A Primer on Culture

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.

Culture is:

  • 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 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.


Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at

Related Articles


  1. Something else I’ve noticed about the common usage of “culture” is that it can be derogatory. In some contexts, it’s meant to imply that culture is an insidious influence that infects people and compels them without their consent.

    For instance, during my conservative religious upbringing, “modern American culture” was an all-purpose enemy that stalked the faithful. The way that they described it, the effect of “culture” was to override “good” judgment and “self-evident” truths. Everyone had to be wary of culture and instead be true to the way they were raised.

    Of course, after broader education and experience, I noticed that my upbringing had, surprise surprise, also taken place in a very definite culture of its own. When they had said, “Ignore culture,” what they implicitly meant was, “Our culture trumps the rest.”

    1. Interesting perspective! What I find fascinating is that that’s not actually too far off from how culture works (that it influences us without our awareness). You just later recognized that a different kind of culture was working on the very people who eschewed the concept.

      I think your last sentence there is absolutely right on.

    2. I find that interesting. Would these conservative religious types understand that they’re…just regurgitating meme theory? (Dawkins even used the “virus” metaphor.) Oh, the irony.

  2. One of the challenges I’ve had in dealing with clients who are first generation immigrants to the US is how child rearing practices can drastically vary from one culture and country to another, and what may be considered normal child rearing practice in some cultures could get you arrested and/or have your child removed from your care and placed in foster care in this country. And within this country there are definitely different child rearing practices that appear to be part of sub cultures that are often related to religious beliefs and education levels. Which leads me to the question I wanted to ask you Will, how do you and your fellow academics view religion and its impact on behavior and beliefs? Is religion seen as mostly a cultural phenomenon? And when, let’s say a western religion is forced onto a people group where it eventually becomes part of the normative views and beliefs, is this mostly seen as how cultures have always changed when a more powerful group imposes a lifestyle or belief system on another?

    1. Those are really broad questions, and I don’t want to speak for how other anthropologists view religion because it is highly variable.

      Religion is definitely a cultural phenomenon (it’s certainly not biological). As far as how religion impacts behavior and beliefs, I would argue that it impacts them as much as any other cultural trait, more or less depending on how emphasized those beliefs are in a particular society. Cultural norms and beliefs do often change due to outside influence (though it doesn’t necessarily have to be from a more powerful group imposing upon less powerful group; it can happen just through interactions among people of different cultures). What we find if we look at the ethnohistorical record of religious conversion of indigenous peoples by Euroamerican powers is a lot of syncretism. Voodou is a good example of syncretism.

      The thing is, it would be myopic to focus on one particular facet of culture when looking at culture change. When missionaries go do their thing down in the Amazon, for example, they’re not just bringing along their religious beliefs with them. They’re bringing along a slew of cultural norms that may or may not be related to those religious beliefs; for example, gender norms, normative beliefs about health and illness, understandings of the environment, beliefs about human nature, linguistic normativity (“right” and “wrong” ways of communicating), and so on. If we only focus on how horrible it is that they’re pushing religion on others, we’re missing the bigger picture of how culture change is being forced.

      I feel like I’m rambling a little bit, but I hope this answers your questions. Sort-of-kind-of?

      Also, there’s a great ethnography about cultural norms surrounding enculturating children called Preschool in Three Cultures, with a newly revised version published a couple of years ago called Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited, where the authors look at how 20 years of globalization and development have changed how these societies enculturate their children. I haven’t read the revisisted one yet, but the original is great.

      1. Thanks for the explanation. I won’t judge you too harshly for being an anthropologist. (Indians have a bad history with anthropologists.)

        Syncretism also explains things like Peyotism, by the way. Peyotism is actually a form of Christianity, but peyote replaces wine. The Apocalypse of John the Divine is the favorite book of Peyotists, oddly enough.

        What I find interesting enough is what I call “religious amnesia”. For instance, Christians who oppose abortion, forgetting that only a few centuries ago, tansy was an ingredient in several common Easter recipes.

