Culture concept

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Anthropological Culture Concept

One of the first anthropological defintions of culture comes from 19th-century anthropologist Edward Tylor: 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 (Tylor 1920 [1871]: 1).

It is probably the most enduring defintions of culture even though it relates more to the specifics, or particulars, of culture groups. As Bohannan and Glazer comment in High Points in Anthropology (1988: 62), "...[it is the defintion] most anthropologists can quote correctly, and the one they fall back on when other prove too cumbersome."

                    Note: To explore other definitions of culture, visit Harve Varenne's site at Columbia University

Over time, anthropologists learned that including any particular into the definition of culture limited that definition. In other words, the definition would not apply to all culture groups. Work began to develop a definition of culture that could be applied broadly.

Dr. Chung-min Chen, professor emeritus at The Ohio State University, used to break down the culture concept into two distinct categories: the Big C and the little c. The Big C is an overarching general concept that can be applied to all culture groups. The little c is the particulars of a specific culture group. In breaking down the culture concept into two discrete categories, Dr. Chen helped to differentiate between lay ideas about culture and the anthropological approach.


It is easiest to think of the Big C as elements that comprise culture (not a specific group). 

  • Big C is learned behavior. Culture is not something we are born with; it is non-biological. We learn it over our lifetime.
  • Culture is shared. While we each have our own cultural peculiarities, we share a large part of our culture with others.
  • Culture is symbolic. It gives meaning to things. Language might be the most important example of the symbolic nature of culture. Language is one of the primary ways that we communicate with one another.
  • Culture is holistic. Ideally, culture is all-encompassing. It is a blueprint for living and tells us how to respond in any given situation. Of course in reality, culture doesn’t give us all the answers. That’s when we see culture change.
  • Lastly, culture is integrated. Think of it as a clock. Clocks have an intricate mechanical system that work together to make the clock operational. Culture is also a system – a system of institutions that work together to meet the needs of the group.

Little c, as mentioned above, is the particulars of any given culture group, for instance, the marriage or subsistence pattern of a group of people. Traditions, a concept many people associate with culture, would fall into the little c. A good portion of this course is devoted to examining the various manifestations of social institutions, or some of a culture group's particulars, so we will return to the little c later.

Levels of culture

Cultural traits can be grouped at several different levels. At the upper levels, the traits are general. Most people don’t think about their culture at the upper levels. Nevertheless, these levels do impact our cultures even if we’re not aware of it.

The levels of culture, except for the idiosyncratic, are stereotypes. This is not necessarily bad unless you use the stereotypes as a basis of discrimination. We can use these stereotypes to develop a general expectation in hopes that we don’t totally bomb when we travel to a new place and meet new peoples.

steel millInternational: this is often referred to as Western culture or Eastern culture. Historically, the division fell along two lines: religion and industry.

Eastern culture is usually thought of as non-industrial; however, through the process of development, this line is less clear than it used to be.

Eastern culture also refers to a different way of thinking which is best exemplified in the East’s religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, etc. Interdependence of people is a defining characteristic of “eastern” philosophy. Duty to family over self is stressed.

The other thing that encapsulates eastern culture is their approach to healing—in the east, it is generally believed to be ancient, naturalistic traditions…think acupuncture and herbal remedies.

Western culture is industrial; capitalism rules and behavior geared for independent success is stressed.

Western cultures are primarily Christian.

Obviously none of these broad geographic areas are all one thing or the other, but think in terms of dominance. Eastern cultures do encourage people to develop their skills; it’s just that it is not for themselves, but for their group (which can be family, village, or some other entity). In western cultures, duty to family is not absent; it’s just not stressed as strongly.

In regards to health, highly educated doctors and scientifically developed medicines are predominant.

Again, keep in mind that the East vs. West mentality or approach is rapidly breaking down through the process of globalization.

American dreamNational: Just as the word implies, we’re talking about a country’s culture. For instance, if someone talks about the Irish, certain mental pictures come to mind.

Within the national culture, there are sub-cultures. Subcultures exist within the framework of the national culture, which in and of itself is a subculture of international culture. Subcultures incorporate values and norms from the national culture, but perhaps not all of the values and norms.

