Definition, Characteristics, Types, Examples, Elements and of Culture


Definition, Characteristics, Types, Examples, Elements and of Culture


An understanding of culture requires an understanding not only of language differences, but also differences in knowledge, perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

Culture (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning "to cultivate") generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance. Cultures can be "understood as systems of symbols and meanings that even their creators contest, that lack fixed boundaries, that are constantly in flux, and that interact and compete with one another."


Learning objectives   

At the end of this article, you should be able to:

1. Know the best definition of culture

2. Understand the characteristics of culture

3. Know the 4 types of culture  

4. Know the examples/ element of culture


Definition of Culture

Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that is passed down from generation to generation. Culture has been called "the way of life for an entire society." As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, and art.

Norms of behavior, such as law and morality, and systems of belief.

Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups.

Humans acquire culture through the learning processes of enculturation and socialization, which is shown by the diversity of cultures across societies.

A cultural norm codifies acceptable conduct in society; it serves as a guideline for behavior, dress, language, and demeanor in a situation, which serves as a template for expectations in a social group. Accepting only a monoculture in a social group can bear risks, just as a single species can wither in the face of environmental change, for lack of functional responses to the change. Thus in military culture, valor is counted a typical behavior for an individual and duty, honor, and loyalty to the social group are counted as virtues or functional responses in the continuum of conflict. In the practice of religion, analogous attributes can be identified in a social group.

Roop Rekha Verma defines culture as "a system of the patterns and the modes of expectations, expressions, values, institutionalization and enjoyment habits of people in general."

Thus we can see that the various definitions of culture do not lay stress on the outward behavior that can be observed but on the ethics and ideas from which attitudes and behavior originate. With so many different perspectives on culture, it is difficult to give one, universal, blanket definition that would cover all aspects because both the meaning and aim of culture is so vast. In culture can be found, the origin and evolution of all the thoughts, customs, objectives and ethics of a particular country or society. It can rightly be said that culture is traditional yet dynamic as it keeps expanding and developing. It is the foundation of the lifestyle of a nation and continuously supports the progress of the members of that society towards a civilized, liberal and enlightened way of life. It is a collection of abstract concepts that have gradually evolved from time immemorial which have contributed to the growth of human society. For any nation, its cultural values form the basis of its progress and its power which can thus, without exaggeration, be called the real wealth of a nation.


The Characteristics of culture

There are four basic characteristics of culture. The first thing we can say about culture is that it is common to a group of people who make up a particular society. It can be said that culture is like an ensemble of signs that every person puts up for the others so that he can be identified in a distinct manner. It marks out and shows how we are different:

It is not hereditary but something that is learned after birth during the period of socialization. Culture is the different ways we have of knowing not only others but also ourselves. The culture of urban spaces - the indifference that is so much a part of urbanization - allows an intermingling of various cultures. When two people of different cultures meet and interact in an urban social situation, that space is, in a sense, a sort of no-man's-land and belongs to neither in particular. So, as sociologist George Simmel says, modern, urban culture is as much about indifference as it is about difference.

Culture is associated with various symbols such as an image, an object of worship, rituals, texts and artifacts to continue its flow and it is dependent on people following the codes of conventions associated with a specific culture. It is something that is learnt and internalized by that particular community. However, none of these symbols should be confused with the culture itself. They may be the conduit into the processes of a culture but they have meaning, only insofar as, a network of people make use of them in particular ways. In this way, a colour, a stone, a gesture may become a sign. We cannot say that we can understand a culture merely by looking at its signs. We have to see what part they play in the lives of the people, how they are used - and abused - in their daily lives.

It is an amalgamation of social, economic and political features. Cultural historian Raymond Williams refers to culture as a whole way of life, or a structure of feeling. This definition underlies the idea of culture being something that one imbibes, often unconsciously and which influences and shapes all things in your life, your attitudes, how you perceive something, how you react to it etc.

