Anthropology Intro to the Concept of Culture

The Anthropological Perspective: The Concept of Culture

As a social science discipline, much of what anthropology studies, and particularly cultural anthropology and archeology, is related to a core concept within the discipline of anthropology. This is the concept of “culture.”

But what is culture? After all, there are various popular ways of employing the word. For example, we can talk about a “culture” of bacteria growing in a petri dish, but that’s obviously not what we’re studying. Anthropology, after all, defines itself as the study of humanity.

Similarly, popular language often makes a distinction between “high” culture and “low” culture or “pop” culture. What people mean by “high” culture, for example, is being “cultured.” In other words; being well read in classic literature, attending the opera, the symphony, the ballet, going to art galleries and museums, or perhaps being conversant in philosophy and educated debate. Being “cultured,” therefore, is related to those things which the popular imagination associates with the relatively affluent and well educated members of society.

“Low” culture, on the other hand, refers to what? Well, let us say, things like sports, wrestling, Marilyn Manson, pornography, exotic dancing, stock car racing…the list could go on. I suppose you see the contrast already. The popular concept of low culture, or pop culture is largely associated with things that relatively poor, uneducated, working class types are interested in.

There is also a clear value judgment involved in this popular contrast. The implication is that what the rich and educated do is “more proper” or “better” behavior as compared to the “trailer park” mentality of the great unwashed masses.

This is, however, precisely NOT how anthropology thinks about culture. There is no such thing as “high” or “low” culture from an anthropological perspective. Rather, there are simply different patterns of human behavior in different groups of people, be they separate social classes, distinctive ethnic groups (subcultures) or autonomous societies. Culture is just culture, plain and simple. And you can leave your value judgments concerning “better” and “worse” at the door as far as anthropology is concerned.

Another popular usage of “culture” in popular language is implied by the term “multicultural.” Here in Canada, for example, we pride ourselves on being a “multicultural” society. In my home town of Winnipeg, we even have an annual festival named “Folklorama” which celebrates the multicultural mosaic of Canadian society.

During the Folklorama festival, each ethnic group sets up a “pavilion,” which basically serves as a type of “embassy” in which they can put their “culture” on display. Traditional music and dance are often performed, with performers dressed in colorful ethnic costumes. Traditional artwork is often displayed. And while they enjoy these things, the audience is general treated to ethnic food and drink as well.

Now don’t get me wrong, Folklorama is both an interesting and entertaining tradition. Its goal of promoting acceptance and understanding between the various ethnic groups which make up the larger Canadian society is also a worthy one. My point, however, is that it promotes a very /narrow/ or /superficial/ understanding of the concept of culture, at least as far as the discipline of anthropology is concerned.

Anthropology proposes a much broader, or all-encompassing definition of culture, which is also, I think, much more useful from a social science perspective. There have been several dozen specific definitions of culture proposed throughout the history of the discipline, but let me offer the following as an example to illustrate this point:

Culture is a learned pattern of more-or-less shared beliefs, values, behaviors and technologies which a society uses to cope with their world and with one another.

You will note that this is a much broader definition of culture than one which focuses upon ethnic dress, arts and culinary habits. This definition emphasizes three important aspects of culture, as anthropology understands it: 1. culture is learned, 2. culture is shared (more-or-less), and, 3. culture is all-encompassing.

The first point emphasizes that culture is not instinctive. Rather, culture is something that is passed on, in whole or in part, from one generation to another. Each new generation may add to or change their culture somewhat, but none-the-less, cultures exist through time.

The second point emphasizes that culture is shared. But it is “more-or-less” shared, which is an important point. First of all, this emphasizes that culture is a characteristic of /social groups/ and not of individuals. Secondly, it implies that even though there may be diversity within the group, there are often more fundamental common patterns underlying this surface diversity. At both a Marilyn Manson concert and a performance by a symphony orchestra, for example, the performance takes place on a stage. The performers face the audience, and the audience faces the performers. Both performances make use of musical instruments, stage lighting and costuming, etc. And while there is unlikely to be a “mosh” pit in front of the stage at the symphony, and likely less profanity as well, both performances still share many underlying cultural similarities in terms of their structure.

Perhaps the third point is most important though. This point, in contrast to the Folklorama example discussed above, emphasizes that culture is /all-encompassing/. A useful way of conceptualizing this last point, or of visualizing how the various aspects of culture are related from an anthropological perspective, is by focusing on three main subsystems or patterns of relationship within all societies: symbol systems within social systems within ecological systems. Picture them as three circles located one within the other.

The three “cultural spheres,” if you will, are represented as one within the other because the larger spheres provide the /enabling conditions/ for the smaller spheres. In other words, the larger spheres make the smaller ones possible. Just as society could not exist apart from the ecological context which provides society with food, energy and materials, so also ideology, language and thought could not exist apart from the larger patterns of social interaction within which they arise.

All of the various aspects of culture are generally seen as /integrated/ or /related/ to one another to form a larger system in this view. For example, the way people organize their subsistence (acquiring food), and the types of technologies they use influence their patterns of social organization, both of which influence the way they think about the world around them. But the reverse is also true. Science, for example, is a particular way of thinking about the world, which has had a major effect upon the patterns of technological development of the Western world, and therefore upon social organization and patterns of subsistence as well.

Thus there are complex “feedbacks” between the various “levels” of cultural systems. And while some within the discipline would argue for a materialist emphasis, which proposes that ecological and material factors largely determine social organization and ideology (political economists and cultural materialists, for example), I would argue otherwise. From an eco-holist perspective, such as that proposed by Gregory Bateson, all of the various aspects of culture are seen as mutually determining each other. This is more consistent with emerging understandings of complex organic systems generally within the discipline of scientific ecology.


Culture, then can be viewed in a variety of ways, or as having different functions on different levels, all operating simultaneously upon one another:

1. Culture can be viewed as a /subsistence system/, or as a way in which specific societies adapt to the nature of the land, and use nature to perpetuate themselves. In other words, culture can be viewed as a way of /maintaining our lives/.

2. Culture can be viewed as a /social system/ which describes the way we organize ourselves into social groups and the relationships between and within societies. In other words, culture can be viewed as a way of /maintaining social order/.

3. Finally, culture can be viewed as humanity’s way of giving meaning to reality through the use of symbolic language, or as a means of maintaining communication, continuity and consensus within the group.

And the complex patterns of interaction between these three aspects of culture are the focus of study within the discipline of anthropology. For culture is our key concept.

References, additional reading:

Gregory Bateson (1979) Mind & Nature: A Necessary Unity, Bantam.

Daniel G. Bates & Elliot M. Fratkin (2003) Cultural Anthroplogy, Ally & Bacon.

Roger Lewin, (1992) Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos, Collier Books.