First let’s look at regional culture. If I was to talk about the United States in terms of the South, the Midwest, or the Southwest, we start to make some assumptions about the culture of individuals from those geographic regions, e.g., in the Midwest there are just a bunch of farmers.

Ohio State fanSame thing with state-level culture. I’m originally from Ohio, so I’m going to use Ohio and Kentucky as examples. Many Ohioans view Kentucky as backward, with people living in remote hollows, little access to education, and steeped in the culture of the Civil War-era south. Mint juleps and the Kentucky Derby are inseparable from Kentucky’s culture. When people find out I am from Ohio, I often hear comments like, “That’s too bad,” or “Oh, Ohio,” and even “Is the election fraud really that bad there?” And did I mention the crazed college football fans? We all have ideas about what each state is like.

Cafe LadroThe next subculture I want to talk about is the local culture. This could be along the lines of urban vs, suburban vs. rural. It could be something like Seattle vs. Tacoma. It could be a neighborhood. There are a lot of ways to view the local. When I told friends I was moving to Seattle, most said, “You’d better be willing to drink a lot of coffee.” That is an example of a local trait. A local trait might also be something along the lines of Emo, Grunge, or even occupations.

HippiesThere are also counter-cultures. Counter-cultures go against something in the mainstream or dominant culture. The classic example of a counter-culture is the hippie/protest movement during the 1960s in the United States. A more recent example is the anti-globalization movement.

The final level of culture I want to discuss is the idiosyncratic culture. This refers to our personal culture. We are influenced by and choose norms from all of the previous levels of culture to create our personal cultures. Our family and friends are often most influential but as we mature and move away from home, our personal culture may begin to look nothing like the culture we grew up in.

proxemicsCulture is both overt and covert. What we mean by this is that there are elements of culture that we are specifically taught--they are overt…how to eat with utensils or how to ride a bicycle. But there are also elements that we are not taught---they are covert…a good example of this is proxemics. Proxemics refers to our personal bubble---how much space we need around our physical person. In the United States, we have a large personal bubble. We don’t like people to get near to us unless invited. Standing smushed up against someone else on the bus is considered bad manners in the US. We aren’t specifically taught this; we pick it up through observation.

We think about our culture, particularly our national culture, in its ideal form. For instance, when asked to describe the values of US culture, people often mention equality, democracy, and freedom. The reality of US culture is that there is not complete equality of citizens and some believe the US only promotes democracy unequally across the globe.

All of these things contribute to our worldview. Worldview is a way of understanding how the world works and what our place is in it. Everyone has a worldview that impacts their perceptions and interpretations of events occurring in their lives. Some people think everyone else interprets or sees things the same way they do. This is referred to as naïve realism. We all start out that way, but through education, our naïve realism goes away as we learn about other people’s perspectives…in effect, our culture is changing.

Culture Change

first automobileCultures change in a number of ways. The only way new cultural traits emerge is through the process of discovery and invention. Someone perceives a need and invents something to meet that need. Seems a simple enough concept; however, it often takes a long time for a new invention to be totally integrated into a culture. Why? Because often other elements of the culture have to change to meet or maintain the needs of that new invention. This is referred to as culture lag. Let’s use the automobile as an example. The auto was invented as a mode of more efficient transportation. What else had to change to make the use of the auto efficient? Roads had to be constructed; a way to procure fuel needed to be developed; mechanics to fix cars; efficient production of cars; safety concerns, rules of the road, insurance… numerous other elements of culture had to catch up with the invention of the automobile.

pajamasAnother ways cultures change is through diffusion. Diffusion is simply the borrowing of traits. We could come up with a long laundry list of things we have in US culture that were borrowed from other cultures. Pajamas made their way to the US from India. Spaghetti was borrowed from China by way of Italy, and corn came from Mesoamerica. Ralph Linton, a noted anthropologist, wrote a short article entitled “One Hundred Percent American”. You’ll find a link to it in the Week 3 course materials page. It’s worth a read.

