A Baseline Definition of Culture

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: 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.
See also:
go back to What Is Culture? page