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Characteristics of Culture

Two people riding in a cart being pulled by a horse

In a previous post, I talked about culture. I’d like to expand on that post here, and go into more detail on the characteristics of culture. There are many definitions of culture, but the most famous one is from E. B. Tylor in 1871, which says culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Whew! What a mouthful. Basically this definition just means that culture is the whole way of living, from knowledge and beliefs to customs and habits. But still, that’s not a very clear definition. Basically, culture is how people think and behave.

Culture has several aspects to it. There are several characteristics of culture. Culture is learned, shared, symbolic, integrated, adaptive, and dynamic. Let’s go through these characteristics of culture one by one.

Culture is Learned

So, let’s start with the first of the characteristics of culture–culture is learned. Culture is not genetic—we are not born with culture. A baby can be raised in any culture, and he or she will learn that culture, that religion, that language, and the skills that are important in that culture, whether it’s spear-throwing or computer programming. We learn our culture as we grow up in it, through a process called enculturation. It is also known as socialization.

Characteristics of Culture. Image of the inside of a Jewish synagogue.

We can learn culture both formally and informally. For example, we learn our religion formally through an institution such as a church, or mosque, or synagogue. We learn our history and language at schools through history lessons and English lessons. But we also learn our culture informally and unconsciously from family, friends, and the media. We observe and imitate others, and communicate with others, absorbing and learning our culture in the process. For example, you probably know how far apart you should stand from people if you are talking to them, even though it probably wasn’t taught to you directly. You absorbed this part of your culture unconsciously. 

Think about this. All humans have the same basic physical needs, for example, food, sleep, and shelter, but the way that they meet those needs is based on culture. For example, everyone needs food. But different cultures eat at different times during the day, prepare food differently, and eat different foods. And you did not discover on your own what is considered food in your culture and what isn’t, you learned that from other people. So while everyone needs food, culture tells us how to fulfill that need. And this is done through the process of enculturation. Each person learns the way their culture does things and the way their culture satisfies those basic human needs.

Culture is Shared

Let’s move on to the next of the characteristics of culture–culture is shared. Culture is something that a group of people shares–it is shared practices and shared understandings. If one person thinks something or behaves a certain way, that is not culture–it is a personal habit. But if most of the people in a society do it, then it is culture. Culture is shared between members of a group, meaning they all think and behave the same way because they grew up in the same culture.

A "white" hand and "black" hand shaking hands.

People who are in the same culture are able to interact with each other without constant misunderstandings (for the most part) because everyone understands each other’s thoughts and actions. For example, if you are American, you stretch out your hand when you meet someone, and all other Americans know you are expected to reach out your own hand and shake hands as a greeting. But if you are from another culture, and you see an outstretched hand, you might think the person wants you to hand them something, or maybe you’d think that they are going to hit you. Because you are from a different culture, you don’t have the same shared understanding of what an outstretched hand means.

Culture can be thought of as a contagious disease that spreads from one person to another. This is called the epidemiological approach to culture. Cultural things like religious beliefs and cooking recipes and folktales spread from person to person like an infectious disease. 

But individual people in a culture do not all have the exact same version of their culture. For example, culture is different based on things like gender and age. Different genders have different roles in society, so their experience of culture is different. And, young people have different expectations placed on them than elderly people, so their experience of culture is different as well. And different people learn different parts of culture–for example, in American culture, some people learn how to do tax returns, while others learn how to repair cars, and still others learn how to practice medicine. So, in some ways, a culture varies from person to person.

So, how much of a culture needs to be shared before it’s considered culture? I’ve just shown that something that is cultural does not have to be shared by each and every person in the culture–it doesn’t have to be one hundred percent shared. So what is the cut-off point? Well, that’s hard to say. And, there are some things that every person in a culture shares, like a language for example. And then there are things that some people or some subgroups of people share, like a certain religion. And then there are things that are individual, that are done by just one person or maybe a few people. So, culture is shared, but it’s also complicated. 

