Definition of Culture

"Culture" is an infamously difficult word to define. It's one of those words everyone uses without really being completely clear on the meaning. Perhaps that's appropriate because culture is all about the meanings, plural, that human societies create and share. Culture is what makes us human, and includes everything from how we communicate, what we believe in, how we treat others, and how we treat the natural world, to what we eat and how we have fun.

Definition of Culture Definition of Culture

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Table of contents

    Definition of Culture in Human Geography

    Culture encompasses how people interact with each other and the circumstances (both geographical and social) in which we live.

    Culture: The traits shared and transmitted among the members of a group that allow communication, a common belief system, shared purpose, and shared activities.

    Culture, in other words, is a group's way of life. It includes many different activities and facets of life. You may not think about it because it is your everyday life, but you have been raised in a culture. In fact, depending on where your parents are from or where you grew up, you may have acquired teachings from many cultures.

    When you were a child, you were a sponge of sorts, learning how to speak, how to make music, how to play, how to interact with others, what to believe, and more. This was the natural act of your acquisition of culture.

    Types of Culture

    Let's look at some different types of culture.

    Material Culture

    Material culture is fundamental to how people interact with the world and live their lives. The material objects in culture are called artifacts.

    For instance, people dress a certain way based on the resources available to them, the role they play, or some other elements of personal expression. Clothing is an important, primordial element of material culture, and there are as many "dress codes" as there are cultures, it seems. You wouldn't expect to see a businessperson in a lumberjack outfit or a skateboarder in a suit!

    Material culture includes all forms of material that members of a culture create and interact with. These include the buildings, vehicles, furniture, and personal objects of the culture.

    Art can also be material culture.

    For instance, museums around the world are filled with artifacts from humanity's past. There may not be ancient Romans alive to talk to us, and cameras were not yet invented, but we can visualize this history through the material art left behind. Art provides a window into a culture's past.

    Cultural Practices

    Not all elements of culture leave a material trail. Elements of culture include thoughts and the manner of personal interactions between individuals. These are called mentifacts. Of course, philosophers and authors may put down their thoughts into written text that can be read by future generations, but it is still non-material culture.

    Definition of Culture Cultural Dance StudySmarterFig. 1 - An all-female dance troupe from Nigeria during a traditional Igbo dance performance

    Art is a major component of culture. As mentioned, there are material examples of art such as sculpture, architecture, and paintings. However, there are non-material forms of art too. Dance, theater, and music are all examples of non-material culture. These activities are fundamental to culture. Oftentimes, dance and other performances are how different cultures differentiate themselves from each other.

    Cultural practices, similar to non-material culture, may not leave behind much physical evidence. Instead, they are passed down from one generation to the next through education and oral tradition. There are numerous examples of cultural groups around the world that do not possess written history. Their group's past exists orally instead. Usually, the elders will play a role in passing along this information.

    Religious beliefs are also cultural practices. Religion is a fundamental activity and signifier of culture. Religion shapes how members of the culture view the world and interact with it. It also influences many of the decisions an individual makes.

    Artifacts and mentifacts are joined by a third type of cultural trait: sociofacts. These are the institutions, ranging from the family to the school to the club to the library to the church, that provide structure, guidance, and organization to culture. They are all cultural institutions, without which the other elements of culture would have no way to survive long-term.

    Elements of Culture

    Here are some standard elements common to all cultures.

    Language

    Language is both creator and creation of culture. For instance, language reinforces culture and its practices. Language is one of the first things babies learn because it is so fundamental to development. A language connects people with each other, as well as with the knowledge of their ancestors.

    Language not only helps people describe the world, but it also influences how people conceptualize the world. A language also defines a culture by creating a distinction between other groups. Without technology or translators, there is a real barrier that prevents speakers of different languages from being able to communicate with each other. Communicating with speakers of the same language reinforces culture.

    Symbols

    Humans love symbolism. We are capable of giving meaning to certain colors, shapes, and objects and making them capable of diffusing a bigger message. This is a core practice of culture.

    Members of a culture learn to associate meaning and value with their cultural symbols. Symbols are an important type of mentifact.

    For instance, flags are very symbolic of cultures. Flags are symbolic objects around which groups can be unified.

    Another example of symbols is religious insignia. For instance, the Star of David has come to represent Judaism, the cross has come to represent Christianity, and the crescent moon has come to represent Islam. These symbols reference the religions.

    Definition of Culture Religious Iconography StudySmarterFig. 2 - This picture depicts the symbols for some of the world's most populous religions. The bottom row features the Jewish Star of David, the Christian Cross, and the Islamic Crescent Moon

    Symbols do not have to be drawings or logos. Symbols can be any object that signifies a culture. For instance, the institutions of Oxford and Cambridge are associated with British culture and Harvard is associated with US culture. Other examples include national anthems, animals, individuals, memorials, myths, companies, and many more.

