What is Culture?


What is Culture?

•      MYTH:  Culture is “civilized” living.

–  In this view, some have culture, others do not

•      REALITY:  All humans have the biological capacity for culture, which, technically, is SYMBOL-BASED LEARNED BEHAVIOR


Culture Varies

•      Among modern humans:

–  the biological capacity for culture (culture in general sense) does not vary

–  the expressions and forms of culture vary tremendously (culture in specific sense)

•      The job of anthropology is to describe, understand, and explain how culture varies


Accepting Cultural Differences

•      Cultural Relativism: idea that different cultures need to be understood in their own terms and not according to the standards and values of others

•      The opposite is ethnocentrism: judging the behavior or beliefs of others through one’s own standards and values

•      Ethnocentrism is universal, and relativism can be abused, so not easy to balance the two


Is There a Universal Morality?

•      The Case of Forced Abortions in Rural China

–    relativistically, China needs to regulate population

–    morally (at least from Western perspective), it is considered flat wrong by many


Explaining Cultural Differences

•      Explanations from the native’s point of view are referred to as EMIC

–   How do native’s perceive and categorize their world;  what are their rules for behavior; what has meaning for them?

•      Explanations from the observer’s point of view are referred to as ETIC

–   The objectivity of science, the search for patterned regularity and causal relationships (science is the emic of Western culture)


The Emic and Etic of Zebu Cattle

•      People of India worship zebu cattle, which are protected by Hindu doctrine of ahimsa, a principle of nonviolence

–    Emic:  Cattle are sacred

–    Ethnocentric:  Hindus are wasting good resource

–    Etic:  More energy is reaped from keeping cattle alive (providing milk, pulling power) than from killing and eating them


Test Case of Emic v. Etic

•       Australian Aboriginal land rights in court

•       Emic (Native):  People arose in central desert from ancestral creatures

•       Etic (Outsider):  No archae-ological evidence;  claim is politically strategic

•       Relativist: Aborigines disenfranchised by West, deserve land in return for injustice


Culture Is Learned

•      All culture is learned rather than biologically inherited.

•      The process of transmitting culture from one generation to the next is called enculturation.

•      Through enculturation individuals learn the socially appropriate way to satisfy biologically determined needs.


Culture is Learned

     Are humans the only animals that are capable of learning?


Different Kinds of Learning

•      Individual Situational Learning

–  learning from and basing future action on one’s own experience

•      Social Situational Learning

–  learning from other members of a group

•      Cultural Learning

–  learning through the use of symbols (e.g., learning through language)


Culture is Shared

•       Culture is not a trait of individuals per se, but of individuals in groups

•       Enculturation unifies people by providing common experience

•       Sharing exists at multiple levels (e.g., national,regional, subcultural)


Culture is Symbol-Based

•      Symbol is something verbal or nonverbal that comes to stand for something else

•      The relationship of a symbol to what it represents is arbitrary

•      Symbols are usually linguistic, but can be material

•      Because they are not literal, symbols are subject to interpretation


Culture Mediates the Environment

•      Humans give meaning and order to the world around them which enable (and impede) their interactions with it

•      What is edible, where to sleep, how to travel, and when to reproduce, among other things, are all defined by cultural tradition and innovation


Culture is Patterned & Integrated

•      Customs, institutions, beliefs, and values are patterned and integrated;  when one changes, they all change

•      For example, cash economy

–    replace subsistence with wage labor

–    erode cohesion of household

–    lead to nutritional stress


Culture is Ever-Changing

•      Mechanisms of Culture Change

–   Diffusion

•    the movement of cultural traits and ideas from one society or ethnic group to another

–   Acculturation

•    prolonged direct contact with a foreign culture

–   Independent Invention

•    in situ evolution

–   Globalization

•    world system that links societies and cultures in economic and political relations that are inherently unstable


The Culture List

•      Culture in general sense is human universal

•      Culture in specific sense is varied

•      Culture is learned

•      Culture is symbol-based

•      Culture mediates the environment

•      Culture is shared

•      Culture is patterned & integrated

•      Culture is ever-changing


Review: Key Terms and Concepts

•      Be able to identify the characteristics of culture

•      Be able to understand mechanisms of cultural change

•      Key Terms:

–  Emic

–  Etic

–  Enculturation/Acculturation