Sunday, October 17, 2010

Culture and Its various implications

Culture, in anthropology, the patterns of behavior and thinking that people living in social groups learn, create, and share. Culture distinguishes one human group from others. It also distinguishes humans from other animals. A people’s culture includes their beliefs, rules of behavior, language, rituals, art, technology, styles of dress, ways of producing and cooking food, religion, and political and economic systems.

Culture is the most important concept in anthropology (the study of all aspects of human life, past and present). Anthropologists commonly use the term culture to refer to a society or group in which many or all people live and think in the same ways. Likewise, any group of people who share a common culture—and in particular, common rules of behavior and a basic form of social organization—constitutes a society. Thus, the terms culture and society are somewhat interchangeable. However, while many animals live in societies, such as herds of elk or packs of wild dogs, only humans have culture.

Culture developed together with the evolution of the human species, Homo sapiens, and is closely related to human biology. The ability of people to have culture comes in large part from their physical features: having big, complex brains; an upright posture; free hands that can grasp and manipulate small objects; and a vocal tract that can produce and articulate a wide range of sounds. These distinctively human physical features began to develop in African ancestors of humans more than four million years ago. The earliest physical evidence of culture is crude stone tools produced in East Africa over two million years ago.

Characteristics of Culture

Culture has several distinguishing characteristics. (1) It is based on symbols—abstract ways of referring to and understanding ideas, objects, feelings, or behaviors—and the ability to communicate with symbols using language. (2) Culture is shared. People in the same society share common behaviors and ways of thinking through culture. (3) Culture is learned. While people biologically inherit many physical traits and behavioral instincts, culture is socially inherited. A person must learn culture from other people in a society. (4) Culture is adaptive. People use culture to flexibly and quickly adjust to changes in the world around them.

Culture is symbolic

People have culture primarily because they can communicate with and understand symbols. Symbols allow people to develop complex thoughts and to exchange those thoughts with others. Language and other forms of symbolic communication, such as art, enable people to create, explain, and record new ideas and information.

 A symbol has either an indirect connection or no connection at all with the object, idea, feeling, or behavior to which it refers. For instance, most people in the United States find some meaning in the combination of the colors red, white, and blue. But those colors themselves have nothing to do with, for instance, the land that people call the United States, the concept of patriotism, or the U.S. national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.

To convey new ideas, people constantly invent new symbols, such as for mathematical formulas. In addition, people may use one symbol, such as a single word, to represent many different ideas, feelings, or values. Thus, symbols provide a flexible way for people to communicate even very complex thoughts with each other. For example, only through symbols can architects, engineers, and construction workers communicate the information necessary to construct a skyscraper or bridge.

People have the capacity at birth to construct, understand, and communicate through symbols, primarily by using language. Research has shown, for example, that infants have a basic structure of language—a sort of universal grammar—built into their minds. Infants are thus predisposed to learn the languages spoken by the people around them.

Language provides a means to store, process, and communicate amounts of information that vastly exceed the capabilities of nonhuman animals. For instance, chimpanzees, the closest genetic relatives of humans, use a few dozen calls and a variety of gestures to communicate in the wild. People have taught some chimps to communicate using American Sign Language and picture-based languages, and some have developed vocabularies of a few hundred words. But an unabridged English dictionary might contain more than half-a-million vocabulary entries. Chimpanzees have also not clearly demonstrated the ability to use grammar, which is crucial for communicating complex thoughts.

In addition, the human vocal tract, unlike that of chimpanzees and other animals, can create and articulate a wide enough variety of sounds to create millions of distinct words. In fact, each human language uses only a fraction of the sounds humans can make. The human brain also contains areas dedicated to the production and interpretation of speech, which other animals lack. Thus, humans are predisposed in many ways to use symbolic communication.

Culture Is Learned

People are not born with culture; they have to learn it. For instance, people must learn to speak and understand a language and to abide by the rules of a society. In many societies, all people must learn to produce and prepare food and to construct shelters. In other societies, people must learn a skill to earn money, which they then use to provide for themselves. In all human societies, children learn culture from adults. Anthropologists call this process enculturation, or cultural transmission.


Enculturation is a long process. Just learning the intricacies of a human language, a major part of enculturation, takes many years. Families commonly protect and enculturate children in the households of their birth for 15 years or more. Only at this point can children leave and establish their own households. People also continue to learn throughout their lifetimes. Thus, most societies respect their elders, who have learned for an entire lifetime.

