Culture: Definition & Meaning

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  • 0:00 Culture Defined
  • 1:02 The Elements of Culture
  • 6:08 Cultural Diversity
  • 7:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Robert Turner
Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

In this lesson, we'll cover what sociologists and anthropologists are referring to when they use the term culture. You'll also learn about the elements that create a culture.

Culture Defined

What is culture? How do we best define this rather problematic term?

Edward B. Tylor, the founder of cultural anthropology, came up with a classic definition of culture that most sociologists find acceptable: Culture, or civilization, 'taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.' That's quite a mouthful.

Here's a simpler version you can think of as a working definition for this lesson: Culture amounts to the life ways of a socially connected group of people who share a common view of the world and their place in it. But, of course, unless our deductive powers are finely honed, that still doesn't tell us much. So, let's consider the elements that make up this mysterious creature we call a culture.

The Elements of Culture

There are five basic elements of culture: symbols, language, beliefs, values, and norms.


Symbols, strictly speaking, can be virtually anything that is meaningful for people who share a social world. In most societies, a person's manner of dress is a symbol of their social station. The Christian cross and the Islamic crescent are powerful symbols in Christian or Islamic societies. In the Navajo culture, the circular chambers, called hogans, represent the female womb as a source of life and symbolize a specific maternal clan. In ancient Egypt, cats were viewed as semi-divine and harming a cat was considered treason, making them powerful symbols.


Language is a complex symbol system. In fact, it's considered a closed, self-referential system because you can only define a word by referencing other words. In any case, sociologists, as well as psychologists and anthropologists, strongly agree that the use of language is a very basic human trait. In fact, human societies can only exist through the sharing of symbol-systems that permit us to speak or write words. Language is used to:

  • Communicate affects (feelings)
  • Express cognitions (thoughts)
  • Share experiences of sensation (such as pleasure or pain)
  • Express and share values

A sociologist once quipped, 'Bees buzz, flowers bloom, humans symbol.' Now that you've given some thought to symbols and the nature of language, you may find that quip entirely accurate.


In any culture we'll discover distinctive beliefs and belief systems. For example, in Colonial America, tomatoes were first considered poisonous and, later on, believed to be aphrodisiacs. Today, tomatoes are considered harmless, which goes to show that beliefs change over time. Belief systems are networks of related beliefs. For many decades, some Europeans wore garlic cloves around their necks to ward off disease. In the past, medical procedures involving prescriptive regimens relied on beliefs about the causes of disease. Beliefs like these changed when Pasteur's germ theories were accepted in the 19th century.


In general, values are thought of as culturally accepted standards for moral behavior. Our ideas about justice, fairness, and proper sexual behavior are examples. But, in fact, values also apply to our attitudes about art, music, fashionable dress, sportsmanship, and even how one should greet a relative as opposed to a stranger. Paramount among cultural values are those we attribute to gender roles. For example, in ancient Greece, males were sexual idols, and women were often viewed as nothing more than domestic caretakers. By contrast, in ancient Celtic cultures, men and women were far more equally valued. Rulers were often queens. And, in time of war, it was not unusual for men and women to fight side by side.


Norms are socially acceptable standards of behavior. Some are formal, such as the rules of procedure and decorum in a state legislature. Others are informal, such as the preferred way to prepare barbecue. Sociologists generally sort norms into four categories: folkways, mores, taboos, and laws.

Folkways are simply accepted customs. Eating peas with a knife violates a folkway. Carrying a new bride over a threshold honors an accepted custom. Wearing white after Labor Day may violate a folkway for some people. Kissing a girl caught under the mistletoe may be an accepted custom - although it can be risky if the girl resents the custom. In general, violation of a folkway doesn't involve serious sanctions, such as positive when behavior is rewarded or negative such as when violation of a norm draws some form of punishment.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Culture:

Essay Prompt 1:

In one paragraph, paraphrase Edward B. Taylor's definition of culture into your own words. Then paraphrase the more basic definition of culture provided in the lesson.

Hint: Be sure to note that the term "culture" here is the one utilized by sociologists and anthropologists.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of 1-2 pages that explains norms and the four categories of norms (folkways, mores, taboos, and laws). Be sure to provide at least one example of each.

Example: A folkway could be the notion of presenting a new homeowner with a gift at a housewarming party.

Essay Prompt 3:

In an essay of three to four paragraphs, consider cultural and religious diversity. Pay particular attention to answering the question: How can some cultures lack a word for "religion"?

Tip: Consider the integration of sacred and secular beliefs.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Create a chart, poster, or other type of graphic organizer that portrays and briefly describes the elements of culture.

Example: For symbols, you could draw a specific country's flag.

List Prompt 1:

Choose one of the elements of culture and make a list of at least ten examples of it. Be sure your examples are different from those provided in the lesson! The examples can be historical ones or current ones.

Example: You might consider the values system in the Antebellum or Jim Crow South, and how white supremacist values pervaded.

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