Culture, in anthropology, the patterns of behavior and thinking that people living in social groups learn, create, and share. Culture distinguishes one human group from others. It also distinguishes humans from other animals. A people’s culture includes their beliefs, rules of behavior, language, rituals, art, technology, styles of dress, ways of producing and cooking food, religion, and political and economic systems.

Culture is the most important concept in anthropology (the study of all aspects of human life, past and present). Anthropologists commonly use the term culture to refer to a society or group in which many or all people live and think in the same ways. Likewise, any group of people who share a common culture—and in particular, common rules of behavior and a basic form of social organization—constitutes a society. Thus, the terms culture and society are somewhat interchangeable. However, while many animals live in societies, such as herds of elk or packs of wild dogs, only humans have culture.

Culture developed together with the evolution of the human species, Homo sapiens, and is closely related to human biology. The ability of people to have culture comes in large part from their physical features: having big, complex brains; an upright posture; free hands that can grasp and manipulate small objects; and a vocal tract that can produce and articulate a wide range of sounds. These distinctively human physical features began to develop in African ancestors of humans more than four million years ago. The earliest physical evidence of culture is crude stone tools produced in East Africa over two million years ago.


Culture has several distinguishing characteristics. (1) It is based on symbols—abstract ways of referring to and understanding ideas, objects, feelings, or behaviors—and the ability to communicate with symbols using language. (2) Culture is shared. People in the same society share common behaviors and ways of thinking through culture. (3) Culture is learned. While people biologically inherit many physical traits and behavioral instincts, culture is socially inherited. A person must learn culture from other people in a society. (4) Culture is adaptive. People use culture to flexibly and quickly adjust to changes in the world around them.

A – Culture Is Symbolic

People have culture primarily because they can communicate with and understand symbols. Symbols allow people to develop complex thoughts and to exchange those thoughts with others. Language and other forms of symbolic communication, such as art, enable people to create, explain, and record new ideas and information.

A symbol has either an indirect connection or no connection at all with the object, idea, feeling, or behavior to which it refers. For instance, most people in the United States find some meaning in the combination of the colors red, white, and blue. But those colors themselves have nothing to do with, for instance, the land that people call the United States, the concept of patriotism, or the U.S. national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.

To convey new ideas, people constantly invent new symbols, such as for mathematical formulas. In addition, people may use one symbol, such as a single word, to represent many different ideas, feelings, or values. Thus, symbols provide a flexible way for people to communicate even very complex thoughts with each other. For example, only through symbols can architects, engineers, and construction workers communicate the information necessary to construct a skyscraper or bridge.

People have the capacity at birth to construct, understand, and communicate through symbols, primarily by using language. Research has shown, for example, that infants have a basic structure of language—a sort of universal grammar—built into their minds. Infants are thus predisposed to learn the languages spoken by the people around them.

Language provides a means to store, process, and communicate amounts of information that vastly exceed the capabilities of nonhuman animals. For instance, chimpanzees, the closest genetic relatives of humans, use a few dozen calls and a variety of gestures to communicate in the wild. People have taught some chimps to communicate using American Sign Language and picture-based languages, and some have developed vocabularies of a few hundred words. But an unabridged English dictionary might contain more than half-a-million vocabulary entries. Chimpanzees have also not clearly demonstrated the ability to use grammar, which is crucial for communicating complex thoughts.

In addition, the human vocal tract, unlike that of chimpanzees and other animals, can create and articulate a wide enough variety of sounds to create millions of distinct words. In fact, each human language uses only a fraction of the sounds humans can make. The human brain also contains areas dedicated to the production and interpretation of speech, which other animals lack. Thus, humans are predisposed in many ways to use symbolic communication.

B – Culture Is Learned

People are not born with culture; they have to learn it. For instance, people must learn to speak and understand a language and to abide by the rules of a society. In many societies, all people must learn to produce and prepare food and to construct shelters. In other societies, people must learn a skill to earn money, which they then use to provide for themselves. In all human societies, children learn culture from adults. Anthropologists call this process enculturation, or cultural transmission.

Enculturation is a long process. Just learning the intricacies of a human language, a major part of enculturation, takes many years. Families commonly protect and enculturate children in the households of their birth for 15 years or more. Only at this point can children leave and establish their own households. People also continue to learn throughout their lifetimes. Thus, most societies respect their elders, who have learned for an entire lifetime.

Humans are not alone in their ability to learn behaviors, only in the amount and complexity of what they can learn. For example, members of a group of chimpanzees may learn to use a unique source of food or to fashion some simple tools, behaviors that might distinguish them from other chimpanzee groups. But these unique ways of life are minor in comparison to the rich cultures that distinguish different human societies. Lacking speech, chimps are very limited in what they can learn, communicate to others, and pass on from generation to generation.

C – Culture Is Shared

People living together in a society share culture. For example, almost all people living in the United States share the English language, dress in similar styles, eat many of the same foods, and celebrate many of the same holidays.

All the people of a society collectively create and maintain culture. Societies preserve culture for much longer than the life of any one person. They preserve it in the form of knowledge, such as scientific discoveries; objects, such as works of art; and traditions, such as the observance of holidays.

C1 – Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Self-identity usually depends on culture to such a great extent that immersion in a very different culture—with which a person does not share common ways of life or beliefs—can cause a feeling of confusion and disorientation. Anthropologists refer to this phenomenon as culture shock. In multicultural societies—societies such as the United States into which people come from a diversity of cultures—unshared forms of culture can also lead to tension.

