Back To CourseIntro to Anthropology: Help and Review
25 chapters | 485 lessons
As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 75,000 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.Try it risk-free
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.
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:
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.
The term more comes from the Latin and refers to a moral standard. And indeed, violating a more often has moral consequences. Social rules surrounding things such as adultery, bribery, intimidation, and deceit are proscribed by mores. Such violations (if detected) may draw serious sanctions ranging from loss of social status to the shunning of a culprit.
Taboos are absolute moral no-no's. Almost universally, for example, cannibalism and incest are social taboos. However, as paradox would have it, brother-sister marriage was actually prescribed in ancient Egypt and in traditional Hawaiian culture in order to maintain a royal bloodline.
Laws are norms that have been put in writing as a result of legislative action on the part of a state or nation state. Violators are subject to arrest by law enforcement agencies and to punishments decreed by established courts.
Across the millennia and around the world, cultures have demonstrated remarkable diversity. In some cultures, lineage and inheritance are reckoned through a maternal line. In some cultures, one finds two languages, a street language for every day affairs, and a different, formal language required for ceremonial occasions. In some cultures, like the Inuit, wife sharing with a visitor is was once seen as proper hospitality. Shamans are recognized as spirit walkers who can guide tribal decisions in some cultures. In a few cultures, women are allowed multiple husbands.
Religion is found in virtually every culture known and the diversity of beliefs embraced by particular religions is quite remarkable. In some religions, ancestors are treated as living relatives. Some religions honor a single god, as in Judaism, while others honor more gods and goddesses than one can easily count, as in Hinduism. In early Rome, the hearth gods of a particular paternal lineage got more attention than the familiar pantheon of Olympian deities.
Regarding religion, we also run into something of a paradox. Some cultures that have no word for religion - even though there are what we would call sacred practices. How can this be? The answer is simple, even if a bit surprising: In modern stratified societies, we have a separate word for religion because that cognitive category is identified as one among a set of institutional patterns such as law, economy, and family. Meanwhile, there is no specific word for religion in some tribal cultures because sacred and secular life-ways are fully integrated.
Edward B. Tylor, the founder of cultural anthropology, defined culture as '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 is, culture amounts to the life ways of a socially connected group of people sharing a common view of the world.
The five basic elements of culture include:
Each of these elements helps create the complex web of ideas and communication at the heart of every culture, with the last one, norms, giving rise to the inter-related yet very diverse practices of different cultures, which are established through folkways, mores, taboos, and laws.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Already a member? Log InBack
Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.
To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page
Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.
Back To CourseIntro to Anthropology: Help and Review
25 chapters | 485 lessons