Since culture is a collection of rules or signs that regulate our actions and reactions, they can also determine whether or not we are tolerant of differences and how we get along with those of other cultures or with rule-breakers. Some cultures deal strictly with those who break their rules while others, which are more secure about themselves, take such things in their stride. Thus culture, depending on the conventions, place, time etc, can be either closed or open to differences. Quite often, the openness or otherwise of a particular culture is determined by ethical or political factors both towards those on the inside of that culture and towards those on the outside of it. This gives rise to cultural politics and cultural relativism.

Culture provides a sense of identity to its members, thus helping them cope with difficulties during times of stress and lends meaning and continuity. Where the forces of capitalism and the marketplace have eroded the sense of continuity due to rapid political and economic changes and, as Karl Marx said, 'all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned', culture is the one process that affirms one's sense of self and identity in this increasingly divided and fragmented world of consumerism. Sometimes, there is a conflict between the forces that drive the economy of a nation and the passions that fuel a culture and which view economy as being a supplement to culture and not the other way around.

Culture can never be the result of any one single person's initiative or endeavor nor can it be said to be the consequence of any particular incident at any particular time. It is a slow and gradual evolution over epochs and history. Culture is the collected legacy of innumerable ventures, trials and experiences over time as societies and civilizations evolve over time. It is not something that is established or altered within the span of one generation or period but is what slowly develops over a period of centuries. Within the infinite ramifications of culture is encompassed the history of all aspects of all human societies. It registers the movement and waves of thoughts and deeds; the ascent and descent of empires and civilizations; the barriers that came in the way of human progress; the cycles of ruin and regeneration of societies at the social, national and global levels. All and any advancements made - whether in psychology, art, science, politics, economy or dealing with the spiritual realm - are recorded in culture.

So we can say that the backbone of any society is its culture. Whether it is the art, traditions, festivals, ceremonies, even dress and food, it is the culture of the community which is a deciding factor. If, for any reason there is any block or interference in the growth and transmission of cultural values, the entire structure of that particular society would change. Civilization can be said to be the external appearance of culture and the two are inextricably connected. Civilization is the expression of culture while culture is the origin and strength of a civilization. If culture cannot exist without people, people also cannot survive without culture. Perhaps it would not be wrong to state that the social function culture performs in a society is its true meaning as it primarily plays the role of expressing, informing and socializing. However, like the products of culture which mirror a social actuality, so also, we can say that the meaning of culture mirrors a reality that goes beyond factual, prosaic and scientific explanations. For some people, culture is the reflection of a spiritual force that precedes all thought and interaction.

Everyone's life is influenced by the culture that surrounds them. If we were to distance ourselves from our culture, our lives would cease to have a direction and flow and it is therefore essential for us to maintain vibrant contact with our cultural heritage. Culture differs according to place, time, community and race and this is natural. However, when a particular culture is founded upon values of universal significance, it expands and lasts even after the society that gave rise to it is wiped out. On the other hand, if a culture has its source in greed or fanatically rigid ideology, it will not stand the test of time and will soon die away. Any culture that is too rigid, does not adapt, or is not dynamic, would be lost. In its truest sense, culture is like a stream or river that flows around obstacles, changing course when needed without stopping its flow. None of the cultures that established their realm over a period of centuries and over different geographical spaces remained static. The secret behind their influence and longevity was their readiness to accept new inputs and to assimilate them all into a harmonious whole.


Types of Culture

We have 'corporate culture' that refers to the wheeling-dealing world of the corporate sector; there is the 'competitive culture' in educational institutions that encourages the students to give their best; there is 'consumerist culture' which highlights status and spending power and is related to greater material satisfaction; there is 'emerging culture' that is an index of attitudes and behavior patterns of a specific group. By such free use of this word, it almost appears as though the basic meaning of culture has been lost!

Culture may be broadly divided into the following types:

1) High culture

2) Low culture.

3) Popular culture.

 4) Folk culture.


1 High culture

 The term 'high culture' was introduced in English by the Victorian poet-critic, Matthew Arnold through his work Culture and Anarchy (1869). For him, 'high culture' was a force that encouraged moral and political good. He said that this meant to "know the best that has been said and thought in the world" and he defined 'high culture' as the "study of perfection". The poet T. S. Eliot, in his Notes towards the definition of Culture (1948) felt that both high culture and popular culture were essential for there to be a complete culture.

