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

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In order to meet the goal of cultural anthropology- understanding culture- there first must be a working definition of culture. There are, however, almost as many definitions of culture as there are anthropology texts. Though there is no single, accepted definition, there are several characteristics that most definitions agree upon from which one can draw a general idea as to what the concept of culture is.

Definition[edit | edit source]

The first respected definition of culture was written by Sir Edward Tylor. He stated that culture is "that complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society." In short, everything one does is a product of culture. However, culture is not only the behavior of an individual, but also the thought processes and perceptions of the world of an individual. A scientist, for example, might view a flower blooming in a radically different way from an artist. In addition to thought processes, culture needs to be able to be transmitted from generation to generation. Thus, culture must be something that can be learned. Essentially, we can for the purpose of this course state the basic definition of culture as:

The patterns of thought and behavior that are transmitted by a society that can be used to predict the actions of members of that culture

Tacit & Explicit Culture[edit | edit source]

This definition of culture pervades throughout the lives of its members- sometimes explicitly, sometimes in subtler forms. Explicitly, one knows that in American culture, forks go to the left of the plate and knives to the right. When setting the table, one might have to think to oneself to which side each utensil goes. More tacit culture, however, is the knowledge of which foods to use which utensils. One just ‘knows’ to eat a salad with a fork and soup with a spoon. One wouldn’t need to hesitate to decide as one might when setting the table. The more apparent aspects of one’s culture that a member can consciously identify are said to be part of the explicit culture. Subconscious and unconscious aspects of one’s culture are said to be part of the tacit culture.

Ideal & Real Culture[edit | edit source]

In defining culture, one also needs to make a distinction between ideal and real culture. One might find, in creating a model of the rules a society follows, it is much easier to create a model based on the ideal culture. In the Yanomamo, for example, a model for marriage patterns would be very simple based on ideal culture- one should marry one’s cross cousin! However, the Yanomamo don’t live ideally, and neither does any other culture. The kinship status of some members may arbitrarily change so that they will be “cross-cousins” and therefore eligible marriage partners. Creating a model of this real culture is much uglier, but is the reality of the situation. In studying cultures anthropologically, one must take into account both the ideal and real versions of a culture.

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