1 What is Culture?

Nolan Weil

Suggested Focus

Here are some questions and some tasks to guide you in your reading of the chapter. If you can address everything on this list, you will be off to a good start.

  1. Simply stated, what is culture?
  2. How has the meaning of the word changed over time? Trace its evolution over the centuries.
  3. Contrast Sir Edward Tylor’s 19th century view of culture with that of Franz Boas at the beginning of the 20th century. How are they similar? How are they different?
  4. What is the significance of Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s classic work published in 1952?
  5. List the seven themes that seem to capture the scholarly literature on culture. Which theme(s) do you find most compelling?

Culture, simply defined

Trying to settle on a simple definition of culture is not an easy task. Maybe you will feel the same as you work your way through this chapter. You will see, for example, that the idea of culture has changed many times over the centuries and that in the last 50 years, scholars have made the idea more and more difficult to understand. But in this chapter, I will try to offer the simplest definition that seems reasonably up to date. Scholars might object that this definition is too simple, but I hope it will be useful for the purpose of furthering cross-cultural understanding. In that spirit, we shall regard ‘culture’ simply as a term pointing to: 

all the products of human thought and action both material and non-material, particularly those that exist because we live in groups.

Or to repeat the same idea in a slightly different way:

culture consists of all the things we make and nearly everything that we think and do, again, to the extent that what we make, think and do is conditioned by our experience of life in groups.

The first thing to emphasize is that we are not born with culture, like we are born with blue or brown eyes, or black hair. We are born into culture, and we learn it by living in human social groups. The way this idea is often expressed is to say that culture is something that is transmitted from one generation to the next. This is how we become ‘enculturated.’

But we humans are clever animals, so although much of what we make, think, and do is a result of the cultural environment into which we were born, not every material object that a person may make, or every thought, or every action is the result of enculturation. Think about it for a moment. While much of what we call culture is transmitted from generation to generation, new items of culture are invented from time to time. That is to say, sometimes, some of us make things, think things, or do things that are new and different. We are then either honored as innovators or even geniuses, or we are punished as heretics or criminals, or dismissed as eccentric, depending on how open or how closed our societies are to change.

Of course, few things are ever entirely new. For the most part, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Still, suppose some clever person creates a completely unique tool to serve some entirely personal purpose of no interest or use to another living person. Then by our definition of culture (above), that tool would seem to have all the marks of culture except one; it would play no role in the life of any group. The same would go for an idea. Any idea not shared by one’s fellow group members would not seem to belong to culture. And similarly, a completely idiosyncratic practice marks a person as merely different, if not strange, not as a person participating in a shared cultural practice.

Having proposed a brief, simple and fairly modern definition of culture that not every scholar of culture would find satisfactory, let us next survey some of the complications one finds in academic studies of culture.

Brief history of a concept

Since this discussion is intended for an international audience, it is important to know that the English word ‘culture’ does not refer to a universal concept. In fact, it may not even have direct counterparts in other European languages closely related to English. For example, even though the German word ‘Kultur’ and the Polish word ‘kultura’ resemble the English ‘culture’, there are important differences in meaning, and in more distant languages like Mandarin Chinese (wen hua), we might expect the differences to be even greater (Goddard, 2005). What this means is that if you are a speaker of Mandarin, you cannot rely on a simple translation of the term from a bilingual dictionary or Google Translate.

Scholars often begin their attempts to define culture by recounting the historical uses of the word. As Jahoda (2012) has noted, the word ‘culture’ comes originally from the Latin, colere, meaning “to till the ground” and so it has connections to agriculture. Now for historical reasons, a great many English words have Latin and French origins, so maybe it is not surprising that the word ‘culture’ was used centuries ago in English when talking about agricultural production, for example, ‘the culture of barley.’ Gardeners today still speak of ‘cultivating’ tomatoes or strawberries, although if they want to be more plain-spoken, they may just speak of ‘growing’ them. Moreover, biologists still use the word culture in a similar way when they speak of preparing ‘cultures of bacteria.’

