Definition/Characteristics of Culture

  • Define the concept of culture;
  • Describe the basic features of culture;
  • Identify the key elements of culture; and
  • Understand other main concepts related to culture

Definition of culture

Before going any further, it maybe important to note that common people often misuse the concept of culture.Some misconceptions about the to term culture include:

  1. Many people inthe western world use the term culture in the sense that some people are more “cultured”than others. This basically emanates from the idea associated with the rootword of the term culture, “kulture” in German, which refers to“civilization”. Thus, when one is said to be “cultured”, he or she is saidto be civilized. For sociologists and anthropologists, “culture includesmuch more than refinement, taste, sophistication, education and appreciation ofthe fine arts. Not only college graduates but also all people are ‘cultured’”Kottak (2002: 272).
  2. A secondcommonly used misconception is that which equates “culture” with thingswhich are colorful, customs, cloths, foods, dancing, music, etc. As Kottak (op.cit p.525) argues, “… many [people] have come to think of culture in termsof colorful customs, music, dancing and adornments clothing, jewelry andhairstyles…. Taken to an extreme, such images portray culture as recreationaland ultimately unserious rather than something that ordinary people live everydayof their lives not just when they have festivals” (Ibid. P. 525).
  3. A thirdmisconception about what culture is and what it constitutes is that which maybe entertained by many common people here in Ethiopia. This misconception issimilar to the second one, but it differs from it in that most people herethink culture (as conceptualized in its local language for example, bahil inAmharic) is that which pertains to unique traditional material objects or non –material things of the past. According to this view, the cultural may not includethings (material or non – material), which are modern, more ordinary, day-to –day, life aspects. Here, the simple, ordinary social, economic and otheractivities, ideas and affairs are regarded as not cultural or somewhat “less cultural”although not clearly stated.

The concept of culture is one ofthe most widely used notions in sociology. It refers to the whole ways of lifeof the members of a society. It includes what they dress, their marriagecustoms and family life, art, and patterns of work, religious ceremonies,leisure pursuits, and so forth. It also includes the material goods theyproduce:

 bows and arrows, plows, factories and machines, computers,books, buildings, airplanes, etc (Calhoun, et al, 1994; Hensilnand Nelson, 1995).

The concept of culture has beendefined by hundreds of times by sociologists and anthropologists, emphasizing differentdimensions. However, most often scholars have focused on eh symbolic dimensionof culture; that culture is essentially symbolic (see below).

Basic Characteristics of Culture

  1. Culture isorganic and supra-organic: It is organic when we consider the fact that thereis no culture without human society. It is supra organic, because it is farbeyond any individual lifetime. Individuals come and go, but culture remainsand persists Calhoun (op cit).
  2. Culture isovert and covert: It is generally divided into material andnon-material cultures. Material culture consists of any tangible human madeobjects such as tools, automobiles, buildings, etc. Non material cultureconsists of any non-physical aspects like language, belief, ideas, knowledge,attitude, values, etc.
  3. Culture isexplicit and implicit: It is explicit when we consider those actions whichcan be explained and described easily by those who perform them. It is implicitwhen we consider those things we do, but are unable to explain them, yet webelieve them to be so.
  4. Culture isideal and manifest (actual): Ideal culture involves the way people ought tobehave or what they ought to do. Manifest culture involves what people actuallydo.
  5. Culture isstable and yet changing: Culture is stable when we consider what people holdvaluable and are handing over to the next generation in order to maintain theirnorms and values. However, when culture comes into contact with other cultures,it can change. However, culture changes not only because of direct or indirectcontact between cultures, but also through innovation and adaptation to new circumstances.
  6. Culture isshared and learned: Culture is the public property of a social group ofpeople (shared). Individuals get cultural knowledge of the group throughsocialization. However, we should note that all things shared among peoplemight not be cultural, as there are many biological attributes which peopleshare among themselves (Kottak, 2002).
  7. Culture issymbolic: It is based on the purposeful creation and usage of symbols; it isexclusive to humans. Symbolic thought is unique and crucial to humans and toculture. Symbolic thought is the human ability to give a thing or event anarbitrary meaning and grasp and appreciate that meaning Symbols are the centralcomponents of culture. Symbols refer to anything to which people attach meaningand which they use to communicate with others. More specifically, symbols arewords, objects, gestures, sounds or images that represent something else ratherthan themselves. Symbolic thought is unique and crucial to humans and to culture.It is the human ability to give a thing or event an arbitrary meaning and graspand appreciate that meaning. There is no obvious natural or necessary connectionbetween a symbol and what it symbolizes (Henslin and Nelson, 1995; Macionis, 1997).Culture thus works in the symbolic domain emphasizing meaning, rather than the technical/practicalrational side of human behavior. All actions have symbolic content as well asbeing action in and of themselves. Things, actions, behaviors, etc, alwaysstand for something else than merely, the thing itself.

