Villager in Northern Thailand. Picture provided by Classroom Clipart (
Villager in Northern Thailand. Picture provided by Classroom Clipart (
The word culture, from the Latin colere, with its root 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.
Villager in Northern Thailand. Picture provided by Classroom Clipart (
Villager in Northern Thailand. Picture provided by Classroom Clipart (


1 Cultural change
2 Propagating culture
3 Cultural studies

4 See also
5 Clip Art and Pictures

Culture as civilization

Street in Myanmar. Picture provided by Classroo Clipart (
Street in Myanmar. Picture provided by Classroo Clipart (

Many people today use a conception of "culture" that developed in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries. This idea of culture then reflected inequalities within European societies, and between European powers and their colonies around the world. It is also know that the Indian culture is known to be the richest in the world. it contain tradition and arts of all kind that you can think. It identifies "culture" with "civilization" and contrasts the combined concept with "nature". According to this thinking, one can classify some countries as more civilized than others, and some people as more cultured than others. Thus some cultural theorists have actually tried to eliminate popular or mass culture from the definition of culture.

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. For example, someone who used 'culture' in the sense of 'cultivation' might argue that classical music "is" more refined than music produced by working-class people such as punk rock or than the indigenous music traditions of aboriginal peoples of Australia.

People who use "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 class 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 which 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 non-Western people 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, non-élite people or 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 legitimized forms of, racism. They believed that biological evolution would produce a most inclusive notion of culture, a concept that anthropologists could apply equally to non-literate and to literate societies, or to nomadic and to sedentary societies. They argued that through the course of their evolution, human beings evolved a universal human capacity to classify experiences, and to encode and communicate them symbolically. Since human individuals learned and taught these symbolic systems, the systems began to develop independently of biological evolution (in other words, one human being can learn a belief, value, or way of doing something from another, even if the two humans do not share a biological relationship). That this capacity for symbolic thinking and social learning stems from human evolution confounds older arguments about nature versus nurture. Thus Clifford Geertz (1973: 33 ff.) has argued that human physiology and neurology developed in conjunction with the first cultural activities, and Middleton (1990: 17 n.27) concluded that human "'instincts' were culturally formed".

Canals in Venice, Italy. Photo provided by Classroom Clipart (
Canals in Venice, Italy. Photo provided by Classroom Clipart (

People living apart from one another develop unique cultures, but elements of different cultures can easily spread from one group of people to another. Culture changes dynamically and people can (must?) teach and learn culture, making it a potentially rapid form of adaptation to change in physical conditions. Anthropologists view culture as not only as a product of biological evolution but as a supplement to it, as the main means of human adaptation to the world.

This view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, and one which varies from place to place, led anthropologists to conceive of different cultures as defined by distinct patterns (or structures) of enduring, arbitrary, conventional sets of meaning, which took concrete form in a variety of artifacts such as myths and rituals, tools, the design of housing, and the planning of villages. Anthropologists thus distinguish between material culture and symbolic culture, not only because each reflects different kinds of human activity, but also because they constitute different kinds of data that require different methodologies. Since at lest the 1980s, many archaeologists ([[Ian Hodder], for example) have argued that these two types of culture cannot be separated but that much of a societiy's symbolic culture is communicated and expressed through its material culture.

This view of culture, which came to dominate between World War I and World War II, implied that each culture had bounds and demanded interpretation as a whole, on its own terms. There resulted a belief in cultural relativism; the belief that one had to understand an individual's actions in terms of his or her culture; that one had to understand a specific cultural artifact (a ritual, for example) in terms of the larger symbolic system of which it forms a part.

Nevertheless, the belief that culture comprises symbolical codes and can thus pass via teaching from one person to another meant that cultures, although bounded, would change. Cultural change could result from invention and innovation, but it could also result from contact between two cultures. Under peaceful conditions, contact between two cultures can lead to people "borrowing" (really, learning) from one another (diffusion or transculturation). Under conditions of violence or political inequality, however, people of one society can "steal" cultural artifacts from another, or impose cultural artifacts on another (acculturation). Diffusion of innovations theory presents a research-based model for how, when and why people adopt new ideas.