Later, in 18th century France, says Jahoda, culture was thought to be “training or refinement of the mind or taste.” In everyday English, we still use the word in this sense. For instance, we might call someone a cultured person if he or she enjoys fine wine, or appreciates classical music, or visiting art museums. In other words, by the 18th century, plants were no longer the only things that could be ‘cultivated’; people could be ‘cultivated’ as well.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

Still later, culture came to be associated with “the qualities of an educated person.” On the other hand, an uneducated person might be referred to as “uncultured.” Indeed, throughout the 19th century, culture was thought of as “refinement through education.” For example, the English poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold (1896, p. xi) referred to “acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world.” If Arnold were still alive today, he would no doubt think that the person who reads Shakespeare is ‘cultured’ while the one who watches The Simpsons or Family Guy is not.

Image of Sir Edward Tylor
Sir Edward Tylor (1832-1917)

Near the end of the 19th century, the meaning of culture began to converge on the meaning that anthropologists would adopt in the 20th century. The English anthropologist, Sir Edward Tylor (1871, p. 1), for instance, wrote that:

Culture, or civilization … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, laws, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

Notice that Tylor viewed culture as synonymous with civilization, which he claimed evolved in three stages.

CAUTION: Today we generally regard Tylor’s theory as mistaken, so please do not get too excited about the details that follow, but according to Tylor, the first stage of the evolution of culture was “savagery.”  People who lived by hunting and gathering, Tylor claimed, exemplified this stage. The second stage, “barbarism,” Tylor said, described nomadic pastoralists, or people who lived by tending animals. The third stage, the civilized stage, described societies characterized by: urbanization, social stratification, specialization of labor, and centralization of political authority.

As a result, European observers of 19th century North America, noticing that many Indian tribes lived by hunting and gathering, thought of America as a “land of savagery” (Billington, 1985). Presumably, tribes that farmed and tended sheep were not savages but merely barbarians. But by this definition, many early English settlers in North America, as well as some populations still living in England, in so far as they lived mainly by farming and tending animals, could rightly be called barbarians. In fact, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many ‘cultured Europeans’ did regard Americans in the colonies as barbarians.

Now just to be clear, Europeans were not the only people with an inflated sense of their own superiority. In China, those living within the various imperial dynasties thought of people living far away from the center of the empire  as barbarians. Moreover, they regarded everyone outside of China as barbarians. And this included the British.

But let’s return to Sir Edward Tylor and the elements that he identified as belonging to  culture–knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and so on. This view of culture is certainly not far from 20th and 21st century views. But contemporary cultural scholars find Tylor mistaken in equating culture with civilization. Among the first scholars to drive this point home was Franz Boas.

Franz Boas and the birth of American anthropology

Image of Franz Boas
Franz Boas (1858-1942)

Franz Boas is widely regarded as the father of cultural anthropology in the United States. Boas was a German of Jewish heritage (though from a not religiously observant family). Educated in Germany, Boas was exposed to two competing intellectual traditions, the Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences) and the Geisteswissenschaften (human sciences). Boas embraced both, as a student of physics on the one hand and geography on the other. In 1896, Boas immigrated to the United States (Liron, 2003). Without the contributions of Boas, American anthropology might have developed very differently.

Unlike the British scholars of the time, Boas insisted that the study of culture should be based on careful observation, not speculation, which was the tendency of writers like Matthews and Tylor. Boas spent many years studying Native American cultures, and over the course of his career, he collected volumes of information on linguistics, art, dance, and archaeology. Boas’ studies convinced him of the sophistication of Native cultures, so in contrast to Tylor, Boas and his students rejected the idea of indigenous cultures as inferior stages along the route to civilized refinement presumably represented by “Western” cultures (Franz Boas, 2017).

In fact, Boas is responsible for a number of tendencies in American anthropology:

For one thing, as we have just suggested, Boas rejected the idea that culture was something that evolved within societies by stages from lower forms to higher. Instead, he argued that culture was a historical, not an evolutionary development. Boas insisted that cultural ideas and practices diffused across groups who were living in proximity and interacting within similar environments. For Boas cultural developments were in many ways just accidents of history (Franz Boas, 2017).

