Culture (from Latin colere, ‘inhabit’, ‘cultivate’, ‘protect’, ‘honour with worship’) is one of the most widely used, and abused, words in English. Its meaning blurs and varies according to its context and who is describing it. In straightforward scientific terms, a culture is a living cell or group of cells encouraged to multiply in a medium outside the body. In archaeology, a culture is a collection of artefacts related to each other through the closeness of the region they were found in or the period they were believed to be from. Material culture has been associated with particular social groups as a means of ordering material data, although contemporary archaeologists are more sceptical of straightforward equations between artefact and societies.
All the senses above filter into the predominant meaning of ‘culture’ in anthropology and the social sciences: the way of life particular to a given group of people. In 1871 the anthropologist Edwin Tylor defined it thus: ‘Culture or civilization…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.’ The problem with Tylor's definition is that it takes European culture as the prototype for all other cultures. The idea of culture—to describe the general development of the group in terms of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic qualities—is implied, but on Western terms. It suggests that ‘primitive’ cultures have to undergo a developmental process in order to be as ‘civilized’ as European culture.
Such evolutionary schemes were later abandoned; anthropologists now treat culture as a neutral term used to describe a system of ideas, values and behaviours. For a considerable period early this century, British social anthropologists contrasted culture with society. In their aspirations for a social scientific approach, culture was regarded as an arbitrary and vague term while ‘society’ was used to refer to functional roles, structures and organizations. For American cultural anthropologists, however, culture was treated as synonymous with society.
More recently, anthropologists and sociologists have attacked the idea that cultures exist as discrete, unified things on the grounds that it is an invention that does not correspond to the actuality of social life. It does not allow for differences in views within a community, or properly account for relationships between communities. Similarly, the assumption that societies function as bounded systems composed of integrated roles and institutions has also been discredited. Cultural differences are reflected in current distinctions between subculture associated with divergent values, appearance and behaviour of groups that identify themselves in contradistinction to the wider or dominant society; counter-culture to describe those who defy majority norms and values; and personal culture to describe how an individual makes use of and relates to his/her cultural environment.
When coupled with nature, culture is treated like nurture, which considers the degree to which human thought and behaviour are affected by their environmental conditions rather than their biological make-up. Within structuralist theory, which attempts to discover the ordering principles of the mind, the nature-culture distinction has been transposed to chart the ways people make boundaries between what is considered a part of society and what is seen to lie beyond it. It is humans that determine what is nature for it is not something that is determined by itself. On this point, Marshall Sahlins has offered the useful remark: ‘Nature is to culture what culture makes of nature.’
In the last half-century, two fascinating sociological phenomena have been, first, the interpenetration (especially in the West) of such phenomenological views of culture—that is, that it comprises the whole experience of everyday life—with the old critical notion that it was inherently to do with the arts, and with ‘high arts’ at that; and second, the extraordinary way in which Western mass culture (with all its ephemeral and transitory ‘output’: television, advertising, fashion, pastimes, social activities) has colonized the entire world far more successfully than the earlier ‘high culture’ of the imperialist West. Mass communications, mass-production of artefacts and global marketing are the reasons, and they have begun to dictate the ‘cultural agenda’ of the entire world.
Until recently (and still in some universities and among other literary subcultures) the mass culture which emerges from such developments has been despised as somehow inferior to the ‘high arts’ which alone embody the notion of cultural excellence. The fear is ever-present that, in any society, because culture is absorbed by a socialization process, and because the mass media occupy a central and powerful role in that process, the output of the media may only reflect the culture of the dominant group who control it or consume it. This would suffocate the cultural values of many people who do not subscribe to the dominant view. This would be a tragedy, not because of its effects on the chattering class (who, ironically, would now find their culture marginalized and made second best in exactly the way they formerly treated the culture of the mass of the population) but, more seriously, because it led to the erosion and obliteration of minority attitudes and the habits of mind of minority groups throughout the world.
Perhaps in the end, culture is not what we discuss but what we live. As a set of value-judgements about beliefs and ways of life, particularly in the areas of social behaviour and intellectual activity, it is a particularly human phenomenon (unless one assumes that other creatures make such judgements), and can never be objective. It is an example of the hierarchical, categorizing impulse which is such a characterstic feature of the human mind and also of our love of defining ourselves and others, and by defining, excluding. In ancient Greece, Greek-speakers proclaimed that they were ‘cultured’ compared to ‘barbarians’ (those whose speech sounded like ‘bar-bar’); it is not recorded what barbarians thought of Greeks. In other areas, at one time or another, to be ‘cultured’ has involved being a member of the Japanese Imperial household, following Islam, being a middle-European intellectual, not being a Westerner, preferring Beethoven to the Beatles, studying Arts rather than Sciences, rejecting all artefacts (physical or intellectual) created by ‘dead, white, European males’, observing particular rules of social etiquette or, in each case, being or doing just the opposite.
The 19th-century English poet and critic Matthew Arnold wrote (in Culture and Anarchy) that culture was a ‘study of human perfection’—which he went on to define as the exercise of rationality as opposed to instinct. (To be rational, in this definition, includes the rational awareness of the power, and ‘usefulness’, of instinct.) A cultured person, for Arnold, enhanced his or her individual awareness, striving towards the goal of moral and spiritual perfection. Seventy years after Arnold's book was published, and in the course of pursuing ‘perfection’ of a different kind, Hermann Goering said (misquoting the poet Heinz Johst), ‘When I hear the world “culture” I reach for my gun’. This perhaps epitomizes the ‘practical’ (uncultured?) person's reaction to the narcissistic and fashion-bound scholasticism of which redefinitions of culture are such a persistent, and egregious, example. BC RK KMcL
See also assimilation; criticism; cultural relativism; diffusionism; dominant ideology; ethnicity; evolutionism; functionalism; hegemony; ideology; internalization; interpretative anthropology; kinship; media; naturalism; nature/culture; norms; religion; role; sexuality; social control; social integration; socialization; social/sociological problem; society; sociolinguistics; structuralism; subculture; taste; tourism, anthropology of; values; work.
Further reading T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture; , George Steiner, Blue-beard's Castle: Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture; , George Stocking, Jnr, Race, Culture and Evolution; , Raymond Williams, Culture.
We're sorry this article wasn't helpful. Tell us how we can improve.