A General Definition of Culture

(Click on the colored words for specific definitions)
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 (ie. 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:

Several important principles follow from this definition of culture: As you will read through several discussions/definitions of culture on this page there is much disagreement about the word and concept "culture" and you may realize that any definition, this one included, is part of an ongoing conversation (and negotiation) about what we should take "culture" to mean.

Clifford Geertz, Emphasizing Interpretation
From The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973

Clifford Geertz (. 1926-present) is best known for his ethnographic studies of Javanese culture (Java is an Indonesian island south of Borneo) and for his writings about the interpretation of culture. The most influential aspect of Geertz's work has been his emphasis on the importance of the symbolic -- of systems of meaning -- as it relates to culture, cultural change, and the study of culture; notice this emphasis as you read the summaries and excerpts below


In attempting to lay out the various meanings attached to the word "culture," Clifford Geertz refers to the important anthropological work, Clyde Kluckhohn's Mirror for Man, in which the following meanings are suggested:

1. "the total way of life of a people"
2. "the social legacy the individual acquires from his group"
3. "a way of thinking, feeling, and believing"
4. "an abstraction from behavior"
5. a theory on the part of the anthropologist about the way in which a group of people in fact behave
6. a "storehouse of pooled learning"
7. "a set of standardized orientations to recurrent problems"
8. "learned behavior"
9. a mechanism for the normative regulation of behavior
10. "a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men"
11. "a precipitate of history"
12. a behavioral map, sieve, or matrix


"The concept of culture I espouse. . . is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after. . . . (pp. 4-5)"

Geertz compares the methods of an anthropologist analyzing culture to those of a literary critic analyzing a text: "sorting out the structures of signification. . . and determining their social ground and import. . . . Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of 'construct a reading of') a manuscript. . . ."

Once human behavior is seen as . . . symbolic action--action which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies--the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense. The thing to ask [of actions] is what their import is" (pp. 9-10).

Geertz argues that culture is "public because meaning is"--systems of meaning are necessarily the collective property of a group. When we say we do not understand the actions of people from a culture other than our own, we are acknowledging our "lack of familiarity with the imaginative universe within which their acts are signs" (pp. 12-13).

Raymond Williams, Moving from High Culture to Ordinary Culture
Originally published in N. McKenzie (ed.), Convictions, 1958

Raymond Williams was an early pioneer in the field of "cultural studies" -- in fact, he was doing cultural studies before the term was even coined. This excerpt is from an essay Williams wrote in 1958, entitled "Culture is Ordinary." According to one of his editors, Williams here "forced the first important shift into a new way of thinking about the symbolic dimensions of our lives. Thus, 'culture' is wrested from that privileged space of artistic production and specialist knowledge [eg. "high culture"] , into the lived experience of the everyday"


Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions, and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land. The growing society is there, yet it is also made and remade in every individual mind. The making of a mind is, first, the slow learning of shapes, purposes, and meanings, so that work, observation and communication are possible. Then, second, but equal in importance, is the testing of these in experience, the making of new observations, comparisons, and meanings. A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested. These are the ordinary processes of human societies and human minds, and we see through them the nature of a culture: that it is always both traditional and creative; that it is both the most ordinary common meanings and the finest individual meanings. We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life--the common meanings; to mean the arts and learning--the special processes of discovery and creative effort. Some writers reserve the word for one or other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction. The questions I ask about our culture are questions about deep personal meanings. Culture is ordinary, (popular culture), in every society and in every mind.


John H. Bodley, An Anthropological Perspective
From Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System, 1994

John H. Bodley is Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University. In this excerpt from his textbook on cultural anthropology, Bodley discusses the history of anthropological conceptions of culture. Bodley's own definition, similar in many ways to the baseline definition offered here, is a good example of contemporary anthropological views about culture; that is, it is descriptive, inclusive, and relativistic.


I use the term culture to refer collectively to a society and its way of life or in reference to human culture as a whole.

The Modern technical definition of culture, as socially patterned human thought and behavior, was originally proposed by the nineteenth-century British anthropologist, Edward Tylor. This definition is an open-ended list, which has been extended considerably since Tylor first proposed it. Some researchers have attempted to create exhaustive universal lists of the content of culture, usually as guides for further research. Others have listed and mapped all the culture traits of particular geographic areas.