Humans are not alone in their ability to learn behaviors, only in the amount and complexity of what they can learn. For example, members of a group of chimpanzees may learn to use a unique source of food or to fashion some simple tools, behaviors that might distinguish them from other chimpanzee groups. But these unique ways of life are minor in comparison to the rich cultures that distinguish different human societies. Lacking speech, chimps are very limited in what they can learn, communicate to others, and pass on from generation to generation.

Culture Is Shared

People living together in a society share culture. For example, almost all people living in the United States share the English language, dress in similar styles, eat many of the same foods, and celebrate many of the same holidays.

All the people of a society collectively create and maintain culture. Societies preserve culture for much longer than the life of any one person. They preserve it in the form of knowledge, such as scientific discoveries; objects, such as works of art; and traditions, such as the observance of holidays.


Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Self-identity usually depends on culture to such a great extent that immersion in a very different culture—with which a person does not share common ways of life or beliefs—can cause a feeling of confusion and disorientation. Anthropologists refer to this phenomenon as culture shock. In multicultural societies—societies such as the United States into which people come from a diversity of cultures—unshared forms of culture can also lead to tension.

Members of a society who share culture often also share some feelings of ethnocentrism, the notion that one’s culture is more sensible than or superior to that of other societies. Ethnocentrism contributes to the integrity of culture because it affirms people’s shared beliefs and values in the face of other, often contradictory, beliefs and values held by people of other cultural backgrounds. At its worst, ethnocentrism has led people to commit ethnocide, the destruction of cultures, and genocide, the destruction of entire populations. This happened, for example, to Jews living in Nazi Germany in the 1940s.

Anthropologists, knowing the power of ethnocentrism, advocate cross-cultural understanding through a concept known as cultural relativism. Someone observing cultural relativism tries to respect all cultures equally. Although only someone living within a group that shares culture can fully understand that culture, cultural relativists believe that outsiders can learn to respect beliefs and practices that they do not share.


However, most anthropologists believe that cultural relativism has its limits. In theory, an extreme relativist would uncritically accept the practices of all cultures, even if those practices harm people. For example, anthropologists have debated over whether they should accept or approve of the practice of female circumcision, performed in many African societies. Female circumcision involves removing part or all of a woman’s labia and clitoris and is usually performed on girls entering adolescence. This practice is painful, and often harmful, to the women of societies that perform it, but many of those societies claim that the practice is important and deeply rooted in their culture.

Sharing Culture Across Societies

Since no human society exists in compete isolation, different societies also exchange and share culture. In fact, all societies have some interactions with others, both out of curiosity and because even highly self-sufficient societies sometimes need assistance from their neighbors. Today, for instance, many people around the world use similar kinds of technology, such as cars, telephones, and televisions. Commercial trade and communication technologies, such as computer networks, have created a form of global culture. Therefore, it has become increasingly difficult to find culture that is shared within only a single society.

Cultural exchange can provide many benefits for all societies. Different societies can exchange ideas, people, manufactured goods, and natural resources. Such exchanges can also have drawbacks, however. Often the introduction of aspects of another society’s culture can disrupt the cohesive life of a people. For example, the introduction of consumerism into many small societies has led to what anthropologists refer to as cargo cults. In cargo cults, people focus much of their religious energy and time on trying to magically acquire commercial goods.

Cross-cultural exchange often results in what anthropologists call acculturation, when the members of one culture adopt features of another. This has happened, for example, when indigenous peoples in the western hemisphere adopted the language and many of the customs of Spain, which colonized South and Central America beginning in the 1500s.

Social Culture

People in all types of societies organize themselves in relation to each other for work and other duties, and to structure their interactions. People commonly organize themselves according to (1) bonds by kinship and marriage, (2) work duties and economic position, and (3) political position. Important factors in family, work, and political relations include age and gender (behaviors and roles associated with men and women).

Relations and Family

In smaller societies people organize themselves primarily according to ties of kinship (blood relation) and marriage. Kin generally give each other preferential treatment over nonkin. People who share ties by blood and marriage commonly live together in families.

Small societies categorize kin in many different ways and define appropriate types of behavior between kin, including who can marry. In band societies, people know their relationships to others in their band, which usually includes only a few families. People do not marry within their immediate family, but often take spouses from other bands to create ties that bond them together in times of need.


