Meaning and Definition

The concept of culture has rightly received prime attention in sociological research owing to its centrality in understanding the nature and performance of the social arrangement called ‘society’. Culture is probably one of the most discussed and debated topics in sociological literature because of its central location in the study of individuals in society. This concept has attracted the attention of sociologists, cultural anthropologists, literature scholars, and social psychologists among others in understanding human social behavior. With its multifaceted and multidimensional features, the study of culture has gained increasing importance over the last few decades.

In ordinary speech, the word culture is often used to refer to sophisticated tastes in art, literature, music, and so on. The sociological use of this term is much wider, for it includes the entire way of life of a society.  Hence the relationship between culture and religion is very close. Culture sometimes is explained in terms of material and non-material. While artifacts such as books, pens, schools, factories, wheels, etc. represent material culture, more abstract creations such as language, ideas, religious beliefs, customs, myths, and so on constitute non-material culture.

Like the explanations, the definition of the term culture also is wide-ranging. Culture has been defined in broad terms as a design for living’ (Kluckhon, 1949) or a set of mechanisms – plans, recipes, rules, roles, constructions, or what may be described in computer terminology as ‘programming for social behavior’ (Geertz, 1978). Both definitions point out the vitality and significance of culture in society. Culture points out the human way of adapting to the environment, a design for living acquired through learning.

Culture is achieved or acquired and not innate or ascribed. It is obtained through human socialization – the continuous and ongoing process of interaction and learning through which we acquire a personal identity and social skills to adjust and develop. The content of this process of acquisition carried forward from one human collectivity to the next. In other words, culture is transmitted from one generation to another. It should be noted that what kind of individual we become is strongly influenced by enculturation – the immersion in a culture to the point where that particular design for living seems ‘only natural’ and given inevitably. Most of us do not question our cultural practices and do not view them critically because they are naturally ours and are not external to us.

Every individual is accidentally born into a family and he/she acquires a culture as a member of that particular collectivity. Because the cultural traits are specific to and identifiable within a given community, there cannot be a generalized and universal judgment on the desirability or undesirability of any cultural element or practice. In other words, a cultural system is available only to its members and outside agents cannot judge the appropriateness of a culture by standards external to that culture. Justification for or critique of a culture and its practice can meaningfully emerge only from within.

Culture is generally typified as material and non-material culture although that distinction has some notional overlapping. The many different sections that make up a group’s design for living – from sophisticated science and technology to toys and children’s games; from great works of art and music to kitchen utensils; from sacred ceremonies and worshipping acts to customs like shaking hands or saying ‘Namaste’; from beliefs about what does and does not taste good; even sex – all are shaped by learning all through life. Learning is of central importance in cultural acquisition as noted earlier. The degree of this learning determines the rate and extent of understanding culture and related courses of action within the group. Thus, culture defines the way of life of the individual. Of all the learning applications, acquiring religion has a very special place in an individual’s life. This provides a position to the individual in his/her social functioning within the group. Therefore, a sociological discussion on religion invariably leads to an elaborate discussion on culture and the reciprocal relationship between these two important elements of society.

Culture consists of all the shared products of human society, both the objects and subjective elements. Culture influences all aspects of an individual’s living in society. In fact, as Parsons pointed out, the social system and cultural system cannot exist independently of one another and any such distinction is made only for the sake of abstraction and analysis. Culture forms the platform for all other social institutions including, family, kinship, science, economy, polity, and religion.

Religion and culture are closely linked and cannot be separated within the complex social phenomenon called society. As Clifford Geertz observes, ‘nonculture human beings do not, in fact, exist, never have existed, and most importantly, could not in the nature of the case exist. ‘The unprecedented success of our species depends on the existence of human culture. We create culture, and culture in turn creates us. Our shared culture is what makes our social life possible. Without a culture transmitted from the past, each new generation would have to solve the most elementary problems of human existence over again. Without culture, we probably would have to invent fire every morning!

