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Culture refers to the customs, arts, attitudes, institutions, and other traits that characterize a particular society or nation.

Culture is a part of the social system and hierarchically equal to an economic system, political system, or legal system.


Defining Culture

Different definitions of culture reflect different theories for understanding, or criteria for valuing, human activity.

Sir Edward B. Tylor wrote in 1871 that "culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" while a 2002 document from the United Nations agency UNESCO states that culture is the "set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs". [UNESCO, 2002] While these two definitions are broad, they do not exhaust the many uses of this concept -- in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of more than 200 different definitions of culture in their book, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. [Kroeber and Kluckhohn, 1952].

Culture as civilization

Many people today use a conception of "culture" that developed in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries. This conception of culture reflected inequalities within European societies, and between European powers and their colonies around the world. It identifies "culture" with "civilization" and contrasts both with "nature". According to this thinking, some countries are more civilized than others, and some people are more cultured than others. Thus some cultural theorists have actually tried to eliminate popular or mass culture from the definition of culture. Theorists like Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) or the Leavis's believe that culture is simply that which is created by "the best that has been thought and said in the world (Arnold, 1960: 6). Thus labeling anything that doesn't fit into this category as chaos or anarchy. On this account, culture is closely tied to cultivation: the progressive refinement of human behavior. Arnold consistently uses the word this way: "... culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world." [Arnold, 1882] In practice, culture referred to elite goods and activities such as haute cuisine, high fashion or haute couture, museum-caliber art and classical music, and the word cultured to refer to people who know about, and take part in, these activities. For example, someone who used 'culture' in the sense of 'cultivation' might argue that classical music is more refined than music by working-class people such as punk rock or the indigenous music traditions of aboriginal peoples of Australia.

People who use"culture" in this way tend not to use it in the plural. They believe that there are not distinct cultures, each with their own internal logic and values, but rather only a single standard of refinement to which all groups are held accountable. Thus people with different customs from someone who believes themselves to be cultured are not usually understood as "having a different culture"; they are understood as being "uncultured". People lacking "culture" often seemed more "natural," and observers often defended (or criticized) elements of high culture for repressing "human nature".

Some social critics, from the 18th century on, accept this contrast between cultured and uncultured, but emphasize that refinement and sophistication are corrupting and unnatural developments which obscure and distort people's essential nature. On this account, folk music by working-class people is an honest expression of a natural way of life, and classical music is superficial and decadent. Equally, non-Western people are often seen as 'noble savages' living authentic unblemished lives that have not been complicated and corrupted by the highly-stratified capitalist systems of the West.

Today most social scientists reject the monadic conception of culture, and the opposition of culture to nature. They recognize that non-elites are as cultured as elites (and that non-Westerners are just as civilized) -- they are just cultured in a different way. Thus, social observers contrast the "high" culture of elites to "popular" or pop culture, meaning goods and activities produced for, and consumed by, non-elite people or the masses. Both high and low cultures can be viewed as subcultures.

Culture as worldview

During the Romantic era, scholars in Germany, especially those concerned with nationalism -- such as the nationalist struggle to create a "Germany" out of diverse principalities, and the nationalist struggles by ethnic minorities against the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- developed a more inclusive notion of culture as "worldview." That is, each ethnic group is characterized by a distinct and incommensurable world view. Although more inclusive, this approach to culture still allowed for distinctions between "civilized" and "primitive" or "tribal" cultures.

By the late 19th century, anthropologists had adopted and adapted this term to a broader definition of culture that they could apply to a wider variety of societies. Attentive to the theory of evolution, they assumed that all human beings are equally evolved, and that the fact that all humans have cultures must in some way be a result of human evolution. They were also wary of using biological evolution to explain differences between specific cultures -- an approach that either was a form of, or legitimized forms of, racism. They believed biological evolution would produce a most inclusive notion of culture, a concept that anthropologists could apply equally to non-literate and literate societies, or to nomadic and to sedentary societies. They argued that through the course of their evolution, human beings evolved a universal human capacity to classify experiences, and encode and communicate them symbolically. Since these symbolic systems were learned and taught, they began to develop independently of biological evolution (in other words, one human being can learn a belief, value, or way of doing something from another, even if they are not biologically related). That this capacity for symbolic thinking and social learning is a product of human evolution confounds older arguments about nature versus nurture. Thus, Clifford Geertz (1973: 33 ff.) has argued that human physiology and neurology developed in conjunction with the first cultural activities, and Middleton (1990: 17 n.27) concluded that human "'instincts' were culturally formed."

