Culture is a concept that often invokes thoughts of a Monet, a Mozart symphony, or ballerinas in tutus dancing Swan Lake. In the popular vernacular culture often refers to the arts. A person that is cultured has knowledge of and is a patron of the arts. Then there is pop culture; what trends are current and hip. Within anthropology these things are simply aspects of culture. To understand the anthropological culture concept, we need to think broader and holistically.
Anthropologists have long debated an appropriate definition of culture. Even today some anthropologists criticize the culture concept as oversimplifying and stereotyping cultures, which will be discussed more below. The first anthropological definition of culture comes from 19th-century British anthropologist Edward Tylor:
Culture…is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society (Tylor 1920 : 1).
It is probably the most enduring definition of culture even though it relates more to the specifics, or particulars, of culture groups. As Bohannan and Glazer comment in High Points in Anthropology (1988: 62), “…[it is the definition] most anthropologists can quote correctly, and the one they fall back on when others prove too cumbersome.” Tylor, echoing the French idea of civilization progressing from a barbaric state to “science, secularism, and rational thought” (Beldo 2010), believed that all human culture passed through stages of development with the pinnacle being that of 19th century England. He believed, as many others of this time period did, that all other cultures were inherently inferior. Franz Boas, a German American anthropologist, challenged Tylor’s approach. He drew on the German concept of kultur, local and personal behaviors and traditions, to develop his ideas about culture. Boas thought that cultures did not follow a linear progression as espoused by cultural evolutionists like Tylor, but developed in different directions based on historical events. Boas took years to develop a working definition of culture, but it is one that influences anthropologists to this day: culture is an integrated system of symbols, ideas and values that should be studied as a working system, an organic whole (Kuper 1999:56).
Over time, anthropologists learned that including specifics into the definition of culture limited that definition. In other words, the definition would not apply to all cultures. Anthropologists began to develop a definition of culture that could be applied broadly. Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn proposed that culture was not simply behaviors, but a product of psychological, social, biological, and material factors (Beldo 2010). Thus began a focus on the meaning of behavior, not just a description of the behavior itself.
A general definition of culture that can be applied to all cultures is patterns of behavior that are common within a particular population of people. One way to think about culture is to break down the concept into two distinct categories: the Big C and the little c. The Big C is an overarching general concept that can be applied to all culture groups; it is the anthropological perspective. The little c is the particulars of a specific culture group.
It is easiest to think of the Big C as elements that comprise culture (not a specific group).
- Big C is learned behavior. Culture is not something we are born with; it is non-biological. We learn it over our lifetime.
- Culture is shared. While we each have our own cultural peculiarities, we share a large part of our culture with others.
- Culture is symbolic. It gives meaning to things. Language might be the most important example of the symbolic nature of culture. Language is one of the primary ways that we communicate with one another.
- Culture is holistic. Ideally, culture is all encompassing. It is a blueprint for living and tells us how to respond in any given situation. Of course in reality, culture doesn’t give us all the answers. That’s when we see culture change.
- Lastly, culture is integrated. Think of it as a clock. Clocks have an intricate mechanical system that work together to make the clock operational. Culture is also a system – a system of institutions that work together to meet the needs of the group.
Little c, as mentioned above, is the particulars of any given culture group, for instance, the marriage or subsistence pattern of a group of people. Traditions, a concept many people associate with culture, would fall into the little c. A good portion of this course is devoted to examining the various manifestations of social institutions, or some of a culture group’s particulars, so we will return to the little c later.
Bohannan, Paul and Mark Glazer. 1988. High Points in Anthropology, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Tylor, Edward Burnett. 1920 . Primitive Culture. New York: J.P. Putnam’s Sons.