Basic features of culture

Culture isorganic and supraorganic

Culture isimplicit and explicit

Culture isstable and changing

Culture isovert and covert

Culture islearned and shared

Culture issymbolic

Culture isideal and manifest

Elements of Culture

Culture includes within itselfelements that make up the essence of a society or a social group. The majorones include: Symbols, values, norms, and language (See Henslin andNelson, 1995; Calhoun et al. 1994).


Symbols are the centralcomponents of culture. Symbols refer to anything to which people attach meaningand which they use to communicate with others. More specifically, symbols arewords, objects, gestures, sounds or images that represent something else ratherthan themselves. Symbolic thought is unique and crucial to humans and toculture. It is the human ability to give a thing or event an arbitrary meaningand grasp and appreciate that meaning. There is no obvious natural or necessaryconnection between a symbol and what it symbolizes.


Language, specifically defined asa system of verbal and in many cases written symbols with rules about how thosesymbols can be strung together to convey more complex meanings, is thedistinctive capacity and possession of humans; it is a key element of culture.

Culture encompasses language, andthrough language, culture is communicated and transmitted. Without language itwould be impossible to develop, elaborate and transmit culture to the futuregeneration.


Values are essential elements ofnon-material culture. They may be defined as general, abstract guidelines for ourlives, decisions, goals, choices, and actions. They are shared ideas of a groupsor a society as to what is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, desirable or undesirable,acceptable or unacceptable, ethical or unethical, etc., regarding something.They are general road maps for our lives.

Values are shared and are learnedin group. They can be positive or negative. For example, honesty, truth –telling, respect for others, hospitality, helping those in need, etc arepositive values. Examples of negative values include theft, indecency,disrespect, dishonesty, falsehood, frugality, etc. The Hippocratic Oath inmedical profession dictates that practitioners should among other things, keepthe secrets of patients, provide them whatever help they can, do no harm topatients willingly, etc. This is an example of positive value.

Values are dynamic, meaning theychange over time.

They are also static, meaningthey tend to persist without any significant modification. Values are also diversified,meaning they vary from place to place and culture to culture. Some values areuniversal because there is bio- psychological unity among people everywhere andall times. In other words, they emanate from the basic similarity of mankind’sorigins, nature and desires. For example, dislike for killing people, concepts andpractices of disease management, cleanliness, personal hygiene, cosmetics,incest taboo, etc.


Norms are also essential elementsof culture. They are implicit principles for social life, relationship and interaction.Norms are detailed and specific rules for specific situations. They tell us howto do something, what to do, what not to do, when to do it, why to do it, etc.Norms are derived from values. That means, for every specific norm, there is ageneral value that determines its content.

Individuals may not act accordingto the defined values and norms of the group. Therefore, violation of values andnorms and deviating from the standard values and norms are often common. Socialnorms may be divided into two. These are moresand folkways

Mores: Are important and stronger social norms for existence,safety, well-being and continuity of the society or the group or society.Violation of, and deviation from these kinds of norms, may result in seriousreactions form the groups. The strongest norms are regarded as the formal lawsof a society or a group.

Formal laws are written andcodified social norms. The other kinds of mores are called conventions.

