A Baseline Definition of
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:
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
If you have read through other discussions/definitions of culture on these pages, you probably already have the sense that there is much disagreement about the word and concept "culture" and you probably already realize that any definition, this one included, is part of an ongoing conversation (and negotiation) about what we should take "culture" to mean. For a very brief history of this debate, see the glossary entry for "culture"; for interpretive discussions and explorations of culture, visit the "Exploring Culture" section of these pages.
- 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 (see reproduction in the glossary) 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.
go back to What Is Culture? page