Much of 'high culture' pertains to the appreciation of 'high art', a term that includes Literature, Performing Arts, Music and the Visual Arts. What was regarded as being a part of this 'high culture' was that which had mostly been created during a time when the artist had the patronage of wealthy, sophisticated and aesthetically inclined people and was thus able to produce works of art in an atmosphere that was free of financial or other tensions. Hence, the Western concept of 'high art' flows from the Graeco-Roman period and through the Renaissance. Of course, it existed in other societies as well, notably the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, Byzantium, Persia and China etc. 'High Culture' refers to paintings or cinema by the acknowledged masters, classical music or dance and writing that has been established as canons. Although it has been criticized as being elitist and catering only to the educated, urban, affluent class, efforts have frequently been made to involve the general public in exhibitions or concerts that featured 'high culture'. Governments of various countries also promote it by funding museums and libraries and subsidizing theatre or music groups. As access to books and education gradually opened up, academicians took up the study of all aspects of high culture and courses that focus on liberal arts promote this concept although they do not nowadays, use this specific term. In the fields of Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Critical Theory, Sociology, Marxist thought and postmodernism, the issue of high culture vis-a-vis popular or mass culture has been focused on in a variety of ways. It has also been an important concern in the field of political theory on Nationalism. For instance, Ernest Gellner viewed it as an essential feature in the formation of a composite national identity and he defined high culture as"...a literate codified culture which permits context free communication". He distinguishes between various cultures rather than on the differences within a particular culture and contrasts 'high culture' with less complicated, agriculture-based 'low cultures'. Yet Sociology related, broader, class based concept of 'high culture' defines it as, "taste", under which can be found etiquette, appreciation of fine food and wine etc. It also refers to certain social rules that are meant for the upper class and which are not accessible to the lower classes.


2. Low Culture

 This is a disparaging term, used for some varieties of popular culture and is viewed as the opposite of 'high culture'. Some culture theorists opine that both 'high' and 'low' cultures are subcultures. In the post-Modern era, it often appears that the line of distinction between both has almost been erased. Examples of 'low culture' are kitsch, slapstick, escapist or pulp fiction or cinema and popular music and dance (as opposed to classical music and dance). The Romantic Movement was among the first to take another look at the supposed 'low culture' and re-value it at a time when medieval romances that had earlier been disparaged began to influence literature. 'Low culture' is also another term for popular culture i.e, that which has mass appeal. This could include things in society as diverse as gossip magazines or talk shows, sports like football or cricket, film music and books that are currently best sellers or even take-away food.


3. Popular culture

 In the fifteenth century, the word 'popular' when used in law and politics, denoted 'low', 'base', 'vulgar' and 'of the common people'. It was not until the latter part of the eighteenth century that the word gained the positive connotation of what it is taken to mean today 'widespread' and 'well-liked'. This type of culture, also known as pop culture, as the term suggests, is related to all those activities (along with their associated symbols) that are popular or common. The question which arises is how is this determined? It is determined most often by the mass media which defines and even determines what is popular in the social context - i.e. all that is accepted by the majority of the members of a society. Popular culture is also taken to mean all those cultural factors that are widely prevalent in a particular society and which are transmitted through the local language. Popular culture features constant change and is limited by both space and time. It flows, forms alternative streams and whirlpools which together create values and attitudes that are inter-dependent and influential in various ways. Elements of pop culture may actually diversify or evolve into a separate sub-culture as well. Whatever constitutes popular culture appeals to an extensive section of the public.

Popular culture is also often defined as Mass Culture, which is commercially driven, mass-produced and is meant for mass consumption. It can also be termed as the 'authentic' culture because it most reflects the tastes and fashions of the majority of that period. It is often seen as being almost antithetical to the exclusive, elitist 'high culture' and a sign of resistance by the masses.