Conventions are established rulesgoverning behavior; they are generally accepted ideals by the society.

Conventions may also be regardedas written and signed agreements between nations to govern the behaviors ofindividuals, groups and nations.

Folkways: Are the ways of life developed by a group of people.They are detailed and minor instructions, traditions or rules for day-to-daylife that help us function effectively and smoothly as members of a group.Here, violating such kinds of norms may not result in a serious punishmentunlike violating mores. They are less morally binding. In other words, folkwaysare appropriate ways of behaving and doing things. Examples may include tableetiquette, dressing rules, walking, talking, etc.

Conformity to folkways usuallyoccurs automatically without any national analysis and is based upon custom passedfrom generation to generation. They are not enforced by law, but by informalsocial control. They are not held to be important or obligatory as mores, ormoral standards, and their violation is not as such severely sanctioned.Although folkways are less binding, people have to behave according to acceptedstandards. Some exceptional behaviors are regarded eccentric behaviors.

Folkways are distinguished fromlaws and mores in that they are designed, maintained and enforced by public sentiment,or custom, whereas laws are institutionalized, designed, maintained andenforced by the political authority of the society. Folkways in turn may bedivided into two sub types: fashion and custom.

Fashion: Is a form of behavior, type of folkways that is sociallyapproved at a given time but subject to periodic change. Adherents combine bothdeviation and conformity to norm of a certain group.

Custom: Is a folkway or form of social behavior that, havingpersisted a long period of time, has become traditional and well established ina society and has received some degree of formal recognition. Custom is a patternof action shared by most or all members of a society. Habit is a personalitytrait, whereas the custom is a group trait. Fashion and customs can be differentiatedin that while custom changes at slower rate, fashion changes at a faster rate.

Culture Variability and Explanations

Cultural variability refers to thediversity of cultures across societies and places. As there are different societies,there are different cultures. The diversity of human culture is remarkable.Values and norms of behavior vary widely from culture to culture often contrastingin radical ways (Broom and Sleznki, 1973).

For example, Jews do not eatpork, while Hindus eat pork but avoid beef. Cultural diversity or variabilitycan be both between societies and within societies. If we take the twosocieties, Ethiopia and India, there are great, sharp cultural diversitiesbetween the two societies. On the other hand, within both societies, there isremarkable cultural variability. Cultural variability between societies mayresult in divergent health and disease conditions. For example, variations innutritional habits are closely linked to the types of diseases. The prevalenceof tapeworm among raw-meat eating people may be a case in point.

We use the concept of subculture to denote the variability of culture within a certainsociety. Sub culture is a distinctive culture that is shared by a group withina society (Stockard, 1997). We call it sub culture, because groups (with theirsub cultures) exist within and as a smaller part of the main, dominant culture.Examples of subculture could be the distinctive culture of university students,street children and prostitutes in Addis Ababa, the culture of medicalprofessionals, etc.

Why cultures vary from society tosociety? Sociologists, anthropologists, cultural geographers and other social scientistshave studied the causes for cultural variations among (between) societies.Various arguments have been provided the variation, including geographical factors,racial determination, demographic factors, span of interest and mere historicchances. Those who argued for racial determination believe that cultural variationis genetically determined. Geographic factors include: climate, altitude, andso forth. Included in demographic factors are changes in population structure,population increase, etc., whereas by span of interest is meant cultures varyas people’s interest in life also varies. Cultural variation is due to merehistorical chances; a particular group of people may develop a culture as it isexposed to certain historical circumstances and opportunities.

However, no one explanation issufficient by itself; anthropologists now reject particular deterministic explanationsuch as those based on race; rather cultural variations are accounted for bymore holistic explanations.

Ethnocentrism, Cultural Relativismand Culture Shock


We often tend to judge othercultures by comparison with our own. It is not logically possible and proper tounderestimate or overestimate or judge other cultures on the basis of one’s culturalstandard. Ethnocentrism, in general, is an attitude of taking one’s own cultureand ways of life as the best and the center of all and on the other hand,regarding other ethnic groups and cultures as inferior, bad, full of errors,etc. It is the tendency to apply one’s own cultural values in judging thebehavior and beliefs of people raised in other cultures. It is a culturaluniversal. People everywhere think that familiar explanations, opinion, andcustoms as true, right, proper and moral. They regard different behavior asstrange or savage (Macionis, 1997; Hensllin and Nelson, 1995).