Cultures around the world vary widely and each culture is unique in its form and content. Cultural variations can be explained in terms of the functions that particular elements serve in maintaining the social system and in terms of their ecological significance as an adaptation to the total environment around us. It is true that human migration and mobility have led to cultural exchange and sometimes interaction of people of different cultures for trade and commerce or pilgrimages and so on might also have resulted from diffusion from one culture to another.

In essence, all cultures consist of five basic elements: belief (ideas about how the world operates); values (ideas about the meaning of life); norms and sanctions (guidelines for behavior) expressive symbols (material representations of ideas and values); and language.

Additional Notes:

Culture is an intricate tapestry that weaves together the beliefs, customs, values, traditions, and behaviors of a group of people. It’s the invisible hand that guides societies and shapes the way individuals interact with one another and the world around them. However, the concept of culture is far from being monolithic; it’s a multifaceted phenomenon that defies easy definition. In this article, we’ll delve into the meaning and definition of culture, exploring its various dimensions and the profound impact it has on our lives.

Defining Culture

Defining culture is akin to capturing the essence of human experience, a task both complex and multifarious. Nevertheless, numerous scholars and thinkers have attempted to shed light on the concept over the years, and though there is no universally accepted definition, we can draw some common threads to form a comprehensive understanding.

1.      Culture as a Way of Life:

At its core, culture represents the way of life of a particular group or society. It encompasses the shared beliefs, values, norms, customs, and practices that guide individuals in their daily lives. It dictates how we relate to one another, approach problems, celebrate milestones, and handle adversity.

2.      Culture as a Social Construct:

Culture is essentially a social construct, emerging from the interactions and shared experiences of a group of people. It includes both tangible elements like language, clothing, and food, as well as intangible aspects like beliefs, rituals, and worldviews.

3.      Culture as a Set of Symbols:

Symbols play a pivotal role in culture. They can be language, gestures, religious icons, or even everyday objects. These symbols carry meaning and help individuals within a culture communicate and understand one another. They also serve as vehicles for the transmission of cultural values and knowledge.

4.      Culture as a Dynamic Phenomenon:

Culture is not static; it evolves over time. Social, economic, and technological changes can all influence and reshape a culture. Consequently, what is considered cultural today may be quite different from what it was in the past.

5.      Culture as a Source of Identity:

Culture is an integral part of individual and group identity. It provides people with a sense of belonging and an understanding of who they are. Cultural identity shapes our self-concept and how we relate to others.

Cultural Dimensions

Culture can be broken down into several dimensions to better understand its complexity:

1.      Material Culture:

This encompasses the tangible aspects of culture, such as clothing, architecture, tools, and technology. It reflects the way a culture adapts to its environment and utilizes resources.

2.      Non-Material Culture:

This includes the intangible elements, such as beliefs, values, norms, customs, and rituals. These aspects shape a society’s worldview, ethics, and social interactions.

3.      Language:

Language is a fundamental part of culture, serving as a medium for communication and a repository of collective knowledge. Different languages provide unique perspectives on the world.

4.      Cultural Norms and Values:

These define what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behavior within a culture. They guide social interactions, moral judgments, and decision-making processes.

5.      Cultural Symbols:

Symbols serve as a visual representation of cultural concepts and beliefs. They can include flags, religious icons, art, and other visual representations.

Impact of Culture

The significance of culture is immeasurable. It influences every facet of our lives, from how we communicate and interact with others to how we view the world. The impact of culture extends to various areas, including:

Behavior and Social Norms:

Cultural norms dictate how we act, from basic manners to complex social structures and hierarchies.


Language and non-verbal communication styles are rooted in culture and have a profound impact on how we convey ideas and emotions.

Worldview and Beliefs:

Culture shapes our understanding of the world, our place in it, and our beliefs and values. It influences our approach to spirituality, ethics, and morality.

Identity and Community:

Cultural identity forms the basis of our individual and collective identities. It provides a sense of belonging and connection to a particular group.

Your Feedback