or without deliberate symbolic intent)
- Refinement – culture as individual or group cultivation to higher intellect or morality
- Group membership – culture as signifying a place or group of people, including a focus on belonging to a place or group
- Power or ideology – culture as an expression of group-based domination and power
(Faulkner, Baldwin, Lindsley & Hecht, 2006: 29-30)
Given so many themes, you might feel like agreeing with Jahoda (2012: 299) who complained that:
more than half a century after Kroeber and Kluckhohn, and a literature that could easily ﬁll a sizeable library, the most striking feature of these deﬁnitions is their diversity.
But perhaps this laundry list of themes need not be confusing. Perhaps they are not even as inconsistent as they might seem. I am reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant.
Six blind men confronting an elephant for the first time, came away from the experience with six different descriptions owing to their different angles of approach. One blind man, reaching up to touch the animal’s broad side, concluded that the elephant was like a wall. Another man running into a leg, decided that an elephant was like a tree. A third man seizing the elephant’s trunk, proclaimed the elephant to be a snake, while the fourth man grasping the tail, declared the elephant to be more like a rope. Meanwhile, a fifth man grasping the ear was sure the elephant was like a fan, while the sixth man encountering a tusk was equally sure the elephant was a spear. Only by bringing all of the separate parts of the elephant together could anyone hope to acquire a complete and coherent impression of an elephant. Perhaps culture is a bit like this. Our concept of it is enriched when we are able to see it from many different angles.
Still maybe some of the themes of Faulkner and colleagues seem more basic than others, so in rounding out this chapter, I attempt a final synthesis bringing together the simple definition with which I started the chapter and relating it to the seven themes of Faulkner et al.