What is Culture?

A simplified sociological definition of culture is ‘the whole way of life of a group of people’, which is abbreviated from Ralph Linton’s (1945) more extensive definition of the term:

‘The culture of a society is the way of life of its members; the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from generation to generation’.

Culture is usually contrasted to nature, with ‘culture’ referring to ‘all which is symbolic: the learned… aspects of human society’ (Jencks 1993) whereas ‘nature’ refers to everything that exists without human intervention.

According to Raymond Williams (1976) culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language, and in a deep exploration of the concept by Jencks (1993) identified four different ways in which the term culture is used in contemporary society….

Four uses of the word culture

Culture as a State of Mind

Possible usage: ‘She’s a very cultured individual’.

People sometimes describe particular individuals as ‘cultured’ as in ‘she’s a very cultured individual’.

This is an individualistic use of the word, which usually implies that ‘cultured individuals’ have more desirable traits to those who are not cultured.

Often this usage of the term refers to culture as ‘refined taste’ – the cultured individual is someone who has a knowledge of the arts and manners as is able to to distinguish themselves ‘above’ those without such tastes.

However it might also refer to an individual who has a lot of learned experience – someone who has familiarity with a lot of different cultures and has picked up a lot of skills and knowledge which enables them to function at a ‘higher level’ than most people – such as being very skilled technically or speaking many languages fluently.

Culture as Civilisation

This usage implies that some societies are more civilised than others and was a common usage among Westerners during the colonial era.

For example, the evolutionary thinker Herbert Spencer used the term ‘culture’ in this way – seeing Western societies as more ‘cultured’ than those in Africa and Asia; with the term ‘culture’ here being effectively a synonym for ‘civilisation’.

The common conception of the colonies by Europeans was that they were more ‘savage’ than the more civilised countries in Europe and thus inferior.

This of course was an entirely ethnocentric view, based largely on an inability of the colonialists to really ‘see’ the complex cultures which already existed in ‘their’ new territories.

As with the first usage this is an elitist concept.

Culture as a collective body of artistic work

This is a common sense usage of the term which you will often here in the mainstream media.

‘Culture’ in this sense is the arts – it is music, literature and theatre, for example, and is often seen as part of the domain of leisure rather than of work, and something which is done as a performance by ‘artists’ to be enjoyed by audiences.

The BBC Culture website – uses the word ‘culture’ in this way!

Culture as the way of Life of a People

This final usage is the more sociological definition of culture – referring to all of the learned habits, norms and traditions that are passed down from one generation to the next.

In this sense culture is everywhere in the social world and we find it in every social setting and institution – in schools, the workplace, politics, and more informally in leisure spaces, simply outside in the high street, on public transport, it’s everywhere.

It’s fair to say that it might be difficult to pinpoint a set of norms and values that everyone shares at the national level, although the idea of there being a distinct ‘British’ or ‘French’ culture still makes sense to most people.

However you need to be mindful that this is an extremely high level of generalisation which risks drifting into stereotyping!

Sources – Find out More!

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Jencks, C (1993) Culture

Williams, R (1976) Developments in the Sociology of Culture

Linton, R (1945) The Cultural Background of Personality

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