IB Cultural Anthropology/The Nature of Culture/Characteristics of Culture

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As one might expect, all cultures must share several characteristics if “culture” is to be differentiated from other forms of behavior. These similarities between all cultures are surprisingly few. The ultimate goal of cultural anthropology is to determine which characteristics all cultures share in common.


Firstly, all culture must take place through a medium of a group of people, known as a society. Even extinct (e.g. Greek or Roman) or imagined (e.g. science-fiction novels) cultures have societies to transmit the culture (even if the societies, too, are dead or fictional). As culture cannot exist without a society, a human society cannot exist without culture. Other animals, such as bees or ants, congregate into societies, yet these animals do not exhibit culture. Yet no human society is without culture. The functionalist school of anthropological thought attempts to explain why culture is so vital to human societies.

Cultural Integration[edit]

It is vital to the study of cultural anthropology that the anthropologist take cultural integration into account. All aspects of culture relate to one another, so an analysis of a culture must be done holistically. Changes to one seemingly unimportant part of a particular culture can reverberate throughout the entire culture and affect even the most unrelated aspects.

It would be a difficult science if the anthropologist were to only examine the whole culture, however. In order to properly gain ample data, the anthropologist will typically divide the culture into arbitrary categories. For example, the anthropologist might study eating patterns, kinship, and warfare. However, the study is not finished after the data has been collected. The anthropologist then needs to describe how these ostensibly unrelated categories affect each other. Anthropology is thus a holistic science.


A standard example of the integration of a culture is that of the Tsembaga of Papua New Guinea. Upon analysis, one sees that wealth, kinship, warfare, and food are all interrelated though one would think that one would hardly have anything to do with the next.

In the Tsembaga culture, pigs are a symbol of power and wealth. Thus, if a man wants to be powerful, he must own many pigs. However, in order to own that many pigs, he needs to feed the pigs with yams. But only Tsembaga women are allowed to grow yams. So if a man wants to be powerful, he must have many wives, which introduces a marriage system of polygamy.

One will notice, however, that this system will only hold itself for so long- in a polygamous society there usually needs to be less men than women. Otherwise, unsuccessful men become disgruntled and the culture comes into crisis. Also, if one has many wives, the pigs will become well-fed and fertile. After some time there will be too many pigs- the yams will all go to the pigs and the humans won’t have any left over to survive. To avoid this problem, the Tsembaga then attempt to gain more land for growing yams- but their neighbors own that land. Thus, the two groups war against each other. Men die in the process and the unequal male-female ratio is retained. After the war ends there is a great celebration. To celebrate the end of a war, the Tsembaga sacrifice huge numbers of pigs.

Thus, the initial conditions are restored and through the integration of these various aspects the culture is able to persist. Had the anthropologist studied only one of these traits of the culture, say marriage patterns, the anthropologist would have been unable to determine how the Tsembaga are able to retain an unequal male-female ratio and thus be capable of supporting polygamy.


Humans are abstract creatures, and culture takes advantage of that. In this culture, for example, people work ferociously in order to gain small bits of green paper. While this paper has little practical value, the society attaches symbolic value to it to make it represent wealth. Likewise, people may hold positions of power and be called a “boss,” “chief,” or “president.” In each of these cases, there is no significant physical difference between a “boss” and a “subordinate.” The title and position are symbols of one’s power over another.

The symbol most fundamental to culture is that of language. Physically, language is just sound waves being created and modified in various ways by the mouth and throat. However, our minds and culture attaches meaning to particular sound waves so that humans can communicate much more sophisticatedly than animals. Indeed, the same is true for written language. To a Chinese speaker, these lines would have no meaning. However, English speakers are able to attach meaning to these lines so the concept of anthropology can be effectively transmitted. One will spend hours attempting to commit these lines to memory. Then, one can successfully take the IB examination, create more random lines and receive a number in exchange for the hours of work. Culture is fraught with symbolism.

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