My culture myself? What is culture anyway?

1.6 Difficulties in defining culture

As we have seen, defining culture is not easy; even deciding on its constituents requires much thought. Before you continue reading, think about what the difficulties could be due to and then compare your thoughts with my sample answer:

Defining ‘culture’ is difficult because, among other things, it:

  • can be an uncountable noun, ‘culture’, or a countable one, ‘a culture/different cultures’
  • involves so many layers of meaning – hence the attempts at definition by itemising the components
  • lends itself to different interpretations, sometimes at different levels
  • changes in meaning over time in the light of individual or collective experience
  • has a different meaning in different cultures!
  • has a different meaning for every individual and for those who hold different political or ideological agendas.

Characteristics of culture

Whichever definition one favours, culture is:

It is an integrated whole made up of various interconnected aspects. It has a shared system of meanings that shapes behaviour, holds its members together in groups, and provides a sense of identity. It determines how its members perceive the world, how they experience themselves and how they organise their lives.
It is not instinctive or innate, it is internalised from our social environment. One generation passes the culture on to the next, which learns it both consciously and unconsciously. As they grow up, members of the culture become socialised by learning what is acceptable and what isn’t in their culture.
Different cultures perceive the world differently and so develop different ways of doing things. There is no basis for considering one group’s practices as intrinsically superior or inferior to those of any other group.
Cultures are not fixed or static. Cultural change arises as a response to changing circumstances, and (especially in a technologically interconnected world) as a result of the influence of other cultures. The outer, visible layers of the culture will change faster than the culture’s core values and beliefs, which are more resistant to change.
Similar to an iceberg
Some of it is visible, on the surface. A much larger part is below water level and very difficult to see.

Patrick Guenette / Alamy

Optional activity: Everything you always wanted to know about culture

Watch this Ted Talk about the way insults work in different national and local cultures by Dr Saba Safdar, who is Iranian Canadian.

Group activity: A working definition of culture

Now that you have read some definitions by experts, look again at the definitions offered by the group at the beginning of the unit. Initiate or contribute to a discussion in the My culture myself forum on how the group would prefer to define the term at this stage. You don’t have to reach consensus: some of you may favour one of the definitions considered, others may agree with John Mole’s somewhat facetious conclusion after considering many definitions: ‘The definition of culture as it is used from this point on in the book is: The way we do things here.’ (Mole, J. Mind your MannersCulture Clash in the European Single Market, London: Industrial Society, 1990, p. 163)