All people in bands generally respect each other as equals, though children must show increased respect for their elders. The eldest group members often earn special recognition for their knowledge. Men and women in bands also commonly regard each other as equals. People living in tribes belong to lineages or clans, which are large kin groups that trace their descent to a common ancestor. Clans are somewhat larger than lineages and usually cover more generations. Clans trace their descent to a fictitious ancestor (ancestor whose true identity is not known), often identified as an animal spirit or clan totem. Kinship and family relations are both important in agricultural societies, as well as for many people in industrial and commerce-based societies. But for many people today living in large societies, kinship and family relations have become less important. Many people live alone or in small families and also depend on organizations, workplaces, and government institutions to provide support available in smaller societies from family and kin.

Leadership and political power

Groups of people living in bands have no formal leadership, and all people have input in making group decisions. Most decision-making in tribes occurs within households. Occasionally, most or all members of lineages or clans convene to make important village decisions, such as about dealing with neighboring tribes. Descent groups may also regulate access to crucial resources, such as favored hunting areas, and choose where people will live.


Within most tribes, all groups commonly have about equal status. Since every person belongs to a descent group, no one person ranks too far above or below another. In some tribes, however, people known as big men might earn a degree of higher status and respect than others by demonstrating bravery or bravado.

Chiefdoms, larger than most tribes, consist of at least two very large descent groups organized under rulers known as chiefs, who are born into their positions of leadership. Chiefs must prove that they are closest in descent to the founding ancestor of the highest ranked clans within chiefdoms. They live as full-time rulers who may not have to work at productive duties. Chiefs have the power to collect some of the goods people produce, such as food, and redistribute them in times of need or use them in ceremony.


In the past, chiefdoms existed in a great number of Polynesian societies on Pacific Ocean islands, such as those that make up what is now Hawaii. Chiefdoms were the first societies to have positions of defined, permanent leadership. Chiefdoms still exist in some places under national governments. For instance, chiefs of the Kpelle of Liberia are political leaders for the country’s national districts.

Civilizations have powerful autonomous bodies of authority managed by formal bureaucracies. This political structure is formally known as a state. Some of the first major state societies existed in the area known as Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq, and in ancient Egypt (see Egypt: History).


A state may claim ownership of all its territory and resources and may wage wars against other nations. Important families may rule states for several generations, though this happened more commonly in the past. But all states have distinct social and economic classes, and higher classes have greater political influence or power than do lower classes.

Families still rule some states, sometimes as royalty and sometimes as elected aristocracies (small groups, often families, deemed by citizens as qualified to rule). But many states today have elected governments not based on family lines. The citizens of these states share a common identity based on language, ideals, shared rituals, and other cultural bonds. This form of state is known as a nation.

Many national governments serve the interests of business and commerce as much as they do individuals and families. In many cases commercial corporations (businesses created through legal means) have a great deal of political influence. Corporations and large economic market exchanges control the production and distribution of goods and services, as well as transfers of money. Access to employment, not family, often determines where people live. People who cannot earn sufficient income may live in poverty, and many of the poor depend on government welfare for economic support.

Ideological Culture

In every society, culturally unique ways of thinking about the world unite people in their behavior. Anthropologists often refer to the body of ideas that people share as ideology. Ideology can be broken down into at least three specific categories: beliefs, values, and ideals. People’s beliefs give them an understanding of how the world works and how they should respond to the actions of others and their environments. Particular beliefs often tie in closely with the daily concerns of domestic life, such as making a living, health and sickness, happiness and sadness, interpersonal relationships, and death. People’s values tell them the differences between right and wrong or good and bad. Ideals serve as models for what people hope to achieve in life.

Many people rely on religion, systems of belief in the supernatural (things beyond the natural world), to shape their values and ideals and to influence their behavior. Beliefs, values, and ideals also come from observations of the natural world, a practice anthropologists commonly refer to as secularism.

Religion allows people to know about and communicate with supernatural beings—such as animal spirits, gods, and spirits of the dead. Religion often serves to help people cope with the death of relatives and friends, and it figures prominently in most funeral ceremonies

Peoples of many small band and tribal societies believe that plants and animals, as well as people, can have souls or spirits that can take on different forms to help or harm people. Anthropologists refer to this kind of religious belief as animism. In hunting societies, people commonly believe that forest beings control the supply of game animals and may punish people for irresponsible behavior by making animals outwit the hunt.

