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THE DEFINITIONS OF CULTURE

Introduction:

- 1952 – Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn uncovered three hundred definitions of
culture, many of which echo the definition of Tylor.

• This shows the richness of the complexity of the cultural phenomenon.

- We will limit ourselves to few definitions from different perspectives: anthropologists,


philosophers and theologians, and the United Nations definition of culture.

A. Definitions of Culture.

1. Edward Tylor (1832 - 1917).

- He gave the first systematic definition of culture in the Anthropology.

• A modern technical definition of culture: socially patterned human thought and


behaviour.
• In his own words:

Culture or civilization 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.

- He considered that culture was a uniquely human trait.

• He made a distinction between what is biologically inherited and what is


socially transmitted human traits.

 The biological, it is something naturally given


 The cultural, it is an inheritance learned and therefore can be unlearned
and modified to help solve human problems.
 If all aspects of culture were biologically inherited, we would need to
resort to genetic engineering to solve certain human problems (John H.
Bodley, 2000).

- Early anthropologists recognized the close biological kinship between humans and the
great apes - especially gorillas and chimpanzees.

• But they maintained that it was culture that produced a uniquely human way of
life.
• Culture requires superior, biologically based mental abilities.
• Tylor demonstrated this by the human’s use of the powerful symbolism of human
speech.

 In his own words:

To use words in themselves unmeaning, as symbols by which to conduct


and convey the complex intellectual processes in which mental
conceptions are suggested, compared, combined, and even analyzed and
new ones created - this is a faculty which is scarcely to be traced in any
lower animal. (Tylor 1875)

• John H. Bodley (2000) - The use of words and symbols is indeed one of the most
important features of culture.

 Tylor left out a lot of unanswered questions about culture.


 This has been the subject of debate by contemporary anthropologist.

 N.B. For a particular anthropologist, a technical definition of


culture is important because the definition influences his choice of
research problems, his methods and interpretations, and his
positions on public policy issues.

 There are two positions on this matter.

 One position would consider culture as a thing itself that simply


evolves as an abstract system.

• This would be an extreme position.


• It may be helpful for understanding the impact of cultures
on the physical environment, but it fails to consider the
decision making of individual human actors.

 Another position is coming from some contemporary


anthropologists (the postmodernists).

• They emphasize that culture itself, as well as every


ethnographic description of culture is constructed and
interpreted by individuals.

 In this sense, there is no absolute cultural reality.

• Rather, culture consists of the narratives and symbolic


dialogues that individuals construct - a view that
emphasizes the fluidity and dynamism of culture.
• The postmodern view is a humbling reminder of the
difficulties involved in sorting out cultural meanings.
• It is also a valuable anthropological tool for learning how
people construct and manipulate culture to gain power over
others.

 Tylor's basic definition of culture has served anthropology well, but in his
day, little was known about the behavior of chimpanzees, our closest
nonhuman relatives.

 Recent research with chimpanzees suggests that many aspects of


culture may not be unique to humans (Bodley 2000).

2. Ralph Linton (1893-1953) and Robert Lowie (1883-1957).

- Linton is an anthropologist who emphasizes culture as a "social heredity".

• The individual, inserted in a particular culture, inherits the cultural elements in a


given human group or society.

- Lowie, on the other hand, considers culture as the sum total of what an individual
acquires from his society - those beliefs, customs, artistic norms, food-habits, and crafts
which came to him not by his own creative activity but as a legacy from the past,
conveyed by formal and informal education.

 Both anthropologists emphasize social inheritance of culture in relation to the


making of an individual as a participant in a particular culture.

3. Alfred Kroeber (1948) and Clyde Kluckhon (1905-1960)

- They made some modifications to the definition of Tylor.

• These modifications are more refined, enriched and somehow has become a
standard reference to the definitions of culture.

- For Kroeber, culture is the mass of learned and transmitted motor reactions, habits,
techniques, ideas and values - and the behavior induce.
- For Kluckhon, culture is the total life-way of a people, the social legacy the individual
acquires from the group, the behavior acquired through learning.

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired
and transmitted by symbols constituting the distinctive achievement of human
groups, including their embodiment of artifacts; the essential core of culture
consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially
their attached value; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as
products of action, and the other, as conditioning elements of further action.

4. Raimon Panikkar (2000)

- He adds another definition of culture.

• For him, if all the later definitions say that culture is constituted by rituals,
customs, opinions, dominant ideas, ways of life which characterize a certain
people at a given period.

 If language is an essential element, history and geography are equally


cultural factors.
 He summarizes all that in a word myth.

- Myth, understood as symbolizing that which we believe at such a deep level that we are
not even aware that we believe it: "it is useless to say it," "it is understood," "it is
obvious," "we shall not pursue the investigation any further" ...

• We question myth only when we already partly stand outside it: this is because it
is precisely the myth which offers us the basis from which the question as
question makes sense.
• For the myth gives us the horizon of intelligibility where we must situate any
idea, any conviction or any act of consciousness so that they may be held by our
mind.

- Each culture is a galaxy which secretes its self-understanding, and with it, the criteria of
truth, goodness, and beauty of all human actions.

• Each culture, in a sense, could be described as the encompassing myth of a


collectivity at a certain moment in time and space; it is what renders plausible,
credible, the world in which we live, where we are.
• This accounts for the flexibility and mobility of myth as well as the impossibility
of grasping our own myth, except when we hear it from the mouth of others
because having accorded the latter certain credibility or when it has ceased to be a
myth for us.

