Definition of Culture in Anthropology: Characteristics & Concept

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  • 0:05 Culture
  • 0:56 Groups
  • 1:56 Behavior
  • 3:12 Adaptive
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

In this lesson, we'll define culture as it is used in anthropology and the social sciences. We'll also include a brief discussion of the major concepts in the anthropological study of culture.


When someone says the word culture, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Some of us may think about certain beliefs, such as religious or moral beliefs. Others may think about the way people dress or decorate themselves, like wearing turbans or having facial tattoos. Additionally, some of us may think of the artifacts from ancient cultures, like the well-known statues from Greek or Egyptian archaeology. All of these things are tied to culture in one way or another. But what does culture mean to the anthropologists who study it? Well, the truth is that anthropologists often disagree about the precise definition of culture. However, for the purposes of this lesson, culture can be defined as sets of human behavior that are passed down from one generation to the next. This transmission of culture isn't always purposeful, and may take place anywhere that young people can interact with older people.


The first thing one should note about our definition of culture is that it involves people acting in groups. Without people, culture doesn't exist. If there is a time when people become extinct, artifacts, or the physical remains of culture, including tools, weapons, art, cooking utensils, and even today's smartphones may still exist. However, artifacts are only evidence that a culture once existed, and are not the actual culture itself.

Basically, the function of culture is to keep people working together in groups. The importance of groups cannot be over-emphasized. Most of the information people learn in their lives is learned from others. The old saying may be that 'experience is the best teacher,' but learning from the experience of other people is vital to the survival of humans. This goes for people in so-called civilized and uncivilized regions alike. People rely on interactions with others for their livelihoods and even for outright survival against the elements.


The next thing we should mention about culture is behavior. Cultural behavior refers to any physically visible phenomenon consisting of a series of actions undertaken by people. One can record the behavior of people in various settings and then discover why those behaviors are performed, which is known as ethnography. The same distinction we made a moment ago between culture and artifacts goes here too. Since culture is behavior, the study of culture is best conducted by observing that behavior. If one is far removed from the culture in space or time, one has to rely upon artifacts produced by that culture or descriptions of people's behavior.

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