Chapter 9: The Characteristics of Culture


The Concept of Culture:

If you ask 100 anthropologists to define culture, you’ll get 100 different definitions. However, most of these definitions would emphasize roughly the same things: that culture is shared, transmitted through learning and helps shape behavior and beliefs. Culture is of concern to all four subfields and while our earliest ancestors relied more on biological adaptation, culture now shapes humanity to a much larger extent.

·       One of the earliest definitions of culture was put forth by Tylor in 1871: “Culture, or civilization, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

·       Another, more modern, definition of culture is, “a society’s shared and socially transmitted ideas, values and perceptions, which are used to make sense of experience and generate behavior and are reflected in that behavior.”

·       Culture is universal among all human groups and even exists among some primates.

·       All cultures have to provide for the physical, emotional, and social needs of their members, enculturate new members, resolve conflicts and promote survival for their members.

·       Society must balance the needs of the whole with the needs of the individual. If individual needs are continually suppressed, social systems can become unstable and individual stress can become too much to handle. Every culture has its own methods of balancing the needs of society in relation to individual needs.

·       Subcultures are groups with distinct patterns of learned and shared behavior (ethnicities, races, genders, age categories) within a larger culture. Despite these distinctive traits, members of subcultures still share commonalities with the larger society. Subcultures exist in most state level systems because those systems are pluralistic, they encompass more than one ethnic group or culture.


Characteristics of Culture

Culture has five basic characteristics: It is learned, shared, based on symbols, integrated, and dynamic. All cultures share these basic features.

·       Culture is learned. It is not biological; we do not inherit it. Much of learning culture is unconscious. We learn culture from families, peers, institutions, and media. The process of learning culture is known as enculturation. While all humans have basic biological needs such as food, sleep, and sex, the way we fulfill those needs varies cross-culturally.

·       Culture is shared. Because we share culture with other members of our group, we are able to act in socially appropriate ways as well as predict how others will act. Despite the shared nature of culture, that doesn’t mean that culture is homogenous (the same). The multiple cultural worlds that exist in any society are discussed in detail below.

·       Culture is based on symbols. A symbol is something that stands for something else. Symbols vary cross-culturally and are arbitrary. They only have meaning when people in a culture agree on their use. Language, money and art are all symbols. Language is the most important symbolic component of culture.

·       Culture is integrated. This is known as holism, or the various parts of a culture being interconnected. All aspects of a culture are related to one another and to truly understand a culture, one must learn about all of its parts, not only a few.

·       Culture is dynamic. This simply means that cultures interact and change. Because most cultures are in contact with other cultures, they exchange ideas and symbols. All cultures change, otherwise, they would have problems adapting to changing environments. And because cultures are integrated, if one component in the system changes, it is likely that the entire system must adjust.



Biological adaptation in humans is important but humans have increasingly come to rely upon cultural adaptation. However, not all adaptation is good, and not all cultural practices are adaptive. Some features of a culture may be maladaptive, such as fast food, pollution, nuclear waste and climate change. However, because culture is adaptive and dynamic, once we recognize problems, culture can adapt again, in a more positive way, to find solutions.



The diversity of cultural practices and adaptations to the problems of human existence often lead some to question which practices are the best. Ethnocentrism is when one views their own culture as the best and only proper way to behave and adapt.

·       Since most humans believe their culture is the best and only way to live, there are small amounts of ethnocentrism everywhere in the world.

·       Small doses help to create a sense of cultural pride and to build strong, cohesive groups.

·       But taken to extremes, and certainly when it includes an unwillingness to be tolerant, it can be destructive. Ethnocentrism is at the heart of colonization and genocide.

·       Cultural anthropologists have, however, pushed for cultural relativism, the principle that all cultures must be understood in terms of their own values and beliefs, not by the standards of another. Under this principle, no culture is better than any other and cultures can only be judged on whether they are meeting the needs of their own people.


Multiple Cultural Worlds

Most individuals are members of multiple cultural worlds. Culture exists at several levels. We typically refer to smaller cultures within a larger culture as subcultures. People have some type of connection to that subculture but must also be able to operate effectively within the larger culture. Some of the diversity we see across subcultures is based on class, race, ethnicity, age, and gender. Social stratification is often the result of our recognition of these worlds as different and a belief that they are somehow inferior to our own or to the larger culture.

·       Class is a social category based on people’s economic position in society. Not all societies exhibit class differences; ones who do not are called egalitarian. Class societies are hierarchical, with one class having more access to resources than others. Class is a recent feature of culture, as all early humans lived in egalitarian bands or tribes.

·       Race (in a cultural sense) is the socially constructed meanings assigned to the perceived differences between people based on physical traits (skin color, facial features, hair types). What differences we recognize and the meanings we assign those differences are all culturally determined and not biologically created. These physical features do not determine a person’s actions or explain their behavior.

·       Ethnic group refers to people who identify themselves as a distinct group based on cultural features such as common origins, language, customs and beliefs. Ethnic groups can be historically constituted (a group of people who shared a territory, language or religion) or they can be more recently claimed (African Americans). Just because people choose to see themselves as members of a specific ethnic group doesn’t mean that all members of that group are the same or share beliefs and values. Ethnicity, because it is a marker of group membership, can be used to discriminate.

·       Indigenous peoples, “are groups who have a long-standing connection with some territory that predates colonial or outside societies prevailing in the territory.” Indigenous peoples are groups that were in a territory before Europeans or colonists arrived, thus Native Americans are an indigenous group. They are frequently called First Peoples, and often suffer from discrimination.

·       Gender refers to the cultural meanings assigned to the biological differences between the sexes. Most societies only have masculine or feminine cultural roles, but some have a third, or even a blended, gender. Gender roles vary widely cross-culturally. Closely tied to gender roles are issues relating to homosexuality. In many cultures around the world, there is discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.

·       Age is both a biological fact as well as being culturally constructed. While we can reckon how many years old an individual is (biological age), what that means in terms of rights and responsibilities is culturally constructed. Most societies have obligations and responsibilities that are assigned based on individuals reaching specific ages. Think of driving, drinking, and voting.


Valuing & Sustaining Diversity

Anthropologists recognize the importance of diversity and thus try to help maintain or prevent the extinction of cultures. By describing, documenting and even advocating for cultures they study, anthropologists help to contribute to continued cultural survival and diversity.