The first inventory of cultural categories was undertaken in 1872 by a committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was assisted by Tylor. The committee prepared an anthropological field manual that listed seventy-six culture topics, in no particular order, including such diverse items as cannibalism and language. The most exhaustive such list is the "Outline of Cultural Materials," first published in 1938 and still used as a guide for cataloging great masses of worldwide cultural data for cross-cultural surveys. Like the table of contents of a giant encyclopedia, the outline lists 79 major divisions and 637 subdivisions. For example, "Food Quest" is a major division with such subdivisions as collecting, hunting, and fishing.

There has been considerable theoretical debate by anthropologists since Tylor over the most useful attributes that a technical concept of culture should stress. For example, in 1952 Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn, American anthropologists, published a list of 160 different definitions of culture. Although simplified in the brief table below, their list indicates the diversity of the anthropological concept of culture. The specific culture concept that particular anthropologists work with is an important matter because it may influence the research problems they investigate, their methods and interpretations, and the positions they take on public policy issues.

TABLE: Diverse Definitions of Culture:
Topical: Culture consists of everything on a list of topics, or categories, such as social organization, religion, or economy
Historical: Culture is social heritage, or tradition, that is passed on to future generations
Behavioral: Culture is shared, learned human behavior, a way of life
Normative: Culture is ideals, values, or rules for living
Functional: Culture is the way humans solve problems of adapting to the environment or living together
Mental: Culture is a complex of ideas, or learned habits, that inhibit impulses and distinguish people from animals
Structural: Culture consists of patterned and interrelated ideas, symbols, or behaviors
Symbolic: Culture is based on arbitrarily assigned meanings that are shared by a society

Culture involves at least three components: what people think, what they do, and the material products they produce. Thus, mental processes, beliefs, knowledge, and values are parts of culture. Some anthropologists would define culture entirely as mental rules guiding behavior, although often wide divergence exists between the acknowledged rules for correct behavior and what people actually do. Consequently, some researchers pay most attention to human behavior and its material products. Culture also has several properties: it is shared, learned, symbolic, transmitted cross-generationally, adaptive, and integrated.

The shared aspect of culture means that it is a social phenomenon; idiosyncratic behavior is not cultural. Culture is learned, not biologically inherited, and involves arbitrarily assigned, symbolic meanings. For example, Americans are not born knowing that the color white means purity, and indeed this is not a universal cultural symbol. The human ability to assign arbitrary meaning to any object, behavior or condition makes people enormously creative and readily distinguishes culture from animal behavior. People can teach animals to respond to cultural symbols, but animals do not create their own symbols. Furthermore, animals have the capability of limited tool manufacture and use, but human tool use is extensive enough to rank as qualitatively different and human tools often carry heavy symbolic meanings. The symbolic element of human language, especially speech, is again a vast qualitative expansion over animal communication systems. Speech is infinitely more productive and allows people to communicate about things that are remote in time and space.

The cross-generational aspect of culture has led some anthropologists, especially Kroeber (1917) and Leslie White (1949), to treat culture as a superorganic entity, existing beyond its individual human carriers. Individuals are born into and are shaped by a preexisting culture that continues to exist after they die. Kroeber and White argued that the influence that specific individuals might have over culture would itself be largely determined by culture. Thus, in a sense, culture exists as a different order of phenomena that can best be explained in terms of itself.

Some researchers believe that such an extreme superorganic interpretation of culture is a dehumanizing denial of "free will," the human ability to create and change culture. They would argue that culture is merely an abstraction, not a real entity. This is a serious issue because treating culture as an abstraction may lead one to deny the basic human rights of small-scale societies and ethnic minorities to maintain their cultural heritage in the face of threats from dominant societies. I treat culture as an objective reality. I depart from the superorganic approach in that I insist that culture includes its human carriers. At the same time, people can be deprived of their culture against their will. Many humanistic anthropologists would agree that culture is an observable phenomenon, and a people's unique possession.