Definition of the Word “Culture”

Updated October 13, 2020
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Definition of the Word “Culture” essay

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The word ‘culture’ like most other sociological concepts has both a popular as well as sociological(concerning the development, structure, and functioning of human society)meaning. In ordinary conversation and even in different branches of knowledge, it is used differently. Often it is used for higher things of mind like art, music, literature and paintings. It is also used in the sense of ‘cultured’ or ‘refinement’ or to convey such things as social charm, enlightenment, intellectual excellence, sweetness, and so on.

All these connotations are loaded with value judgement. Sociologists as scientists do not use the term ‘culture’ in any sense of evaluation, such as good or bad, ethical or unethical, beautiful or ugly, cultured or uncultured or high and popular culture. Sociologists use it in an objective or neutral sense, devoid of any sense of value judgement.

In Hindi, the word sanskriti is used as an equivalent for the English term ‘culture’ which is derived from the Sanskrit term samaskar. Samaskar denotes the process of refinement through some ritual performance. In Hindu culture, it is held that man is born as an asocial being. He becomes social and cultural man by going through the various samaskars performed from time to time throughout life from birth to death.

In social sciences, the facts of human life are taken as they are. They are not judged qualitatively. It follows that no culture is good or bad but they may differ from one another, for example, the cultures of Chinese, Japanese or British, Hindus or Todas of Nilgiris are quite different cultures.

Sociologists use the term ‘culture’ to refer to the ‘ways of life’ of the people or of groups within a society. This way of life is expressed in group’s norms, customs and values and in the shared expression (history) along with language. This is also reflected in the dress pattern, way of cooking and eating, birth, marriage and funeral customs, family life, patterns of work, religious ceremonies, festivals, leisure pursuits and so many other things.

It includes:

  • inherited artifacts, goods, technical processes, and
  • social heritages, ideas, habits, values, customs, attitudes, morals, law and art which have some meaning to the group.

Therefore, Indian flag is an aspect of culture as much as the national anthem. In Christians to wear a specially made white gown by the bride in the wedding and in Thai tradition that no one be allowed to touch the queen reflects aspects of different cultures.

These differences in aspects of culture differentiate one society from another. In brief, culture is the totality of learned socially transmitted behaviour. It encompasses all the human phenomena that are not the products of biological inheritance.

Sir Edward Tylor was an English anthropologist and the founder of cultural anthropology, which is the study of human societies and cultures and their development. The classic definition of culture given by him as early as in 1871 and which has been accepted by almost all sociologists and cultural anthropol­ogists, reads as follows: ‘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 society.’

The above definition clearly states that culture is not something which is genetically determined but it is socially transmitted through the process of communication. In sociological parlance, this process is known as ‘socialization’. It is socially learned and shared by the members of a society.

Paraphrasing the above definition of Tylor, noted social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski called culture a social heritage which consists of both material (tangible) and non-material (intangible) things. This view has been extended by David Bidney, who defined culture as ‘the product of agro facts (products of cultivation), artifacts (products of industry), socio-facts (social organization) and mentifacts (language, religion, art and so on)’.

Early noted sociological writers R.M. MacIver and C.H. Page contended that ‘culture is the expression of our nature in our modes of living and thinking, in our everyday intercourse, in art, in literature, in religion, in recreation and enjoyment.’

Summarizing all the above definitions of culture, we may put it in a very simple terms as ‘culture’ is what we are (our dress pattern, eating patterns, languages, greeting ways, etc.), what we do (our all types of activities and pursuits such as agricultural, industrial, educational, political, informational, etc.) and what we have (tangible and intangible social and cultural heritage).

It is important to note here that culture does not refer to what people actually do, but to the ideas they share about what they do and the material objects that they use. The act of eating with spoon is not culture but the shared expectations (ideas) attached to the act of eating is culture.

Definition of the Word “Culture” essay

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