People living apart from one another develop unique cultures, but elements of different cultures can easily spread from one group of people to another. Culture is dynamic and can be taught and learned, making it a potentially rapid form of adaptation to change in physical conditions. Anthropologists view culture as not only a product of biological evolution but as a supplement to it, as the main means of human adaptation to the world.

This view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, which varies from place to place, led anthropologists to conceive of different cultures as defined by distinct patterns (or structures) of enduring, arbitrary, conventional sets of meaning, which took concrete form in a variety of artifacts such as myths and rituals, tools, the design of housing, and the planning of villages. Anthropologists thus distinguish between material culture and symbolic culture, not only because each reflects different kinds of human activity, but also because they constitute different kinds of data that require different methodologies.

This view of culture, which came to dominate between World War I and World War II, implied that each culture was bounded and had to be understood as a whole, on its own terms. The result was a belief in cultural relativism; the belief that an individual's actions had to be understood in terms of his or her culture; that a specific cultural artifact (e.g. a ritual) had to be understood in terms of the larger symbolic system of which it is a part.

Nevertheless, the belief that culture is symbolically coded and can thus be taught from one person to another meant that cultures, although bounded, would change. Cultural change could be the result of invention and innovation, but it could also result from contact between two cultures. Under peaceful conditions, contact between two cultures can lead to people "borrowing" (really, learning) from one another (diffusion (anthropology) or transculturation). Under conditions of violence or political inequality, however, people of one society can "steal" cultural artifacts from another, or impose cultural artifacts on another (acculturation). Diffusion of innovations theory presents a research-based model for how, when and why people adopt new ideas.

All human societies have been involved in these processes of diffusion, transcultural, and acculturation, and few anthropologists today see cultures as bounded. Such anthropologists argue that instead of understanding a cultural artifact in terms of its own culture, it must be understood in terms of a broader history involving contact and relations with other cultures.

In addition to the aforementioned processes, since Columbus the world has been characterized by migration on a major scale, including colonial expansion and forced migration through slavery. The result is that many societies are culturally heterogeneous. Some anthropologists have argued that heterogeneous societies are nevertheless bound by some unifying cultural system, and that heterogenous elements are better understood as subcultures. Others have argued that there is no unifying or coordinating cultural system, and that heterogeneous elements must be understood together to form a multicultural society. Multiculturalism has coincided with a resurgence of identity politics, which involves demands for recognition of a social subgroup's cultural uniqueness.

Sociobiologists argue that many aspects of culture can best be understood through the concept of the meme, first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The idea is that there are units of culture, memes, roughly analogous to genes in evolutionary biology. Although this view has gained some popular currency, anthropologists generally reject it.

Culture as values, norms, and artifacts

Another common way of understanding culture is to see it as consisting of three elements: values, norms, and artifacts. [Dictionary of Modern Sociology, 1969, 93, cited at [1]] Values are ideas about what in life is important. They guide the rest of the culture. Norms are expectations of how people will behave in different situations. Each culture has different methods, called sanctions, of enforcing its norms. Sanctions vary with the importance of the norm; norms that a society enforces formally are called laws. Artifacts — things, or material culture — derive from the culture's values and norms.

