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For other uses of culture see Culture (disambiguation).

Table of contents
1 Definitions
2 Related topics
3 Culture of countries
4 Other cultures
5 Related articles
6 Quotations


The word culture comes from the Latin root colere, (to inhabit, to cultivate, or to honor). In general it refers to human activity; different definitions of culture reflect different theories for understanding, or criteria for valuing, human activity. In 1952 Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of over 200 different definitions of culture in their book, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.

Presently, the UNESCO defines culture as the "set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group". Culture encompasses "in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs".

Popular use of the word culture in many Western societies can reflect the stratified character of those societies. Many use the word culture to refer to elite consumption goods and activities such as fine cuisine, art, and music. Some label this as "high" culture to distinguish it from "low" culture, meaning non-elite consumption goods and activities.

Historical definitions

Eighteenth and early 19th century scholars, and many people today, often identify culture with "civilization" and oppose both to "nature". Thus people lacking elements of "high culture" often seemed more "natural," and observers often criticise (or defend) elements of high culture for repressing "human nature".

By the late nineteenth century, anthropologists argued for a broader definition of culture that they could apply to a wide variety of societies. They began to argue that culture is human nature, and that culture has its roots in the universal human capacity to classify experiences, and encode and communicate them symbolically. Consequently, people living apart from one another develop unique cultures, but elements of different cultures can easily spread from one group of people to another.

Anthropologists have thus had to develop methodologically and theoretically useful definitions of the word. Technically, anthropologists distinguish between material culture and symbolic culture, not only because each reflects different kinds of human activity but because they consitute different kinds of data that require different methodologies.

Another common way of understanding culture is to see it as consisting of three elements: Values (ideas), Norms (behaviors), and Artifacts (things, or material culture). Values are ideas about what in life is important. They guide the rest of the culture. Norms are 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 are called laws. Artifacts, the third component of culture, derive from the culture's values and norms.

As a rule, archeologists focus on material culture, and cultural anthropologists focus on symbolic culture, although ultimately both groups maintain interests in the relationship 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.

In the early twentieth 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" for the society that has a particular culture). In 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 larger societies in which people undergo further categorisation by region, race, ethnicity, and class, they believed 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.

Related topics

Cultural studies developed in the late 20th century, in part through the reintroduction of Marxist thought into sociology, and in part through the articulation of sociology and other academic disciplines such as literary criticism, in order 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 link social formations of different scales.

(see Culture theory, Culture jamming)

Culture of countries

Other cultures

Related articles