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Culture (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning "to cultivate"), generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activity significance. Different definitions of "culture" reflect different theoretical bases for understanding, or criteria for evaluating, human activity.

Anthropologists most commonly use the term "culture" to refer to the universal human capacity to classify, codify and communicate their experiences symbolically. This capacity has long been taken as a defining feature of the humans. However, primatologists such as Jane Goodall have identified aspects of culture among human's closest relatives in the animal kingdom.

Farhang culture has always been the focal point of Iranian civilization. Painting of Persian women musicians from Hasht-Behesht Palace ("Palace of the 8 heavens").
Farhang culture has always been the focal point of Iranian civilization. Painting of Persian women musicians from Hasht-Behesht Palace ("Palace of the 8 heavens").

Defining "culture"

Culture has been called "the way of life for an entire society." As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behaviour and systems of belief.

Various definitions of culture reflect differing theories for understanding — or criteria for evaluating — human activity. Edward Burnett Tylor writing from the perspective of social anthropology in the UK in 1871 described culture in the following way: "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."

More recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO (2002) described culture as follows: "... culture should be regarded as 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".

While these two definitions cover a range of meaning, they do not exhaust the many uses of the term "culture." In 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of more than 100 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.

These definitions, and many others, provide a catalog of the elements of culture. The items catalogued (e.g., a law, a stone tool, a marriage) each have an existence and life-line of their own. They come into space-time at one set of coordinates and go out of it another. While here, they change, so that one may speak of the evolution of the law or the tool.

A culture, then, is by definition at least, a set of cultural objects. Anthropologist Leslie White asked: "What sort of objects are they? Are they physical objects? Mental objects? Both? Metaphors? Symbols? Reifications?" In Science of Culture (1949), he concluded that they are objects " sui generis"; that is, of their own kind. In trying to define that kind, he hit upon a previously unrealized aspect of symbolization, which he called "the symbolate"—an object created by the act of symbolization. He thus defined culture as "symbolates understood in an extra-somatic context." The key to this definition is the discovery of the symbolate.

Seeking to provide a practical definition, social theorist, Peter Walters, describes culture simply as "shared schematic experience," including, but not limited to, any of the various qualifiers (linguistic, artisitic, religious, etc.) included in previous definitions.

Key components of culture

Initiation rite of the Yao people of Malawi in Africa.
Initiation rite of the Yao people of Malawi in Africa.

A common way of understanding culture sees it as consisting of four elements that are "passed on from generation to generation by learning alone":

  1. values;
  2. norms;
  3. institutions;
  4. artifacts.

Values comprise ideas about what in life seems important. They guide the rest of the culture. Norms consist of expectations of how people will behave in various situations. Each culture has methods, called sanctions, of enforcing its norms. Sanctions vary with the importance of the norm; norms that a society enforces formally have the status of laws. Institutions are the structures of a society within which values and norms are transmitted. Artifacts—things, or aspects of material culture—derive from a culture's values and norms.

Academic procession during the University of Canterbury graduation ceremony.
Academic procession during the University of Canterbury graduation ceremony.

Julian Huxley gives a slightly different division, into inter-related "mentifacts", "socifacts" and "artifacts", for ideological, sociological, and technological subsystems respectively. Socialization, in Huxley's view, depends on the belief subsystem. The sociological subsystem governs interaction between people. Material objects and their use make up the technological subsystem.

As a rule, archaeologists focus on material culture, whereas cultural anthropologists focus on symbolic culture, although ultimately both groups maintain interests in the relationships 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.

Ways of looking at culture

Culture as civilization

Many people today have an idea of "culture" that developed in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries. This notion of culture reflected inequalities within European societies, and between European powers and their colonies around the world. It identifies "culture" with "civilization" and contrasts it with "nature." According to this way of thinking, one can classify some countries as more civilized than others, and some people as more cultured than others. Some cultural theorists have thus tried to eliminate popular or mass culture from the definition of culture. Theorists such as Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) or the Leavisites regard culture as simply the result of "the best that has been thought and said in the world” Arnold contrasted mass/popular culture with social chaos or anarchy. On this account, culture links closely with social cultivation: the progressive refinement of human behaviour. 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".

An artifact of "high culture": a painting by Edgar Degas.
An artifact of "high culture": a painting by Edgar Degas.

In practice, culture referred to élite goods and activities such as haute cuisine, high fashion or haute couture, museum-caliber art and classical music, and the word cultured described people who knew about, and took part in, these activities. Today some designate these goods as "high culture" to distinguish them from mass-produced goods, which are designated "popular culture."