    Artifacts

    Artifacts are the material creations of a particular culture.

    Definition of Culture Roman Ruins Artifacts StudySmarterFig. 3 - The ruins of the Roman Forum in the center of Rome and its uncovered artifacts provide researchers with knowledge of ancient Roman society

    The ruin of the Roman Forum is a perfect example of an artifact. The entire center city of modern-day Rome contains remnants of its past as the capital of the Roman Empire. Visitors to this site can walk past ruins of former government buildings, monuments, temples, stores, and more. Thus, even when a culture dies out, there are physical remnants left behind.

    Norms and Values

    From culture, people also learn values and norms. These are the conventions and expectations of behavior for members of a culture. Of course, individuality still exists within members of the same culture, but in general, some cultural norms and values are learned. Examples of cultural norms in much of the US include having a properly mowed green lawn, acting polite, and smiling to strangers as a form of greeting. There are innumerable norms that individuals learn over time through living in a culture. Can you think of any examples?

    Examples of Different Cultures

    There are many different examples of culture. There are innumerable examples within countries as well as between countries. Let's discuss two major examples of cultures.

    China

    China has a strong sense of culture that has been around for thousands of years. Han Chinese culture, and thus its way of life, is distinct from other cultures. For instance, Han Chinese have certain architecture, symbolism, beliefs, and social rules that differ from other cultures around the world.

    Definition of Culture Chinese Culture StudySmarterFig. 4 - This image depicts a typical Chinese setting. This architecture, and especially the red paper lanterns, are symbolic of Chinese culture

    Common references to Chinese culture include its distinct food, the giant panda, and religious beliefs such as Taoism. Can you think of any examples of Chinese culture?

    The US

    Mention of American culture brings to mind NFL Football, blue jeans, or McDonald's. While stereotypical, these are definitely aspects of American culture. If you ever travel abroad as an American, you may notice that people instantly know you are American. This is a result of the culture you grew up in. You have adopted certain habits, mannerisms, and speech patterns from the US that have impacted how you live your life and act.

    It is often said that Americans can be spotted abroad by their loud speech and the inability to speak or even attempt to speak any language other than English. While this is not true for all Americans, it is a good example to highlight how cultural upbringing molds a person.

    Definition of Culture American Blue Jeans StudySmarterFig. 5 - A stereotypical example of American culture is denim blue jeans

    It is important to be aware that culture is fluid, especially in the age of social media. People are constantly being exposed to new ideas from all around the world. This is a result of globalization. Thus, there are changes that occur in cultures, especially at different age ranges.

    Importance of Culture

    Culture is fundamental to humanity. It is what makes us human. It is also what unites us with some people and differentiates us from others.

    Culture is often tied to geography. People are raised in particular cultures based on where they are born, as different cultures are located in different locations around the world.

    Definition of Culture - Key takeaways

    • Culture is a general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development for a group of people, period, or of humanity in general. These traits are shared and transmitted among the members of the same culture.
    • Culture can be material or non-material. Cultural practices are a good example of non-material culture.
    • Elements of culture consist of the culture's distinct symbols, language, norms, values, and artifacts.
    • Two examples of cultures include China and the US. Both cultures have a distinct culture and way of life that individuals have learned based on their upbringing.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 - All Women Dance Troupe (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_all-Female_Cultural_Dance_Troupe,_from_Annunciation_Secondary_School_01.jpg) by Arch-Angel Raphael the Artist licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 2 - Religious Symbols (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Icon-religion.svg) by Nancystodd licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 3 - Roman Forum Ruins (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_Forum_looking_East.jpg) by Nicholas Hartmann licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    4. Fig. 5 - American Blue Jeans (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Denimjeans2.JPG) by Manda.L.Isch licensed by CC BY-SA 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Definition of Culture

    What are the two geographic definitions of culture?

     One definition of culture is the traditions and beliefs of a specific group. Another definition is the general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development for a group of people, period, or of humanity in general. 

    What is an example of culture in human geography?

    An example of culture in human geography is symbolism such as the cross symbolizing Christianity.

    What are 3 types of culture? 

    The 3 types of culture are artifacts, mentifacts, and sociofacts.

    Why is culture important to geography? 

    Culture is important to geography because both determine how people interact physically and socially with their surroundings. 

    How is culture related to geography?

    Culture is related to geography because both determine how people interact physically and socially with their surroundings.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What type of culture is art?

    Language is both a creator and creation of culture.

    What symbol has come to signify Islam?

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