The Concept of Culture

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In a general sense, culture refers to intellectual excellence or social charm to layman. It may be regarded as a desired quality that is gamed from indulging in art galleries, music, dances etc. Thus, it is an attribute that appeals to our aesthetic sense. But to a sociologist or an anthropologist the word culture has different connotation. 

The concept of culture is more in vogue in anthropology, but it has gained prominence even in sociological field now. Hence, it becomes necessary to discuss me technical aspects of culture and its more holistic meaning.

In sociological terms, we may say generally that culture refers to all those aspects of man that relate his ideas, beliefs and behavior. Culture and society are syndromic terms; they are related to each other in such a manner that the existence of one is not possible without the other. Thus, it will not be improper to regard them as two sides of the same coin.

Uniqueness of Culture

Culture is unique to mankind- no other animal except man has been able to build culture because the five gifts of nature (discussed earlier in this chapter) provide the substratum for its evolution. We can say that culture has evolved out of the inner material (genetic/ biological equipment) and the outer material (nature). 

The biological endowments (the five gifts of nature) helped him to stand erect and increase his ability to manipulate things with his forelimbs, his opposable thumb made it possible for man to develop and use tools; his enlarged brain helped him to invent and discover new things; his stereoscopic vision further improved his focus; and his ability to speak helped him to communicate his thoughts to his fellow beings and his successive generations.

The process of biological evolution made man the most poorly equipped (biologically) animal In order to survive in the adverse environmental circumstances, he used his other faculties. Endowed with the five gifts of nature, he was able to create a secondary environment/ adaptive screen between himself and nature.

Thus, we can say that in the process of human evolution, culture came to act as the medium vouchsafing human survival. Man built culture to fight against the nature and make a place for himself. It is through culture that man is able to satisfy his basic needs- biological, psychological and me ones set up by me physical environment Culture comes to mediate between man and environment.

Some Definitions of Culture

E. B. Taylor- Culture refers to that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

Franz Boas- It may be defined as the totality of mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize the behavior of individuals composing a social group collectively and individually in relations of their natural environment to other groups.

Characteristic Features of Culture 

  • Culture is an Instrument of Adaptation: Culture helps man to favorably adjust to the adversities of environment. Biologically, man is most poorly equipped animal and in order to survive he has to create an artificial/ secondary environment of culture. Or we can say that culture comes to mediate between man and environment. 

  • Culture is a man- made Part of Environment: Man created a whole gamut of artificial tools and instruments to ensure his survival in the unfriendly surroundings. The secondary environment thus created soon becomes a part and parcel of the natural environment and gets integrated in it.

  • Culture is Extra- somatic: Culture is formed because of the man's biological endowments. Without the five gifts of nature, man would not have been able to build culture. However, once formed, its development and transmission is independent of the biological/ genetic material. The transmission of culture takes place through the processes of socialization. 

  • Culture is learned: Human infants come into the world with basic drives such as hunger and thirst, but they do not possess instinctive patterns of behavior to satisfy them. Likewise, they are without any cultural knowledge. However, they are genetically predisposed to rapidly learn language and other cultural traits. New born humans are amazing learning machines. Any normal baby can be placed into any family on earth and grow up to learn their culture and accept it as his or her own. Since culture is non-instinctive, we are not genetically programmed to learn a particular culture. 

  • Culture is cumulative: Every human generation potentially can discover new things and invent better technologies. The new cultural skills and knowledge are added onto what was learned in previous generations. As a result, culture is cumulative. 

Due to this cumulative effect, most school students today are now familiar with mathematical and scientific concepts, which the great mathematicians and scientists have struggled with their lives to discover. This feature of culture helps in its evolution. Thus, every new generation does not have to start from a scratch to develop concepts and knowledge- they begin from where the foundation laid down by the previous generations.

Important Elements of Culture 

From the above discussion, we can infer the basic elements of culture under the following categories. 

  • Symbols: Symbols refer to anything that carry a particular meaning that is shared by people who share a particular culture. They are the cultural representation of reality. Every culture tends to have its own symbols, which are associated with different perceptions and experiences that people hold about their surroundings. They may verbal or non- verbal, written or unwritten. Symbols can be logos, they can refer to social causes, they can be means of communication, or they can be reminiscence of our history and values. 

  • Language: Language is system of symbols that represent meaning, and are shared by all people. It involves verbal and written representations created by societies to create a world- view. Language may not be present in written form every time, though. There are many languages in the world which are written and are used verbally only. Language becomes a vehicle of culture, because it enables communication and transmission of culture. 

  • Norms: Norms refer to the rules and expectations through which a society guides the social behavior. They are the cues given to the individual members to guide their behavior. They may include both the appropriate and inappropriate values, beliefs and attitudes laid by the society. These norms may be explicitly stated, or they may be implicit. In any case, the failure to follow these norms can amount to punishment, the severity of punishment depending upon which norm has been broken. On the other hand, deference to the social norms maintains one’s acceptance and popularity within a particular group. 

  • Values and beliefs: Values are culturally defined standards that people use to lay down as desired and good. They serve as broad guidelines for social living. The values are deemed to be important by the society, and can include elements like honesty, perseverance, loyalty, faithfulness etc. 

  • Beliefs on the other hand are specific ideas that people hold to be true. They are the assumptions that we make about our immediate world. They develop form our experiences, perceptions and understanding, and tend to mould our perception about ourselves and about the others. Individual members do not question the beliefs as they are deeply internalized in the personalities of the individuals through the process of socialization. There are empowering beliefs that help in bringing changes in society and in our decision making. Limiting beliefs are often based on our false assumptions and hold us back from taking decisions. 

  • Technology: Technology is the tangible part culture and refers to the knowledge that people use to adjust to their surroundings. Different societies at different stages of economic development have different levels of technology. Thus, hunting and gathering societies, pastoralists and horticulturalists have very simple technology, while on the other extreme information technology in post- industrial phase has very advanced technology that has revolutionized the whole world.

Material and Non- Material Culture 

Culture can be divided into two domains – its tangible dimension and non- tangible dimension. When we refer to the tangible aspect of culture, we are referring to material culture, and when we talk about the non- tangible aspect of culture, we are referring to non- material culture. 

Thus, material culture refers to the physical objects, resources, and spaces that have physical existence and can be seen and felt. They are used by people to define their culture. Material culture will thus include houses and other buildings, furniture, tools and implements, clothes, jewellery etc. Material culture helps in defining member’s behaviour and their perceptions. 

For example, the kind of clothes people wear has a reflection on the kind of thinking people may nurture. The youth who wear western dresses and are updated in fashion may be said to be having a free kind of personality (though it may not be true always) and ‘western’ in their approach. Contrary to this, the youth who wear more traditional, ethnic dresses may be said to have a different personality.

Non-material culture refers to those aspects of culture that do not have any physical existence and cannot be seen or felt. Thus, the morals, beliefs and ideas, rules, norms and values, language will be incorporated under the non- material culture. 

For instance, religion lays down the morals, which become the guiding principles for regulating the conduct and behaviour of people in their day- to- day life. Non- material culture is very important since it tends to shape the thoughts and feelings of the members. Apart from the norms, morals, beliefs and values, non- material culture also embraces the traditions and tastes, attitudes and outlook of the people.

Written by - Max Croson

Edited by - Arnav Mehra