What is Culture?
Culture involves at least three components:
what people think,
what they do, and
the material products they produce.
Thus, mental processes, beliefs, knowledge, and values are parts of culture. Some anthropologists define culture as mental rules guiding behavior, although wide divergence exists between the acknowledged rules for correct behavior and what people actually do. Culture also has several properties: it is shared, learned, symbolic, transmitted cross-generationally, adaptive, and integrated.
The shared aspect of culture means that it is a social phenomenon; idiosyncratic behavior is not cultural. Culture is learned, not biologically inherited, and involves arbitrarily assigned, symbolic meanings. The human ability to assign arbitrary meaning to any object, behavior or condition makes people enormously creative and readily distinguishes culture from animal behavior. People can teach animals to respond to cultural symbols, but animals do not create their own symbols.
The cross-generational aspect of culture has led some anthropologists, to treat culture as a super-organic entity, existing beyond its individual human carriers. Individuals are born into and are shaped by a pre-existing culture that continues to exist after they die. The influence that specific individuals have over culture is itself largely determined by culture. Thus, in a sense, culture exists as a different order of phenomena that can best be explained in terms of itself.
Some researchers believe that such an extreme super-organic interpretation of culture is a dehumanizing denial of "free will," the human ability to create and change culture. They would argue that culture is merely an abstraction, not a real entity. Treating culture as an abstraction may lead one to deny the basic human rights of small-scale societies and ethnic minorities to maintain their cultural heritage in the face of threats from dominant societies. Some treat culture as an objective reality and believe that culture includes its human carriers. At the same time, people can be deprived of their culture against their will. Many humanistic anthropologists would agree that culture is an observable phenomenon, and a people's unique possession.
Diverse Definitions of Culture:
Topical: Culture consists of everything on a list of topics, or categories, such as social organization, religion, or economy.
Historical: Culture is social heritage, or tradition, that is passed on to future generations.
Behavioral: Culture is shared, learned human behavior, a way of life.
Normative: Culture is ideals, values, or rules for living.
Functional: Culture is the way humans solve problems of adapting to the environment or living together.
Mental: Culture is a complex of ideas, or learned habits, that inhibit impulses and distinguish people from animals.
Structural: Culture consists of patterned and interrelated ideas, symbols, or behaviors.
Symbolic: Culture is based on arbitrarily assigned meanings that are shared by a society.
John H. Bodley, An Anthropological Perspective
From Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System, 1994