Culture (social)

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Culture encompasses the processes, values and manifestations of historic civil society. In its modern connotation culture is widely understood to pertain to heterogenous, hybridised human customs, protocols and activities in the terrain of culture, media, sport, arts, heritage and tourism.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2002) defined culture as "... the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or a social group..." that "encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs".

"Cultural Capital: Realising the potential of a world class city" (London, City Hall/Mayor of London 2004) states: "'Defining culture' - culture, media and sport.. the arts, tourism and sport; ancient monuments and sites; buildings and other structures which are of historical or architectural interest or which otherwise form part of the heritage..; museums and galleries; library services; archives; treasure, and antiquities of a movable nature; broadcasting, film production and other media of communication. as well as the broader creative industries, parks and open spaces".

Defining Culture

According to Raymond Williams[1], during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, "culture" came to mean, first, "a general state or habit of the mind"; second, "the general state of intellectual development in a society as a whole"; third, "the general body of the arts"; fourth, a whole way of life, material, intellectual and spiritual". Confusingly, all these meanings are still in use.

Culture in anthropology and social theory

Culture is notoriously hard to define, even for anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, who called culture the concept "around which the whole discipline of anthropology arose, and whose definition that discipline has been increasingly concerned to limit, specify, focus, and contain."[2] This difficulty arises from the fact that "culture" has not often been very well limited, specified, focused, or contained. Edward Sapir suggested that there are three different uses for the term "culture" that get confused: he identifies (1) a technical usage that seeks to "embody any socially inherited element in the life of man, material and spiritual", (2) a popular usage that "refers to a rather conventional ideal of individual refinement, built up on a certain modicum of assimilated knowledge and experience but made up chiefly of a set of typical reactions that have the sanction of a class and of a tradition of longstanding" and (3) a usage that "aims to embrace in a single term those general attitudes, views of life, and specific manifestations of civilization that give a particular people its distinctive place in the world."[3] The third usage Sapir identifies is closest to how the term "culture" is generally used when a person refers to "the culture of such-and-such a people." Yet there is no standardized definition for this general usage either; by way of example, Geertz points out:

In some twenty-seven pages of his chapter in the concept, Kluckhohn managed to define culture in turn as: (1) "the total way of life of a people"; (2) "the social legacy the individual acquires from his group"; (3) "a way of thinking, feeling, and believing"; (4) "an abstraction from behavior"; (5) a theory on the part of the anthropologist about the way in which a group of people in fact behave; (6) a "storehouse of pooled learning"; (7) "a set of standardized orientations to recurrent problems"; (8) "learned behavior"; (9) a mechanism for the normative regulation of behavior; (10) "a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men"; (11) "a precipitate of history"; and turning, perhaps in desperation, to similes, as a map, as a sieve, and as a matrix.[4]

This situation has led some scholars, like Radcliffe-Brown, to reject culture as an analytically useful concept on the grounds that it "denotes, not any concrete reality, but an abstraction, and as it is commonly used a vague abstraction."[5] Radcliffe-Brown's position is by no means universal, however, and anthropologists continue to expend a great deal of energy on the pursuit of a clear understanding and definition of culture. The origins of this effort may be traced back to the pioneering work of Franz Boas.[6][7] To understand what anthropologists mean by "culture", it is helpful to explore how the term has been used since Boas began to develop it.

Culture as aspirational

The term "culture" is also used in another sense, as an ideal state of mind and social relationships. In this sense Matthew Arnold defined it (in Culture and Anarchy) as: a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best that has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge turning a stream of fresh and free thought up on our stock notions and habits. This sense, once the predominant, is now less commonly used.


  1. Culture and Society 1780-1950. Chatto & Windus. 1958
  2. Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Sapir, Edward. 1924. Culture, Genuine and Spurious. The American Journal of Sociology 29(4): 401-429.
  4. Geertz 1973: 4-5
  5. Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1940. On Social Structure. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 70(1): 1-12.
  6. George W. Stocking. Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Marshall Sahlins. 1978. Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press