Some Useful Concepts in the Study of Culture

Culture, the definition given by Merriam Webster’s dictionary, is “a set of human practices and traditions transmitted to us through art, literature, history, government, and interactions.” Culture is an ever-changing umbrella term that covers the intricate web of human behaviors and institutions, the shared norms and beliefs of all the people in those cultures, and the shared knowledge, skills, beliefs, arts, and customs of all the people in those cultures. It is a lived and evolving society which has undergone significant changes over time. Therefore, a culture is said to be a changing body of knowledge and beliefs, with adaptive qualities for changing circumstances. As such, culture is said to be continuously changing; one can speak of a culture over a period of time, but it would not be able to describe a culture in a static form.


The definition of culture as described by Merriam Webster includes the above two definitions, and adds the further definition of culture as “the manner of relating generally with other persons of like habits, manners, faith, and intelligence.” According to some linguists and cultural psychologists, the extent to which language is varied in a given culture depends on the existence of a language specific to that culture. Thus, for example, the English language in the United States and in many Western European countries is generally diversified, reflecting the differences in cultural categories. The degree of diversification of languages in a given culture also depends on the degree of contact between different cultures and the movement of people across cultural boundaries. In this way, cultural diversity can also be measured on the basis of language diversification.

Another example to describe culture is the number and variety of art forms. In many societies around the world, for example, dance, music, sculpture, painting, ceramics, and various craftspersons are the main forms of expression of social life. In many other societies art forms are considered to have more symbolic significance than for the creative expression, such as in the case of folk music and folk arts in most cultures. Folktales, songs, tales, and stories are also the most common ways of storytelling.

The societies with the most complex cultures also tend to be the most diverse in the world, having varieties of languages, cultures, and ways of life that are separated by wide differences in religion and ritual. One cannot speak of a culture if one only believes that there is a single “culture” and that all cultures share common values and beliefs. In fact, culture is a very wide field and not all cultures are similar. The cultural diversity of a society is also dependent on the history of those societies. For instance, a society which is extremely secular in the modern era will be far more diverse than a society that has maintained traditional rituals and beliefs throughout its history, especially during the periods when the society was nomadic.

A more quantitative definition of culture requires statistical data from surveys. A broad cross-cultural survey, for example, can provide a basis for categorizing different cultures, their languages, and ways of sharing culture. There are also methods used to determine what categories exist. For instance, in order to categorize cultures as having similarities in behavior, differences in language, and modes of sharing culture, comparative analysis is often made. Comparative analysis is the study of a set of objects or ideas and compare them with other objects or ideas to see how similar or dissimilar they are.

Different cultures also have different ways of defining culture. For instance, in some cases, cultural norms may be based on custom rather than on necessity. The existence of certain behaviors and cultural styles are also not essential to culture, so it is not necessary to discuss these concepts in relation to culture.