All human societies have participated in these processes of diffusion, transculturation, and acculturation, and few anthropologists today see cultures as bounded. Modern anthropologists argue that instead of understanding a cultural artifact in terms of its own culture, one needs to understand it in terms of a broader history involving contact and relations with other cultures.

In addition to the aforementioned processes, migration on a major scale has characterized the world, particularly since the days of Columbus. Phenomena such as colonial expansion and forced migration through slavery became prominent. As a result, many societies have become culturally heterogeneous. Some anthropologists have argued nevertheless that some unifying cultural system bound heterogeneous societies, and that it offers advantages to understand heterogenous elements as subcultures. Others have argued that no unifying or coordinating cultural system exists, and that one must understand heterogeneous elements together as forming a multicultural society. The spread of the doctrine of multiculturalism has coincided with a resurgence of identity politics, which involve demands for the recognition of social subgroups' cultural uniqueness.

Sociobiologists argue that observers can best understand many aspects of culture in the light of the concept of the meme, first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins suggests the existence of units of culture - memes - roughly analogous to genes in evolutionary biology. Although this view has gained some popular currency, anthropologists generally reject it.

Culture as values, norms, and artifacts

Another common way of understanding culture sees it as consisting of three elements:

  1. values
  2. norms
  3. artifacts.

(See Dictionary of Modern Sociology, 1969, 93, cited at [1] ( 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 different situations. Each culture has different 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. Artifacts — things, or material culture — derive from the culture's values and norms.

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. [2] (

As a rule, archeologists 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.

Culture as patterns of products and activities

In the early 20th century, anthropologists understood culture to refer not to a set of discrete products or activities (whether material or symbolic) but rather to underlying patterns of products and activities. Moreover, they assumed that such patterns had clear bounds (thus, some people confuse "culture" with the society that has a particular culture).

Geertz distinguishes between culture and social system: "…the former is an ordered system of meanings and symbols in terms of which social interaction takes place; …the latter… [is] the pattern of social interaction itself." (Keiser, 1969:viii)

In the case of smaller societies, in which people merely fell into categories of age, gender, household and descent group, anthropologists believed that people more-or-less shared the same set of values and conventions. In the case of larger societies, in which people undergo further categorization by region, race, ethnicity, and class, anthropologists came to believe that members of the same society often had highly contrasting values and conventions. They thus used the term subculture to identify the cultures of parts of larger societies. Since subcultures reflect the position of a segment of society vis a vis other segments and the society as a whole, they often reveal processes of domination and resistance.

The 20th century also saw the popularization of the idea of corporate culture - distinct and malleable within the context of an employing organization or of 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...".

Culture as 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.

Cultural change

Cultures, by predisposition, both embrace and resist change dependence of culture traits. For example, men and women have complementary roles in many cultures. One sex might desire changes that affect the other, as happened in the second half of the 20th century in western cultures.

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 moves from one culture to another, but not its meaning. 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. Diffusions of innovations theory presents a research-based model for 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.

Propagating culture

Insofar as culture grows and changes naturally within human society, it requires little or no formal propagation. Families or age-based peer-groups will instinctively foster (and develop) their own cultural norms.

But few cultures act in such a laissez faire manner. Most societies develop some sort of religion or similar basis for inculcating and preserving established or "correct" cultural behavior. And many societies take the task of education out of the hands of priests and shamans and place it on a wider footing, so that the young (at least) gain a practical and emotional identification with a standardised version of their nurturing culture.

Groups of immigrants, exiles, or minorities often form cultural associations or clubs to preserve their own cultural roots in the face of a surrounding (generally more locally-dominant) culture. Thus the world has acquired many Garibaldi Clubs, Pushkin Societies, and underground schools.

On a broader scale, many countries market their cultural heritage internationally. This occurs not only in the promotion of tourism (importing money), but also in cultural development abroad (exporting ideas).

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.

Cultures of contemporary countries and regions

Main article: List of national culture articles.

Historic cultures

See also

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