The first complete definition of culture in anthropology was provided by Edward Tylor, who defined the concept as “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.” This definition is taken from Primitive Culture, Tylor’s 1871 cultural evolutionary account of human development. Though the 19th-century cultural evolution model has long been rejected by anthropology, the main elements of Tylor’s definition of culture remains. Tylor defined culture in a much more open and holistic manner than his contemporary, Matthew Arnold, who defined culture in 1869 as “high culture,” which is defined in terms of the “best that has been said or thought in the world.” Most anthropologists would share with Tylor a definition of culture that examines ordinary daily life as opposed to the production of the “elite.”
Though culture seems like a simple concept, the challenge is studying culture in all its complexity. Culture has both an ideational/symbolic axis as well as a material/behavioral axis. By ideational/ symbolic, this refers to the fact that culture exists in our minds: Culture includes the idealized norms and values that we hold in our minds and the symbolic nature of culture, which is understood and interpreted by individuals. Though culture could be conceived of as an ideal existing in thought, it is expressed through material production and direct human interaction. Culture is characterized, then, by what people think and what they do; that culture is based in symbols, both those that exist in thought and those that are expressed in material culture and social life.
Some of the common characteristics that are common to all definitions are the fact that culture is shared, that culture is learned, and that culture is an integrated whole.
By shared, this means that even though no two individuals will have exactly the same culture knowledge and life experience, both will share enough to make social life possible. That is to say, as cultural beings, individuals can predict and understand the behavior of others, thus enabling social life. Culture shock precisely occurs when all that is taken for granted (i.e., shared within your own culture) no longer applies.
Not only is culture shared, it is also learned. This recognizes the fact that humans do not live by instinct alone; rather, culture mediates our adaptation to the physical environment. To survive, humans acquire culture. By learned, this presumes that culture will be in large part acquired in the first years of a child’s life (enculturation), but it does not imply that humans ever stop learning culture. As culture is constantly in a state of flux, humans have the ability to acquire new knowledge and to generate new culture over the course of their lifetimes.
Finally, culture is an integrated whole, or to paraphrase Clifford Geertz, a web of meanings and significance, whereby every element of culture is connected in this web of significance to everything else in that culture. On a more practical level, this means that culture is an interrelated whole and that to truly study culture, it is necessary to look at the larger context. This means that a study of political life would entail an analysis of kinship and marriage, looking at how authority and power are often transferred between generations; economics and the ways in which politics shapes production, distribution, and consumption as well as the ways in which large economic considerations shape the distribution of political power and authority; religion and the ways in which the sacred is called upon to justify or legitimate power; and finally, language and communication and ways in which power can be achieved through the use of metaphor and language.
Though contemporary anthropologists rarely write monographs that purport to describe an entire culture or population, anthropology will still seek to understand any aspect of culture or social life as existing in a much larger and complex whole whereby changes in one quadrant may possibly bring about unexpected changes elsewhere in that culture. Likewise, anthropology will not see culture as a shopping list of features or norms, rather as a continually changing mass of ideas and behaviors, in which culture is imperfectly shared between individuals in a social group, but equally between social groups.
- Arnold, M. (1869). Culture and anarchy: An essay in political and social criticism. London: Smith, Elder.
- Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of culture: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.
- Haviland, W., Fedorak, S., Crawford, G., & Lee, R. (2005). Cultural anthropology (2nd Canadian ed.). Montreal, Canada: Nelson.
- Tylor, E. (1871). Primitive culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, art, and custom (2 vols.). London: J. Murray.