What is Culture?

Defining culture may be likened to defining air. We can’t see it, but it’s there just the same. We live in it. It lives in us.

Like air culture is invisible but its constant presence and influence on everything we do make it indispensable that we cannot live without it.

And like air, technical definitions of culture abound, some of the more helpful definitions of culture given by anthropologist and sociologist include:

Culture is patterned ways of thinking, feeling, and reacting to various situations and actions — (Kluckhohn 1954).

Culture is a set of imperfectly shared rules for behavior and meanings attached to such behavior — (Martin 1992).

Hofstede provides a commonly cited definition of culture:

Culture is the “collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group from another. It is the software behind how we operate.”

The Sociologist Geert Hofstede (1980, 1991) described culture as the software that runs the programs of our thoughts, speech, and actions. His view holds that culture is seen as shared mental programs that condition individuals’ responses to their environment.

This simple definition reckons that culture is prevalent in everyday behavior (individuals’ responses to their environment) and that such behavior is controlled by deeply embedded mental programs.

Culture is prevalent everywhere but yet its meaning can be elusive. Several different metaphors are used to try to make the notion of culture more accessible. You noticed in the beginning of this entry how culture is being compared to air to demonstrate culture’s invisible but constant presence and influence on everything we do.

Another important metaphor Opens in new window to help explain culture is the comparison of culture to an iceberg (see a diagram of iceberg below).

A picture of an Iceberg

Iceberg metaphors are typically used to describe something that is only barely visible, with as much as 90 percent of it being submerged below the waterline. On the surface, we can observe a culture in light of its artifacts.

Artifacts include things such as foods, manners of speaking, eating habits, gestures Opens in new window, music, economic practices, dress, use of physical space (e.g., office setup), order of worship, art, and so on. When many people encounter a new culture, these are the things they are most inclined to talk about because they see them. They’re the part of the iceberg that is visible above water.

The invisible part of culture (represented by the unseen part of the iceberg underneath the water) is where the underlying values, assumptions, social structures, perceptions and ways of thinking are housed. These things are rarely seen and talked about.

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Characteristics of Culture

There are some basic characteristics that apply to any culture, which are worth keeping in mind.

1.   Culture is shared

By definition, culture is something that a group has in common that is not normally available to people outside the group. It is mental programming held in common that enables insiders to interact with each other with a special intimacy denied outsiders.

For example, Scottish people all over the world share an understanding of history that is rooted in conflict with, and oppression by, the English. Even though the two groups nowadays operate relatively harmoniously, this simple fact creates a bond among Scots and an attitude toward the English that is hard put into words but is immediately recognized by Scottish people when they meet anywhere in the world.

2.   Culture is learned and is enduring

The example of the Scots and the English tells us that culture does not arise by accident, but builds up systematically over time. The mental programming of a group is learned by its members over long periods as they interact with their environment.

Some aspects of culture are built into institutions, such as religious beliefs, systems of land ownership, forms of marriage, and the like. Others are passed on through the generations in the form of parental role-modeling and advice to the young.

3.   Culture is powerful influence on behavior

It is hard for us to escape our culture, even when we want to. The mental programming involved is strong. Even when we mentally question the rationality of some aspects of our culture or seek to adopt cultural flexibility by doing things in line with a different culture, we have a natural tendency to revert to our cultural roots.

For example, one of the authors knew a young man brought up in a strict Christian culture that taught him that the theatre is the house of the Devil. On going to university and mixing with more liberal people, he decided that from a rational point of view there was nothing wrong with going to the theatre. But on his first visit, he became nauseous and had to leave to be sick. His culture had programmed him extremely powerfully.

4.   Culture is systematic and organized

Culture is not random. It is an organized system of values, attitudes, beliefs, and meanings that are related to each other and to the context.

5.   Culture is largely invisible

What we see of culture is expressed in living facts, which include human behaviors (such as manners of speaking, eating habits, etc. ) and activities (such as language, customs, and dress) as well as physical artifacts (such as architecture, art, and decoration).

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Because much of culture is hidden, these obvious and visible elements of culture may be likened to the tip of an iceberg. Icebergs have as much as 90 percent of their mass below the surface of the water, leaving only a small percentage visible.

So understanding cultures involves a lot more than just understanding immediate surface behavior such as bows, handshakes, invitations, ceremonies, and body language. the invisible elements of culture—the underlying values, social structures, and ways of thinking—are the most important.

6.   Culture may be tight or loose

Cultures differ from each other not just in their details but also in their pervasiveness. Some societies are characterized by virtually 100 percent agreement as to the form of correct behavior; other societies may have greater diversity and tolerance of difference.

Tight cultures have uniformity and agreement and are often based on homogeneous populations or the dominance of particular religious beliefs. Japan is a good example.

Countries such as Canada with diverse populations have relatively loose cultures, which in some cases are made even looser by the encouragement of freedom of thought and action.

Culture is learned through a number of ways including child-rearing practices, peer transmission, and media, and this process is ongoing, with diminishing impact as individuals mature.