The Meanings of Culture

Culture: Its Many Meanings

1One of the problems we encounter in dealing with culture is that there are so many different meanings and definitions attached to the term. We think of culture two ways: first, in terms of aesthetic matters (relative to thearts) and second, as a concept used by anthropologists to describe the way people live. There are, so I understand, something like a hundred different definitions of culture used by anthropologists.

The Origins of the Term "Culture"

2The word 'culture' comes from the Latin cultus, which means 'care', and from the French colere which means 'to till' as in 'till the ground'. There are many terms that stem from the word culture. For example, there is the term 'cult' which suggests some kind of a religious organisation. We are continually amazed at the power cults have to shape our behavior, to brainwash us -- to turn intelligent and educated people into fanatics. Here we are dealing with the power of charismatic personalities and of groups over individuals. If cults can exercise enormous power over individuals and groups of people, can't we say that cultures also can do the same thing, though usually not to the same extreme degree?

3There is also the term 'cultivated', which means something that has been grown or, in the realm of aesthetics and the arts, sophisticated taste. Just as plants only exist because they are cared for by some cultivator, over a period of time, so people's taste and cultivation only are developed by education and training. It takes time to develop a refined sensibility, to become discriminating, to appreciate texts that are difficult and complex and not immediately satisfying.

4Bacteriologists also speak about cultures, but they use the term to describe the bacteria that are grown in Petri dishes if they are given suitable media (sources of nourishment). This matter of bacteria growing in media may be an important metaphor for us: just as bacteria need media to grow into culture, so do human beings need cultures to survive and develop themselves. We don't do it all on our own. In the chart below I show the interesting parallels:

  • Bacteriology
  • Bacteria
  • Grow in media
  • Form cultures
  • Sociology/Anthropology
  • Humans
  • Affected by media
  • Form cultures

5Of course we are much more complex than bacteria; in truth, each of us form a kind of medium for countless kinds of bacteria that inhabit our mouths and various other parts of our bodies. Bacteriology involves the cultivation and study of micro-organisms (bacteria) in prepared nutrients and the study of media (and what is often called cultural criticism nowadays) involves the study of individuals and groups in a predominantly, but not completely, mass-mediated culture. Not all culture is mass mediated.

An Anthropological Definition of Culture

6Let me offer a typical anthropological definition of culture. It is by Henry Pratt Fairchild and appeared in his Dictionary of Sociology and Related Sciences:

A collective name for all behavior patterns socially acquired and transmitted by means of symbols; hence a name for all the distinctive achievements of human groups, including not only such items as language, tool-making, industry, art, science, law, government, morals and religion, but also the material instruments or artifacts in which cultural achievements are embodied and by which intellectual cultural features are given practical effect, such as buildings, tools, machines, communication devices, art objects, etc. (80)

Let's consider some of the topics Fairchild mentions.

7Behavior Patterns. We are talking about codes and patterns of behavior here that are found in groups of people.

8Socially Acquired. We are taught these behavior patterns as we grow up in a family in some geographical location and are profoundly affected by the family we are born into, its religion, and all kinds of other matters.

9Socially Acquired. We are taught these behavior patterns as we grow up in a family in some geographical location and are profoundly affected by the family we are born into, its religion, and all kinds of other matters.

10The Distinctive Achievements of Human Groups. It is in groups that we become human and become enculturated or acculturated (two words for the same thing, for all practical purposes). We have our own distinctive natures but we are also part of society.

11Artifacts in which cultural achievements are embodied. The artifacts we are talking about here are the popular culture texts carried in the various media and other non-mediated aspects of popular culture (or not directly mediated) such as fashions in clothes, food preferences, artifacts (what anthropologists call 'material culture'), language use, sexual practices and related matters.

12We know that a great deal of our popular culture, while not carried by the media, is nevertheless profoundly affected by it.

13We can see, then, that culture is a very complicated phenomenon that plays some kind of a role in shaping our consciousness and our behavior. You may think you are immune from the impact of the media and popular culture, but that is a delusion that is generated, I would suggest, by the media.

14We think we are not affected in significant ways by the media and popular culture (sometimes called mass mediated culture) and culture in general but we are wrong. Culture affects us but it doesn't necessarily determine every act we do; though some scholars, who believe the media are very powerful, might argue with this point.

Falling Off the Map: What Travel Literature Reveals

15For a graphic example of how cultures differ, let me offer two quotations from the travel writer Pico Iyer from his book Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, a collection of travel articles about seldom-visited places (by American travelers, at least). Saigon:

16the only word for Saigon is 'wild'. One evening I counted more than a hundred two-wheel vehicles racing past me in the space of sixty seconds, speeding around the jam-packed streets as if on some crazy merry-go-round, a mad carnival without a ringmaster; I walked into a dance club and found myself in the midst of a crowded floor of hip gay boys in sleeveless T-shirts doing the latest moves to David Byrne; outside again, I was back inside the generic Asian swirl, walking through tunnels of whispers and hisses. "You want boom-boom?" "Souvenir for you dah-ling?" "Why you not take special massage?" Shortly before midnight, the taxi girls stream out of their nightclubs in their party dresses and park their scooters outside the hotels along 'Simultaneous Uprising' Street. (134-5)


17Compare his description of Saigon with his portrait of Reykjavik, Iceland, equally as fascinating and fantastic but considerably different from Saigon.

18Even 'civilization' seems to offer no purchase for the mind here: nothing quite makes sense. Iceland boasts the largest number of poets, presses, and readers per capita in the world: Reykjavik, a town smaller than Rancho Cucamonga, California, has five daily newspapers, and to match the literary production of Iceland, the U.S. would have to publish twelve hundred new books a day. Iceland has the oldest living language in Europe; its people read the medieval sagas as if they were tomorrow's newspaper and all new concepts, such as 'radio' and 'telephone', are given poetical medieval equivalents. Roughly three eldest children in every four are illegitimate here, and because every son of Kristjan is called Kristjansson, and every daughter Kristjansdottir, mothers always have different surnames from their children (and in any case are rarely living with the fathers). The first day I ever spent in 'Surprise City' (as Reykjavik is called), I found golden-haired princesses and sword-wielding knights enacting fairy-tale sagas on the main bridge in the capital. (67-8)

19We can see that there are considerable differences between Saigon and Reykjavik, though just as (to be fair) Iyer points out the incredible differences between cities in Vietnam, such as the differences between Saigon and Hue. Iyer's description of the landscape of Iceland may help explain the national character of the Icelanders. As he writes:

20I knew, before I visited, a little about the epidemic oddness of the place: there was no beer in Iceland in 1987, and no television on Thursdays; there were almost no trees, and no vegetables. Iceland is an ungodly wasteland of volcanoes and tundra and Geysir, the mother of geysirs, a country so lunar that NASA astronauts did their training there. (67)

21There has to be some influence of this remarkable landscape and climate, of the Iceland geographical location, the amount of light and darkness in which people live, upon the people who live there and there has to be some influence of the jungle and the climate of Vietnam on its people.

22What we become is, it seems to me, due to some curious combination of factors involving our natures (that is, the hard-wired elements of our personalities) and our cultures, with the matter of chance playing a big role as well.

23What we become is, it seems to me, due to some curious combination of factors involving our natures (that is, the hard-wired elements of our personalities) and our cultures, with the matter of chance playing a big role as well.