Culture is a term used by social scientists for a people’s whole way of life. In everyday conversation the word culture may refer to activities in such fields as art, literature, and music. But to social scientists, a people’s culture consists of all the ideas, objects, and ways of doing things created by the group. Culture includes arts, beliefs, customs, inventions, language, technology and traditions. The term ‘civilization’ is similar, but it refers mostly to scientifically more advanced ways of life. A culture is any way of life, simple or complex.
Culture consists of learned ways of acting, feeling and thinking, rather than biologically determined ways. The British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Taylor in his book Primitive Culture, published 1871, defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Taylor’s definition includes three of the most important characteristics of culture: (1) Culture is acquired by people. (2) A person acquires culture as a member of society. (3) Culture is a complex whole.
Culture is something that a person learns from family and surroundings because it consists of learned patterns of behavior rather than the biologically determined ones that are sometimes called instinctive. Culture is a complex whole that social scientists can break down into simple units called “cultural traits.” A trait may be a custom, such as burial of the dead; a device, such as a plow; a gesture, such as a handshake; or an idea, such as democracy.
What are basic elements of all cultures? All cultures have features that result from basic needs shared by all people. Every culture has methods of obtaining food and shelter. Every culture has ways to protect itself against invaders. It also has family relationships including forms of marriage and systems of kinship. A culture has religious beliefs and a set of practices to express them. All societies have forms of artistic expression such as carving, painting and music. In addition, all cultures have some type of scientific knowledge. This knowledge may be folklore about the plants people eat and the animals they hunt, or it may be a highly developed science.
How do cultures differ? Cultures differ in their details from one part of the world to another. For example, eating is a biological need. But what people eat, when and how they eat, and how food is prepared differ from culture to culture.
For another view or definition of culture, see 1.2 – Culture: The Hidden Dimension.
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