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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.”).