Cultural Relativism

Every society has its ownculture, which is more or less unique. Every culture contains its own uniquepattern of behavior which may seem alien to people from other cultural backgrounds.We cannot understand the practices and beliefs separately from the widerculture of which they are part. A culture has to be studied in terms of its ownmeanings and values. Cultural relativism describes a situation where there isan attitude of respect for cultural differences rather than condemning otherpeople’s culture as uncivilized or backward (Stockard, 1997).

Respect for cultural differencesinvolves:

  • Appreciating cultural diversity;
  • Accepting and respecting other cultures;
  • Trying to understand every culture and its elements interms of its own context and logic;
  • Accepting that each body of custom has inherentdignity and meaning as the way of life of one group which has worked out to itsenvironment, to the biological needs of its members, and to the grouprelationships;
  • Knowing that a person’s own culture is only one amongmany; and
  • Recognizing that what is immoral, ethical, acceptable,etc, in one culture may not be so in another culture.

Cultural relativism may beregarded as the opposite of ethnocentrism. However, there is some problem withthe argument that behavior in a particular culture should not be judged by thestandards of another. This is because in its extremeness, it argues that thereis no superior, international or universal morality.

To sum up the issues ofethnocentrism and cultural relativism, the concepts involve difficult choices, dilemmasand contradictions regarding cultural exchanges and relationships between andwithin societies. The dilemmas and contradictions become clear when we see thatthe traditional anthropological position maintains that every cultural beliefsand practice, including for example the ones which are termed as “harmfultraditional practices” in Ethiopia, are part and parcel of the general culturalsystem of a society and therefore they should not be judged and undermined byany outsider. On the other hand, the dilemma is taken to the extreme culturalrelativism appears to entail a fallacy, in that it implies that there are nouniversal cultural or moral standard by which actions and beliefs have to be judged.Yet still, even cultural anthropologists accept the idea that there are some culturalstandards which are universally found everywhere, expressed for example in theworld’s major religions.

In any case there may be no ready-madesolutions to this dilemma; however, what we can at present maintain is thatcultural diversity has to be respected and yet international standards ofjustice and human rights have to be taken into account.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is the psychologicaland social maladjustment at micro or macro level that is experienced for the firsttime when people encounter new cultural elements such as new things, new ideas,new concepts, seemingly strange beliefs and practices.

No person is protected from cultureshock. However, individuals vary in their capacity to adapt and overcome theinfluence of culture shock. Highly ethnocentric people are exposed widely toculture shock. On the other hand, cultural relativists may find it easy toadapt to new situations and overcome culture shock (Henslin and Nelson, 1995).

Cultural Universals, Alternatives andSpecialties

Cultural Universals

Although there are as manydifferent and unique cultures as societies, there are some cultural practices thatare universal. Amid the diversity of human cultural behavior, there are somecommon features that are found in virtually all societies. Cultural universality refers tothose practices, beliefs, values, norms, material objects, etc., which are observedacross all societies in the world, or across different social groups within a society.

For example, every culture has agrammatically complex language. All societies have some recognized form of familysystem in which there are values and norms associated with the care of children.The institution of marriage, religious rituals, and property rights are all culturaluniversals. All societies have some form of incest prohibition. Anthropologisthave identified variety of more cultural universals including the existence ofart, dancing, bodily adornments, games, gift giving, joking and rules ofhygiene. Cultural universals condition behavioral similarityamong individuals in a given society or across societies. They do not allowdifferences in actions and behaviors, lifestyle, attitude, behaviors, etc (Broomand Selzenki, 1973).

