What is Culture? A Simple Working Definition

Doug Coleman Anthropology Leave a Comment

What is Culture?Anyone familiar with academic discussions of culture knows there are more than a few definitions floating around. And when the descriptions begin, they quickly become complicated.

For example, note the first definition given here: “Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.”

Other than a professor of anthropology, who can really remember that? In his book In the Beginning God, Winfried Corduan gives a simple definition that is easily remembered and seems to work.

Your “culture” includes all the stuff in your life that humans have created, which is not truly essential to your survival. — Winfried Corduan

In other words, if it is essential to your physical survival, it is not part of “your culture.” However, everything else, everything which humans have “created,” from material objects such as clothes and cars to immaterial things such as thought patterns, values, and social hierarchies etc., is part of a particular human culture.

Corduan explains: “Theoretically, a person could live without clothes in natural caves, eat whatever is accessible to him or her with bare hands, have the capacity for speech (which is a part of being human), but lack a shared set of vocal symbols for regular communication with others. Neither stories, nor music, nor any form of visual art is essential for life. I seriously doubt that such humans have ever existed, but once the first stone has been sharpened, the first loincloth has been donned, or the first standard greeting has been uttered, we already have a rudimentary culture, according to this definition.”

While Corduan’s definition may not make it into higher academic anthropological literature, it seems to capture the most basic idea of what we mean by the term “culture.” And it is certainly more easily remembered.

Doug ColemanWhat is Culture? A Simple Working Definition

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