What is culture?

Jean-François Millet
Jean-François Millet, Farm House at Gruchy, early 1860, private collection (details)

Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language1, writes Raymond Williams. The word is also one of the most difficult to define in every other languages. There is as many definitions of culture as there are authors who have studied the notion, some of them even offering different definitions from one text to another. Dictionaries, general or specialised, also offer more or less complete definitions of the term culture.

The notion of culture has obviously changed over the years. A good start to learn more about the etymology of the word culture is to refer to Raymond Williams’ Keywords – A vocabulary of culture and society2.

The goal here is not to provide a definitive dossier about culture, but to offer a list of definitions scattered around many articles, documents or books. Even though the list is quite short, it shows the impressive diversity of existing definitions and how the word covers many different realities depending on the author and his/her discipline. The definitions are arranged alphabetically by author’s names.

Definitions in English

“Culture is life.”

– Neil Bissoondath, Selling Illusions – The cult of multiculturalism in Canada, Toronto, Penguin Books, 1994, p. 81.

“I use the terms culture and art interchangeably to cover man-made artifacts or performances that move us and expand our awareness of the world and of ourselves.”

– Tyler Cowen, In Praise of Commercial Culture, Cambridge/London, Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 5.

“In the end, culture is everything that can be shared.”

– Nancy Duxbury et Rowland Lorimer, “Of culture, the economy, cultural production, and cultural producers: an orientation”, (1994) 19 Can. J. Comm. 259, at 261.

“Culture here means a body of artistic and intellectual work of agreed value, along with the institutions which produce, disseminate and regulate it.”

– Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture, Malden, Blackwell, 2000, p. 21.

“Culture can be loosely summarized as the complex of values, customs, beliefs and practices which constitute the way of life of a specific group.”

– Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture, Malden, Blackwell, 2000, p. 34.

“Culture is just everything which is not genetically transmissable (sic).”

– Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture, Malden, Blackwell, 2000, p. 34.

“Alternatively, you can try to define culture functionally rather than substantively, as whatever is superfluous to a society’s material requirements.”

– Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture, Malden, Blackwell, 2000, p. 36.

“In other words, culture was simply what was distinctive about others.”

– Jonathan Friedman, Cultural Identity and Global Process, London, Sage, 1994, p. 67.

“[I]t understands to cover the whole range of practices and representations through which a social group’s reality (or realities) is constructed and maintained.”

– John Frow, Cultural Studies and Cultural Value, New York, Clarendon Press, 1995, p. 3.

“[D]efined as the production and circulation of symbolic meaning.”

– Nicholas Garnham, Capitalism and CommunicationGlobal culture and the economics of information, London, Sage, 1990, p. 155.

“A culture is a way of doing things and a way of reflecting on what we do.”

– John Hutcheson, “The thief of arts – Will free trade rob us of our culture”, The Canadian Forum, février 1987, p. 9.

“Culture in the study of international relations may be defined as the sharing and transmitting of consciousness within and across national boundaries, and the cultural approach as a perspective that pays particular attention to this phenomenon.”

– Akira Iriye, “Culture and international history”, in Michael J. Hogan et Thomas G. Paterson (dir.), Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, Cambridge/New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 215; and Akira Iriye, “Culture”, (1990) 77 J. Amer. Hist. 99.

“The culture of a society is the whole complex of knowledge and beliefs and attitudes and practices which are embodied in the society, and in its social, political and economic arrangements.”

– Albert Wesley Johnson, “Free trade and cultural industries”, in Marc Gold et David Leyton-Brown (dir.), Trade-Offs on Free TradeThe Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, Toronto, Carswell, 1988, p. 350.

“I understand culture to be rooted in the shared knowledge and schemes created and used by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them.”

– John Paul Lederach, Preparing for PeaceConflict transformation across cultures, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1995, p. 9.

“[T]he way of life of any society.”

– Ralph Linton, The Cultural Background of Personality, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1945, p. 19.

“It refers to the total way of life of any society, not simply to those parts of this way which the society regards as higher or more desirable.”

– Ralph Linton, The Cultural Background of Personality, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1945, p. 30.

“[T]he social heredity of a society’s members.”

– Ralph Linton, The Cultural Background of Personality, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1945, p. 32.

“A culture is the configuration of learned behavior and results of behavior whose component elements are shared and transmitted by the members of a particular society.”

– Ralph Linton, The Cultural Background of Personality, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1945, p. 32.

“Culture is the expression of human values. It may be very intense and conscious, as in art objects and performances or religious practice. It may be pervasive and relatively unconscious, in the rituals of food, the use of time or family celebrations. It embraces the extremes of this spectrum and everything between. Culture is everything we don’t have to do to survive – but are compelled to do to feel human.”

– François Matarasso, “Culture, economics & development”, in F. Matarasso (dir.), Recognising CultureA series of briefing papers on culture and development, London, Comedia/Canadian Heritage/Unesco, 2001, p. 3.

“Culture is that which individuals, groups and societies produce and acquire in order to function effectively.”

– Roland Robertson, GlobalizationSocial theory and global culture, London, Sage, 1992, p. 40.

“[A]ll those practices, like the arts of description, communication, and representation, that have relative autonomy from the economic, social, and political realms and that often exist in aesthetic forms, one of whose principal aims is pleasure.”

– Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York, Vintage Books, 1994, p. XII.

“What we need to understand is not what culture is, but how people use the term in contemporary discourses.”

– John Tomlinson, Cultural ImperialismA critical introduction, London/New York, Continuum, 2001, p. 5.

“Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

– Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, in The Collected Works of Edward Burnett Tylor, vol. 3, London, Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1994, p. 1.

“Where culture meant a state or habit of the mind, or the body of intellectual and moral activities, it means now, also, a whole way of life.”

– Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780-1950, London, Chatto & Windus, 1958, p. XVIII.

“[C]ulture is a state or process of human perfection, in terms of certain absolute or universal values.”

– Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, London, Chatto & Windus, 1961, p. 41.

“[C]ulture is the body of intellectual and imaginative work, in which, in a detailed way, human thought and experience are variously recorded.”

– Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, London, Chatto & Windus, 1961, p. 41.

“[T]he independent and abstract noun which describes the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity.”

– Raymond Williams, KeywordsA vocabulary of culture and society, revised ed., New York, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 90.

“This seems often now the most widespread use: culture is music, literature, painting and sculpture, theatre and film.”

– Raymond Williams, KeywordsA vocabulary of culture and society, revised ed., New York, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 90.

“In anthropology, the integrated system of socially acquired values, beliefs, and rules of conduct which delimit the range of accepted behaviors in any given society.”

Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th edition.

“[T]he cultural life of the nation, the intellectual and emotional engagement of the people with all forms of art, from the simplest to the most abstruse.”

– United Kingdom, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Government and the Value of Culture (2004), p. 3.

“Culture no longer simply means being familiar with a select list of works of art and architecture, but the accumulated influence of creativity, the arts, museums, galleries, libraries, archives and heritage upon all our lives.”

– United Kingdom, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, The Culture White Paper (2016), p. 13.

1 Raymond Williams, KeywordsA vocabulary of culture and society, revised ed., New York, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 87.

2 Ibid.