- Myth and faith are correlative, just as there exists a special dialectic between mythos and
logos.
- Cultures are not folklore, as certain mainly political milieu are in the habit of
interpreting them, when they speak arrogantly and condescendingly of multicultural
tolerance.
• Cultures are not mere specific forms of a genus called human civilization.

• Each culture is a genus. Cultures are not abstract species of a single sovereign
genus. The sovereign genus, which would be human culture, exists only as an
abstraction.

- There are no cultural universals. But, there are human invariants.

• But the way according to which each one of the human invariants is lived and
experienced in each culture is distinct and distinctive in each case.

 By saying that there are no cultural universals, we are using a way


of thinking which is foreign to the modern "scientific" mentality,
in which predominates (when not dominates) simple objectivity
(and objectibility) of the real.

• Culture is not simply an object, since we are constitutively immersed in it as


subjects. It is the one that makes it possible for us to see the world as objects,
since self-consciousness, i.e. subjectivity, essentially belongs to the human being.

- Cultural respect requires that we respect those ways of life that we disapprove, or even
those that we consider as pernicious.

• We may be obliged to go as far as to combat these cultures, but we cannot elevate


our own to the rank of universal paradigm in order to judge the other ones.

5. Louis Luzbetak (1988)

- He is a missiologist. In his book "The Church and Cultures", he underlines the symbolic
or semiotic view of culture as of special importance for the church (1988: 1.39).
- As basic elements for a definition of culture the following must be considered:

Culture is:

• a plan

• consisting of a set of norms, standards and associated notions and beliefs

• for coping with the various demands of life

• shared by a social group

• learned by the individual from the society, and


• organized into a

• dynamic system of control.

- Thus, for him, culture is a "socially shared design for living", it is a "plan according to
which society adapts itself to its physical, social and ideational environment." (1988:
155,157)

• According to him, a plan for coping with the physical environment would include
such matters as: food production and all technological knowledge and skill.
• The social adaptation would include: political systems, kinship, family
organization and law as a plan according to which one is to interact with his
fellows.
• The ideational environment would refer to knowledge, art, magic, science,
philosophy and religion.
• He considers different cultures as "but different answers to essentially the same
human problems." (1963:61)

6. Karl Rahner (1980)

- A famous catholic theologian, sees the necessity of culture as the human being's
fundamental task:

• "This term designates the shaping of man himself and of his world through the
exercise of his own mind and freedom. Man can never exist without culture, for
he necessarily exists as an embodied being (objectifying himself in his
corporeality and its surroundings) and as a personal being who has freely
fulfilled himself; therefore, culture is his fundamental task (Gen. 1:28), in
accomplishing which he also realizes his relationship with God."

- Therefore, a culture is a complex but integrated and interacting dynamic whole.

• In short, "culture is the way of life, ethos, or life-style of a people.


• People create cultures and cultures influence and mould their growth and
behaviour."

7. UNESCO: Culture is the "set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional
features of society or a social group and that it encompasses, in addition to art and
literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs".
[UNESCO, 2002]
B. Aspects and Functions of Culture.

1) Aspects of Culture

- There are three aspects of culture: (1) mental, or what people think, (2) behavioral, or
what people do, and (3) material, or what people produce.
- Anthropologists vary in their emphasis:

• Tylor originally proposed, mental processes, beliefs, knowledge, and values all
can be considered part of culture.

 But human actors and actions also are important.


 In this respect, culture is the socially transmitted information that shapes
human action.

• Some anthropologists would define culture entirely as mental rules guiding


behaviour, although they would recognize as well the often wide gap between the
acknowledge rules for correct behaviour and peoples actual conduct.
• Some researchers focus on human behaviour and its material products rather than
on the underlying mental information producing them.

- Added to these aspects are some important features:

• Culture is socially transmitted and shared, symbolic and patterned.


• Culture is conservative, yet it changes, it has a history, and it tells people what is
best and proper. The shared aspect of culture means that it is a social
phenomenon; idiosyncratic behavior is not cultural.
• Culture is leaned, not biologically inherited, and as Tylor noted, it involves
arbitrarily assigned, symbolic meanings.

 For example: Americans are not born knowing that the color white means
purity, and indeed this is not a universal symbol for purity. (In East Asia,
white often symbolizes death).
 The human ability to assign arbitrarily meaning to any object, behavior or
condition makes culture enormously creative and helps distinguish culture
from animal behavior.
 This also means that people can change cultures in positive ways

2) Functions of Culture.

- Culture also has primary functions. Culture exists to guarantee human survival and
reproduction.
- Culture is the unique means by which people in a given society satisfy their human needs,
regulate the size of their society and the distribution of social power; and manage natural
resources.
- Culture gives people power to produce and distribute resources in ways that can make
entire groups prosper or decline.

• How culture is used as a means of power over the natural environment is clearly
one of the keys to human survival and well-being.
• Effective adaptation to the natural environment implies more than mere survival.
It involves establishing a sustainable balance between resources and consumption
while maintaining a satisfying and secure society.
• Because environments change constantly, adaptation is an ongoing process

- Tylor's basic definition of culture has served anthropology well, but in his day, little was
known about the behavior of chimpanzees, the human being's closest non-human
relatives.

• Recent research on chimpanzees suggests that many aspects of culture may not be
unique to humans.