Members of a society who share culture often also share some feelings of ethnocentrism, the notion that one’s culture is more sensible than or superior to that of other societies. Ethnocentrism contributes to the integrity of culture because it affirms people’s shared beliefs and values in the face of other, often contradictory, beliefs and values held by people of other cultural backgrounds. At its worst, ethnocentrism has led people to commit ethnocide, the destruction of cultures, and genocide, the destruction of entire populations. This happened, for example, to Jews living in Nazi Germany in the 1940s.

Anthropologists, knowing the power of ethnocentrism, advocate cross-cultural understanding through a concept known as cultural relativism. Someone observing cultural relativism tries to respect all cultures equally. Although only someone living within a group that shares culture can fully understand that culture, cultural relativists believe that outsiders can learn to respect beliefs and practices that they do not share.

However, most anthropologists believe that cultural relativism has its limits. In theory, an extreme relativist would uncritically accept the practices of all cultures, even if those practices harm people. For example, anthropologists have debated over whether they should accept or approve of the practice of female circumcision, performed in many African societies. Female circumcision involves removing part or all of a woman’s labia and clitoris and is usually performed on girls entering adolescence. This practice is painful, and often harmful, to the women of societies that perform it, but many of those societies claim that the practice is important and deeply rooted in their culture.

C2 – Sharing Culture Across Societies

Since no human society exists in complete isolation, different societies also exchange and share culture. In fact, all societies have some interactions with others, both out of curiosity and because even highly self-sufficient societies sometimes need assistance from their neighbors. Today, for instance, many people around the world use similar kinds of technology, such as cars, telephones, and televisions. Commercial trade and communication technologies, such as computer networks, have created a form of global culture. Therefore, it has become increasingly difficult to find culture that is shared within only a single society.

Cultural exchange can provide many benefits for all societies. Different societies can exchange ideas, people, manufactured goods, and natural resources. Such exchanges can also have drawbacks, however. Often the introduction of aspects of another society’s culture can disrupt the cohesive life of a people. For example, the introduction of consumerism into many small societies has led to what anthropologists refer to as cargo cults. In cargo cults, people focus much of their religious energy and time on trying to magically acquire commercial goods.

Cross-cultural exchange often results in what anthropologists call acculturation, when the members of one culture adopt features of another. This has happened, for example, when indigenous peoples in the western hemisphere adopted the language and many of the customs of Spain, which colonized South and Central America beginning in the 1500s.

C3 – Subcultures

Some groups of people share a distinct set of cultural traits within a larger society. Such groups are often referred to as subcultures. For instance, the members of a subculture may share a distinct language or dialect (variation based on the dominant language), unique rituals, and a particular style of dress. In the United States and Canada, many strongly integrated religious groups, such as rural Mennonite communities, have the characteristics of subcultures.

D – Culture Is Adaptive

Culture helps human societies survive in changing natural environments. For example, the end of the last Ice Age, beginning about 15,000 years ago, posed an enormous challenge to which humans had to adapt. Before this time, large portions of the northern hemisphere were covered in great sheets of ice that contained much of the earth’s water. In North America, large game animals that roamed the vast tundra provided people with food and materials for clothing and simple shelters. When the earth warmed, large Ice Age game animals disappeared, and many land areas were submerged by rising sea levels from melting ice. But people survived. They developed new technologies and learned how to subsist on new plant and animal species. Eventually some people settled into villages of permanent, durable houses and farms.

Cultural adaptation has made humans one of the most successful species on the planet. Through history, major developments in technology, medicine, and nutrition have allowed people to reproduce and survive in ever-increasing numbers. The global population has risen from 8 million during the Ice Age to almost 6 billion today.

However, the successes of culture can also create problems in the long run. Over the last 200 years, people have begun to use large quantities of natural resources and energy and to produce a great amount of material and chemical wastes. The global population now consumes some crucial natural resources—such as petroleum, timber, and mineral ores—faster than nature can produce them. Many scientists believe that in the process of burning fuels and producing wastes, people may be altering the global climate in unpredictable and possibly harmful ways. Thus, the adaptive success of the present-day global culture of production and commerce may be temporary.

Culture must benefit people, at least in the short term, in order for it to be passed on to new generations. But it can clearly also harm some people. The number of people living in severe poverty near the end of the 20th century was larger than the entire population of the world in AD 1500.


Anthropologists have described a number of different categories of culture. For example, a simple distinction can be made between cultural objects, such as types of clothing, and cultural beliefs, such as forms of religion. Many early anthropological definitions of culture are essentially descriptions of categories of culture or cultural items.

British anthropologist Edward B. Tylor gave one of the first complete definitions of culture in his book Primitive Culture (1871). His definition stated that culture includes socially acquired knowledge, beliefs, art, law, morals, customs, and habits. In 1930 American anthropologist George P. Murdock went much further, listing 637 major subdivisions of culture. Murdock developed an elaborate coding system, known as the Human Relation Area Files. He used this system to identify and sort hundreds of distinctive cultural variations that could be used to compare different cultures.

Later anthropologists came up with simpler categorizations of culture. A common practice is to divide all of culture into three broad categories: material, social, and ideological. A fourth category, the arts, has characteristics of both material and ideological culture.

Material culture includes products of human manufacture, such as technology. Social culture pertains to people’s forms of social organization—how people interact and organize themselves in groups. Ideological culture relates to what people think, value, believe, and hold as ideals. The arts include such activities and areas of interest as music, sculpture, painting, pottery, theater, cooking, writing, and fashion. Anthropologists often study how these categories of culture differ across different types of societies that vary in scale (size and complexity).

