What is culture?

12.01.2014 |

Culture is a word that’s frequently mentioned, associated with art, tradition and people. But what is it? Over the centuries, hundreds of scientists tried to capture its abstractness and transform it into a text.

“Culture” originates from the Latin verb “colere” (to till, farm, cultivate). Cicero used the agricultural metaphor “cultura animi” (cultivation of the soul) to describe the development of a philosophical soul.

Culture is certainly a topic of strong terminological interest. In “What is culture?”, a compilation of quotations, Helen Spencer-Oatey writes “Culture is a notoriously difficult term to define. In 1952, the American anthropologists Kroeber and Kluckhohn, critically reviewed concepts and definitions of culture, and compiled a list of 164 different definitions.” (GlobalPad Core Concepts)

Let’s first have a look at a very few of the already published definitions to approach the true meaning of culture. There is no better beginning definition than that by the Centre for Intercultural Learning of Canada:

If asked, you would likely define culture as music, literature, visual arts, architecture or language, and you wouldn't be wrong. But you wouldn't be entirely right either. In fact the things produced by a culture which we perceive with our five senses are simply manifestations of the deeper meaning of culture – what we do, think and feel.
(Centre for Intercultural Learning of Canada)

What we do, think and feel - culture as a second "brain"?
In 1973, Gerald Weiss presented in “American Anthropologist” a definition that he considered the most scientifically useful: According to him, culture is to be defined "as our generic term for all human nongenetic, or metabiological, phenomena". (Gerald Weiss, 1973, "A Scientific Concept of Culture" in American Anthropologist 75(5): 1382)

Compared to the following listed definitions, this one is kept fairly general. However, it has yet to play an important role in the following text.

The Business Dictionary, for example, explains more in detail. The definition in a certain way declares culture as an abstract instructor, giving a rough guideline that you could refer to in life: 

"Culture determines what is acceptable or unacceptable, important or unimportant, right or wrong, workable or unworkable. It encompasses all learned and shared, explicit or tacit, assumptions, beliefs, knowledge, norms, and values, as well as attitudes, behavior, dress, and language.”
(The Business Dictionary - "culture")

Culture, according to the above-mentioned explanation, comprises of many things that rule our mind (like norms and knowledge that is the base of our behavior). It’s an astonishing new point of view that might widen the horizon of everyone who “would likely define culture as music, literature, visual arts, architecture or language.”

The Centre for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition CARLA provides us with a list of definitions and also presents their own:

“[…] Culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.” (Centre for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition)

Multicultural | queen of geeks, deviantart
Multicultural | © carl-ong (deviantart.com)

The definitions listed by CARLA and the two selected above all base on one basic idea: shared behavior.

Palomar College, for example, supports that superordinate idea: “[…] For anthropologists and other behavioral scientists, culture is the full range of learned human behavior patterns.” (Palomar College: "What is culture?")

That also implies: with almost every two eyes, a new definition is created. With the variety of definitions of culture and its abstractness it is hard to find something that most or even all of the definitions have in common. But having a little different look at it, there is one:

A majority of the definitions implies the fact that culture separates groups.
And it separates them in a good way. If these separations did not exist or were not even required (in case there would not be something like “culture”) – what would the world look like? This is a topic that is also part of the whole globalisation discourse. Many see a danger in cultural globalisation because of the possible adaptation to one ideal – the worry about a human unification. About a loss of a certain variety.

Culture is a preserver of everything that arouses our interest. We strive towards cultural manifestations because we want to discover, we want to be entertained. And culture is only the word for it – the thoughts behind that belong to us. Culture belongs to us (“what we do, think, and feel). That raises the question if we’re born with the idea of culture, thus questions the definition of Gerald Weiss – is it really nongenetic?

Teaser picture: "Mr. Multicultural" by iNeedChemicalX (deviantart.com)

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"Culture includes not only culture and arts, but also the way of life and system of values. In this sense culture becomes the major power for intellectual renewal and human perfection." (European Council Report on European Cultural Policy)