Social Studies

what is the definition of culture what is the definition of culture

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the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.


The definition of culture is much of the difficulty of understanding the concept of culture] stems from the different usages of the term as it was increasingly employed in the nineteenth century. Broadly speaking, it was used in three ways (all of which can be found today as well). First, as exemplified in Matthew Arnolds’ Culture and Anarchy (1867), culture referred to special intellectual or artistic endeavors or products, what today we might call “high culture” as opposed to “popular culture” (or “folkways” in an earlier usage). By this definition, only a portion – typically a small one – of any social group “has” culture. (The rest are potential sources of anarchy!) This sense of culture is more closely related to aesthetics than to social science. Partly in reaction to this usage, the second, as pioneered by Edward Tylor in Primitive Culture (1870), referred to a quality possessed by all people in all social groups, who nevertheless could be arrayed on a development (evolutionary) continuum (in Lewis Henry Morgan’s scheme) from “savagery” through “barbarism” to “civilization”. It is worth quoting Tylor’s definition in its entirety; first because it became the foundational one for anthropology; and second because it partly explains why Kroeber and Kluckhohn found definitional fecundity by the early 1950s. Tylor’s definition of culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. In contrast to Arnold’s view, all folks “have” culture, which they acquire by virtue of membership in some social group – society. And a whole grab bag of things, from knowledge to habits to capabilities, makes up culture. The extreme inclusivity of Tylor’s definition stayed with anthropology a long time; it is one reason political scientists who became interested in cultural questions in the late 1950s felt it necessary to delimit their relevant cultural domain to “political culture”. But the greatest legacy of Tylor’s definition lay in his “complex whole” formulation. This was accepted even by those later anthropologists who forcefully rejected his evolutionism. They took it to mean that cultures were wholes – integrated systems. Although this assertion has great heuristic value, it also, as we shall argue below, simplifies the world considerably. The third and last usage of culture developed in anthropology in the twentieth-century work of Franz Boas and his students, though with roots in the eighteenth-century writings of Johann von Herder. As Tylor reacted to Arnold to establish a scientific (rather than aesthetic) basis for culture, so Boas reacted against Tylor and other social evolutionists. Whereas the evolutionists stressed the universal character of a single culture, with different societies arrayed from savage to civilized, Boas emphasized the uniqueness of the many and varied cultures of different peoples or societies. Moreover he dismissed the value judgments he found inherent in both the Arnoldian and Tylorean views of culture; for Boas, one should never differentiate high from low culture, and one ought not differentially valorize cultures as savage or civilized. 

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