People who use the term "culture" in this way tend not to use it in the plural as "cultures". They do not believe that distinct cultures exist, each with their own internal logic and values; but rather that only a single standard of refinement suffices, against which one can measure all groups. Thus, according to this worldview, people with different customs from those who regard themselves as cultured do not usually count as "having a different culture," but are classed as "uncultured." People lacking "culture" often seemed more "natural," and observers often defended (or criticized) elements of high culture for repressing " human nature".

From the 18th century onwards, some social critics have accepted this contrast between cultured and uncultured, but have stressed the interpretation of refinement and of sophistication as corrupting and unnatural developments that obscure and distort people's essential nature. On this account, folk music (as produced by working-class people) honestly expresses a natural way of life, and classical music seems superficial and decadent. Equally, this view often portrays Indigenous peoples as ' noble savages' living authentic unblemished lives, uncomplicated and uncorrupted 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 non- élites as just as cultured as élites (and non-Westerners as just as civilized) -- simply regarding them as just cultured in a different way. Thus social observers contrast the "high" culture of élites to "popular" or pop culture, meaning goods and activities produced for, and consumed by the masses. (Note that some classifications relegate both high and low cultures to the status of subcultures.)

Culture as worldview

During the Romantic era, scholars in Germany, especially those concerned with nationalist movements — 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." In this mode of thought, a distinct and incommensurable world view characterizes each ethnic group. Although more inclusive than earlier views, 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 the term culture to a broader definition that they could apply to a wider variety of societies. Attentive to the theory of evolution, they assumed that all human beings evolved equally, and that the fact that all humans have cultures must in some way result from human evolution. They also showed some reluctance to use biological evolution to explain differences between specific cultures — an approach that either exemplified a form of, or segment of society vis a vis other segments and the society as a whole, they often reveal processes of domination and resistance.

In the 1950s, subcultures — groups with distinctive characteristics within a larger culture — began to be the subject of study by sociologists. The 20th century also saw the popularization of the idea of corporate culture — distinct and malleable within the context of an employing organization or a workplace.

Culture as symbols

The symbolic view of culture, the legacy of Clifford Geertz (1973) and Victor Turner (1967), holds symbols to be both the practices of social actors and the context that gives such practices meaning. Anthony P. Cohen (1985) writes of the "symbolic gloss" which allows social actors to use common symbols to communicate and understand each other while still imbuing these symbols with personal significance and meanings. Symbols provide the limits of cultured thought. Members of a culture rely on these symbols to frame their thoughts and expressions in intelligible terms. In short, symbols make culture possible, reproducible and readable. They are the "webs of significance" in Weber's sense that, to quote Pierre Bourdieu (1977), "give regularity, unity and systematicity to the practices of a group." Thus, for example:

  • "Stop, in the name of the law!"—Stock phrase uttered to the antagonists by the sheriff or marshal in 20th century American Old Western movies
  • Law and order—stock phrase in the United States
  • Peace and order stock phrase in the Philippines

Culture as a stabilizing mechanism

Modern cultural theory also considers the possibility that (a) culture itself is a product of stabilization tendencies inherent in evolutionary pressures toward self-similarity and self-cognition of societies as wholes, or tribalisms. See Steven Wolfram's A new kind of science on iterated simple algorithms from genetic unfolding, from which the concept of culture as an operating mechanism can be developed, and Richard Dawkins' The Extended Phenotype for discussion of genetic and memetic stability over time, through negative feedback mechanisms.

Culture and evolutionary psychology

Researchers in evolutionary psychology argue that the mind is a system of neurocognitive information processing modules designed by natural selection to solve the adaptive problems of our distant anscestors. According to evolutionary psychologists, the diversity of forms that human cultures take are constrained (indeed, made possible) by innate information processing mechanisms underlying our behaviour, including language acquisition modules, incest avoidance mechanisms, cheater detection mechanisms, intelligence and sex-specific mating preferences, foraging mechanisms, alliance-tracking mechanisms, agent detection mechanisms, and so on. These mechanisms are theorized to be the psychological foundations of culture. In order to fully understand culture we must understand its biological conditions of possibility.

Cultures within a society

Large societies often have subcultures, or groups of people with distinct sets of behaviour and beliefs that differentiate them from a larger culture of which they are a part. The subculture may be distinctive because of the age of its members, or by their race, ethnicity, class or gender. The qualities that determine a subculture as distinct may be aesthetic, religious, occupational, political, sexual or a combination of these factors.