Anthropologists have identified several distinct types of societies by scale. The smallest societies are known as bands. Bands consist of nomadic (not settled) groups of fewer than a hundred, mostly related people. A tribe, the next largest type of society, generally consists of a few hundred people living in settled villages. A larger form of society, called a chiefdom, binds together two or more villages or tribes under a leader who is born into the position of rule. The largest societies, known as civilizations, contain from several thousand to millions of mostly unrelated people, many of whom live in large cities. Some anthropologists characterize the world today as a single global-scale culture, in which people are linked together by industrial technology and markets of commercial exchange.

A – Material Culture

All societies produce and exchange material goods so that people can feed, clothe, shelter, and otherwise provide for themselves. This system is commonly known as an economy. Anthropologists look at several aspects of people’s material culture. These aspects include (1) the methods by which people obtain or produce food, known as a pattern of subsistence; (2) the ways in which people exchange goods and services; (3) the kinds of technologies and other objects people make and use; and (4) the effects of people’s economy on the natural environment.

A1 – Patterns of Subsistence

People in band societies live as hunter-gatherers (also known as foragers), collecting plants and taking animals from their environment. People living in tribes or chiefdoms commonly practice horticulture (gardening) or pastoralism (animal herding). Many horticultural societies, such as the Hanunóo of the Philippines, practice what is known as swidden or the slash-and-burn method of gardening. This involves cutting down a patch of forest, burning the plant matter to release nutrients into the soil, and planting gardens. After about three years, the swidden gardeners move to another patch of forest, allowing their old gardens to return to forest. Pastoralists, such as the Masai of east Africa, may also grow food in small gardens to supplement their diets of milk, meat, and blood.

Many peoples living in larger societies, such the Han of northern China, practice manual (sometimes called extensive) agriculture and produce surpluses of food and other goods. Some surpluses create wealth, while surplus foods are commonly stored for use in times of need. Because of this surplus production, some people work in nonsubsistence (not food-producing) activities. People not involved in food production may work, for example, as craftspeople, religious practitioners, or political administrators. Manual agriculture also supported early civilizations such as Sumer, which existed from about 3000 to about 1800 BC in what is now Iraq.

Agriculture in nonindustrialized societies relies on systems of irrigation run from natural waterways, animal-powered plowing, and natural methods of fertilization, such as the use of rotted vegetation to add nutrients to soil. Animal-powered plow agriculture and irrigation involve more time, energy, and material inputs than do swidden gardening, pastoralism, or hunting and gathering.

The food production in large, industrial and commerce-based societies—such as the United States and Western Europe—depends on expensive machinery, vast supplies of fossil fuels to power that machinery, automated irrigation systems, and great quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This form of production, known as intensive agriculture, is more costly than any other, but produces quantities of food vast enough to allow most people to work in nonsubsistence activities.

A2 – Forms of Exchange

People in small societies commonly exchange goods with each other and with people in other small societies through systems of barter, ceremonies, and gifts. For example, the people of the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea, practice an elaborate form of inter-island exchange known as the kula. Through the kula, people living on different islands continually exchange prestige goods, such as beautiful shell necklaces, as well as food, clothing, weapons, and other items. Such systems of ongoing exchange of goods, common to all societies, create long-lasting bonds between people.

Contemporary industrial societies have organized markets for land, labor, and money, and virtually everything is a commodity. People buy and sell goods and services using money. This form of economy, known as capitalism, disconnects the value of goods and services from the goods and services themselves and the people who produce or provide them. Thus, the exchange of goods and services for currency is not particularly important for creating social bonds. In industrialized and commerce-based societies, people also exchange securities (such as the stocks of corporations), which have value based on their representation of ownership, and derivatives, whose value is based on that of underlying securities.

A3 – Technology and Manufacture

In small societies people usually build shelters and make clothing out of readily available plant and animal materials. For example, in forest horticultural societies in the Amazon region of South America, people make houses of wooden branches covered with layers of palm leaves.

Band and tribal peoples also use fairly simple technologies for work. People commonly use sticks to dig the ground for planting or for getting at edible roots. They may use animal hides or plant materials such as tree bark to make clothing and sacs or baskets for carrying items. Hunters take their prey either with sharpened sticks or with arrowheads of stone or bone attached to wooden shafts. Some coat the tips of their arrows with poisons gathered from plants or animals. Poisoned weapons can quickly disable prey. People who live by water commonly make boats of wood and animal skins for travel, fishing, and the hunting of sea mammals such as seals and whales. Most hunter-gatherers, horticulturists, and pastoralists cook over open fires.

In primarily agricultural societies, many of which still exist today in countries throughout Africa and Asia, the people build sturdy houses of sun-dried mud brick and thatch, wooden beams, or quarried stone. These people commonly produce beautiful and functional ceramic storage containers and other pottery, finely woven textiles, and tools of forged metal. People in agricultural societies also have many methods of cooking using pots and ovens of mud brick or stone.

In large industrial and commerce-based societies, most people live in wood-frame or brick houses and apartment buildings with plumbing, supplies of electricity and natural gas, and telephone service. Much of the material culture in these societies consists of mass-produced goods created through industrial production. A great deal of food and clothing are produced in this way. The variety of common household technologies includes televisions, stereos, microwave ovens, and computers. Many people work in giant skyscrapers built from metal girders and beams, concrete, and high-strength glass. People and goods can travel great distances by automobile, train, plane, and ship. Other significant technologies include artificial satellites, enormously potent and complex weaponry systems, and reactors for producing nuclear energy.

