Definitions and Discussions of Culture

John H. Bodley, An Anthropological Perspective
From Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System, 1994


John H. Bodley is Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University. In this excerpt from his textbook on cultural anthropology, Bodley discusses the history of anthropological conceptions of culture. Bodley's own definition, similar in many ways to the baseline definition offered here, is a good example of contemporary anthropological views about culture; that is, it is descriptive, inclusive, and relativistic. Compare Bodley's definition with that of Matthew Arnold for perspective on the great transition which has taken place regarding the concept "culture" in Western thought over the past century; Raymond Williams's perspective might be taken as a middle ground in this transition. An interesting comparison can be made, too, between anthropological arguments (like Bodley's and Geertz's) and the voices in the U.S. culture debate.


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I use the term culture to refer collectively to a
society and its way of life or in reference to human culture as a whole.

The Modern technical definition of culture, as socially patterned human thought and behavior, was originally proposed by the nineteenth-century British anthropologist, Edward Tylor. This definition is an open-ended list, which has been extended considerably since Tylor first proposed it. Some researchers have attempted to create exhaustive universal lists of the content of culture, usually as guides for further research. Others have listed and mapped all the culture traits of particular geographic areas.

The first inventory of cultural categories was undertaken in 1872 by a committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was assisted by Tylor. The committee prepared an anthropological field manual that listed seventy-six culture topics, in no particular order, including such diverse items as cannibalism and language. The most exhaustive such list is the "Outline of Cultural Materials," first published in 1938 and still used as a guide for cataloging great masses of worldwide cultural data for cross-cultural surveys. Like the table of contents of a giant encyclopedia, the outline lists 79 major divisions and 637 subdivisions. For example, "Food Quest" is a major division with such subdivisions as collecting, hunting, and fishing.

There has been considerable theoretical debate by anthropologists since Tylor over the most useful attributes that a technical concept of culture should stress. For example, in 1952 Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn, American anthropologists, published a list of 160 different definitions of culture. Although simplified in the brief table below, their list indicates the diversity of the anthropological concept of culture. The specific culture concept that particular anthropologists work with is an important matter because it may influence the research problems they investigate, their methods and interpretations, and the positions they take on public policy issues.

TABLE: 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


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 would define culture entirely as mental rules guiding behavior, although often wide divergence exists between the acknowledged rules for correct behavior and what people actually do. Consequently, some researchers pay most attention to human behavior and its material products. 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. For example, Americans are not born knowing that the color white means purity, and indeed this is not a universal cultural symbol. 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. Furthermore, animals have the capability of limited tool manufacture and use, but human tool use is extensive enough to rank as qualitatively different and human tools often carry heavy symbolic meanings. The symbolic element of human language, especially speech, is again a vast qualitative expansion over animal communication systems. Speech is infinitely more productive and allows people to communicate about things that are remote in time and space.

The cross-generational aspect of culture has led some anthropologists, especially Kroeber (1917) and Leslie White (1949), to treat culture as a superorganic entity, existing beyond its individual human carriers. Individuals are born into and are shaped by a preexisting culture that continues to exist after they die. Kroeber and White argued that the influence that specific individuals might have over culture would itself be 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 superorganic 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. This is a serious issue because 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. I treat culture as an objective reality. I depart from the superorganic approach in that I insist 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.

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