What is culture?

A Baseline Definition of Culture

Retrieved from: http://www.wsu.edu:8001/vcwsu/commons/topics/culture/culture-definition.html, Fall 2010

 People learn culture. That, we suggest, is culture’s essential feature. Many qualities of human life are transmitted genetically — an infant’s desire for food, for example, is triggered by physiological characteristics determined within the human genetic code. An adult’s specific desire for milk and cereal in the morning, on the other hand, cannot be explained genetically; rather, it is a learned (cultural) response to morning hunger.

Culture, as a body of learned behaviors common to a given human society, acts rather like a template (i.e. it has predictable form and content), shaping behavior and consciousness within a human society from generation to generation. So culture resides in all learned behavior and in some shaping template or consciousness prior to behavior as well (that is, a “cultural template” can be in place prior to the birth of an individual person).

This primary concept of a shaping template and body of learned behaviors might be further broken down into the following categories, each of which is an important element of cultural systems:
• systems of meaning, of which language is primary
• ways of organizing society, from kinship groups to states and multi-national corporations
• the distinctive techniques of a group and their characteristic products
Several important principles follow from this definition of culture:
• If the process of learning is an essential characteristic of culture, then teaching also is a crucial characteristic. The way culture is taught and reproduced is itself an important component of culture.
• Because the relationship between what is taught and what is learned is not absolute (some of what is taught is lost, while new discoveries are constantly being made), culture exists in a constant state of change.
• Meaning systems consist of negotiated agreements — members of a human society must agree to relationships between a word, behavior, or other symbol and its corresponding significance or meaning. To the extent that culture consists of systems of meaning, it also consists of negotiated agreements and processes of negotiation.
• Because meaning systems involve relationships which are not essential and universal (the word “door” has no essential connection to the physical object — we simply agree that it shall have that meaning when we speak or write in English), different human societies will inevitably agree upon different relationships and meanings; this a relativistic way of describing culture.

A recent etymology of the word “culture”:
Look in an old dictionary — say, a pre-1960 Webster’s — and you’ll likely find a definition of culture that looks something like this: “1. The cultivation of soil. 2. The raising, improvement, or development of some plant, animal or product” (Friend and Guralnik 1958). This use of the word has its roots in the ancient Latin word cultura, “cultivation” or “tending,” and its entrance into the English language had begun by the year 1430 (Oxford English Dictionary). By the time the Webster’s definition above was written, another definition had begun to take precedence over the old Latin denotation; culture was coming to mean “the training, development, and refinement of mind, tastes, and manners” (Oxford English Dictionary). The OED traces this definition, which today we associate with the phrase ” high culture,” back as far as 1805; by the middle of the 20th century, it was fast becoming the word’s primary definition.
However, if you try a more modern source, like the American Heritage English Dictionary, you’ll find a primary definition of culture which is substantially different than either of the two given above: “The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.” Why such a difference, and in such a (relatively) short period of time? Well, in the past 40 years, the use of the word “culture” has been heavily influenced by the academic fields of sociology and cultural anthropology. These fields have gradually brought what was once a minor definition of culture (the last of eight definitions given in the old 1958 Webster’s quoted above) into the mainstream.

It is easy to imagine how the U.S. society which was so focused on “socially transmitted behavior patterns” in the sixties would come to need a word to describe the object of its interest. The civil rights movement during this era brought everyone’s attention to bear on cultural differences within U.S. society, while the Vietnam War served to emphasize the position of the U.S. culture in relation to other world cultures.

Over time, these new uses for the word culture have eclipsed its older meanings, those associated with cultivation of the land and the production of crops. You might say that an aspect of U.S. culture over the past 40 years is its fascination with the issue of culture itself — a fascination which has brought about many changes in the way we speak and the meanings of words which we commonly use.