A4 – Effects on the Environment

Hunting and gathering, horticultural, and pastoral ways of life generally make small demands on the natural environment, because people tend to gather or grow only enough food and other materials for their basic needs. These nomadic or seminomadic societies can also move away from depleted areas, allowing plants to regrow and animals to repopulate.

Agricultural societies can heavily burden the environment, sometimes endangering their own survival. For example, early Mediterranean civilizations deforested and overgrazed large areas of land. These damages to the land prompted soil erosion, which made food production increasingly costly over time.

Industrial societies put even larger demands on the environment, and they may someday exhaust important supplies of natural resources. The mass production of goods is often wasteful and polluting. Thus, large societies must also put great effort into disposing of their wastes and developing new sources of energy and material resources.

B – Social Culture

People in all types of societies organize themselves in relation to each other for work and other duties, and to structure their interactions. People commonly organize themselves according to (1) bonds by kinship and marriage, (2) work duties and economic position, and (3) political position. Important factors in family, work, and political relations include age and gender (behaviors and roles associated with men and women).

B1 – Kinship and Family

In smaller societies people organize themselves primarily according to ties of kinship (blood relation) and marriage. Kin generally give each other preferential treatment over nonkin. People who share ties by blood and marriage commonly live together in families.

Small societies categorize kin in many different ways and define appropriate types of behavior between kin, including who can marry. In band societies, people know their relationships to others in their band, which usually includes only a few families. People do not marry within their immediate family, but often take spouses from other bands to create ties that bond them together in times of need.

All people in bands generally respect each other as equals, though children must show increased respect for their elders. The eldest group members often earn special recognition for their knowledge. Men and women in bands also commonly regard each other as equals.

People living in tribes belong to lineages or clans, which are large kin groups that trace their descent to a common ancestor. Clans are somewhat larger than lineages and usually cover more generations. Clans trace their descent to a fictitious ancestor (ancestor whose true identity is not known), often identified as an animal spirit or clan totem.

For instance, many Native American societies, in both North and South America, live or once lived in tribes. One Native American group, the Navajo, who have long lived primarily in what is now Arizona, organized themselves in the past as matrilineal (descent traced through women) clan-based tribes. Status and property passed to people through their mother’s line.

Kinship and family relations are both important in agricultural societies, as well as for many people in industrial and commerce-based societies. But for many people today living in large societies, kinship and family relations have become less important. Many people live alone or in small families and also depend on organizations, workplaces, and government institutions to provide support available in smaller societies from family and kin.

B2 – Work Life

Anthropologists call the smallest unit of economic production in any society a household. A household consists of a group of people, usually a family, who work collectively to support each other and often to raise children.

In small, independent band and tribal societies, individual households produce their own food, clothing, and shelter. Men and women commonly divide work duties; men hunting and building shelters and women gardening, cooking, and caring for children. People in small societies often live in extended families, in which several generations of kin and relatives by marriage live in the same household. Sometimes, however, men and women live in separate places, especially if they also often work and participate in ceremonies apart from members of the opposite sex.

In chiefdoms and civilizations, households have to produce enough to support themselves and their leaders. All households do not always have equal access to needed materials, such as tools or draft animals, or land. Thus, some families have higher status than others do. On the whole, men in these societies have higher status than women and perform fewer menial tasks.

In civilizations, many people specialize in offering a variety of services and producing a variety of goods. Each occupation is commonly associated with a different level of status, usually referred to as an economic class. Hindus in India, by comparison, live according to the caste system, in which a person’s status is fixed at birth and closely tied to his or her occupation.

In industrial societies, few households are self-sufficient. For instance, most people could not build their own houses, grow and cook all of their own food, and make all of their clothes. Most people also depend on technologies that no one could produce alone from raw materials, such as cars, refrigerators, and computers.

In addition, most households in industrial societies consist of nuclear families, which contain only parents and their children. Nuclear families lack the support network and productive capabilities of extended families. Fathers in nuclear families commonly work to earn income, while mothers manage the household and care for children—often in addition to working for income. These gender role patterns have changed somewhat since the 1960s to more equal roles for men and women. People in most modern industrial and commerce-based societies also identify strongly with groups of people united by work, such as professional organizations and labor unions. These groups are entirely separate from family and kinship ties.

B3 – Leadership and Political Power

Groups of people living in bands have no formal leadership, and all people have input in making group decisions. Most decision-making in tribes occurs within households. Occasionally, most or all members of lineages or clans convene to make important village decisions, such as about dealing with neighboring tribes. Descent groups may also regulate access to crucial resources, such as favored hunting areas, and choose where people will live.

Within most tribes, all groups commonly have about equal status. Since every person belongs to a descent group, no one person ranks too far above or below another. In some tribes, however, people known as big men might earn a degree of higher status and respect than others by demonstrating bravery or bravado.

Chiefdoms, larger than most tribes, consist of at least two very large descent groups organized under rulers known as chiefs, who are born into their positions of leadership. Chiefs must prove that they are closest in descent to the founding ancestor of the highest ranked clans within chiefdoms. They live as full-time rulers who may not have to work at productive duties. Chiefs have the power to collect some of the goods people produce, such as food, and redistribute them in times of need or use them in ceremony.

In the past, chiefdoms existed in a great number of Polynesian societies on Pacific Ocean islands, such as those that make up what is now Hawaii. Chiefdoms were the first societies to have positions of defined, permanent leadership. Chiefdoms still exist in some places under national governments. For instance, chiefs of the Kpelle of Liberia are political leaders for the country’s national districts.