Moreover, Boas was a vehement opponent of the scientific racism of the era (Liron, 2003). Scientific racists pushed the idea that race was a biological characteristic and that it was possible to explain human behavior by appealing to racial differences. During the 19th and 20th centuries, scientific racism had many proponents, not just in Europe and North America but as far away as China and Japan (Dikötter, 1992). Many anthropologists in Boas’ day busied themselves in activities like describing and measuring the skulls of various groups of people and using this data to draw conclusions about the intellectual and moral characteristics of people. Boas, however, conducted his own studies of skeletal anatomy, and argued that the shape and size of the human skull was greatly affected by environmental factors like health and nutrition (Franz Boas, 2017).

For better or for worse, Boas is also responsible for transforming culture into a count noun, or a noun with both singular and plural forms. Before Boas, culture was an abstract idea, like beauty, knowledge, or love—which are not things we think of as being countable in the way that tables or chairs, or books are. But after Boas, one could refer to “cultures,” that is, groups sharing a common set of ideas, beliefs, practices, etc.

Finally, we also owe the notion of cultural relativism to Franz Boas. Cultural relativism is the idea that cultures cannot be objectively evaluated as higher or lower, better or worse, right or wrong. From the perspective of the cultural relativist, cultures can only be judged on their own terms. For the cultural relativist, the job of the anthropologist is to understand how a culture works, not to make aesthetic or moral judgments about other cultures. (Cultural relativism though was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it may have helped students of culture combat their own ethnocentrism. After all, most of the practices of any given culture are surely neither right nor wrong relative to those of another culture but only different. On the other hand, a cultural relativist would be forced to admit that there was nothing morally wrong with chattel slavery as practiced across wide regions of the country in 19thcentury America. That idea clearly offends the moral intuitions of most contemporary Americans.)

Franz Boas had an extraordinary influence on American anthropology. He not only introduced important ideas and methods but also nurtured a generation of students that would turn anthropology into a thriving and popular academic field. Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, and Margaret Mead were just a few of Boas’ most well-known students (Franz Boas, 2017).

Later 20th & 21st century developments

Academic interest in culture flourished in the 20th century and still continues today. Scholars who try to define the subject often begin with the classic work of Kroeber and Kluckhohn who in 1952 reviewed over 160 definitions  from the literature of their day. And as if 160 definitions were not enough, Kroeber and Kluckhohn went on to offer their own:

Culture consists of patterns … of … behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional, … historical … ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action.  (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 181)

Since Kroeber and Kluckhohn, scholars have continued to revise old definitions and invent new ones. A recent survey identified 313 definitions in the scholarly literature comprising seven distinct themes! These included definitions framed in terms of:

  1. Structure/pattern – culture as a system or framework of elements (e.g., ideas, behavior, symbols, or any combination of these or other elements)
  2. Function – culture as a means for achieving some end
  3. Process – culture as an ongoing process of social construction
  4. Product – culture as a collection of artifacts (with or without deliberate symbolic intent)
  5. Refinement – culture as individual or group cultivation to higher intellect or morality
  6. Group membership – culture as signifying a place or group of people, including a focus on belonging to a place or group
  7. Power or ideology – culture as an expression of group-based domination and power

(Faulkner, Baldwin, Lindsley & Hecht, 2006: 29-30)

Given so many themes, you might feel like agreeing  with Jahoda (2012: 299) who complained that:

more than half a century after Kroeber and Kluckhohn, and a literature that could easily fill a sizeable library, the most striking feature of these definitions is their diversity.

But perhaps this laundry list of themes need not be confusing. Perhaps they are not even as inconsistent as they might seem. I am reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Six blind men confronting an elephant for the first time, came away from the experience with six different descriptions owing to their different angles of approach. One blind man, reaching up to touch the animal’s broad side, concluded that the elephant was like a wall. Another man running into a leg, decided that an elephant was like a tree. A third man seizing the elephant’s trunk, proclaimed the elephant to be a snake, while the fourth man grasping the tail, declared the elephant to be more like a rope. Meanwhile, a fifth man grasping the ear was sure the elephant was like a fan, while the sixth man encountering a tusk was equally sure the elephant was a spear. Only by bringing all of the separate parts of the elephant together could anyone hope to acquire a complete and coherent impression of an elephant. Perhaps culture is a bit like this. Our concept of it is enriched when we are able to see it from many different angles.

