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Defining “culture”

Many people have struggled to define culture, and I have struggled in my current project on cultural environmentalism to come up with a workable definition.  Below are some thoughts; I welcome comments and suggestions on additional sources or perspectives that might help in my attempt to describe the cultural environment.  (Of course, wikipedia has a nice entry with many useful sources for me to explore.)

Anthropologist Edward B. Taylor offered a broad definition, stating that culture 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.”[1]  However, “[c]ulture has also been described as ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.’  There is no shortage of proposed definitions—150, according to one study.  The definition of culture remains elusive and contested.”[2]  Or as another scholar put it, “‘[c]ulture is one of the [most] basic theoretical’ sociological terms, and yet it is inherently indefinable.  Both in terms of its specific meaning and broad content, the understanding of ‘culture’ has defied consensus among sociologists.”[3]  The definitional ambiguity  stems at least in part from the difficulties in defining meaningful boundaries and deciding what resources to include/exclude.  Culture captures the contextual, contingent, and social/relational aspects of resources that are “resources” vis-à-vis their meaning to and among people.  As Benkler suggests, “[Culture] is a frame of meaning from within which we must inevitably function and speak to each other, and whose terms, constraints, and affordances we always negotiate.  There is no point outside of culture from which to do otherwise.”  In a sense, culture itself is an environmental concept.  Yet, because culture is (socially) constructed, it must be understood, if not defined, as a reflection of that which we want, or as John Breen puts it, culture can be understood as a society’s answer to a series of “fundamental questions” about what it values.[5]

[1] Edward B. Taylor, Primitive Culture 1 (3d ed. 1889).
[2] Ilhyung Lee, Culturally-Based Copyright Systems?: The U.S. and Korea in Conflict, 79 Wash. U. L.Q. 1103, 1109 (2001) (footnotes omitted).
[3] Shubhankar Dam, Legal Systems as Cultural Rights: A Rights’ Based Approach to Traditional Legal Systems Under the Indian Constitution, 16 Ind. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 295, 311 (2006) (footnotes omitted).
[5] John M. Breen, Modesty and Moralism:  John Paul II, the Structures of Sin and the Limits of Law – A Reply to Skeel & Stuntz, Working Paper, 29-30 (Dec. 2006) (on file with the author) (“[E]very culture is, in essence, a normative and didactic enterprise.  It indicates what is desirable and permissible within a given society.  It instructs both the observer and the participant as to how they ought to act.  …  [A] culture is a societal answer to the question of value.  Every culture renders a whole series of judgments as to what is truly important in life.  In the norms implicit in the practices it supports and encourages, every culture identifies what is really worth valuing, what is worth the sacrifice and effort necessary to pursue and possess that which is most prized.  Thus, in ways which are sometimes subtle and sometimes express, but which are always readily understood, a given culture defines that which is truly deserving of worship as the highest good to be attained.”).



3 thoughts on “Defining “culture””

  1. A few ideas:

    1) Raymond Williams “Keywords” may round up contrasting definitions nicely. Here’s his definition of culture:

    2) Rather than specifying the essence of culture, think about the function it plays in different social sciences. What is the role of culture in Geertz’s account of, say, the autonomy of anthropology from more monistic or individualistic accounts of human action? What is its place in the sociology of a Weber or Durkheim?

    For some time in political science (and perhaps to this day), there was a big divide between more monistic, individualistic thinkers who had a basically economistic/psychological view of motivation, and a more cultural or holistic school. I think this debate is chronicled in some accounts of the history of the philosophy of social science. Julie Cohen’s work on culture and creativity in copyright (in UC Davis, I think) traces this tension; she ultimately suggests it may merely be a methodological anxiety best resolved by a “both/and” approach.

    3) Breen’s definition of culture maps, I think, onto Philip Rieff’s in the Triumph of the Therapeutic. I admire both authors, but I might worry that such a definition may suggest an array of ideological commitments not necessary to your discussion.

    4) Finally, some consolation re the contestability of culture: one of Geertz’s signal contributions to social science is to insist that we may not be seeking consensus in interpretation–rather, we may only be seeking to sharpen our understanding of our differences. A cultural analysis may well have to take seriously each of utterly irreconcilable views, and may never be resolved in any way approaching the finality of technical solutions. Some closing thoughts, from Geertz:

    “The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong. There are enormous difficulties in such an enterprise, methodological pitfalls to make a Freudian quake, and some moral perplexities as well. Nor is it the only way that symbolic forms can be sociologically handled. Functionalism lives, and so does psychologism. But to regard such forms as ‘saying something of something,’ and saying it to somebody, is at least to open up the possibility of an analysis which attends to their substance rather than to reductive formulas professing to account for them.”

    5) Does your definition of culture include both science & art? Fact & fiction?

    6) I think Habermas’s concept of the “lifeworld” may get you out of the nomenclatural thicket here. It basically refers to everything that influences/informs conduct that is not driven by money or power.

    PS: both Rieff and Habermas are cited in this piece of mine:

    a) If we follow Phillip Rieff and define culture as a set of common understandings “consecrat[ing]” those “purposes alone in which the self can be real-ized and satisfied,”

    b) Schutz and Luckmann define the “lifeworld” as “that province of reality which the wide-awake and normal adult simply takes for granted in the attitude of common sense. [It is the] unquestioned ground of everything given in my experience, and the unquestionable frame in which all the problems I have to deal with are located.” JÜRGEN HABERMAS, 1 THE THEORY OF COMMUNICATIVE ACTION 129-30 (Thomas McCarthy trans., 1987) (quoting A. SCHUTZ & T. LUCKMANN, THE STRUCTURES OF THE LIFEWORLD 3-4 (1993)). Habermas explains that “only the context directly spoken to on a given occasion can fall into the whirl of problematization associated with communicative action; by contrast, the lifeworld always remains in the background.” Id. at 130.

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell

    I hesitate to follow Frank for fear of having nothing to add, but you might want to look at Henry McDonald’s The Normative Basis of Culture: A Philosophical Inquiry (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1986).

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