The last thing we need to cover is acculturation. Acculturation is also the borrowing of traits; however, there is a superordinate, or dominant, and subordinate relationship between cultures. The dominant culture picks and chooses those traits from the subordinate culture that it deems useful. The subordinate culture is pressured to adopt the traits of the dominant culture. This differs from how your textbook discusses acculturation, but we’re going to use this more specific approach to the concept.

melting pot graphicAcculturation happens a couple of different ways. One is called the Melting Pot, a term most of you are probably familiar with. The melting pot refers to a blending of cultures. This primarily occurs through intermarriage of people from the two cultures. What usually happens is that one of the cultures is dominant and the other subordinate so that only some of its traits are practiced.

ChinatownAnother form of acculturation is called the Salad Bowl, or cultural pluralism. This occurs when people immigrate and keep as many of its original cultural traits as possible. Chinatown in San Francisco is a good example of the salad bowl. Now there is still some of the melting pot occurring as people must adopt certain traits of the host country (the country the people moved to); i.e., the laws, but, they do keep as many traditions as possible.

Values & Norms

Values are abstract concepts that certain kinds of behaviors are good, right, ethical, moral and therefore desirable. In the United States, one value is freedom; another is equality.

These values can come from a variety of sub-cultures or social institutions. A society can have all of the values it wants, but if it doesn’t have a way to enforce those values, then having values means nothing.

So societies have developed forms of social control, which is the process people use to maintain order in group life.

There are two main categories of social control: norms and laws. A norm is a standard of behavior. At some point people in the society agree that these are standards. Some people learn by being taught, but mostly we pick them up just by being exposed to them.

There are a couple of types of norms: folkways and mores. Folkways are norms related to everyday life—eating with silverware, getting up in the morning and going to work or school for example. There are also mores, which are behaviors that are right or wrong…don’t kill people, don’t steal…

Some norms are explicitly taught, others are tacit—we pick them up through observation. We pick up forms of greeting, roles, which side of the sidewalk to walk on…the list could go on and on.

Sometimes, particularly in state-level societies, the mores are codified into laws or binding rules. So, stealing as a bad behavior becomes a crime. Murder—crime.

So, how do societies encourage compliance with norms and laws? There are rewards and punishment. For instance, if you kill someone in our society, if you’re caught, you go to trial and if found guilty, you go to prison, or you can be put to death. We have developed specific jobs and organizations that carry out enforcement of laws…police, court system, prison, military. These are official forms of social control enforcement. Now these forms don’t have to be negative. Some are positive…a good example would be something like a Citizen Hero award.

There is also informal enforcement of norms and laws. As with the official forms of social control enforcement, the unofficial can be both positive and negative—giving your child an allowance for completing chores is an example of positive enforcement; spanking or time outs are examples of negative enforcement. Peer pressure and religious doctrine are other informal methods of enforcement of both norms and laws. Ostracism, or shunning, is yet another.

However, there are times when norm or even law violations don’t result in punishment, but these types of violations are very specifically defined. For instance, it is generally accepted that if you kill someone in self-defense or in a time of war, the punishments do not apply.

Now, all of these norms and laws can be organized into a set of social institutions. A social institution is a patterned set of behaviors developed to meet perceived needs. This way people aren’t doing whatever they want whenever they want to meet their needs. In US culture, we treasure independence, but that independence must be exercised within the constructed social institutions. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who go outside of these social constraints, they do. That is actually important behavior in an evolutionary sense as it provides variation of behaviors. It is those behaviors where social change is instigated.

Anthropologists put these patterns of behavior into some general categories, for instance, economic systems, religion, expressive culture and social organization. The exact pattern varies from group to group, but the needs that are met is pretty much the same. We’ll be looking at some of these categories later in the quarter.

As we move through the quarter and read about other cultures, I’d like you to think about the values and norms of your own culture. When you have a reaction, particularly a strong reaction, stop and think about what values, norms and laws are being violated. This will help you have a deeper understanding of the material we cover in the course.

Bohannan, Paul and Mark Glazer. 1988. High Points in Anthropology, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Tylor, Edward Burnett. 1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. New York: J.P. Putnam’s Sons.