Julian Huxley gives a slightly different division, to inter-related "mentifacts", "socifacts" and "artifacts", for ideological, sociological, and technological subsystems. Socialization is based on the belief subsystem. The sociological subsystem governs interaction between people. Material objects and their use make up the technological subsystem. [2]

As a rule, archeologists focus on material culture, and cultural anthropologists focus on symbolic culture, although ultimately both groups maintain interests in the relationship between these two dimensions. Moreover, anthropologists understand "culture" to refer not only to consumption goods , but to the general processes which produce such goods and give them meaning, and to the social relationships and practices in which such objects and processes become embedded.

Culture as patterns of products and activities

In the early 20th century, anthropologists understood culture to refer not to a set of discrete products or activities (whether material or symbolic) but rather to underlying patterns of products and activities. Moreover, they assumed that such patterns had clear bounds (thus, some people confuse "culture" for the society that has a particular culture).

In smaller societies, in which people merely fell into categories of age, gender, household, and descent group, anthropologists believed that people more or less shared the same set of values and conventions. In larger societies, in which people undergo further categorization by region, race, ethnicity, and class, they believed that members of the same society often had highly contrasting values and conventions. They thus used the term subculture to identify the cultures of parts of larger societies. Since subcultures reflect the position of a segment of society vis a vis other segments and the society as a whole, they often reveal processes of domination and resistance.

Cultural change

Cultures are both predisposed to change and resistant to it. Resistance can come from habit, religion and the integration and interdependence of culture traits. For example, men and women have complementary roles in many cultures. One sex might desire changes that affect the other, as happened in the second half of the 20th century in western cultures.

Cultural change can be caused by the environment, inventions and other internal influences, and contact with other cultures. For example, the end of the last ice age helped lead to the invention of agriculture.

Some inventions that affected Western culture in the 20th century were the birth control pill, television, and the Internet. The pill helped families have more money and women have more freedom. Television not only brought similar visual programming into many homes, but also influenced how and when family members interact with each other.

Contact between cultures can result in diffusion, or on a larger scale, acculturation.

In diffusion (anthropology), the form of something moves from one culture to another, but not its meaning. For example, hamburgers are mundane in the United States, but were considered exotic when introduced in China. "Stimulus diffusion" refers to an element of one culture leading to an invention in another. Diffusions of innovations theory presents a research-based model for why and when individuals and cultures adopt new ideas, practices, and products.

"Acculturation" has different meanings, but in this context refers to replacement of the traits of one culture with those of another, such as happened to American Indians.

Related processes on an individual level are assimilation and transculturation, adoption of a different culture by an individual.

Cultural studies

Cultural studies developed in the late 20th century in part through the reintroduction of Marxist thought into sociology, and in part through the articulation of sociology and other academic disciplines such as literary criticism. This was in order to focus on the analysis of subcultures in capitalist societies. Following the nonanthropological tradition, cultural studies generally focus on the study of consumption goods (such as fashion, art, and literature). Because the 18th- and 19th-century distinction between "high" and "low" culture seems inappropriate to apply to the mass-produced and mass-marketed consumption goods which cultural studies analyses, these scholars refer instead to "popular culture".

Today, some anthropologists have joined the project of cultural studies. Most, however, reject the identification of culture with consumption goods. Furthermore, many now reject the notion of culture as bounded, and consequently reject the notion of subculture. Instead, they see culture as a complex web of shifting patterns that link people in different locales, and link social formations of different scales. According to this view, any group can construct its own cultural identity.

List of cultures

Cultures of contemporary countries

Main article: List of national culture articles.

Contemporary local cultures

Other contemporary cultures

Historic cultures

See also


  • Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy, 1882. Macmillan and Co., New York. Online at [3].
  • Hoult, Thomas Ford, ed. (1969). Dictionary of Modern Sociology. Totowa, New Jersey, United States: Littlefield, Adams & Co.
  • Kroeber, A. L. and C. Kluckhohn, 1952. Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States.
  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.
  • Geertz, Clifford. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York. ISBN 0465097197.
  • Cultural Anthropology Tutorials, Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College, San Marco, California, United States, as of December 12, 2004.
  • UNESCO, "UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity", issued on International Mother Language Day, February 21, 2002.

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