The simplest way to think about culture is to think about the distinction between nature (our biology and genetics) and nurture (our environment and surroundings that also shape our identities). Because of our biology and genetics, we have a particular form and we have certain abilities. But our biological nature does not exclusively determine who we are. For that, we need culture. Culture is the non-biological or social aspects of human life, basically anything that is learned by humans is part of culture.
The two individuals in the photos above help illustrate this idea. The naked human comes very close to representing nothing but nature. Aside from the hair cut, which may or may not be a reflection of culture, the individual in the photo is simply human. From the photo, it cannot be discerned which language he speaks, what he believes, what (if anything) he commonly wears, whether he has lots of education or little education, and so on. In short, the naked individual is a reflection of his biology; we have no additional clues about who he is because he is missing cultural artifacts. The other individual wearing a costume illustrates the addition of culture to the individual. From the photo alone we can tell that this individual is trained in ballet, a particular form of dance popular in certain parts of the world. The clothing he is wearing is culture, and it tells us a great deal about this individual.
Generally speaking, the following elements of social life are considered to be representative of human culture: "stories, beliefs, media, ideas, works of art, religious practices, fashions, rituals, specialized knowledge, and common sense".
Yet, examples of culture do not, in themselves, present a clear understanding of the concept of culture; culture is more than the object or behavior. Culture also includes,norms, values, beliefs, or expressive symbols. Roughly, norms are the way people behave in a given society, values are what they hold dear, beliefs are how they think the universe operates, and expressive symbols are representations, often representations of social norms, values, and beliefs themselves.
To summarize, culture encompasses objects and symbols, the meaning given to those objects and symbols, and the norms, values, and beliefs that pervade social life. "The definition is understood to include two elements - that which differentiates one group or society from others and the concept of acquired or learned behavior".
Keep in mind that, in any given society, culture is not necessarily rigid and totally uniform. As is the case with most elements of social life, culture is relatively stable (thus it is functional in the structural-functionalist sense) but at the same time contested (in the conflict sense).
In fact, social theorists, such as Michel Foucault, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Erving Goffman, and George Herbert Mead, have long noted that language lies at the root of all human culture. Since language is never static and relies upon continued use for its existence, culture is thus continuously negotiated, and thus may remain relatively stable and / or change rapidly in relation to the ongoing linguistic negotiations and developments within groups, organizations, institutions, and societies.
Many people today think of culture in the way that it was thought of in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries. This concept of culture reflected inequalities within European societies and their colonies around the world. This understanding of culture equates culture with civilization and contrasts both with nature or non-civilization. According to this understanding of culture, some countries are more civilized than others, and some people are more cultured than others. Theorists like Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) believed that culture is simply that which is created by "the best that has been thought and said in the world". Anything that doesn't fit into this category is labeled as chaos or anarchy. From this perspective, culture is closely tied to cultivation, which is the progressive refinement of human behavior.
In practice, culture referred to elite goods and activities such as haute cuisine, high fashion or haute couture, museum-caliber art and classical music. The word cultured referred to people who knew about and took part in these activities. For example, someone who used culture in this sense might argue that classical music is more refined than music by working-class people, such as jazz or the indigenous music traditions of aboriginal peoples.
People who use culture in this way tend not to use it in the plural. They believe that there are not distinct cultures, each with their own internal logic and values, but rather only a single standard of refinement to which all groups are held accountable. Thus people who differ from those who believe themselves to be cultured in this sense are not usually understood as having a different culture; they are understood as being uncultured.
The Changing Concept of Culture
During the Romantic Era, scholars in Germany, especially those concerned with nationalism, developed a more inclusive notion of culture as worldview. That is, each ethnic group is characterized by a distinct and incommensurable world view. Although more inclusive, this approach to culture still allowed for distinctions between civilized and primitive or tribal cultures.
By the late 19th century, anthropologists had changed the concept of culture to include a wider variety of societies, ultimately resulting in the concept of culture outlined above - objects and symbols, the meaning given to those objects and symbols, and the norms, values, and beliefs that pervade social life.
This new perspective has also removed the evaluative element of the concept of culture and instead proposes distinctions rather than rankings between different cultures. For instance, the high culture of elites is now contrasted with popular or pop culture. In this sense, high culture no longer refers to the idea of being cultured, as all people are cultured. High culture simply refers to the objects, symbols, norms, values, and beliefs of a particular group of people; popular culture does the same.Most social scientists today reject the cultured vs. uncultured concept of culture. Instead, social scientists accept and advocate the definition of culture outlined above as being the "nurture" component of human social life. Social scientists recognize that non-elites are as cultured as elites (and that non-Westerners are just as civilized); they simply have a different culture. Further, recent studies have demonstrated that highly valued notions of culture are often produced via the strategic use of existing tastes, preferences, and patterns of social inequality, which, rather than demonstrating refinement or progress, actually reveal existing power relations within and between socio-political structures.