Civilizations have powerful autonomous bodies of authority managed by formal bureaucracies. This political structure is formally known as a state. Some of the first major state societies existed in the area known as Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq, and in ancient Egypt.

A state may claim ownership of all its territory and resources and may wage wars against other nations. Important families may rule states for several generations, though this happened more commonly in the past. But all states have distinct social and economic classes, and higher classes have greater political influence or power than do lower classes.

Families still rule some states, sometimes as royalty and sometimes as elected aristocracies (small groups, often families, deemed by citizens as qualified to rule). But many states today have elected governments not based on family lines. The citizens of these states share a common identity based on language, ideals, shared rituals, and other cultural bonds. This form of state is known as a nation.

Many national governments serve the interests of business and commerce as much as they do individuals and families. In many cases commercial corporations (businesses created through legal means) have a great deal of political influence. Corporations and large economic market exchanges control the production and distribution of goods and services, as well as transfers of money. Access to employment, not family, often determines where people live. People who cannot earn sufficient income may live in poverty, and many of the poor depend on government welfare for economic support.

C – Ideological Culture

In every society, culturally unique ways of thinking about the world unite people in their behavior. Anthropologists often refer to the body of ideas that people share as ideology. Ideology can be broken down into at least three specific categories: beliefs, values, and ideals. People’s beliefs give them an understanding of how the world works and how they should respond to the actions of others and their environments. Particular beliefs often tie in closely with the daily concerns of domestic life, such as making a living, health and sickness, happiness and sadness, interpersonal relationships, and death. People’s values tell them the differences between right and wrong or good and bad. Ideals serve as models for what people hope to achieve in life.

Many people rely on religion, systems of belief in the supernatural (things beyond the natural world), to shape their values and ideals and to influence their behavior. Beliefs, values, and ideals also come from observations of the natural world, a practice anthropologists commonly refer to as secularism.

C1 – Religion

Religion allows people to know about and communicate with supernatural beings—such as animal spirits, gods, and spirits of the dead. Religion often serves to help people cope with the death of relatives and friends, and it figures prominently in most funeral ceremonies.

Peoples of many small band and tribal societies believe that plants and animals, as well as people, can have souls or spirits that can take on different forms to help or harm people. Anthropologists refer to this kind of religious belief as animism. In hunting societies, people commonly believe that forest beings control the supply of game animals and may punish people for irresponsible behavior by making animals outwit the hunt.

In many small societies, visionaries and healers known as shamans receive stories from supernatural beings and later recite them to others or act them out in dramatic rituals. As religious specialists, shamans have special access to this spirit world as well as a rich knowledge of medicinal plants. Shamans commonly assign special supernatural roles to spirit animals and beings. For example, shamans in Amazon societies may communicate with a spirit keeper of the game to insure hunting success. They may also be assisted by spirit jaguars.

In larger, agricultural societies, religion has long been a means of asking for bountiful harvests, a source of power for rulers, and an inspiration to go to war. In early civilized societies, religious visionaries became leaders because people believed those leaders could communicate with the supernatural to control the fate of a civilization. This became their greatest source of power, and people often regarded leaders as actual gods.

For example, in the great civilization of the Aztec, which flourished in what is now Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries, rulers claimed privileged association with the powerful god Huitzilopochtli. They said that this god required human blood to ensure that the sun would rise and set each day. Aztec rulers thus inspired great awe by regularly conducting human sacrifices. They also conspicuously displayed their vast power as wealth in luxury goods, such as fine jewels, clothing, and palaces. Rulers obtained their wealth from the great numbers of craftspeople, traders, and warriors under their control.

C2 – Secularism

Many societies today interpret the natural world and form beliefs based on science and logic. Societies in which many people do not practice any religion, such as the United States, may be known as secular societies. However, no society is entirely secular.

During the period in 17th- and 18th-century Europe known as the Age of Enlightenment, science and logic became new sources of belief for many people living in civilized societies. Scientific studies of the natural world and rational philosophies both led people to believe that they could explain natural and social phenomena without believing in gods or spirits. Religion remained an influential system of belief, however.

Both religion and science drove the development of capitalism, the economic system of commerce-driven market exchange. Capitalism itself influences people’s beliefs, values, and ideals in many present-day, large, civilized societies. In these societies, such as in the United States, many people view the world and shape their behavior based on a belief that they can understand and control their environment and that work, commerce, and the accumulation of wealth serve an ultimate good. The governments of most large societies today also assert that human well-being derives from the growth of economies and the development of technology.

In addition, many people have come to believe in the fundamental nature of human rights and free will. These beliefs grew out of people’s faith in their ability to control the natural world—a faith promoted by science and rationalism. Religious beliefs continue to change to affirm or accommodate these other dominant beliefs, but sometimes the two are at odds with each other. For instance, many religious people have difficulty reconciling their belief in a supreme spiritual force with the theory of natural evolution, which requires no belief in the supernatural.

D – Art

Art is a distinctly human production, and many people consider it the ultimate form of culture because it can have the quality of pure expression, entirely separate from basic human needs. But some anthropologists actually regard artistic expression as a basic human need, as basic as food and water. Some art takes the form of material production, and many utilitarian items have artistic qualities. Other forms of art, such as music or acting, reside in the mind and body and take expression as performance. The material arts include painting, pottery, sculpture, textiles and clothing, and cookery. Nonmaterial arts include music, dance, drama and dramatic arts, storytelling, and written narratives.

People had begun making art by at least 30,000 years ago, painting stylized animal figures and abstract symbols on cave walls. For thousands of years people have also adorned their bodies with ornamentation, such as jewelry, pigments, and stylized scars.

