What Is Culture

Ethnicity Language & Culture

Consider an Anthropologist?s definition: "Culture consists of the abstract values, beliefs, and perceptions of the world" that shape people?s behaviors and are reflected in those behaviors."

Shared by members of a society, "[c]ultures are learned, largely through the medium of language, rather than inherited biologically, and the parts of a culture function as an integrated whole." "People maintain cultures to deal with problems or matters that concern them.

To survive, a culture must satisfy the basic needs of those who live by its rules, provide for its own continuity and an orderly existence?," "strike a balance between the self-interests of individuals and the needs of the society as a whole," and "have the capacity to change in order to adapt to new circumstances or to altered perceptions of existing circumstances" (William A. Havilland, Anthropology, 7th ed, Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1994; p. 303].

As Africa?s peoples established themselves and diversified in response to local conditions, they developed distinctive cultures, oral traditions and oral art forms. Africa?s hundreds of different ethnic groups are often defined by the language they speak, according to contemporary (especially Western) scholarly practice.

Spoken African languages indigenous to the continent are variously estimated to number from 700 to 3000. Ethnologue: Languages of the World - Africa, 13th ed. (Barbara F. Grimes, ed., Summer Institute of Linguistics, Dallas, Texas,1996.): Languages of the World

"Apart from Arabic, which is not confined to Africa, the most widely spoken African tongues are Swahili (an Arab-influenced Bantu language) and Hausa, each with more than 20 million speakers today. Several languages (often inaccurately termed dialects simply because they have few users) are spoken by only a few thousand people. On the average an African language has about 200,000 speakers; only a few dozen languages have more than 1 million speakers."

Scholars group African languages into four language families: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Khoisan, and Niger-Congo. . . . [A language family is defined a group of related languages assumed to derive from a common origin, and often subdivided into branches composed of more closely related languages.] At least some of the African linguistic families are believed to have a history of more than 5000 years" (Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia).

A Baseline Definition Of Culture

People learn culture. That, we suggest, is culture's essential feature. Many qualities of human life are transmitted genetically -- an infant's desire for food, for example, is triggered by physiological characteristics determined within the human genetic code. An adult's specific desire for milk and cereal in the morning, on the other hand, cannot be explained genetically; rather, it is a learned (cultural) response to morning hunger.

Culture, as a body of learned behaviors common to a given human society, acts rather like a template (ie. it has predictable form and content), shaping behavior and consciousness within a human society from generation to generation. So culture resides in all learned behavior and in some shaping template or consciousness prior to behavior as well (that is, a "cultural template" can be in place prior to the birth of an individual person).

This primary concept of a shaping template and body of learned behaviors might be further broken down into the following categories, each of which is an important element of cultural systems:

systems of meaning, of which language is primary ways of organizing society, from kinship groups to states and multi-national corporations the distinctive techniques of a group and their characteristic products Several important principles follow from this definition of culture:

If the process of learning is an essential characteristic of culture, then teaching also is a crucial characteristic. The way culture is taught and reproduced (see reproduction in the glossary) is itself an important component of culture. Because the relationship between what is taught and what is learned is not absolute (some of what is taught is lost, while new discoveries are constantly being made), culture exists in a constant state of change.

Meaning systems consist of negotiated agreements -- members of a human society must agree to relationships between a word, behavior, or other symbol and its corresponding significance or meaning. To the extent that culture consists of systems of meaning, it also consists of negotiated agreements and processes of negotiation.

Because meaning systems involve relationships which are not essential and universal (the word "door" has no essential connection to the physical object -- we simply agree that it shall have that meaning when we speak or write in English), different human societies will inevitably agree upon different relationships and meanings; this a relativistic way of describing culture.

If you have read through other discussions/definitions of culture on these pages, you probably already have the sense that there is much disagreement about the word and concept "culture" and you probably already realize that any definition, this one included, is part of an ongoing conversation (and negotiation) about what we should take "culture" to mean.

For a very brief history of this debate, see the glossary entry for "culture"; for interpretive discussions and explorations of culture, visit the "Exploring Culture" section of these pages.