Blind monks examining an elephant by Itcho Hanabusa (1652-1724)

Still maybe some of the themes of Faulkner and colleagues seem more basic than others, so in rounding out this chapter, I attempt a final synthesis bringing together the simple definition with which I started the chapter and relating it to the seven themes of Faulkner et al.

Final reflections

How does the simple definition of culture offered at the beginning of the chapter intersect with those of Faulkner and colleagues? If you go back and review the simple definition carefully, you will see that it encompasses items 1 and 4 from the list, with a nod to item 6 as well. It emphasizes that culture is a product of human making. It allows that those products can be material artifacts, or merely expressions of cognitive activities, i.e., thoughts, or both. A story passed along by word of mouth is a product of thought. Retelling the story to an audience is an action. A story written down on a scroll or printed in a book means that the thoughts of the story-teller are preserved in material form. In emphasizing that culture consists of elements, we have tried to reduce those elements down to two basic categories: thought and action. In later chapters, we will expand upon each category.

Our definition does not rule out the possibility that some elements of culture, what we call material culture, can remain long after the people that produced it are gone, e.g., stone tools from prehistoric times. On the other hand, it implies that material artifacts do not come into being without human intervention. Somebody made the stone tools. And it leaves open the possibility that some elements of culture are behavioral; in other words, they are performances that require no props, e.g., shaking hands in greeting. Finally, my simple definition acknowledges that in so far as people are not solitary animals but live in groups, culture is a collective phenomenon. We will revisit all of these themes in the chapters that follow.

As for definitions that emphasize culture as a function or culture as a process, my definition is silent. I would say, of course, one can look at culture from a functional point of view, or one can emphasize the processual aspects of cultural phenomena. But are these not secondary considerations? Don’t they follow only after some initial observation and description? We find a stone arrow head buried in the ground. Isn’t the first order of business to gaze in wonder at the object, to describe it and name it? Of course, we soon want to know: What was this used for? What was its function? In what ways does it fit together with other objects? And how was it made? And knowing full well that crafting a tool requires learning, we wonder, how did novices learn this craft, by what process? But in the interest of brevity, I have purposely tried not to cram every conceivable qualification into the basic definition.

Looking over Faulkner et al’s list for other items about which our opening definition is silent, we also note the preservation of one of the oldest notions of culture, culture as refinement. With the career of Franz Boas freshly in mind, we might imagine that Boas would wonder how such an anachronism appears in our modern context. (An anachronism is something old-fashioned, something belonging to an earlier time and place than the one portrayed.) However, while Tylor may have been wrong to think that the culture of Native Americans or Africans was rudimentary compared to that of Englishmen, perhaps we should not be too quick to banish the idea of refinement as an integral aspect of culture. One could well imagine our stone-age tool master, for instance, becoming better and better at the craft and teaching others the finer points of arrowhead making. Indeed, human culture may have built into it the urge to perfection, and so the idea of culture as refinement need not necessarily be an elite pretension of either Western (or imperial Chinese) “high society.”

Finally, there is the idea that culture is an expression of group-based domination and power. In my first reflections on this theme I was inclined to say that surely this does not reflect the most basic definition of culture but is instead an observation about a dynamic that might come about when populations grow and splinter into multiple groups that inevitably vie with each other. (Come to think of it, isn’t that exactly what a study of Neolithic China will reveal.)  And so I may be forced to acknowledge that perhaps culture as power and domination over others deserves a more prominent place in my scheme of things, but for now I will have to leave things stand as they are, i.e., incomplete.