In most societies people establish their personal and group identity through such forms of artistic expression as patterns of dress and body adornment, ceremonial costumes and dances, or group symbols. For example, many Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest carve massive wooden totem poles as symbols of their group identity and history. The stylized figures carved into totem poles represent important clan ancestors and stories of important historical events.

Smaller societies also use art as a primary form of storing and reproducing their culture. Ceremonial dances and performances, for example, commonly tell legends of creation, stories about ancestors, or moral tales containing instructive lessons.

Many people also use art as a vehicle for spiritual expression or to ask for help from the spiritual world. For instance, some archaeologists believe that one of the earliest known sculptures—a voluptuously shaped female figure made in Willendorf, Austria, in about 23,000 BC and known as the Venus of Willendorf—might have been used to invoke supernatural powers to bring its makers reproductive fertility.

In large societies, governments may hire artisans to produce works that will support the political structure. For example, in the Inca Empire—which dominated the Andean region of Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina in the 15th and 16th centuries—the elite hired metalworkers and textile makers to make exclusive gold and silver jewelry or create special clothing and adornments for them. These royal items displayed insignia that indicated high status. In contrast, non-elites wore coarse, ordinary clothing, reflecting their low status.

In present-day large societies, many people produce art for commercial and political purposes in addition to social, personal, and spiritual reasons. A great number of artists make a living by working for businesses that use art to advertise commercial products. Most large societies today also have laws that protect the content of artworks such as books, films, songs, dances, and paintings as intellectual property, which people own and can sell.


A – Early Development

People have long been aware of cultural differences among societies. Some of the earliest accounts of culture come from the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the 400s BC. Herodotus traveled through the Persian Empire, which included much of the Middle East and surrounding parts of Asia and Africa. He wrote at length about the cultural and racial diversity of these places, much of which he linked to differences in people’s environments.

For almost 2000 years following the time of Herodotus, many people attributed cultural differences to racial inheritance. The biblical account of the Tower of Babel, in which God caused people to speak new languages, also provided an explanation for cultural diversity.

At the end of the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century AD), many countries of Western Europe began sending explorers around the world to find new sources of material goods and wealth. Prolonged contacts with new cultures during these travels sparked Europeans’ interest in the sources and meaning of cultural diversity.

The English term culture actually came into use during the Middle Ages. It derived from the Latin word for cultivation, as in the practice of nurturing domesticated plants in gardens. Thus, the word originally referred to people’s role in controlling nature.

B – Theories of Cultural Evolution

By the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, many European scientists and philosophers had come to believe that culture had gone through progressive stages of improvement throughout human existence. The first anthropologists, including Tylor, also promoted such theories of cultural evolution.

Many people of the upper classes in 19th-century Victorian England used the term culture in a sense similar to its original meaning. In the Victorian usage, culture referred to the controlling of the unrefined behaviors and tastes associated with the lower classes. Thus, the Victorian term culture referred to the refined tastes, intellectual training, and mannerisms of the upper classes. However, many anthropologists, sociologists, and historians of that same period used the term civilization, from the Latin word for “citizen,” as a scientific description of what the upper classes called culture. Civilization thus also meant the pinnacle of cultural evolution.

C – 19th Century Scientific Discoveries

New scientific discoveries in the early and middle 19th century demonstrated that the world and its people had existed much longer than previously had been thought. These new ideas greatly influenced how anthropologists thought about human biological, social, and cultural development.

The accounts of the Bible had promoted the idea of a divine creation of the world sometime between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago. In contrast, the observations of Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell in the early 1800s led him to suggest that the earth was much older and had changed gradually over time. Lyell’s geological theories and archaeological discoveries of ancient stone tools, also in the early 1800s, influenced a number of new theories of culture.

C1 – Lubbock

Based on both Lyell’s work and on theories proposed in the early 1800s by Danish archaeologists Christian Thomsen and J. J. Worsaae, in 1865 British naturalist Sir John Lubbock proposed that human societies had gone through long stages of cultural development, each marked by advancements in technology. Lubbock thought that the earlier stages were represented in the present by so-called primitive societies. His stages included the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), the Neolithic (New Stone Age), the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Lubbock argued that other forms of cultural development, such as in morality and spirituality, accompanied each stage of technological development.

C2 – Spencer

Coinciding with the groundbreaking theory of biological evolution proposed by British naturalist Charles Darwin in the 1860s, British social philosopher Herbert Spencer put forward his own theory of biological and cultural evolution. Spencer argued that all worldly phenomena, including human societies, changed over time, advancing toward perfection. He argued that human evolution was characterized by a struggle he called the “survival of the fittest,” in which weaker races and societies must eventually be replaced by stronger, more advanced races and societies.

Although the racist and ethnocentric theory of cultural evolution promoted by Spencer did not agree with the theory of Darwin, it became commonly known by the misapplied name of social Darwinism. Social Darwinism helped European nations justify their domination of peoples around the world through colonialism—the taking of new lands to gain natural resources and human labor.

C3 – Morgan

American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan introduced another theory of cultural evolution in the late 1800s. Morgan, along with Tylor, was one of the founders of modern anthropology. In his work, he attempted to show how all aspects of culture changed together in the evolution of societies. Thus, in Morgan’s view, diverse aspects of culture, such as the structure of families, forms of marriage, categories of kinship, ownership of property, forms of government, technology, and systems of food production, all changed as societies evolved.

