The Five Basic Characteristics of Cultures

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  • 0:01 What Is Culture?
  • 0:53 Learned and Shared
  • 2:09 Symbolic, Integrated, Dynamic
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

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, learn about culture. We will review the five characteristics that all cultures have in common with one another and look at some examples.

What is Culture?

The word culture is one of those terms that we use quite often, but what is it exactly? If you were to ask a group of anthropologists whose job it is to study culture, you may get a different definition from each of them. However, even though definitions of culture may differ, many of them do emphasize similar things. For the purposes of this lesson, we'll define culture as the complex whole of a society. So this can include everything that gives a society its identity, which would include such things as language, beliefs, values, customs, laws, cuisine, etc.

What is particularly fascinating about cultures is that each culture, no matter where it is located, shares at least five basic characteristics. This means the Mayan culture, which is now extinct, shared at least five basic characteristics with present-day American culture. The five basic characteristics that all cultures share are that they are learned, shared, based on symbols, integrated, and dynamic.

Learned and Shared

When we are born we don't automatically know all the values, words, beliefs, customs, etc. that our culture has adopted. We do not inherit culture. Culture is learned. While much of what we learn about a culture can be learned through school, family, peers, and the media, there are often many things about a culture that are learned subconsciously. For example, we may learn when particular holidays occur in school, like Christmas is always on December 25th. However, the norms and what it means to be 'in the Christmas spirit' is something we don't have a conversation about or read in a book. It comes from many years of observing others and just being around people who celebrate Christmas.

Learning holidays is a part of culture.

Shared culture

The very concept of culture makes it a social construct. To learn a language, behavior, or tradition often involves interacting with other people. Thus, culture is largely shared. Despite the shared nature of culture, that doesn't mean that culture is the same for everyone. There can be certain things within a culture that are shared between some groups but not others. For example, American culture values freedom; however, beliefs on how to achieve that freedom may differ from group to group. Thus, there is not one universal American culture. American culture can create smaller groups who selectively share some aspects of the overall culture, but not others.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About the Five Basic Characteristics of Culture:

List Prompt:

Make a list of at least five elements of culture. There are examples provided in the lesson, but try to recall as many as you can from memory or come up with your own. At the top of your list, provide the definition of culture as it pertains to this lesson.

Example: Dance.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of approximately three to four paragraphs that describes how culture is learned and shared.

Example: Culture can be learned in many ways, such as through schooling, peer interactions, and even subconsciously.

Essay Prompt 2:

In approximately three to four paragraphs, write an essay that explains the ways in which culture is integrated and dynamic.

Example: Many cultures evolve as decades and centuries progress, making them dynamic.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Create a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that depicts the significance of symbols in culture. Your graphic organizer should include examples of cultural symbols.

Example: Traffic lights and their corresponding colors are a cultural symbol because everyone in society agrees on their meaning.

Reflection Prompt:

In an essay of approximately one to two pages, reflect on your own experience with culture. Use at least three of the five basic characteristics of culture to explain culture's significance in your life.

Example: As an American, you celebrate the Fourth of July. This is shared with other Americans, though some celebrate with fireworks while others celebrate with cookouts.

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