Defining Culture

We have spent a lot of time talking about culture without really defining it and to complicate matters more, there are many definitions of culture and it is used in different ways by different people. When someone says, “My company has a competitive culture,” does it mean the same thing as when another person says, “I’m taking my children to the museum so they can get some culture”? For purposes of this module we are going to define culture as patterns of learned and shared behavior that are cumulative and transmitted across generations.

Patterns: There are systematic and predictable ways of behavior or thinking across members of a culture. Patterns emerge from adapting, sharing, and storing cultural information. Patterns can be both similar and different across cultures. For example, in both Canada and India it is considered polite to bring a small gift to a host’s home. In Canada, it is more common to bring a bottle of wine and for the gift to be opened right away. In India, by contrast, it is more common to bring sweets, and often the gift is set aside to be opened later.

Sharing: Culture is the product of people sharing with one another. Humans cooperate and share knowledge and skills with other members of their networks. The ways they share, and the content of what they share, helps make up culture. Older adults, for instance, remember a time when long-distance friendships were maintained through letters that arrived in the mail every few months. Contemporary youth culture accomplishes the same goal through the use of instant text messages on smartphones.

Learned: Behaviors, values, norms are acquired through a process known as enculturation that begins with parents and caregivers, because they are the primary influence on young children. Caregivers teach kids, both directly and by example, about how to behave and how the world works. They encourage children to be polite, reminding them, for instance, to say “Thank you.” They teach kids how to dress in a way that is appropriate for the culture.

Culture teaches us what behaviors and emotions are appropriate or expected in different situations. In some societies, it is considered appropriate to conceal anger. Instead of expressing their feelings outright, people purse their lips, furrow their brows, and say little. In other cultures, however, it is appropriate to express anger. In these places, people are more likely to bare their teeth, furrow their brows, point or gesture, and yell (Matsumoto, Yoo, & Chung, 2010).

Crowd of soccer fans wearing team colors of yellow and gold. A man in the center has half his face painted green and half his face painted yellow. He is yelling and cheering.
Culture teaches us what behaviors and emotions are appropriate or expected in different situations. [Image: Portal de Copa,, CC BY 3.0]

Members of a culture also engage in rituals which are used to teach people what is important. For example, young people who are interested in becoming Buddhist monks often have to endure rituals that help them shed feelings of specialness or superiority—feelings that run counter to Buddhist doctrine. To do this, they might be required to wash their teacher’s feet, scrub toilets, or perform other menial tasks. Similarly, many Jewish adolescents go through the process of bar and bat mitzvah. This is a ceremonial reading from scripture that requires the study of Hebrew and, when completed, signals that the youth is ready for full participation in public worship. These examples help to illustrate the concept of enculturation.

Cumulative: Cultural knowledge is information that is “stored” and then the learning grows across generations. We understand more about the world today than we did 200 years ago, but that doesn’t mean the culture from long ago has been erased. For instance, members of the Haida culture, a First Nations people in British Columbia, Canada are able to profit from both ancient and modern experiences. They might employ traditional fishing practices and wisdom stories while also using modern technologies and services.

Transmission: Passing of new knowledge and traditions of culture from one generation to the next, as well as across other cultures is cultural transmission. In everyday life, the most common way cultural norms are transmitted is within each individuals’ home life. Each family has its own, distinct culture under the big picture of each given society and/or nation. With every family, there are traditions that are kept alive. The way each family acts and communicates with others and an overall view of life are passed down. Parents teach their kids every day how to behave and act by their actions alone. Outside of the family, culture can be transmitted at various social institutions like places of worship, schools, even shopping centers are places where enculturation happens and is transmitted.

Understanding culture as a learned pattern of thoughts and behaviors is interesting for several reasons. First, it highlights the ways groups can come into conflict with one another. Members of different cultures simply learn different ways of behaving. Teenagers today interact with technologies, like a smartphone, using a different set of rules than people who are in their 40s, 50s, or 60s. Older adults might find texting in the middle of a face-to-face conversation rude while younger people often do not.

These differences can sometimes become politicized and a source of tension between groups. One example of this is Muslim women who wear a hijab, or headscarf. Non-Muslims do not follow this practice, so occasional misunderstandings arise about the appropriateness of the tradition. Second, understanding that culture is learned is important because it means that people can adopt an appreciation of patterns of behavior that are different than their own. Finally, understanding that culture is learned can be helpful in developing self-awareness. For instance, people from the United States might not even be aware of the fact that their attitudes about public nudity are influenced by their cultural learning. While women often go topless on beaches in Europe and women living a traditional tribal existence in places like the South Pacific also go topless, it is illegal for women in some of the United States to do so.

A black and white vintage photo shows a woman is standing in one piece bathing suit. She is standing with her hands behind her back.
Australian swimmer Annette Kellermann was arrested in the United States for indecency in 1907 for wearing a one piece swimsuit in public. [Image in the Public Domain]

These cultural norms for modesty that are reflected in government laws and policies also enter the discourse on social issues such as the appropriateness of breastfeeding in public. Understanding that your preferences are, in many cases, the products of cultural learning might empower you to revise them if doing so will lead to a better life for you or others.

Humans use culture to adapt and transform the world they live in and you should think of the word culture as a conceptual tool rather than as a uniform, static definition. Culture changes through interactions with individuals, media, and technology, just to name a few. Culture generally changes for one of two reasons: selective transmission or to meet changing needs. This means that when a village or culture is met with new challenges, for example, a loss of a food source, they must change the way they live. It could also include forced relocation from ancestral domains due to external or internal forces. For example, in the United States tens of thousands Native Americans were forced to migrate from their ancestral lands to reservations established by the United States government so it could acquire lands rich with natural resources. The forced migration resulted in death, disease and many cultural changes for the Native Americans as they adjusted to new ecology and way of life.


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Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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