Morgan called his evolutionary stages ethnical periods and labeled them Savagery (with three stages: Lower, Middle, and Upper), Barbarism (also with three stages), and Civilization. Morgan did not necessarily believe in the use of his theory to promote racism, ethnocentrism, or exploitation. But like others of his time, he considered Western civilization to be the highest form of culture. Morgan believed that race, nationality, language, and culture were all related and that Europeans were the most biologically and culturally advanced people.

D – Uniqueness and Diffusionism

Racist and ethnocentric theories of cultural evolution fell out of favor with most anthropologists in the early 20th century. In the early 1900s in North America, German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas developed a new theory of culture known as historical particularism. Historical particularism, which emphasized the uniqueness of all cultures, gave new direction to anthropology. Other anthropologists believed that cultural innovations, such as inventions, had a single origin and passed from society to society. This theory was known as diffusionism.

By the beginning of the 20th century, anthropologists had developed research methods for studying the cultures of individual small societies. Anthropologists would compare their findings with those of other studies to develop universal theories of culture. This form of study became known as ethnology, from the Greek word ethnos, meaning “nation” or “race.”

Though he worked as an ethnologist, Boas felt that the culture of any society must be understood as the result of a unique history and not as one of many cultures belonging to a broader evolutionary stage or type of culture. In order to study particular cultures as completely as possible, Boas became skilled in linguistics, the study of languages, and in physical anthropology, the study of human biology and anatomy.

Historical particularism became a dominant approach to the study of culture in American anthropology, largely through the influence of many students of Boas. But a number of anthropologists in the early 1900s also rejected the particularist theory of culture in favor of diffusionism. Some attributed virtually every important cultural achievement to the inventions of a few, especially gifted peoples that, according to diffusionists, then spread to other cultures. For example, British anthropologists Grafton Elliot Smith and W. J. Perry incorrectly suggested, on the basis of inadequate information, that farming, pottery making, and metallurgy all originated in ancient Egypt and diffused throughout the world. In fact, all of these cultural developments occurred separately at different times in many parts of the world.

E – Functionalism

Also in the early 1900s, French sociologist Émile Durkheim developed a theory of culture that would greatly influence anthropology. Durkheim proposed that religious beliefs functioned to reinforce social solidarity. An interest in the relationship between the function of society and culture—known as functionalism—became a major theme in European, and especially British, anthropology. Functionalists viewed culture as a collection of integrated parts that work together to keep a society functioning.

British functionalists, such as Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, also became known as social anthropologists because of their interest in the workings of societies. They wrote detailed ethnographies that described every aspect of a people’s culture and social structure. They also focused on important rituals that appeared to preserve a people’s social structure, such as initiation ceremonies that formally signify children’s entrance into adulthood.

Critics of functionalism felt that it provided a circular argument. Explaining culture by demonstrating that it allows a society to function, they said, does not explain the meaning or origins of any particular cultural traditions.

F – Ecology and Economy

Beginning in the 1930s several American anthropologists developed a renewed interest in the material, or economic, and ecological foundations of culture—interests that dated back to the writings of Herodotus. These anthropologists emphasized the importance of discovering how the natural environment, technology, and the ways in which people produced and distributed their necessities, such as food, influence other parts of culture. They proposed that material culture, and particularly those aspects related to making a living, determines the shape of culture as a whole.

F1 – Culture Areas

American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, an early proponent of economic and ecological theories of culture, created a map of Native American groups in North America that divided them according to what he called culture areas. According to Kroeber, all groups included within the same culture area shared similar ways of life because they occupied the same ecological regions. They therefore relied on many of the same natural resources, such as sources of food, and developed similar kinds of technology and social organization.

For instance, the native peoples of the Northwest Coast culture area, such as the Kwakiutl and Haida, have a number of cultural similarities. Many of the peoples of this region relied heavily on fishing and the hunting of marine mammals for food. They manufactured large buildings, impressive boats, and clothing from the wood and bark of giant cedar trees. Many groups lived in chiefdoms that relied on the collection and redistribution of wealth in lavish ceremonies known as potlatch.

F2 – Cultural Ecology

In research done between the 1930s and the 1960s, American anthropologist Julian Steward noticed that similar types of cultures developed under similar environmental conditions, but in geographically separate places. Steward attributed these cultural similarities to correspondences in their culture core—those aspects of culture that might be influenced by the similar ways in which different peoples adapt to similar natural environments. For example, Steward argued that the similarities in culture and social organization among foraging band societies around the world had much to do with the similar ecologies of the places in which they lived. The work of Steward and many of his students is known as cultural ecology.

F3 – Energy and Technology

Beginning in the 1940s, American anthropologist Leslie White promoted a unique perspective of culture and a new concept of cultural evolution. He associated differences in culture with the ways in which different human societies produce and use energy. White attempted to calculate how much energy different societies use per person over a given amount of time. He suggested that each step in the evolution of culture was marked by an increase in the amount of energy used per person.

White noted that so-called advanced societies, such as the United States in the 20th century, generated and used massive amounts of energy. These societies had developed technologies to produce large amounts of energy from such sources as fossil fuels and nuclear fission. These societies also used large amounts of energy to power such complex forms of technology as cars, lights, factories, and industrial farming machinery. On the other hand, according to White, small societies were less evolved because they only used small amounts of energy from the sun, wind, and water to grow food and power simple technologies, such as boats.

Like Morgan, White was interested in the evolution of human culture as a whole, but White considered technology to be the single most important cause of culture change. He also believed, however, that specific cultural patterns could not be explained by economic or ecological circumstances. Instead, he thought of culture as something superorganic, or above human life—something beyond individual human control.

