Levels of Culture: National, International & Subcultural

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Levels of culture, which refers to a society's learned behaviors, include the categories of international culture, national culture, and subculture. Explore the differences between these three levels of culture. Updated: 12/29/2021

Definition of Culture

Today's lesson will be a rather simple one as we take a look at what anthropologists like to call the different layers or levels of culture. In studying this topic, we'll become amateur anthropologists, people watchers if you will, taking a look at how the concept of culture plays out across our society and our world.

For starters, culture is defined as the set of learned behaviors and beliefs that characterize a society or people group. Simply put, it's what makes a people group a people group. It's their beliefs, attitudes, and ideals. It's their art, their religion, their clothing, their diet, their entertainment... It's all that makes them them!

When studying culture, most anthropologists choose to break down this broad concept into layers. The three most common layers usually delineated are international, national, and subculture.

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  • 0:01 Definition of Culture
  • 0:55 International Culture
  • 1:52 National Culture
  • 3:11 Subculture
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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International Culture

Since it's the broadest of the three, we'll start with international culture. International culture is culture that extends beyond national borders. It's not confined to a country, a people group, or even a continent! With this definition in mind, it's not surprising to know that international culture is sometimes also referred to as universal.

Marriage is an excellent example of international culture because it's practiced by people groups all over the world. Whether they say 'I do' in English, French, or Swahili, people all over the globe enter into the union of marriage. Yes, the outfit the bride wears may differ depending on her country, and the ceremony may look very different depending on the couple's religion, but the basic premise remains the same. At the end of the day, whether the bride wore white or brightly colored silks, a marriage has begun, and on any given day, it's happening all over our globe.

National Culture

Our next layer of culture is national culture. As you can probably guess from the name, this represents the beliefs and practices shared by the citizens of the same nation. It's what makes an American an American and an Italian an Italian.

To highlight the idea that culture is made up of layers, we'll again use marriage. As we've already covered, marriage is part of international culture. However, how it plays out in different countries is a great example of national culture. For example, if you are going to a Christian wedding in the United States, you'll most likely be attending the festivities on a Saturday or maybe even a Friday night.

However, not many American weddings take place on a Sunday, but very traditional Italians believe Sunday is the luckiest day to marry. According to old time Italian traditions, Saturday weddings were to be reserved for widows who were remarrying, not first time brides and grooms.

Although many modern Italians no longer hold to these ideals, they still have a part in the traditional, national culture of Italy. On a similar note, and another example of national culture, traditional Chinese wedding dates were often chosen by an astrologer who used the bride and groom's birthdays to figure out the luckiest day they should wed.


With this, we come to our last layer of culture, subculture. Subculture is often defined as the beliefs and attitudes that separate groups within the same broad culture. As a layer of culture, subculture is often made up of differences in religion, socioeconomic status, and even race. As Americans, we are very familiar with subcultures. One needs to only spend a day in New York City to experience the subcultures of places like Little Italy, Greenwich Village, and Chinatown. Yes, many of the people you see there will share the national culture of being Americans, but they may differ in how they dress, what they eat, and how they worship.

Again hitting on the idea that there are layers to culture, we'll again use our example of marriage. As we've already highlighted, marriage is part of international culture. However, it also plays out differently depending on one's national culture. Taking this a step further, marriage also differs at a sub-cultural level. To explain this one, I'll use my own family.

Growing up as a child in the Northeast of the United States, most of the weddings I attended as a child were what you'd call, or maybe I should say, what I'd call, very traditional. The brides wore very fancy white dresses, and the grooms wore tuxedos; even the guests were dressed to the nines. Organs, pianos, or orchestras played, and afterward, there were usually very fancy meals. I must admit, as a child, I found them very boring, but that's how the subculture in which I was raised did weddings, so I suffered through them.

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