In dealing with immigrant groups and their cultures, there are essentially four approaches:

  • Monoculturalism: In Europe, culture is very closely linked to nationalism, thus government policy is to assimilate immigrants, although recent increases in migration have led many European states to experiment with forms of multiculturalism.
  • Leitkultur (core culture): A model developed in Germany by Bassam Tibi. The idea is that minorities can have an identity of their own, but they should at least support the core concepts of the culture on which the society is based.
  • Melting Pot: In the United States, the traditional view has been one of a melting pot where all the immigrant cultures are mixed and amalgamated without state intervention.
  • Multiculturalism: A policy that immigrants and others should preserve their cultures with the different cultures interacting peacefully within one nation.

The way nation states treat immigrant cultures rarely falls neatly into one or another of the above approaches. The degree of difference with the host culture (i.e., "foreignness"), the number of immigrants, attitudes of the resident population, the type of government policies that are enacted and the effectiveness of those policies all make it difficult to generalize about the effects. Similarly with other subcultures within a society, attitudes of the mainstream population and communications between various cultural groups play a major role in determining outcomes. The study of cultures within a society is complex and research must take into account a myriad of variables.

Cultures by region

Many regional cultures have been influenced by contact with others, such as by colonization, trade, migration, mass media and religion.


Though of many varied origins, African culture, especially Sub-Saharan African culture has been shaped by European colonialism, and is differentiated from North Africa from its lesser influence by Arab and Islamic culture.

Hopi man weaving on traditional loom in the USA.
Hopi man weaving on traditional loom in the USA.

The culture of the Americas has been strongly influenced by peoples that inhabitated the continents before Europeans arrived; people from Africa (the United States especially has a large African-American population, most of whom are descended from former slaves), and the immigration of Europeans, especially Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, German, and Dutch.


Despite the great cultural diversity of Asian nations, there are, nevertheless, several transnational cultural influences. Though Korea, Japan, and Vietnam are not Chinese-speaking countries, their languages have been heavily influenced by Chinese and Chinese writing. Thus, in East Asia, Chinese writing is generally agreed to exert a unifying influence. Religions, especially Buddhism and Taoism have had an impact on the cultural traditions of East Asian countries (see section on Eastern religion and philosophy, below). There is also a shared social and moral philosophy that derives from Confucianism.

Hinduism and Islam have for hundreds of years exerted cultural influence on various peoples of South Asia. Similarly, Buddhism is pervasive in Southeast Asia.


Much of Australia's culture is derived from European and American roots, but distinctive Australian features have evolved from the environment and Aboriginal culture.


European culture also has a broad influence beyond the continent of Europe due to the legacy of colonialism. In this broader sense it is sometimes referred to as Western culture. This is most easily seen in the spread of the English language and to a lesser extent, a few other European languages. Dominant influences include ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and Christianity, although religion has declined in Europe.

Middle East and North Africa

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the Middle East and North Africa is Islam and variations of the Arab language, though this region is also home to Israel and Judaism, and significant Christian minorities. Further, several groups which are adherents to Islam do not consider themselves Arab.

Belief systems

Religion and other belief systems are often integral to a culture. Religion, from the Latin religare, meaning "to bind fast", is a feature of cultures throughout human history. The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion defines religion in the following way:

... an institution with a recognized body of communicants who gather together regularly for worship, and accept a set of doctrines offering some means of relating the individual to what is taken to be the ultimate nature of reality.

Religion often codifies behaviour, such as with the 10 Commandments of Christianity or the five precepts of Buddhism. Sometimes it is involved with government, as in a theocracy. It also influences arts.

Eurocentric custom to some extent divides humanity into Western and non-Western cultures, although this has some flaws.

Western culture spread from Europe most strongly to Australia, Canada, and the United States. It is influenced by ancient Greece, ancient Rome and the Christian church.

Western culture tends to be more individualistic than non-Western cultures. It also sees man, god, and nature or the universe more separately than non-Western cultures. It is marked by economic wealth, literacy, and technological advancement, although these traits are not exclusive to it.

Abrahamic religions

Judaism is one of, if not the first, recorded monotheistic faiths and one of the oldest religious traditions still practiced today. The values and history of the Jewish people are a major part of the foundation of other Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, Islam, as well as Samaritanism and the Bahá'í Faith.

Christianity was the dominant feature in shaping European culture for at least the last 1700 years. Modern philosophical thought has very much been influenced by Christian philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas and Erasmus. European colonization and missionaries have spread it.

