What is Culture?

A vast knowledge base exists that addresses the question of “what is culture?” From many fields such as cultural studies, ethnic studies, anthropology, sociology, and psychology, there have been volumes of books, journals, and research studies that examine culture. Thus, culture has been described in various ways.


Culture can be considered a system that a group of people has developed in order to survive and flourish in their particular environment. It is a combination of aspects that a group can have in common because they share a language, a time period, and a geographic location, which has been described as the three crucial elements of culture (Triandis, 1994). When they share these elements, a group will likely develop similar attributes.


For example, a group of people who lives together near the ocean may develop a particular social order that enables them to cooperate in developing fishing tools, and in catching and distributing fish. Particular forms of communication and ways of thinking about the ocean and the world will also emerge. These shared attributes will likely be passed on because it will help future generations. More on how culture develops


Kluckhohn (1954) provided the following analogy to describe culture: “culture is to society what memory is to individuals.” Put another way, it is an instrumental and enduring (although not permanent) phenomenon for human survival. It serves a useful purpose and because of that it is transmitted to others. Culture has also been considered “the human-made part of the environment” (Herskovits, 1955).


Our worldview influences how we interact with our environment, including how we relate to our families, communities, and societies, as well as how we create the systems that help us to live a productive life. Culture can influence political ideologies (Rokeach, 1973) and, therefore, the kinds of governments and institutions we construct. Culture can even influence who we accept for a marriage partner.


It is important to understand that culture is not just a group- or society-level concept. It exists and is transmitted in the minds of individuals. There are, therefore, objective and subjective components (Triandis 1972). Objective components are the obvious, material products generated by a people, such as food, art, and literature. Subjective components refer to such aspects as how people categorize and define things, what values they place on them, and how they view themselves in relation to others.


The subjective part of culture is often the focus of attention because it is the basis for all of its other manifestations. Just looking at the subjective aspect, culture has been described as consisting of practices (Miller & Goodenow, 1995), rules (Goodenough, 1981), patterns of rewards (Skinner, 1981), and values (Hofstede, 1980; Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, 1961; Schwartz, 1994). In fact, culture has been conceptualized in numerous ways, but all of them have been helpful to understanding similarities and differences between people. More on culture theories


Of course, culture should not be seen as the only determinant of human thought and behavior. We are a product of our biology, and various levels of our environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), and we, in turn, can influence our biology and environment. Also, there are substantial variations among individuals within a particular culture. A cultural categorization is only a useful tool for describing the average characteristics of individuals with that cultural background.


In general, our cultural background may influence how we perceive and give meanings to aspects of our environment, what we expect from other people and things, and what rules we follow. This mental framework is reflected in our behavior and how we interact with and construct our environments. Ultimately, the individual and societal aspects of culture form a mutually reinforcing relationship.




Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Goodenough, W. H. (1981). Culture, language, and society. (2nd ed.) Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.


Herskovits, M. J. (1955). Cultural anthropology. New York: Kopf.


Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.


Kluckhohn, C. (1954). Culture and behavior. In G. Lindzey (Ed.) Handbook of social psychology. (Vol. 2, pp. 921-970). Cambridge, Mass: Addison-Weseley.


Kluckhohn, F. & Strodtbeck, F. (1961). Variations in value orientations.  Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, & Co.


Miller, P. J. & Goodenow, J.J. (1995). Cultural practices: Toward an integration of culture and development. In J.J. Goodenow, P. J. Miller, & F. Kessel (Eds.) Cultural practices as context for development. New Directions for Development. Vol. 67 (pp. 5-16) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Rokeach, M. (1973).  The nature of human values. New York: Basic Books.


Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Beyond individualism/collectivism: New dimensions of values. In U. Kim, H. C. Triandis, C. Kagitcibasi, S. C. Choi, and G. Yoon (Eds.) Individualism and collectivism: theory, application, and methods. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


Skinner, B. F. (1981). Selection by consequences. Science, 213, 501-504.


Triandis, H. C. (1994). Culture and social behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Triandis, H. C. (1972). The analysis of subjective culture. New York: Wiley.


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