Introduction to Culture

What you’ll learn to do: describe the basic elements of culture

A closeup image of two people shaking hands.

Figure 1. How should you greet someone you just met? Shaking someone’s hand is an example of a day-to-day greeting and is an expression of culture. In some countries you might shake someone’s hand to greet them, in other countries you might kiss their cheek. (Photo courtesy of Cyntonn Photography/unsplash)

The simplest way to think about culture is to think about the distinction between nature (our biology and genetics) and nurture (our environment and surroundings that also shape our identities). Because of our biology and genetics, we have a particular form and we have certain abilities. But our biological nature does not exclusively determine who we are. For that, we need culture. Culture is the non-biological or social aspects of human life, basically anything that is learned or made by humans is part of culture. Culture encompasses objects and symbols, the meanings given to those objects and symbols, and the norms, values, and beliefs that pervade social life.

How should you greet someone you just met? If you are walking on the sidewalk and look up to see that someone is walking towards you, which way should you move? How should you stand in an elevator? Where should you sit in a near-empty movie theatre?

These are all examples of social norms you’ve come to understand over your lifetime. In this section, we’ll learn how these norms develop, and even learn about “breaching experiments,” when people intentionally violate these norms, such as this famous example from an elevator.