Popular culture has been seen to have emerged from the shift to urbanization after the Industrial Revolution. Popular culture embraces a range of fields from mass media and entertainment to cooking, literature, clothing, sports, fashion, music, etc. and is expressed through circulation in large numbers. It has had great influence on art, notably that which was produced from the fifties onwards in the UK and the USA. It is frequently viewed as superficial, driven by consumerist motives, corrupted (and capable of corrupting), sensationalist in nature and catering to the lowest common denominator and therefore criticized, especially by religious organizations. There is the view that it is debased and inconsequential and one which not only skirts the deep realities of life but also, at the same time, ignores the simple, artless joys of existence. Some works appear to blur the fine line that demarcates 'high' and 'popular' culture and seem to belong to both categories for one or the other reason.


4 Folk cultures

 This is the tradition and customs of a particular community or society that is reflected in the local lifestyle. Folk culture is usually transmitted from generation to generation through the oral tradition and is imbued with a strong feeling of community. It also shows up the differences between what used to be done and the new ways of doing it. In earlier times during the pre-industrial eras, folk culture was equivalent to mass culture and hence could also be called the popular culture of that time.

Folklore was and is a part of popular culture that is usually spread through word of mouth and in these modern times, through the Internet and SMS, evolving over time and usage.

Folk culture is firmly rooted to a sense of place. Even when some elements of it are shifted to a new locale, as in the case of migration, the displaced elements still carry strong connotations of the place of their origin. What distinguishes folk culture from popular culture is that the former places emphasis on looking inward without reference to the outside, unlike the latter. However, it must not be forgotten that folk culture has always influenced both 'popular' and 'high' culture and many features of folk culture have gone on to become an indistinguishable and inextricable part of both these cultures.


The Examples/ Elements of Culture

Culture was defined earlier as the symbols, language, beliefs, values, and artifacts that are part of any society. As this definition suggests, there are two basic components of culture: ideas and symbols on the one hand and artifacts (material objects) on the other. The first type, called nonmaterial culture, includes the values, beliefs, symbols, and language that define a society. The second type, called material culture, includes all the society’s physical objects, such as its tools and technology, clothing, eating utensils, and means of transportation. These elements of culture are discussed next.


1. Symbols

Every culture is filled with symbols, or things that stand for something else and that often evokes various reactions and emotions. Some symbols are actually types of nonverbal communication, while other symbols are in fact material objects. Shared symbols make social interaction possible.

Let’s look at nonverbal symbols first. A common one is shaking hands, which is done in some societies but not in others. It commonly conveys friendship and is used as a sign of both greeting and departure. Probably all societies have nonverbal symbols we call gestures, movements of the hands, arms, or other parts of the body that are meant to convey certain ideas or emotions.

However, the same gesture can mean one thing in one society and something quite different in another society.

As these examples indicate, shared symbols, both nonverbal communication and tangible objects, are an important part of any culture but also can lead to misunderstandings and even hostility. These problems underscore the significance of symbols for social interaction and meaning.


2. Language

Perhaps our most important set of symbols is language. In English, the word chair means something we sit on. In Spanish, the word silla means the same thing. As long as we agree how to interpret these words, a shared language and thus society are possible. By the same token, differences in languages can make it quite difficult to communicate. For example, imagine you are in a foreign country where you do not know the language and the country’s citizens do not know yours. Worse yet, you forgot to bring your dictionary that translates their language into yours, and vice versa, and your iPhone battery has died. You become lost. How will you get help? What will you do? Is there any way to communicate your plight?

As this scenario suggests, language is crucial to communication and thus to any society’s culture. Children learn language from their culture just as they learn about shaking hands, about gestures, and about the significance of the flag and other symbols. Humans have a capacity for language that no other animal species possesses. Our capacity for language in turn helps make our complex culture possible.

Language, of course, can be spoken or written. One of the most important developments in the evolution of society was the creation of written language. Some of the preindustrial societies that anthropologists have studied have written language, while others do not, and in the remaining societies the “written” language consists mainly of pictures, not words. 


3. Norms

Cultures differ widely in their norms, or standards and expectations for behaving. We already saw that the nature of drunken behavior depends on society’s expectations of how people should behave when drunk. Norms of drunken behavior influence how we behave when we drink too much.