In many small societies, visionaries and healers known as shamans receive stories from supernatural beings and later recite them to others or act them out in dramatic rituals. As religious specialists, shamans have special access to this spirit world as well as a rich knowledge of medicinal plants. Shamans commonly assign special supernatural roles to spirit animals and beings. For example, shamans in Amazon societies may communicate with a spirit keeper of the game to insure hunting success. They may also be assisted by spirit jaguars.

In larger, agricultural societies, religion has long been a means of asking for bountiful harvests, a source of power for rulers, and an inspiration to go to war. In early civilized societies, religious visionaries became leaders because people believed those leaders could communicate with the supernatural to control the fate of a civilization. This became their greatest source of power, and people often regarded leaders as actual gods.

For example, in the great civilization of the Aztec, which flourished in what is now Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries, rulers claimed privileged association with the powerful god Huitzilopochtli. They said that this god required human blood to ensure that the sun would rise and set each day. Aztec rulers thus inspired great awe by regularly conducting human sacrifices. They also conspicuously displayed their vast power as wealth in luxury goods, such as fine jewels, clothing, and palaces. Rulers obtained their wealth from the great numbers of craftspeople, traders, and warriors under their control.


Many societies today interpret the natural world and form beliefs based on science and logic. Societies in which many people do not practice any religion, such as the United States, may be known as secular societies. However, no society is entirely secular.

During the period in 17th- and 18th-century Europe known as the Age of Enlightenment, science and logic became new sources of belief for many people living in civilized societies. Scientific studies of the natural world and rational philosophies both led people to believe that they could explain natural and social phenomena without believing in gods or spirits. Religion remained an influential system of belief, however.

Both religion and science drove the development of capitalism, the economic system of commerce-driven market exchange. Capitalism itself influences people’s beliefs, values, and ideals in many present-day, large, civilized societies. In these societies, such as in the United States, many people view the world and shape their behavior based on a belief that they can understand and control their environment and that work, commerce, and the accumulation of wealth serve an ultimate good. The governments of most large societies today also assert that human well-being derives from the growth of economies and the development of technology.

In addition, many people have come to believe in the fundamental nature of human rights and free will. These beliefs grew out of people’s faith in their ability to control the natural world—a faith promoted by science and rationalism. Religious beliefs continue to change to affirm or accommodate these other dominant beliefs, but sometimes the two are at odds with each other. For instance, many religious people have difficulty reconciling their belief in a supreme spiritual force with the theory of natural evolution, which requires no belief in the supernatural.

History of culture

People have long been aware of cultural differences among societies. Some of the earliest accounts of culture come from the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the 400s bc. Herodotus traveled through the Persian Empire, which included much of the Middle East and surrounding parts of Asia and Africa. He wrote at length about the cultural and racial diversity of these places, much of which he linked to differences in people’s environments.

For almost 2000 years following the time of Herodotus, many people attributed cultural differences to racial inheritance. The biblical account of the Tower of Babel, in which God caused people to speak new languages, also provided an explanation for cultural diversity.

At the end of the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century ad), many countries of Western Europe began sending explorers around the world to find new sources of material goods and wealth. Prolonged contacts with new cultures during these travels sparked Europeans’ interest in the sources and meaning of cultural diversity.

The English term culture actually came into use during the Middle Ages. It derived from the Latin word for cultivation, as in the practice of nurturing domesticated plants in gardens. Thus, the word originally referred to people’s role in controlling nature.

By the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, many European scientists and philosophers had come to believe that culture had gone through progressive stages of improvement throughout human existence. The first anthropologists, including Tylor, also promoted such theories of cultural evolution.

Many people of the upper classes in 19th-century Victorian England used the term culture in a sense similar to its original meaning. In the Victorian usage, culture referred to the controlling of the unrefined behaviors and tastes associated with the lower classes. Thus, the Victorian term culture referred to the refined tastes, intellectual training, and mannerisms of the upper classes. However, many anthropologists, sociologists, and historians of that same period used the term civilization, from the Latin word for “citizen,” as a scientific description of what the upper classes called culture. Civilization thus also meant the pinnacle of cultural evolution.

Ecology and economy

Beginning in the 1930s several American anthropologists developed a renewed interest in the material, or economic, and ecological foundations of culture—interests that dated back to the writings of Herodotus. These anthropologists emphasized the importance of discovering how the natural environment, technology, and the ways in which people produced and distributed their necessities, such as food, influence other parts of culture. They proposed that material culture, and particularly those aspects related to making a living, determines the shape of culture as a whole.

