Defining Culture

Lesson 1: Topic 8 of 25

Let’s get into our material that we have to learn from. What do you think of when you hear the word “culture?” Many people tend to think of culture as something either very highbrow (opera, art museums, ballet) or exotic and far off, something foreign to us. We may believe that the word “culture” refers to those people over there. It may seem a bit strange, but culture is also right here, all around us. Here is a definition we’ll consider pretty good. 

Culture… taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture

Now what do you think? Is there anything left out? Think in terms of your own culture – what you know, what you believe, your art (or what you make), your morals, the laws by which you live, the customs you practice, holidays, other skills or habits you have acquired. Does this bring up any thoughts or questions?

We need to add two other distinctions to this definition.  One, culture is transmissible (or passed down) from one generation to the next. How do so many Italian home cooks know how to make authentic homemade pasta? Grandparents and parents spend time in the kitchen, teaching kids. And two, culture is also cumulative. Think of literature, since we can still read books that were written hundreds of years ago, or even longer. The Iliad and The Odyssey were written about 3,000 years ago, yet are still read in classrooms! And trades like agriculture, which is a dynamic collection of skills passed down combined with newer technologies. 

Pixabay on Pexels lmfp lpc Giáp Đình Trọng Hiếu on Pexels lpc Dimitri Dim on Pexels lnfa lcp do

Societies that come into contact with other cultures through trade or proximity to one another may add one another’s art forms, medicine, or other practices to their collection of cultural knowledge. When these types of cultural practices pass from one culture into another, it is called diffusion. However, if a minority culture takes on many traits of a dominant culture, it can become assimilated into that group.  Can you give some examples of different parts of culture? What about American culture specifically?