A list of some cultural universals


age grading, faith healing, joking,pregnancy usages, athletics, family, kin groups, property rites, bodilyadornments, feasting, kin terminology, puberty customs, calendar, fire making, language,religious rituals, community organization, folklore, magic, residence rules, cookingfood, taboos, marriage, sexual restrictions, cooperative labor, funeral rites, mealtimes,soul concepts, cosmology, games,medicine, status differentiation, courtship,gestures, modesty, trade, dancing, gift giving, mourning, tool making, decorativelabor, greetings, music, visiting, division of labor, hair styles, mythology,weaning, dream interpretation, hospitality, numerals, weather control, education,housing, obstetrics, ethics, hygiene, personal names,, ethnobotany, incesttaboos, population policy, etiquette, inheritance rules, postnatal care


Source: Scupin, Raymond and Christopher R. DeCorse (1995). Anthropology,a Global Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Cultural Alternatives and Specialties

There are many different optionsfor doing the same thing. For example, care for a patient is a universal aspectof cultures; but the way people care for patients varies. There are manydiverse ways of doing the same thing. This is called cultural alternative. Inother words, cultural alternatives refer to two or more forms of behavior in aparticular society which are acceptable in a given situation. These alternativesrepresent different reactions to the same situations or different techniques toachieve the same end. Cultural alternatives are (also) the types of choicesthat allow for differences in ideas, customs and lifestyles. Modernindustrialized societies offer far more cultural alternatives than had many societiesof the past.

On the other hand, culturalspecialties refer to the specific skills, training, knowledge, etc. which islimited to a group or specific members of society. They are those elements of culturewhich are shared by the members of certain social groups but which are not sharedby the total population. Cultural specialties cause behavioral differences amongpeople as opposed to cultural universals.

The Concepts of Culture Lag andCulture Lead

Culture is dynamic. When culturechange occurs, the change is usually not evenly distributed across material and non-material dimensions ofculture. The rate of change is not balanced. Material culture may change at afaster rate than non- material culture. The growth in science and technology inwestern, industrialized societies for example, does not seem to be matched by thenecessary changes and appropriate adjustment of adaptive culture. That isnon-material culture changes slowly. This condition is termed as culture lag.

Associated with the rapid growthin material culture are usually crisis in the realm of amorality, social and culturaldilemmas, which in turn result in various social pathologies such as extremeform of individualism, alienation, the state of normlessness, suicide, etc(Team of Experts, 2000).

On the other hand, in some lessdeveloped societies, the change of non-material culture may outpace the materialculture. When this occurs, it is called culture lead.Due to the effect of globalization and rapid assimilation processes, peoplein the Third World are accustomed to the ideology and cultures of the Western

World, though their material cultureis not changing keeping pace with non- material culture.

Global Culture and CulturalImperialism

Before closing this chapter, itmay be important to note few things on the issues of cultural exchange intoday’s globalizing world. One of the main aspects of globalization is that arelatively uniform world culture is taking shape today in the world. The globalculture may entail all speaking the some language, share the same values and norms,and sustain common und of knowledge as of residents of the same community (Kottak2002). Global culture may also be associated with cultural imperialism, the unequalcultural exchange in the global system whereby western material and non-materialcultures have come to occupy a dominating and imposing roles over the indigenouscultures of the Third World peoples.

The global culture is often promotedby:

  1. The globalspread of capitalism
  2. Consumerismand the consumer culture
  3. The growth oftransnational media, particularly electronic mass media such as BBC, CNN, etc. Thetransnational media have often promoted the aggressive promotion that its valuesystem is superior and preferable to those of other non–western cultures


  • Definethe term “culture”.
  • Listand discuss the elements of culture.
  • Discussthe main characteristics of culture.
  • Whydo cultures vary between societies?
  • Whatare subcultures? How are sub-culturescreated? Think of acertain heath service rendering set up. Mentions someof the examples of subcultures in such set up
  • Whatare cultural universals? Why and how docultural universalscondition behavioral similarities among persons of asimilar society or social group?
  • Whyand how does culture shock occur?
  • Discussthe examples of culture lead and culture lag inour contemporary Nigeria culture.

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