        1. I won’t judge you too harshly for being an anthropologist. (Indians have a bad history with anthropologists.)

          I appreciate that. =P

          But seriously, I do understand why many indigenous peoples are weary of or dislike anthropologists. There’s a bleak history there, to put it mildly. And as much as the discipline is often fighting against race science and racism, it’s still chock full of privileged white people. I’m not an anthropologist who studies indigenous peoples, though. I focus on non-Native Americans and am quite outspoken about the sorts of shit that some anthropologists (particularly archaeologists) pull. The discipline itself has a lot to offer the world, though, in terms of methods and perspective.

          I also find it particularly interesting that anthropologists get the brunt of this kind of disdain. I have been told by not less than three Native American Indians that they forgive me for being an anthropologist. I wonder–do they say the same thing to biomedical researchers?

          Syncretism also explains things like Peyotism, by the way. Peyotism is actually a form of Christianity, but peyote replaces wine. The Apocalypse of John the Divine is the favorite book of Peyotists, oddly enough.

          Absolutely! That’s a great example.

          What I find interesting enough is what I call “religious amnesia”. For instance, Christians who oppose abortion, forgetting that only a few centuries ago, tansy was an ingredient in several common Easter recipes.

          Yes, definitely. This reminds me of Beth Conklin’s discussion in Consuming Grief of how Europeans would use the spectre of cannibalism to justify sending missionaries to the Americas, all the while they were using all sorts of human substance and body parts in medicines and folk remedies.

      2. Thanks Will. And I will definately see if I can find a copy of the preschool book. It sounds facinating.

    2. Ah, kinship. Missionaries have a lot of trouble with that. Try explaining “God the father” to a matrilineal society. God the uncle?

      I have a missionary Bible that is translated into Lakota. Written with an awkward orthography, honestly. Once I got used to it, a lot of it doesn’t make sense. I mean, looking at Genesis, we have the following:

      Chapter 1: Okay, this is the “common” idea of creation, an attempt to condense the two creations of Genesis. God makes the heavens and the earth. Six days, God makes man from the earth, God makes woman from man.
      Chapter 2: Wait, what? This looks nothing like Genesis! Unlike Genesis, this one introduces the Satan figure as a rebel leader in a civil war in heaven, something that appears much later in the history of Christianity. (In short, it’s a retcon. Presumably they thought a proud warrior race would want some action, which…really starts showing up in Exodus.)
      Chapter 3: And now the serpent (anonymous in the Bible) is Satan! Another retcon! It’s pretty bad that retcons are supposed to be “good” when you don’t notice it, but I’m in Chapter 3 of this translation of Genesis, and I’m already on three retcons! You also see some odd mistranslations creep in. Defining “God” as “Wakan Tanka” makes sense to some extent; it means “great holy”, basically. But defining “angels” as “wakinyan” (lightning) makes no sense at all, especially since it’s not like Lakota is lacking for words for “messenger”. (Though given that in Lakota myth, spiders are descended from the lightning, and lightning is often depicted as a bird, albeit one that is a mass of contradictions, I’ll file this away for my “postmodern reinterpretation of Neon Genesis Evangelion” project.)

      Fast forwarding, it’s interesting to see Middle Eastern idioms translated into Lakota. Most idioms are simple. So “coney” (rhymes with “honey”) becomes “rabbit”. But then comes the story of Abraham. Or Avraham. Or Ibrahim. Anyway, the interesting thing here is, “circumcise” becomes “waxlaya” (x pronounced as in the IPA, y pronounced like in yes), which means “to peel”. I will never think of french fries or bananas the same way again. The odd thing about it is, several online dictionaries have apparently caught on to this oddball translation, for whatever asinine reason. I’ll assume Mormon apologetics.

      The rest of it is pretty normal, though all the characters are given their English names, but this…makes them hard to say in Lakota, a language that lacks /f/, /v/, or any of the consonants we refer to as r.

  3. How important is gene-culture co-evolution in cultural anthropology?

    I know about a couple of examples from Laland (2010): diary farming and lactase persistence, domestication of plants and detoxification of plant secondary metabolites, invention of cooking and jaw muscle fiber / thickness of enamel, but don’t really know that much about it.

    Laland, Kevin N., Odling-Smee, John, & Myles, Sean. (2010). How culture shaped the human genome: bringing genetics and the human sciences together. Nat Rev Genet, 11(2), 137-148.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button