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What is Culture?

A brown map of the world

So, you learned in a previous blog post that Cultural Anthropologists study culture. But what exactly is culture, anyway?

There is a famous definition of culture from an Anthropologist named E. B. Tylor. This is the definition of culture usually found in Anthropology textbooks:

Culture is “that complex whole that which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habit 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 is learned, symbolic, shared, integrative, and adaptive.

Culture is also:

  • learned
  • symbolic
  • shared
  • integrated
  • adaptive

Culture is Learned

We learn our culture as we grow up. This process is called enculturation. We can learn our culture by being taught–like in school or when our parents tell us how to think and behave. We can also learn our culture by absorbing it from family, friends, and the media. Culture tells us what to do and how to live. For example, everyone needs to eat. But what kind of food we eat and how we eat it is something learned from culture. 

flag of the United States of America

Culture is Symbolic

Culture involves symbols. Symbols are things that stand for, or mean something else. An example is the national flag–it stands for and means a country. Another example of a symbol is shaking your head. In some cultures, this means “yes” but in other cultures, it means “no” and in some cultures, it doesn’t mean anything.

Culture is Shared

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. For example, people who grew up in North American culture know that a hand stretched out to a person means they are friendly and want to shake hands. Other people who didn’t grow up in that culture might think about an outstretched hand differently–for example, they may wonder if the person is going to hurt them.

Culture is Integrated

Culture is a complex system, made up of many parts that are related to each other. Some examples of the parts of culture are education, technology, marriage, medicine, economics, family, beliefs and religion, government, and language.

Woman in winter clothing standing outside in the snow

Culture is Adaptive

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 may different environments on Earth, and even in outer space!

Thanks for reading!

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