Norms are often divided into two types, formal norms and informal norms. Formal norms, also called mores (MOOR-ayz) and laws, refer to the standards of behavior considered the most important in any society. Examples in the United States include traffic laws, criminal codes, and, in a college context, student behavior codes addressing such things as cheating and hate speech. Informal norms, also called folkways and customs, refer to standards of behavior that are considered less important but still influence how we behave. Table manners are a common example of informal norms, as are such everyday behaviors as how we interact with a cashier and how we ride in an elevator.

Many norms differ dramatically from one culture to the next. Some of the best evidence for cultural variation in norms comes from the study of sexual behavior (Edgerton, 1976). Among the Pokot of East Africa, for example, women are expected to enjoy sex, while among the Gusii a few hundred miles away, women who enjoy sex are considered deviant. In Inis Beag, a small island off the coast of Ireland, sex is considered embarrassing and even disgusting; men feel that intercourse drains their strength, while women consider it a burden. Even nudity is considered terrible, and people on Inis Beag keep their clothes on while they bathe. The situation is quite different in Mangaia, a small island in the South Pacific. Here sex is considered very enjoyable, and it is the major subject of songs and stories.

While many societies frown on homosexuality, others accept it. Among the Azande of East Africa, for example, young warriors live with each other and are not allowed to marry. During this time, they often have sex with younger boys, and this homosexuality is approved by their culture. Among the Sambia of New Guinea, young males live separately from females and engage in homosexual behavior for at least a decade. It is felt that the boys would be less masculine if they continued to live with their mothers and that the semen of older males helps young boys become strong and fierce.

Although many societies disapprove of homosexuality, other societies accept it. This difference illustrates the importance of culture for people’s attitudes.


4. Rituals

Different cultures also have different rituals, or established procedures and ceremonies that often mark transitions in the life course. As such, rituals both reflect and transmit a culture’s norms and other elements from one generation to the next. Graduation ceremonies in colleges and universities are familiar examples of time-honored rituals. In many societies, rituals help signify one’s gender identity. For example, girls around the world undergo various types of initiation ceremonies to mark their transition to adulthood. Among the Bemba of Zambia, girls undergo a month-long initiation ceremony called the chisungu, in which girls learn songs, dances, and secret terms that only women know.

In some cultures, special ceremonies also mark a girl’s first menstrual period. Such ceremonies are largely absent in the United States, where a girl’s first period is a private matter. But in other cultures the first period is a cause for celebration involving gifts, music, and food.


5. Changing Norms and Beliefs

Our examples show that different cultures have different norms, even if they share other types of practices and beliefs. It is also true that norms change over time within a given culture. Two obvious examples here are hairstyles and clothing styles. When the Beatles first became popular in the early 1960s, their hair barely covered their ears, but parents of teenagers back then were aghast at how they looked. If anything, clothing styles change even more often than hairstyles. Hemlines go up, hemlines go down. Lapels become wider, lapels become narrower. This color is in, that color is out. Hold on to your out-of-style clothes long enough, and eventually they may well end up back in style.


6. Values

Values are another important element of culture and involve judgments of what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. A culture’s values shape its norms. In Japan, for example, a central value is group harmony. The Japanese place great emphasis on harmonious social relationships and dislike interpersonal conflict. Individuals are fairly unassertive by American standards, lest they be perceived as trying to force their will on others.

When interpersonal disputes do arise, Japanese do their best to minimize conflict by trying to resolve the disputes amicably. Lawsuits are thus uncommon; in one case involving disease and death from a mercury-polluted river, some Japanese who dared to sue the company responsible for the mercury poisoning were considered bad citizens.


7. The Work Ethic

Another important value in the American culture is the work ethic. By the 19th century, Americans had come to view hard work not just as something that had to be done but as something that was morally good to do (Gini, 2000). The commitment to the work ethic remains strong today: in the 2008 General Social Survey, 72% of respondents said they would continue to work even if they got enough money to live as comfortably as they would like for the rest of their lives.


8. Artifacts

The last element of culture is the artifacts, or material objects, that constitute a society’s material culture. In the simplest societies, artifacts are largely limited to a few tools, the huts people live in, and the clothing they wear. One of the most important inventions in the evolution of society was the wheel. 


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