What an Anthropologist Means When They Say “Culture.”

I have briefly mentioned elsewhere on this blog what an anthropologist is and what we do as anthropologists. This piece will further explore the concept of culture as we use it in anthropology, which has rippled out far beyond the disciplinary discussions both in the academy and in other sectors of life. Culture is a concept that American anthropologists, among other social scientists around the world, have been particularly interested in since the nineteenth century. It used to be a thing that our international colleagues in the British Isles thought we were wasting our time with but have since come to appreciate the way we view culture as a social force.

Early social scientists—and here I use that term to denote scholars and intellectuals who gave tremendous amounts of time and thought to the ways in which humans group themselves, how they establish and maintain institutions, and what role the past plays in the present and future imaginations of that group—sought to understand Culture (here the big C is important) as a biologist understands life or a physicist understands the laws that govern the natural world. Culture to these earlier thinkers was as natural as gravity, and they believed that if only we examined culture in enough contexts then we would come to understands the laws that govern it. But the thing is, there are no laws that govern culture. There are, of course, laws created by culture such as speed limits and property rights, but there are no natural laws that create culture.

Since we anthropologists have continually thought about and closely followed culture, we have come to understand a few characteristics of it. The first is that there is no one Culture, an Ur or original form, that all other reiterations are somehow destined to follow. There are only cultures, in the plural. You see, any given culture is an imagined whole. This imagination is held in the minds of the individuals that make up the community or group, expressed through different cultural forms from folklore, to popular culture, and through the institutions that they create to standardize and stabilize their idealized culture. Now, when I use the word “imagined” I don’t mean that it isn’t real: it is a construct—that is to say that it is constructed—but it does have real-world effects and consequences. Race and gender are socially and culturally constructed, but we know that that doesn’t make their impacts any less real.

Maybe a thought experiment might help us solidify here what culture is and how it operates in our lives (how we make it operate in our lives). Think for a moment that you are standing on a street corner. If you look to your left you can see down the road where there are houses, a strip mall, and people walking along the sidewalk. If you look to your right there are more buildings, cars driving toward and away from you, and a few local and national businesses. Ahead of you is downtown and behind you is a residential sector. No matter how small the town is, you cannot see all the people, buildings, objects, and conversations that make it up. There is history to the town, a present configuration of the town based on historical understandings and modern contexts, and a projected future for itself.

Culture is the entirety of the town. There are a lot of parts and a lot of people influencing each part of the town. You can start at one point, let’s say the street corner where we began in this scenario, and follow it to other parts of the culture. They are connected. Now, it’s not always easy to see the connection of all of the parts, but luckily, we anthropologists work with people from the town. They show us around, and when we get lost, they give us directions. Clifford Geertz abstracts this a bit more when he says, “The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong” (1973:452). The texts that we are reading over their shoulders is the roadmap of their culture.

Culture is a big concept. It’s one that has power in our lives. Culture is a way of categorizing our shared lived experiences and it is also a way of codifying and setting up boundaries for what is expected of each member of the group. Towns have ordinances, local laws. They have officials who carry maintain order and see that those laws are enforced and when those laws are broken those officials see that the individuals who break them are punished. These institutions—police service or sheriff’s office, courts, city councils—are part of the official aspects of the town’s culture. But there are also unofficial aspects too—local cuisine, parades, local history, and legends.

Culture is at once big and intimate. It surrounds us, calibrated for the group, but it impacts each individual in particular. Culture is a set of knowledges, beliefs, values, and behaviors that are local but exist in conversation with surrounding cultures. Culture is ideal and it is lived.

Many anthropologists have tried to come up with a more standard definition of culture. We have picked certain definitions over others at different moments in our disciplinary past, but we also understand that the reason we haven’t settled on a strict definition of culture is that it is difficult to comprise a definition that takes all of these components into consideration. We still hold on to E.B. Tylor’s definition from the nineteenth century that culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (1889:1). Ward Goodenough worked Tylor’s thinking into his own understanding of culture when he wrote in 1957 that “A society’s culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members” (1957:167).

As we moved forward from Tylor, we began to abstract the ways in which any given model of culture, each whole and complex, shares similarities as well as differences with any other model. Each model is constantly shifting as people within a culture make it useful and meaningful to them.

So, if I were to give a working definition of culture, it would be something like this: culture is the constellation of beliefs and knowledges that are expressed through various mediums such as stories, material items, law, and education in all sectors of life from formal education, education received from elders in religious and secular communities, and education given in the home from family members. That constellation is enacted and negotiated throughout the various forms of communication that it passes through, being shaped by each form and impacting human behavior. Culture is ideal and lived. It is unified and messy. It is obvious and taken-for-granted.

To continue with our metaphor, culture is the town that we live in. We walk the streets, go into the buildings, and occupy space within its limits. We know some of the people and we change it as we live there. We travel from home, but when we do, we understand those new places in relation to where we are traveling from.


Works Cited

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Deep play: notes on the Balinese cockfight.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Goodenough, Ward. 1957. “Cultural Anthropology and Linguistics.” In Report of the Seventh Annual Round Table Meeting on Linguistics and Language Study. Paul L. Garvin, ed. Pp. 167–173. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, Monograph Series on Language and Linguistics, No. 9.

Tylor, Edward B. [1871]1889. Primitive Culture, second edition. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

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