Eastern religion and philosophy

Agni, Hindu fire god.
Agni, Hindu fire god.

Philosophy and religion are often closely interwoven in Eastern thought. Many Asian religious and philosophical traditions originated in India and China and spread across Asia through cultural diffusion and the migration of peoples. Hinduism is the wellspring of Buddhism, the Mahāyāna branch of which spread north and eastwards from India into Tibet, China, Mongolia, Japan and Korea and south from China into Vietnam. Theravāda Buddhism spread throughout Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka, parts of southwest China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.

Indian philosophy includes Hindu philosophy. They contain elements of nonmaterial pursuits, whereas another school of thought from India, Carvaka, preached the enjoyment of material world. Confucianism and Taoism, both of which originated in China have had pervasive influence on both religious and philosophical traditions, as well as statecraft and the arts throughout Asia.

During the 20th century, in the two most populous countries of Asia, two dramatically different political philosophies took shape. Gandhi gave a new meaning to Ahimsa, a core belief of both Hinduism and Jainism, and redefined the concepts of nonviolence and nonresistance. During the same period, Mao Zedong’s communist philosophy became a powerful secular belief system in China.

Folk religions

Folk religions practiced by tribal groups are common in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Their influence can be considerable; may pervade the culture and even become the state religion, as with Shintoism. Like the other major religions, folk religion answers human needs for reassurance in times of trouble, healing, averting misfortune and providing rituals that address the major passages and transitions in human life.

The "American Dream"

The American Dream is a faith, held by many in the United States, that, through hard work, courage, and self-determination, regardless of social class, a person can gain a better life. This notion is rooted in the belief that the United States is a " city upon a hill, a light unto the nations," which were values held by many early European settlers and maintained by subsequent generations.


Religion often influences marriage and sexual practices.

Most Christian churches give some form of blessing to a marriage; the wedding ceremony typically includes some sort of pledge by the community to support the relationship. In marriage, Christians draw a parallel with the relationship between Jesus Christ and His Church. The Roman Catholic Church believes it is morally wrong to divorce, and divorcées cannot remarry in a church marriage.

Cultural studies

Cultural studies developed in the late 20th century, in part through the re-introduction of Marxist thought into sociology, and in part through the articulation of sociology and other academic disciplines such as literary criticism. This movement aimed to focus on the analysis of subcultures in capitalist societies. Following the non-anthropological 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 that link social formations of different scales. According to this view, any group can construct its own cultural identity.

Currently, a debate is underway regarding whether or not culture can actually change fundamental human cognition. Researchers are divided on the question.

Cultural change

A 19th century engraving showing Australian "natives opposing the arrival of Captain James Cook" in 1770.
A 19th century engraving showing Australian " natives opposing the arrival of Captain James Cook" in 1770.

Cultures, by predisposition, both embrace and resist change, depending on culture traits. For example, men and women have complementary roles in many cultures. One gender might desire changes that affect the other, as happened in the second half of the 20th century in western cultures. Thus there are both dynamic influences that encourage acceptance of new things, and conservative forces that resist change.

Three kinds of influence cause both change and resistance to it:

  1. forces at work within a society
  2. contact between societies
  3. changes in the natural environment.

Cultural change can come about due to the environment, to inventions (and other internal influences), and to contact with other cultures. For example, the end of the last ice age helped lead to the invention of agriculture, which in its turn brought about many cultural innovations.

In diffusion, the form of something (though not necessarily its meaning) moves from one culture to another. For example, hamburgers, mundane in the United States, seemed exotic when introduced into China. "Stimulus diffusion" refers to an element of one culture leading to an invention in another. Diffusion of innovations theory presents a research-based model of 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 certain Native American tribes and to many indigenous peoples across the globe during the process of colonization. Related processes on an individual level include assimilation (adoption of a different culture by an individual) and transculturation.

Cultural invention has come to mean any innovation that is new and found to be useful to a group of people and expressed in their behaviour but which does not exist as a physical object. Humanity is in a global "accelerating culture change period", driven by the expansion of international commerce, the mass media, and above all, the human population explosion, among other factors. The world's population now doubles in less than years.

Culture change is complex and has far-ranging effects. Sociologists and anthropologists believe that a holistic approach to the study of cultures and their environments is needed to understand all of the various aspects of change. Human existence may best be looked at as a "multifaceted whole." Only from this vantage can one grasp the realities of culture change.

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