I talk a lot about culture here on Skepchick. I guess that comes with being a cultural anthropologist! What I realize as I surf the skeptico-atheist blogosphere is that I think we cultural anthropologists have a slightly different understanding of what culture is than most other people. In the interest of clarifying myself and sharing with others how anthropologists (whose object of study is culture) view culture, I have produced this quick primer on culture. The following is not meant to be an exhaustive study of the concept. Rather, it is meant to introduce some of the most important key ideas behind the culture concept.
I will start with a very important point that, surprisingly, many people do not realize. Culture is something that every human being has/does. Culture is not something only those Others living in the antipodes do/have. To say someone is “more cultured” than another person is using culture as a synonym for “civilized.” An anthropologist would say all people are equally cultured, just cultured in different ways.
This becomes important because sometimes culture is used colloquially as a synonym for race, ethnicity, and/or language. One problem with this is that it obfuscates the role of culture in white English speakers’ lives—this definition of culture helps perpetuate white privilege. This is discussed in more detail below.
Another point is that there is some debate amongst anthropologists (particularly between primatologists and cultural anthropologists) as to whether culture is a uniquely human attribute. This depends on how you define culture—as it has been and is defined by most cultural anthropologists, it is specific to humans. Some primatologists have sought to broaden the definition of culture to such a point that it becomes meaningless. For example, Cristophe Boesch defines culture as “a group-specific socially acquired trait” and Susan Perry gives a closely related definition of culture as “behavioral variation that owes its existence at least in part to social learning processes, social learning being defined as changes in behavior that result from attending to the behavior or behavioral products of another individual.”
It should come as no surprise that I find these definitions entirely lacking. There is definitely more to culture than group-specific traits and social learning. I understand that those definitions make it easier to study and understand non-human primate learning and social behavior, but they are too broad to be useful definitions of human culture. As an aside, I should note that I do think that culture is a uniquely human attribute, but that some non-human primates exhibit what might be considered proto-cultural behaviors that are not nearly as elaborated as that of humans.
Now that I’ve addressed those points, let’s move on to discuss what culture is and what culture is not.
- A Process: it is dynamic and always in motion; it is something we do to make meaning and acquire/create shared contexts with people we regularly interact with
- Shared: it helps define a group and meets that group’s common needs
- Symbolic: it involves arbitrary signals that represent something else and have multiple meanings (e.g., language)
- Learned: both through active teaching (pedagogy) and passive learning (for example, imitation, seeing others be actively taught, or norm enforcement)
- Patterned: it involves similarities of ideas that appear repeatedly in different areas of social life. For example, think about how our ideas of gender show up in multiple facets of our daily lives.
- Adaptive: it helps individuals and groups meet needs that are constrained by environment.
Culture is not:
- Biologically inherited: it is not passed from parent to child biologically. For example, removing a baby born to French parents and giving it to a family in Japan who raise the child, the child would be culturally Japanese. It is not French by virtue of being born in France to French people (culturally speaking).
- A synonym for race: race and culture are not equivalent terms, though “culture” is often used by white people as a synonym to talk about people of color. People of the same race can have radically different cultural norms, and just because people may be grouped together into certain racial categories does not necessarily tell us anything about their cultural similarities. Race is a social construct (warning: loud audio will start playing at that link) that has varied meanings in different sociocultural contexts.
- A thing: this is known as reification, or making an abstract idea or concept into a thing. For example, saying “the American culture is image-obsessed” makes American culture a thing rather than a dynamic process that Americans engage in.
- A set of traits: This is essentialism, or explaining culture in a few essential traits. For example, saying “Americans are materialistic, individualistic, and capitalist.” Well, some Americans may be some or all of those things, but the culture itself is none of those things, even if some aspects of American culture may work to instill those values.
- A single explanatory model: This is totalization, or placing all phenomena under one explanatory concept. For example, saying “The American political economic system determines how people think about themselves and material items” implies that the American political economic system is the only thing that influences how people in the United States think, thus explaining the totality of American culture under one explanatory model (political economy).
- A synonym for “society” or “social”: Society/social refers to the ways a group of people are structured, whereas culture refers to the process by which groups of people create shared contexts and meanings. This is why sometimes you will see social scientists use the word “sociocultural” to refer to both the structures and the shared meanings of those structures.
Featured image from culturegeeks.com via Google Images (the site appears to be defunct now). I find it interesting that all of the kids in the picture are in some type of “cultural” garb while none of them are wearing the everyday clothes you’d expect from Euroamerican societies. This is what I mean when I say that culture is often used as a synonym for race or ethnicity in ways that perpetuate white privilege and cultural invisibility.