In research done between the 1930s and the 1960s, American anthropologist Julian Steward noticed that similar types of cultures developed under similar environmental conditions, but in geographically separate places. Steward attributed these cultural similarities to correspondences in their culture core—those aspects of culture that might be influenced by the similar ways in which different peoples adapt to similar natural environments. For example, Steward argued that the similarities in culture and social organization among foraging band societies around the world had much to do with the similar ecologies of the places in which they lived. The work of Steward and many of his students is known as cultural ecology.

Culture materialism

In the 1960s and 1970s American anthropologist, Marvin Harris attempted to show through studies of specific societies that many aspects of culture relate directly to a people’s economic conditions. He argued that a culture’s technology shaped its economy, which in turn shaped its beliefs and values. The theories of Harris and other anthropologists that focus on the strictly economic basis of culture are known as cultural materialism.

In one study, Harris gave an economic explanation for the Hindu tradition in India of regarding cattle as sacred. He viewed this tradition as a cultural response to the economic importance of cattle as draught animals for farming, as scavengers of trash, and as providers of a major source of fuel (dried cattle feces).

Many anthropologists continue to examine the complex relationship among environment, economy, and culture. Some have studied how people modify their environments and develop technology to increase the number of people that the environment can support. For example, industrialized societies continue to develop new technologies to increase food and energy production. They also promote technologies, such as birth control methods, and ways of thinking, such as the ideal of having small families, that help to keep populations in check and to avoid running out of natural resources.

Interpretation of culture

In the 1950s anthropologists began to distinguish between two ways of interpreting culture: from an emic perspective and from an etic perspective. The people native to a society have an emic understanding of its culture. Someone who comes from outside a society, such as an anthropologist, gains an etic understanding of its culture.

Traditional ethnographies, written from an etic perspective, describe and analyze each aspect of a society’s culture in detail. Many early anthropological books, for example, discuss each aspect of culture in its own chapter or section. On the other hand, the people within a society can provide an emic description of their culture. Such a description rarely resembles an anthropological interpretation.

People living within a particular culture do not usually analyze its meaning. They do not think, for instance, about why they perform one kind of ceremony rather than another, or why they produce food one way rather than another. A native of the United States, for example, might say that Americans commonly go to the movies on Friday and Saturday nights but not discuss or even understand the significance of this behavior.

Anthropologists, on the other hand, specialize in comparing and analyzing cultures. For this reason, anthropologists have traditionally regarded immersion in a foreign culture as a fundamental part of doing research. Still, they remain outsiders. But in the 1960s some anthropologists began attempting to describe and analyze culture from an emic perspective, as an insider experiences it.


In the 1980s and 1990s some anthropologists turned to an even more radical interpretive perspective on culture, known generally as postmodernism. Postmodernism questions whether an objective understanding of other cultures is at all possible. It developed as a reaction to modernism, which was the scientific and rational approach to understanding the world found in most ethnographies.

Postmodern anthropologists suggest that all people construct culture through an ongoing process that resembles the writing, reading, and interpretation of a text. From this view, people continually create and debate with each other about the meaning of all aspects of culture, such as words, rituals, and concepts. People in the United States, for instance, have long debated over cultural issues such as what constitutes a family, what women’s and men’s roles in society should be, and what functions the federal government should perform. Many anthropologists now study and write about these kinds of questions, even in their own societies.

Rapid changes in technology in the last several decades have changed the nature of culture and cultural exchange. People around the world can make economic transactions and transmit information to each other almost instantaneously through the use of computers and satellite communications. Governments and corporations have gained vast amounts of political power through military might and economic influence. Corporations have also created a form of global culture based on worldwide commercial markets.

Local culture and social structure are now shaped by large and powerful commercial interests in ways that earlier anthropologists could not have imagined. Early anthropologists thought of societies and their cultures as fully independent systems. But today, many nations are multicultural societies, composed of numerous smaller subcultures. Cultures also cross national boundaries. For instance, people around the world now know a variety of English words and have contact with American cultural exports such as brand-name clothing and technological products, films and music, and mass-produced foods.

Many anthropologists have become interested in how dominant societies can shape the culture of less powerful societies, a process some researchers call cultural hegemony. Today, many anthropologists openly oppose efforts by dominant world powers, such as the U.S. government and large corporations, to make unique smaller societies adopt Western commercial culture.

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