The Origins of Culture
Attentive to the theory of evolution, anthropologists assumed that all human beings are equally evolved, and the fact that all humans have cultures must in some way be a result of human evolution. They were also wary of using biological evolution to explain differences between specific cultures - an approach that either was a form of, or legitimized forms of, racism. Anthropologists believed biological evolution produced an inclusive notion of culture, a concept that anthropologists could apply equally to non-literate and literate societies, or to nomadic and to sedentary societies. They argued that through the course of their evolution, human beings evolved a universal human capacity to classify experiences, and encode and communicate them symbolically. Since these symbolic systems were learned and taught, they began to develop independently of biological evolution (in other words, one human being can learn a belief, value, or way of doing something from another, even if they are not biologically related). That this capacity for symbolic thinking and social learning is a product of human evolution confounds older arguments about nature versus nurture. Thus, Clifford Geertz argued that human physiology and neurology developed in conjunction with the first cultural activities, and Middleton concluded that human "instincts were culturally formed. "
This view of culture argues that people living apart from one another develop unique cultures. However, elements of different cultures can easily spread from one group of people to another. Culture is dynamic and can be taught and learned, making it a potentially rapid form of adaptation to changes in physical conditions. Anthropologists view culture as not only a product of biological evolution but as a supplement to it; it can be seen as the main means of human adaptation to the natural world.
This view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, which varies from place to place, led anthropologists to conceive of different cultures as defined by distinct patterns (or structures) of enduring, although arbitrary, conventional sets of meaning, which took concrete form in a variety of artifacts such as myths and rituals, tools, the design of housing, and the planning of villages. Anthropologists thus distinguish between material culture and symbolic culture, not only because each reflects different kinds of human activity, but also because they constitute different kinds of data that require different methodologies to study.
This view of culture, which came to dominate anthropology between World War I and World War II, implied that each culture was bounded and had to be understood as a whole, on its own terms. The result is a belief in cultural relativism, which suggests that there are no "better" or "worse" cultures, just different cultures.
Recent research suggests that human culture has reversed the causal direction suggested above and influenced human evolution. One well-known illustration of this is the rapid spread of genetic instructions that left on a gene that produces a protein that allows humans to digest lactose. This adaptation spread rapidly in Europe around 4,000 BCE with the domestication of mammals, as humans began harvesting their milk for consumption. Prior to this adaptation, the gene that produces a protein allowing for the digestion of lactose was switched after children were weaned. Thus, the change in culture - drinking milk from other mammals - eventually led to changes in human genetics. Genetics has, therefore, resulted in culture, which is now acting back on genetics.
Level of Abstraction
Another element of culture that is important for a clear understanding of the concept is level of abstraction. Culture ranges from the concrete, cultural object (e.g., the understanding of a work of art) to micro-level interpersonal interactions (e.g., the socialization of a child by his/her parents or guardians) to a macro-level influence on entire societies (e.g., the Puritanical roots of the U.S. that can be used to justify the exportation of democracy – a lá the Iraq War). It is important when trying to understand the concept of culture to keep in mind that the concept can have multiple levels of meaning, and that each of these levels may continuously act upon one another in complex ways.
The Artificiality of Cultural Categorization
One of the more important points to understand about culture is that it is an artificial categorization of elements of social life. As Griswold puts it:
There is no such thing as culture or society out there in the real world. There are only people who work, joke, raise children, love, think, worship, fight, and behave in a wide variety of ways. To speak of culture as one thing and society as another is to make an analytical distinction between two different aspects of human experience. One way to think of the distinction is that culture designates the expressive aspect of human existence, whereas society designates the relational (and often practical) aspect.
In the above quote, Griswold emphasizes that culture is distinct from society but affirms that this distinction is, like all classifications, artificial. Humans do not experience culture in a separate or distinct way from society. Culture and society are truly two-sides of a coin; a coin that makes up social life. Yet the distinction between the two, while artificial, is useful for a number of reasons. For instance, the distinction between culture and society is of particular use when exploring how norms and values are transmitted from generation to generation and answering the question of cultural conflict between people of different cultural backgrounds (say, the Japanese and Americans). Further, the distinction is useful for explicating the historical development of specific social structures, and the persistence or demise of social inequalities within and between societies.