Characteristics of culture. Image of Amish men and women standing in a field.

To add to this complexity, there are also subcultures and countercultures, which are different from the mainstream culture. Let’s look at subcultures first. Subcultures are a group of people within a culture that have some kind of unique beliefs or behaviors, but also still share things in common with the mainstream culture. Subcultures are subsets of the mainstream culture. An example is seen with the Amish communities in the United States. These communities speak a German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch (but they also know some English, too). They wear a certain style of clothing, which is different from what a typical American wears, and they don’t use modern American conveniences like cars. They are very religious, and keep to themselves, limiting contact with other Americans. But even though they are very different from mainstream American culture, they still share some American ideas and values, like hard work and independence.

Here are some other examples of subcultures. There can be regional subcultures, like the difference between the southern states and the northeastern states in the USA. And subcultures may involve sexual orientation, like a gay subculture and a straight subculture. There can also be other kinds of subcultures, such as a corporate subculture and a subculture of college students.  

Some societies are made up of a bunch of subcultural groups. These are called pluralistic societies. Canada and the United States are examples of pluralistic societies. The subcultures in these countries can be of different religions, different ethnicities, and different social classes, for example.

Characteristics of culture. Image of a woman with a purple and blue mohawk.

Now let’s look at countercultures. Countercultures are a group of people that intentionally take on beliefs and behaviors that are the opposite of the mainstream culture. For example, there was a counterculture in the 1960s in the United States, where a group of people called “hippies” did the opposite of what mainstream society expected, such as taking drugs, opposing commercialism, and dressing in a certain style that was in contrast to the norm at that time. Punk culture is another example of a counterculture. It focuses on things like non-conformity and anti-consumerism, and people wear brightly colored hair, tattoos, and piercings.

So, culture is shared, but not 100 percent among its members, and subcultures and countercultures add even more complexity. So, in a way, culture is shared, except when it’s not.

Culture is Symbolic

Now let’s move on to the next of the characteristics of culture–culture is symbolic. Culture is based on symbols, and culture is spread from generation to generation through symbols. People learn their culture’s beliefs and behaviors through symbols.

But what is a symbol? A symbol is something that means or stands for something else. For example, wedding rings stand for marriage, and our nation’s flag stands for our country. Symbols are common in religions too, like a Christian cross or a Jewish Star of David. Another example of a symbol is how a red light means “stop” and a green light means “go.” 

Four traffic lights, two showing red lights, two showing yellow lights, and one showing a green light.

Symbols are arbitrary, meaning that people decide on the meaning of a symbol–it doesn’t inherently mean something. For example, there is no inherent reason why we in the USA choose wedding rings to symbolize marriage–we could have used something else and that would have been fine. We just all agreed that wedding rings would represent marriage. And we could have used orange and purple for traffic lights, but here in the USA, we all agreed to use red and green.

Language is symbolic as well–words stand for objects and ideas. For example, English speakers all agreed that “cat” would stand for a feline animal– we could have used the word, “gork,” or something else to stand for that animal just as easily. 

So, that’s what symbols are. Not only does culture involve symbols, but symbols are used to transmit culture from generation to generation through language. Culture can be thought of as the collection of symbolic knowledge that people in a society share.

Culture is Integrated

Now let’s move on to another of the characteristics of culture–culture is integrated. Culture is a complex system, made up of many parts that are interconnected and related to each other. Some examples of the parts of culture are education, technology, marriage, medicine, economics, family, beliefs and religion, government, and language. 

Characteristics of culture. Image of blue gears interlocked together.

When one part of the system changes, other parts also change, since everything is connected. One part can influence the others. For example, a few generations ago, American women were homemakers and mothers. But, now, most American women are in the workforce. Because of this change, other parts of American culture changed, such as attitudes towards marriage and family. Now, divorce is more common, and people may live together without being married. Also, now there are daycare centers to care for children while the mothers go to work. Because one part of the cultural system changed, other parts changed as well.

