Culture is a concept that often invokes thoughts of a Monet, a Mozart symphony, or ballerinas in tutus dancing in a production of Swan Lake. In popular vernacular, culture often refers to the arts; a person that is cultured has knowledge of and is a patron of the arts. Then there is pop culture such as what trends are current and hip. Within anthropology, these things are simply aspects of culture. To understand the anthropological concept of culture, we need to think broader and holistically.
Anthropologists have long debated an appropriate definition of culture. Even today some anthropologists criticize the culture concept as oversimplifying and stereotyping cultures, which will be discussed more below. The first anthropological definition of culture comes from 19th-century British anthropologist Edward Tylor:
Culture...is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society (Tylor 1920 , 1).
It is probably the most enduring definition of culture even though it relates more to the specifics, or particulars, of cultural groups. As Bohannan and Glazer (1988) comment in High Points in Anthropology, "...[it is the definition] most anthropologists can quote correctly, and the one they fall back on when others prove too cumbersome" (62). Tylor, echoing the French idea of civilization progressing from a barbaric state to “science, secularism, and rational thought” (Beldo 2010), believed that all human culture passed through stages of development with the pinnacle being that of 19th-century England. He believed, as many others of his time period did, that all other cultures were inherently inferior. Franz Boas, a German American anthropologist, challenged Tylor’s approach. He drew on the German concept of kultur, local and personal behaviors and traditions, to develop his ideas about culture. Boas thought that cultures did not follow a linear progression as espoused by cultural evolutionists like Tylor, but developed in different directions based on historical events. Boas took years to develop a working definition of culture, but it is one that influences anthropologists to this day. Culture is an integrated system of symbols, ideas and values that should be studied as a working system and an organic whole (Kuper 1999).
One way to think about culture is to break down the concept into two distinct categories: the Big C and the little c. The Big C is an overarching general concept that can be applied to all culture groups; it is the anthropological concept. The little c is the particulars of a specific cultural group, such as American culture. Over time, anthropologists learned that including specifics when attempting to define culture (the big C) limited that definition. In other words, the definition would not apply to all cultures. Anthropologists began to develop a definition that could be applied more broadly.
Culture (the little c), as mentioned above, is the particulars of any given cultural group. For instance, the marriage or subsistence pattern of a group of people. Specific traditions and rituals that many people associate with a cultural, would fall into the little c. A good portion of this book is devoted to examining the various manifestations of social institutions, or some of a cultural group's particulars. This chapter focuses on the Big C, culture as an overarching anthropological concept. Since there are so many definitions for culture, this text will use the broad definition proposed by Lara Braff and Katie Nelson (2020); culture is "a set of beliefs, practices, and symbols that are learned and shared. Together, they form an all-encompassing, integrated whole that binds people together and shapes their worldview and lifeways" (6).
A set of beliefs, practices, and symbols that are learned and shared. Together, they form an all-encompassing, integrated whole that binds people together and shapes their worldview and lifeways.
All the mental aspects of culture including values, norms, philosophies, worldviews, knowledge, and so forth.
Behaviors and actions that may be motivated by belief or performed without reflection as part of everyday routines.
Although there are many definitions of culture, there are common themes that run through them all. Namely, culture is learned, shared, symbolic, holistic, dynamic, integrated, and adaptive. Each of these characteristics is expanded upon below and will we will take a closer look at some of them in later sections and chapters of this book.
While we are not born with a particular culture, we are born with the capacity to learn any culture. Through the process of enculturation, we learn to become members of our group both directly, through instruction from our parents and peers, and indirectly by observing and imitating those around us.
To say that a group of people shares a culture does not mean all individuals think or act in identical ways. One’s beliefs and practices can vary within a culture depending on age, gender, social status, and other characteristics.
Much like art and language, culture is also symbolic. A symbol is something, verbal or non-verbal, that stands for something else, often without an obvious or natural connection. Individuals create, interpret, and share the meanings of symbols within their group or the larger society. For example, in U.S. society everyone recognizes a red octagonal sign as signifying “stop.” In other cases, groups within American society interpret the same symbol in different ways. For example, take the Confederate flag. Some people see it as a symbol of pride in a southern heritage. Many others see it as a symbol of the long legacy of slavery, segregation, and racial oppression. Thus, displaying the Confederate flag could have positive or, more often, negative connotations. Cultural symbols powerfully convey either shared or conflicting meanings across space and time.
Something, verbal or non-verbal, that stands for something else, often without an obvious or natural connection.
Culture is all-encompassing. It is a blueprint for living and tells us how to respond in any given situation. Culture includes social and political organizations and institutions, legal and economic systems, family groups, descent, religion, and language. However, it also includes all aspects of our everyday lives such as the clothing we wear, what we eat, what we watch on television, and what music we listen to.
Culture is dynamic and constantly changes in response to both internal and external factors. Some parts of culture change more quickly than others. For instance, in dominant American culture, technology changes rapidly while deep-seated values such as individualism, freedom, and self-determination change very little over time.
Inevitably, when one part of culture changes, so do other parts. This is because nearly all parts of a culture are integrated and interrelated. As powerful as culture is, humans are not necessarily bound by culture; they have the capacity to conform to it or transform it.
While culture is central to making us human, we are still biological beings with natural needs and urges that we share with other animals: hunger, thirst, sex, elimination, etc. Human culture is our adaptive mechanism that uniquely channels these urges in particular ways. As a result, cultural practices can then impact our biology, growth, and development. Humans are one of the most dynamic species on Earth. Our ability to change both culturally and biologically has enabled us to persist for millions of years and to thrive in diverse environments.
These characteristics of culture allow us to understand that people everywhere are thinkers and actors shaped by their social contexts. As you will see throughout this book, these contexts are incredibly diverse.
Beldo, Les. Concept of Culture. In 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook, 144-152. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2010.
Bohannan, Paul & Mark Glazer. High Points in Anthropology, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1988.
Braff, L. & Nelson, K. Introduction to Anthropology. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 3-28. Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020.
Kuper, Adam. Culture: the anthropologists' account. United Kingdom: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Tylor, Edward B. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Customs. London: Cambridge University Press. 1871.
"Introduction to Anthropology" by Braff, L. & Nelson, K. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 3-28. Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.