A Baseline Definition of Culture

Essay by jacoUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, March 2004

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People learn culture. That, we suggest, is culture's essential feature. Many qualities of human life are transmitted genetically -- an infant's desire for food, for example, is triggered by physiological characteristics determined within the human genetic code. An adult's specific desire for milk and cereal in the morning, on the other hand, cannot be explained genetically; rather, it is a learned (cultural) response to morning hunger. Culture, as a body of learned behaviors common to a given human society, acts rather like a template (ie. it has predictable form and content), shaping behavior and consciousness within a human society from generation to generation. So culture resides in all learned behavior and in some shaping template or consciousness prior to behavior as well (that is, a "cultural template" can be in place prior to the birth of an individual person).

This primary concept of a shaping template and body of learned behaviors might be further broken down into the following categories, each of which is an important element of cultural systems:

systems of meaning, of which language is primary

ways of organizing society, from kinship groups to states and multi-national corporations

the distinctive techniques of a group and their characteristic products

Several important principles follow from this definition of culture:

If the process of learning is an essential characteristic of culture, then teaching also is a crucial characteristic.

The way culture is taught and reproduced (see reproduction in the glossary) is itself an important component of culture.

Because the relationship between what is taught and what is learned is not absolute (some of what is taught is lost, while new discoveries are constantly being made), culture exists in a constant state of change.

Meaning systems consist of negotiated agreements -- members of a human society must agree to relationships between...