But not all the parts of a culture are interconnected in that way. Some parts of a culture may be in opposition to each other. For example, there are conflicts between workers and management. Workers want to maximize their wages, while management wants to maximize profit. These things are opposed to each other, but they are still part of one cultural system.

There are three interdependent parts to a cultural system–the infrastructure, the social structure, and the superstructure. First is the infrastructure–the economic base. This is the type of subsistence, meaning how people make a living, and how they produce goods and services and how they distribute these goods and services. Second is the social structure. The social structure is the social organization, meaning how people are arranged in society. This includes things like families, associations, and politics. Third, there is the superstructure. The superstructure is the ideology, meaning the worldview of the people–how they perceive themselves and the world around them. It is a shared sense of identity and includes things like beliefs, values, and religion.

Two pink piglets sleeping cuddled up next to each other.

Here’s an example of these structures and how they are related to each other in a culture. There is a culture in Western New Guinea, called the Kapauku. The infrastructure (the economic base) is based on plant cultivation and pig breeding. Growing plants provide most of the food people need, but wealth is determined by how many pigs you have. It’s a woman’s job to feed the pigs, so they grow sweet potatoes in their gardens to feed them. This affects the social structure (the social organization) because the more pigs you have, the more women you need to feed and care for them. So, having multiple wives is encouraged. So, the infrastructure (raising pigs) affects the social structure (marriage and family involves having multiple wives). But, in order for all the men to have multiple wives, there must be more women than men. In order to make sure there are enough women to go around, the men are not allowed to kill women during wars. So, ideas related to war (which is part of the superstructure) are affected by the social structure, which is then influenced by the infrastructure. 

Culture is Adaptive

Now let’s move on to the next of the characteristics of culture–culture is adaptive. Adaptation is how an organism adjusts to its environment. There is biological adaptation, which involves biological changes. Over time, humans have biologically adapted to their environment–for example, people who live closer to the equator tend to have darker skin color, while those who live further from the equator tend to have lighter skin color. The darker skin color protects people from the higher amounts of UV radiation in areas near the equator. 

Characteristics of culture. A mother and father and child sitting outside in the snow.

But there is also cultural adaptation, where culture helps humans adapt to their environment. For example, we weren’t born with fur coats to be able to survive in cold climates. But culture has given us a way to make clothing, build fires, and create shelters so that we can adapt to living in cold climates. Because culture helps people adapt, people can live in many different environments on Earth, and even in outer space! We have also adapted using culture by creating things like antibiotics and vaccines, and by creating agricultural techniques that allow us to produce huge amounts of food.

However, not all aspects of culture are adaptive. Some are neutral and don’t affect people’s ability to survive. And some aspects of culture can be maladaptive, meaning they can threaten people’s existence in the long term. For example, factories create pollutants that destroy our air quality, and if this is not limited, the air could eventually be too poor for humans (and many other organisms) to survive.

Another thing to note is that cultural adaptation is relative. This means that what is adaptive in one culture may not be adaptive in another culture. Here’s an example. In the United States, you need to be able to read and write and do basic math in order to adapt to American culture. But, these things are pretty much worthless to a person whose life involves herding cattle in a remote village somewhere else in the world. So these skills are adaptive in the USA, but they may not be adaptive in other areas of the world.

A man riding a snowmobile in the snow on a bright sunny day.

And, the ability of an aspect of culture to be adaptive can change over time. For example, introducing guns and snowmobiles would be a cultural adaptation for Inuit hunters in Alaska. With these technologies, they would be able to hunt caribou easier, which means that people would eat better, which then affects their health. But after a while, these cultural things may be maladaptive, because there is a chance the hunters could kill off all of the caribou, and then a major source of food would be gone.

Here’s another example. In ancient times in Mesopotamia, people developed irrigation. This cultural adaptation resulted in the ability to grow more food in that area of the world. But, over time, irrigation made salt build up in the soil, and this was a major factor in that society’s collapse. 

