There have been varying definitions of the term "culture," but all surround human activity. Cultural researcher Raymond Williams wrote in 1958 that culture is a "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." A 2002 article by the United Nations agency UNESCO quotes this definition and agrees with it. But as far back as 1871, Sir Edward B. Tylor referred to culture as "civilization" saying that it is a "complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Many people view the latter as the more suitable definition.
What is culture?
Of course, many people think of music, art and other intellectual and creative aspects of society when they hear about "culture." This is a correct though very different definition of the term. It implies that one set of people can be more cultured (i.e. more civilized) than another. Some cultural theorists, in favor of this use of the word, have even attempted to eliminate the traditional definition of culture as the defining characteristic of a communal set of human activity. Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), for instance told us that culture is "the best that has been thought and said in the world,” and refers to it as the "pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world" (Arnold, 1882).
In this second usage, the term culture is used to describe the elite aspects of society, haute couture fashion, museum-quality art, opera, and the finest cuisine available at luxury restaurants, to name a few. It is interesting to note that people who use the term "culture" in this way always use the singular tense, implying that there is but one culture - and this encompasses all that is of the highest quality of human expression. They do not embrace the definition of culture as one that refers to all distinct groups of people.
Those who believe that the term truly belongs to all of us, and that each of us belongs to a culture, are still offended by the definition that suggests only those who are refined and sophisticated are truly cultured. They maintain that folk music, developed by the working man, is actually a much more accurate representation of culture (daily life, mainstream, the average man and woman), than—say—classical music is, as the latter has been honed and refined until it is no longer usual at all. In other words, some believe that simple, unsophisticated art forms are much more accurately cultural. Many believe that the portrayal of all non-Westerners as savages reflects a very limited, insulting and inaccurate view.
Germans, during their struggle to define themselves back in the Romantic era, developed a view of culture known as the “worldview.” This view encompassed an entire ethnic group, usually residing in the same nation. A worldview characterizes each and every ethnic group. Toward the end of the 19th century, anthropologists attempted to broaden the definition of culture, rejecting any biological connection that might imply that certain ethnic groups were not as far along on the evolutionary path as others. They sought to define culture in a way that would not justify racism by favoring literate groups over those that were illiterate, or sedentary groups over those that were nomadic. They instead embraced the notion that symbolic thinking defined culture, and Middleton (1990: 17 n.27) concluded that instincts in humans were culturally formed: It’s nurture over nature, in other words.
Because cultures are taught rather than inborn, they can adjust and change through invention and innovation. Two cultures could merge and cultures could adapt to new circumstances and situations. Cultures often borrow from each other (diffusion or transculturation), and of course, cultural adaptation can be forced upon people by tyranny (acculturation). With the exception of a few small and only recently discovered tribes in remote jungles, all peoples of the world have gone through these fusion processes.
Values, norms, and artifacts
Another view of culture includes the three elements, values, norms and artifacts. Values reflect ideas on what is important in life. They are the foundation for all else in a culture. Norms are the expected and accepted ways that people behave in a culture, and sanctions enforce norms. Artifacts are a culture’s material items, generally studied by archeologists.
Products and activities
Over the past 100 years, anthropologists have come to understand culture not just by products and activities themselves, but as the patterns behind those products and activities.
In smaller societies, it is believed that most people, despite differences in age, gender and so on, basically fell under the same cultural hub. However, in larger areas, race, ethnicity and class came into play, creating subcultures in a society. Sometimes, all these societies come together to define the larger culture, e.g. the melting pot culture of the US. There are even distinct cultures based on trade and work environment, such as the celebrity culture, or the corporate culture.
Of course, migration has influenced world cultures to a tremendous degree, starting with prehistoric migration, then slavery, colonial expansion, Columbus and other explorers. Multiculturalism is a phenomenon that has arisen from the co-mingling of very different cultures in close proximity.
Clifford Geertz (1973) and Victor Turner (1967) both maintained that symbols were the context that gave all social activities their meanings. Symbols set limitations on cultured thought. Those within a culture use these symbols as a frame of reference to make sense of their thoughts and expressions in ways that others can understand.
Scientists distinguish between symbolic culture and material culture, noticing that different cultures define themselves under distinct patterns that may heavily weigh on one level or the other. The different types of cultural activity and definition require different methodologies to study. This set of beliefs led to what is known as cultural relativism, the belief that to understand one’s actions and intentions, one must consider them in the context of one’s culture. This is true of individual actions, as well as cultural artifacts (e.g. rituals), where people must analyze the greater symbolic system in order to make sense of the artifact.
Culture as stabilizing mechanism
Modern theorists conclude that culture is derived from stabilization tendencies that are a natural product of evolutionary pressures toward self-cognition and –similarity.
Cultures, by their very nature, embrace and resist change. Cultural change can arise from environment, due to inventions and other influences, or as a result of contact with other cultures. In diffusion, a physical form is transferred to another culture without the meaning being transferred. For example, when hamburgers reached Asia, they were considered an exotic food. The diffusions of innovations theory explains why cultures adopt new practices, ideas and products. And a bleak example of acculturation can be seen in the story of the American Indians, who were forced to be home-dwellers when their entire cultures were based on their nomadic traits.
When a person adapts to a new culture, it is called assimilation. Cultural change, for the individual or an entire society, is one of the most stressful of all human experiences. This underscores how pivitol culture really is to our personal identities and psychological foundation.