To sum it all up, the English word, “culture,” has a long history, and it has also undergone many modern developments. In contemporary discourse, it continues to be used in all the old ways, even as it has acquired new meanings. It is a product of human thought and action. Some products are tangible and some are not. Culture is learned. Culture is passed from one generation to another. Sometimes culture is invented anew. Culture is the instrument by means of which humans both adapt to the physical environment and regulate their lives in groups. Culture is not fixed once and for all but changes in response to changing circumstances. Culture can be a source as well as an instrument of conflict. Culture is complicated.


For Further Thought and Discussion

Keep in mind the proposal of Faulkner, Baldwin, Lindsley and Hecht that scholarly definitions of culture tend to fall into one (or more) thematic categories:

  1. Structure
  2. Function
  3. Process
  4. Product
  5. Refinement
  6. Group Membership
  7. Power/Ideology

For each group of passages below, name the category from above that best describes the theme that the passages suggest.


Group 1: Culture as  _______________

  • the moral and social passion for doing good; it is the study and pursuit of perfection, and this perfection is the growth and predominance of our humanity proper, as distinguished from our animality (Harrison, 1971)
  • the attainment of higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations (Gramsci, 1981)

Group 2:  Culture as  _______________

  • what happens when people makes sense of their lives and the behavior of other people with whom they have to deal (Spindler and Spindler, 1990)
  • how information is transmitted, particularly in teaching and learning (Bonner, 1980)

Group 3: Culture as ________________

  • a community or population sufficiently large enough to be self-sustaining, i.e., large enough to produce new generations of members without relying on outside people (Jandt, 2016)
  • people who share learned patterns of behavior (Winkelman, 1993)

Group 4: Culture as  ________________

  • a contested zone in which different groups struggle to define issues in their own interests (Moon, 2002)
  • a field on which a cacophonous cluster of diverse voices plays itself out (Shore, 1996)

Group 5: Culture as  ________________

  • the deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving (Samovar and Porter, 1991)
  • an organized group of learned responses characteristic of a particular society (Linton, 1955)
  • a commonly shared system of symbols, the meanings of which are understood on both sides with an approximation to agreement (Parsons, 1964)

Group 6: Culture as  ________________

  • that which gives people a sense of who they are, of belonging, of how they should behave, and of what they should be doing (Harris & Moran, 1996)
  • means and mechanisms through which the general biological nature of the individuals comprising the society is regulated, their behavior is programmed and directed … (Markarian, 1973)

Group 7: Culture as _________________

  • the artifacts that are produced by society, e.g., clothing, food, technology, etc. (Barnett & Kincaid, 1983)
  • popular production of images . . . as part of a larger process which . . . may be called popular culture (Fabian, 1999)



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Baldwin, J. R., Faulkner, S. L., Hecht, M. L. & Lindsley, S. L. (Eds.), (2006). Redefining culture: Perspectives across the disciplines. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Billington, R. A. (1985). Land of savagery, land of promise: The European image of the American frontier in the nineteenth century. University of Oklahoma Press.

Dikötter, F. (1992). Discourse of race in modern China. Stanford University Press.

Faulkner, S. L., Baldwin, J. R., Lindsley, S. L.  & Hecht, M. L. (2006). Layers of meaning: An analysis of definitions of culture. In Redefining culture: Perspectives across the disciplines. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Franz Boas. (2017, June 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Goddard, C. (2005). The lexical semantics of ‘culture’. Language Sciences, 27, 51–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langsci.2004.05.001

Jahoda, G. (2012). Critical reflections on some recent definitions of ‘‘culture.’’ Culture & Psychology, 18(3), 289–303.

Kroeber, A. L., & Kluckhohn, C. (1952). Culture: A critical review of concepts and definitions. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum.

Liron, T. (2003). Franz Boas and the discovery of culture. Senior Honors Thesis, Amherst College.

Tylor, E. B. (1871/1958). The origins of culture. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

Image Attributions

Image 1: “Edward Burnett Tylor” by The GNU Project is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Image 2: “Franz Boas” from the Canadian Museum of Civilization is licensed under Public Domain-1923

Image 3: “Blind monks examining an elephant” from Wikimedia Commons is licensed under Public Domain-1923


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Speaking of Culture Copyright © 2018 by Nolan Weil is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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