F4 – Cultural Materialism

In the 1960s and 1970s American anthropologist Marvin Harris attempted to show through studies of specific societies that many aspects of culture relate directly to a people’s economic conditions. He argued that a culture’s technology shaped its economy, which in turn shaped its beliefs and values. The theories of Harris and other anthropologists that focus on the strictly economic basis of culture are known as cultural materialism.

In one study, Harris gave an economic explanation for the Hindu tradition in India of regarding cattle as sacred. He viewed this tradition as a cultural response to the economic importance of cattle as draught animals for farming, as scavengers of trash, and as providers of a major source of fuel (dried cattle feces).

Many anthropologists continue to examine the complex relationship among environment, economy, and culture. Some have studied how people modify their environments and develop technology to increase the number of people that the environment can support. For example, industrialized societies continue to develop new technologies to increase food and energy production. They also promote technologies, such as birth control methods, and ways of thinking, such as the ideal of having small families, that help to keep populations in check and to avoid running out of natural resources.

G – The Interpretation of Culture

In the 1950s anthropologists began to distinguish between two ways of interpreting culture: from an emic perspective and from an etic perspective. The people native to a society have an emic understanding of its culture. Someone who comes from outside a society, such as an anthropologist, gains an etic understanding of its culture.

Traditional ethnographies, written from an etic perspective, describe and analyze each aspect of a society’s culture in detail. Many early anthropological books, for example, discuss each aspect of culture in its own chapter or section. On the other hand, the people within a society can provide an emic description of their culture. Such a description rarely resembles an anthropological interpretation.

People living within a particular culture do not usually analyze its meaning. They do not think, for instance, about why they perform one kind of ceremony rather than another, or why they produce food one way rather than another. A native of the United States, for example, might say that Americans commonly go to the movies on Friday and Saturday nights but not discuss or even understand the significance of this behavior.

Anthropologists, on the other hand, specialize in comparing and analyzing cultures. For this reason, anthropologists have traditionally regarded immersion in a foreign culture as a fundamental part of doing research. Still, they remain outsiders. But in the 1960s some anthropologists began attempting to describe and analyze culture from an emic perspective, as an insider experiences it.

G1 – Lévi-Strauss

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss tried to gain an emic understanding of culture by looking for consistent patterns in people’s myths, rituals, and habits. He proposed that powerful systems of logic underlie these cultural patterns, even though the people of a society are not consciously aware of the logic. He also felt that the logic underlying cultural patterns was somehow rooted in the structure of the human mind. Thus, he referred to his form of cultural analysis as structuralism.

Lévi-Strauss noted that myths, rituals, and habits in many cultures emphasize dichotomous (two-sided) contrasts. For example, many people have myths that tell of a past transformation of people from immortal to mortal beings. The dietary habits of many cultures also emphasize the transformation of raw food through cooking. And many cultures have rituals of transformation through purification. To Lévi-Strauss, the common theme running through these different aspects of culture was not accidental but the result of a fundamental system of logic, common to all people.

G2 – Symbolic Anthropology

Beginning in the late 1960s, another group of anthropologists began focusing their studies on important symbols within particular cultures. This form of anthropology became known as symbolic, or interpretive, anthropology. Symbolic anthropologists, such as British anthropologist Victor Turner and American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, have attempted to describe the specific meanings people assign to objects, behaviors, and emotions. Instead of looking for the universal logic underlying all culture, symbolic anthropologists have tried to discover the specific internal logic that a people use to interpret their own culture.

H – Postmodern Theories of Culture

In the 1980s and 1990s some anthropologists turned to an even more radical interpretive perspective on culture, known generally as postmodernism. Postmodernism questions whether an objective understanding of other cultures is at all possible. It developed as a reaction to modernism, which was the scientific and rational approach to understanding the world found in most ethnographies.

Postmodern anthropologists suggest that all people construct culture through an ongoing process that resembles the writing, reading, and interpretation of a text. From this view, people continually create and debate with each other about the meaning of all aspects of culture, such as words, rituals, and concepts. People in the United States, for instance, have long debated over cultural issues such as what constitutes a family, what women’s and men’s roles in society should be, and what functions the federal government should perform. Many anthropologists now study and write about these kinds of questions, even in their own societies.


Rapid changes in technology in the last several decades have changed the nature of culture and cultural exchange. People around the world can make economic transactions and transmit information to each other almost instantaneously through the use of computers and satellite communications. Governments and corporations have gained vast amounts of political power through military might and economic influence. Corporations have also created a form of global culture based on worldwide commercial markets.

Local culture and social structure are now shaped by large and powerful commercial interests in ways that earlier anthropologists could not have imagined. Early anthropologists thought of societies and their cultures as fully independent systems. But today, many nations are multicultural societies, composed of numerous smaller subcultures. Cultures also cross national boundaries. For instance, people around the world now know a variety of English words and have contact with American cultural exports such as brand-name clothing and technological products, films and music, and mass-produced foods.

Many anthropologists have become interested in how dominant societies can shape the culture of less powerful societies, a process some researchers call cultural hegemony. Today, many anthropologists openly oppose efforts by dominant world powers, such as the U.S. government and large corporations, to make unique smaller societies adopt Western commercial culture.

Become a patron at Patreon!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

<a href="" target="_self">English Plus</a>

English Plus


English Plus Podcast is dedicated to bring you the most interesting, engaging and informative daily dose of English and knowledge. So, if you want to take your English and knowledge to the next level, look no further. Our dedicated content creation team has got you covered!

You may also Like

Recent Posts


Follow Us

Pin It on Pinterest