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What exactly is Culture?

What exactly is Culture?

Including Material and Mon-material aspects of Culture

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Sanskriti Blog
·Dec 13, 2022·

6 min read

Edited: Jan 25, 2023
Fixed typos

By now, you’ve heard the word culture many times and have come across people from different cultures. . You’ve experienced culture in cuisines, and the importance of understanding and respecting cultural differences. In today's increasingly globalized society, having an understanding of different cultures can be a valuable asset. Knowing how to interact with people from different backgrounds, as well as how to recognize and appreciate cultural nuances, can help to create and foster meaningful relationships.

Social science topics such as culture are rarely taught to software developers, and yet it is the most important element to be learned when developing software for clients from different cultures and geographies. The purpose of this article is to expose software developers, the general public, students, and anyone interested in culture, so that they can:

  • Expand general knowledge of the concept of culture

  • Be aware of its complex structure

  • Behave appropriately with people from different cultures and backgrounds

  • Be culturally considerate and avoid unnecessary confrontations

  • Refrain from using cultural biases for professional growth and development

Use this article as a reference to understand a culture, its characteristics and types. While this article provides an overview of culture so readers become aware of other cultures' attitudes, practices and identities, it does not cover topics such as individualistic and collectivist cultures. I will include them in my upcoming articles.

All the information I provide already exists in the public knowledge domain and can be accessed with a simple Google search query. This is my second Open Education Resource (OER). You can also cite this article in your research, school and college essays, and anywhere needed. I provide the APA citation nomenclature at the bottom of the article.


What is Culture?

We encounter culture every day. Everything you do has culture in it. Your hairstyle is an example of a culture that you are following. The food you eat is part of a culture. The dress you wear is part of a culture. So, is culture something that has a shape such as food, dress or a football, or is it just more of a behavior we exhibit? In this article, I show the definition of culture from the scientific literature (from year 1871), and next, I will discuss ways in which culture disseminates in our daily lives.

Many of us have heard about culture. You might have even come across the concept of culture through your friends, especially if they are from another country.

In a popular book from 1952, titled Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, American anthropologists Kroeber & Kluckhohn listed a whopping 164 definitions of culture.

There is no single way to define what culture is. Culture is a hard word to define, as it exists in many ways based on one's perspective. Depending on who you ask and what country you are in, culture can mean something different.

According to scientific literature, culture is usually regarded as something that defines the habits and behaviors of a community or society.

One widely accepted definition of culture is by E.B. Tylor (1832-1917):

Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society. (Tylor, 1871)

In other words, culture is the values, beliefs, norms and practices of a particular group that are learned and shared and that guide thinking, decisions and actions in a patterned way. Terms such as “male culture,” “gay culture,” “working-class culture,” and “agency culture”, refer to how a group creates artifacts, behaviors, and values in order to adapt to circumstances, to survive, and to live well (McAuliffe & McAuliffe, 2019, p. 11). Meaning, culture varies from one society to another.

But what do each of these attributes mean:

  • Values

    • Values are strong beliefs about what is good, right, fair, and just

    • Values provide the standards by which behavior and activities in a culture are evaluated

    • Examples: Self-respect, adaptability, uniqueness, assertiveness, open-mindedness, personal growth, etc.

  • Beliefs

    • Beliefs are ideas about how the world operates and what is true and false

    • A belief is a thought that a person (collectively held by a society) holds about something, usually based on knowledge, opinion or faith

    • Examples: Existence of God, the value of democratic government, the importance of individual and collective honor, the role of the family, etc.

  • Norms

    • Norms are defined as a guide or an expectation of a behavior or a set of predefined behaviors

    • Norms are agreed upon by a society as good, right, and important, according to which members of the society are supposed to behave.

    • Examples: Forming a line at checkout counters, saying 'bless you' when someone sneezes, holding the door to someone entering a building right after you, etc.

  • Practices

    • Practices are a form of knowledge created through the repetitive and routinized performance of action(s) in a particular social and cultural space

    • Practices require know-how, interpretation, intentions, and feelings

    • Examples: How to clothe oneself, eat, make fire, build a shelter, relate to others, construct a wheel, all the way to building a rocket and sending a human into outer space.

Here are some culture facts to keep your brain juices flowing. Culture is learned, not inherited, and cultural rules do not cause behavior; they influence peo­ple to behave similarly.

Types of Culture:

There are two types of culture: Material Culture and Non-material Culture

(Rao, 2012, p. 540).

  • Material Culture

    • Includes human-made things that are appropriated into human culture

    • Represent the social relation of culture, standing in for human beings, carrying values, ideas, and emotions

    • Include representations of many things

    • Have many meanings based on the history and biography of an individual, group, or society

    • Examples: Software, books, clothes, toys, decorations, art, shoes, musical instruments, cuisine, furniture, tools, sculptures, writing and alphabets, tattoos, TV, radio, machines, religious symbols, etc.

Picture showing examples of material culture, such as books, decorations, cuisine, dresses, and more from different cultures

  • Non-material Culture

    • Include abstract thoughts and rules

    • Exists in the collective imagination of the cultural group

    • Can also be turned into material culture through the creation of software, artifacts, writing of books, and so on, in ways that record and store culture so that it may be preserved into the future

    • Examples: Attitudes, beliefs, gestures, customs, morals, religion, literature, thoughts, traditions, social roles, laws, stories, body language, etiquette, castes, ceremonies, cooking styles, dance styles, festivals, dress code, friendships, gender identities and roles, ideologies, languages, etc.

Picture showing examples of non-material culture, such as Attitudes, beliefs, gestures, customs, morals, religion, literature, thoughts, traditions, social roles, laws

That's all for this time.

A quick shout out to the amazing open education resources (OER) community for supporting learners, educators, and everyone else. The illustrations presented in this article all came from Unsplash, and the 3x3 picture collage were made using BeFunky.

The original learning objective of this article is for the reader to gain a general understanding of culture, and how it is constructed with tangible and imaginative (i.e., material and non-material) artifacts. I hope the message went through as intended.

Thanks for reading.

Please collect your incentive: 🦄

ℹ️ References

Kroeber, A. L., & Kluckhohn, C. (1952). Culture: A critical review of concepts and definitions. Papers. Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard University.

McAuliffe, G. J., & McAuliffe, G. J. (Eds.). (2019). Culturally alert counseling: A comprehensive introduction. Sage Publications.

Rao, C. S. (2012). Sociology. S. Chand Publishing.

Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, art and custom (Vol. 2). J. Murray.

📙Additional Readings

Thompson, W. E., Hickey, J. V., & Thompson, M. L. (2016). Society in focus: An introduction to sociology. Rowman & Littlefield.

Barnard, A., & Spencer, J. (2009). The Routledge encyclopedia of social and cultural anthropology. Routledge.


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