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Social Sci LibreTexts

2: What is Culture?

  • Page ID
    56356
  • Learning Objectives

    • Define culture and identify its defining characteristics.
    • Define enculturation and its relationship to culture.
    • Define and identify examples of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism.
    • Explain and identify examples of the mechanisms of cultural change.
    • Explain how culture is an adaptive mechanism.

    • 2.1: What is Culture?
      Anthropologists have long debated an appropriate definition of culture. Even today some anthropologists criticize the culture concept as oversimplifying and stereotyping cultures. This section discusses the concept of culture and its defining characteristics.
    • 2.2: The Capacity for Culture
      One aspect of life that humans and animals have in common is that we live in organized groups, or a society. There is evidence that some non-human species do have a rudimentary culture, which is learned and shared between members of their group. However, no other species demonstrates the cultural virtuosity of human beings.
    • 2.3: Culture As An Adaptive Mechanism
      An adaptation is any alteration in the structure or functioning of an organism (or group of organisms) that improves its ability to survive and reproduce in its environment.  All organisms, including humans, have the ability to adapt biologically. However, what makes humans unique is the extent to which we rely on culture to adapt to our environment.
    • 2.4: Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism
      For anthropologists in the field, cultural relativism is especially important. We must set aside our innate ethnocentrisms and let cultural relativism guide our inquiries and interactions with others so that our observations are not biased. However, anthropology is unique among academic disciplines because of the diversity of approaches used to conduct research and for the broad range of orientations that fall under its umbrella.
    • 2.5: Patterns of Culture
      Often, a comparison of one culture to another will reveal obvious differences, but all cultures also share common elements. Anthropologist George Murdock first recognized the existence of cultural universals while studying systems of kinship around the world.
    • 2.6: Levels of Culture
      Anthropologists recognize three levels of culture: international, national, and subculture. Keep in mind that while anthropologists have classified these three general patterns, it is acknowledged that there is variation within any given culture. Even at the individual level there may be differences from the dominant culture. While most people don’t think about their culture at the most general levels, these levels do impact us even if we’re not aware of it.
    • 2.7: Culture Change
      One of the characteristics of culture is that it is dynamic. It is always changing. We are living in a world where globalization has increased the speed that our cultures are changing. In addition to globalization, there are three main mechanisms of cultural change: diffusion, independent invention, and acculturation.
    • 2.8: End of Chapter Discussion

    Thumbnail: Maori warriors perform a Haka, meaning dance of welcome, for Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta during a Powhiri ceremony while visiting Auckland, New Zealand Sept. 21, 2012. The ceremony is an ancient Maori tradition used to determine if visitors came in peace or with hostile intent. Image used with permission (Publc Domain; Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo).​​​​​