Also, some aspects of culture are not adaptive for all the members of that society. For example, cultural things like war and slavery have not benefited everyone. And, cultural practices like human sacrifices and the killing of twins in many cultures were also not beneficial for everyone.

So, culture helps people adapt to their environment, but this can change over time. Some aspects of culture can also be maladaptive as well, either for certain members or for the society as a whole.

Culture is Dynamic

And now let’s move on to the last of the characteristics of culture–culture is dynamic. Cultures are not static–they change over time. But why do they change? One way they change is through diffusion. Diffusion is the spreading of an idea, thing, or behavior between cultures. Cultures are not isolated–different cultures have been in contact with each other throughout history.

Here’s an example of diffusion. Traditionally, many sub-Saharan African cultures thought that larger women were beautiful, and thin women were not attractive. But now, the Western ideas of thin women being beautiful and larger women being unattractive are being spread to those African cultures. In some places, women in those cultures are now adopting these Western values and are trying to lose weight.

Scale for weighing yourself with blue measuring tape on top of it.

There are 3 types of diffusion–direct, indirect, and forced. Direct diffusion is when two cultures interact with each other, such as through trade or intermarriage. Indirect diffusion is when traits move from one culture to another through a third culture. For example, culture #1 may trade with culture #2, who trades with culture #3. So, culture #3 ends up with cultural items from culture #1, even though they haven’t been in direct contact. Forced diffusion is when one culture forces its way of life on another culture. The second culture changes through assimilation. The people are forced to take on the beliefs and behaviors of the dominant culture, causing their own culture to become extinct. 

Another thing to note is that diffusion doesn’t just flow from complex societies to simpler societies. Diffusion goes in both directions. For example, when Europeans met the Native Americans, diffusion went both ways. The Europeans received medicines, and foods like corn, beans, squash, and yams. And, sometimes when a new cultural element is adopted into a new culture, changes are made. For example, when pizza came from Italy to the United States, it was modified to fit into American culture. 

Something else to realize is that when cultures come into contact with each other, they don’t share every single aspect of their cultures. If they did, there would only be one culture in the world, created by all the original cultures meshing together. Only some cultural traits are exchanged. For example, in parts of rural Africa, the older you are the higher status you have. So, these cultures probably would not accept the American culture’s use of hair dye to remove grey hair. That part of American culture may not be accepted, since in that African culture, grey hair shows that you are older, and older age means higher status.

So diffusion is one way that cultures change. But there is another way, which is called acculturation. This is when there is continuous contact between two cultures, and ideas are exchanged. Each culture may change, or both may change, but they are still two distinct cultures. For example, cultures may exchange foods, music, languages, clothing, and technology. An example of acculturation is the creation of a pidgin language. A pidgin is a language made up of two languages mixed together. 

A man walking in a field carrying a long pole with harvested crops attached to it.

Yet another way cultures can change is through independent invention. This is when people find new ways of solving problems. However, many times people in different cultures have come up with the same solution to a problem, each on their own. For example, agriculture was invented in both the Middle East and Mexico–not because the cultures were in contact, but because both cultures came up with agriculture independently as a way to solve the problem of providing food to people in that society.

And another reason cultures change is due to globalization. Different cultures around the world are now interlinked and interdependent–we live in a global village. Globalization involves the spread of culture, usually Western culture, around the world through forces like international business, travel and tourism, the media and the internet, and migration.

Learn More

So, as you can see, there are many characteristics of culture. It is learned, shared, symbolic, integrated, adaptive, and dynamic. Culture is learned through enculturation. Culture is shared among its members, but there are subcultures and countercultures. Culture involves symbols, and it is transmitted from generation to generation through symbols as well. Culture is integrated and involves infrastructure, social structure, and superstructure. Culture is adaptive, but it can also be maladaptive. And culture is dynamic–it changes over time due to diffusion, acculturation, independent invention, and globalization. So, these are all the characteristics of culture.

If you want to learn more about characteristics of culture, check out Palomar College’s webpage, “Characteristics of Culture.”

Thanks for reading!

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