What Does Culture Mean? Concepts and Definition

What is Culture
What is Culture

Culture refers to the set of material and spiritual goods of a social group transmitted from generation to generation in order to guide individual and collective practices. It includes language, processes, ways of life, customs, traditions, habits, values, patterns, tools and knowledge.

The function of culture is to guarantee survival and facilitate the adaptation of subjects in the environment.

Each culture embodies a vision of the world in response to the reality that the social group lives. There is, therefore, no uncultured or “uneducated” social group. What does exist are different cultures and, within these, different cultural groups, even with respect to the dominant culture.

The term culture is also used in restricted senses, either to refer to the values ​​and habits that govern specific groups, or to refer to specialized areas of knowledge or activity. In both cases, the word culture is always accompanied by a qualifying adjective.

For example:

  • political culture: “Our country suffers from a messianic political culture.”
  • organizational culture: “Our organizational culture is based on helping people.”
  • physical culture: “The school must provide physical culture to children.”

Origin of the term culture

The concept of culture has varied throughout history. In its etymological origin, the word culture comes from the Latin cultus which means “cultivation” or “cultivated”. This term is the past participle of the word colere which means ‘to cultivate’.

In the Middle Ages, culture designated a cultivated land. In the Renaissance appeared the idea of ​​the “cultivated” man, that is, someone educated in literature and fine arts.

Starting in the 18th century, the term culture began to be used systematically to refer to enlightened knowledge. In the nineteenth century culture also encompassed good manners and customs.

With the development of the social sciences in the twentieth century, the sense of culture has been expanding, until we find the one we attribute to it today.

Elements of culture


Every culture is made up of a set of basic elements. The most important are the following:

  • Cognitive elements: refers to the accumulated knowledge within a certain culture for survival against nature and adaptation within the social group.
  • Beliefs: encompasses the set of ideas that the cultural group establishes about what is true or false. It is linked to the value system.
  • Values: these are the criteria that serve as evaluative models of behavior, since they guide what are considered acceptable or unacceptable principles and attitudes to guarantee the continuity of the group.
  • Norms: they are specific action codes that regulate the relationship between individuals based on shared values. It includes the sanctions system. There are two types of rules:
    • Prescriptive norms : they indicate the duties and obligations.
    • Prohibitive norms : they indicate what should not be done.
  • System of signs and symbols: they are all the arbitrary and conventionalized communication resources that the social group uses to transmit messages. We can mention languagewritinggraphic signs and symbols.
  • Non-normative forms of conduct: are those behavioral traits that differentiate one social group from another, even within a shared culture. This is what is called idiosyncrasy.

Other approaches to cultural phenomena establish the following as elements of culture:

  • The immaterial or spiritual culture corresponds to the culture that is transmitted by oral tradition. For example:
    • belief system;
    • values;
    • language;
    • music;
    • laws, etc.
  • Material culture is that which is represented in a material way, such as technology, cultural consumer goods and tangible heritage. For example:
    • architecture;
    • plastic arts;
    • clothing;
    • kitchen room;
    • tools;
    • weapons, etc.

Characteristics of culture

All cultures are characterized by sharing a series of elements, among which we can point out the following:

  • they encompass the totality of human practices;
  • they arise in opposition to nature (instinct vs. knowledge);
  • they represent a vision of the world;
  • they are expressed symbolically;
  • they provide social order;
  • their survival depends on communication;
  • they consolidate traditions;
  • they are dynamic, that is, they transform;
  • they are more or less open, that is, they are susceptible to the influence of other cultures. Therefore, they are subject to processes of:
    • enculturation;
    • transculturation;
    • acculturation;
    • inculturation.

Types of culture

Culture can be classified according to different criteria. This will depend on the objective of the study and the theoretical-ideological approach. Normally, cultures are classified according to topics, that is, matters of collective interest. The most common ways of classifying culture are as follows:

According to the historical sense

It refers to cultures framed within a limited period of time. Cultural transformation does not imply an absolute dissolution of culture but its adaptation to historical changes.

For example:

  • renaissance culture;
  • baroque culture;
  • medieval culture.

According to the anthropological sense

It refers to the culture that identifies a people in a comprehensive way.

For example:

  • Egyptian culture;
  • Inca Culture;
  • Greek culture;
  • Western culture;
  • oriental culture, etc.

According to the religious paradigm

In the anthropology of religions, cultures are classified according to the type of religious paradigm they develop. Within these categories are those of monotheistic cultures and polytheistic cultures.

For example:

Monotheistic cultures:

  • Jewish culture;
  • Christian culture;
  • Muslim Culture.

Polytheistic cultures:

  • Hindu culture;
  • ancient Greco-Roman culture.

According to knowledge of writing

Another way to classify cultures is according to their knowledge of writing. The terms oral cultures or literary cultures are used to refer to cultures that do not have writing systems. Those that possess or have possessed writing systems are called written cultures.

For example:

Agraphic cultures:

  • Yanomani indigenous culture (Venezuela)

Written cultures:

  • Egyptian culture (hieroglyphic writing);
  • Mesopotamian culture (cuneiform writing).

According to the mode of production

Cultures are transformed along with their modes of production or vice versa. Among them we can mention the following types:

  • Nomadic cultures: those that depend on hunting and gathering, for which they frequently migrate.
    • Example: the Chichimeca culture in Mexico.
  • Agricultural cultures: those that become sedentary thanks to the development of agricultural and livestock technology.
    • Example: Chinese culture.
  • Urban cultures: those that are established in urban centers governed by commercial activity.
    • Example: Renaissance culture or the culture of today’s cities.
  • Industrial cultures: those that apply industrial production modes of massive scope.
    • Example: The current western society.

According to the socio-economic order (or hegemony)

In the study of culture within the same society, the classification of culture according to social class, socio-economic order or hegemony has predominated, due to the impact that material order has on cultural processes.

At first they spoke of high culture and low culture . High culture was represented by the enlightened elite of society, which was the one in power. The low culture was attributed to the illiterate popular sectors, which were the most vulnerable sectors. This classification, now in disuse, responded to a level assessment based on the hegemony of the dominant group.

With the rise of nationalisms, the popular sectors were considered representatives of the national identity. Thus, the expression popular culture began to be used more frequently to the detriment of low culture. High culture became known as elitist culture, elite cultureculture “cultured”official culture and academic culture.

For example:

  • popular culture: folk traditions such as carnival.
  • elite culture:
    • the fine arts (“cultured”);
    • the official religion or ideology of a State (official or official);
    • medicine as an area of ​​knowledge (academic);

According to the modes of diffusion

With the entry of the mass media, cultural processes were altered. New cultures have emerged from there.

By mass culture or mass culture is known the culture that arises from the information disclosed by the mass media, that is, the consumer culture. It affects both elite culture and popular culture.

For example:

  • The global phenomenon of The Beatles and other pop idols;
  • The universal consumption of certain products and the imaginary associated with them (for example, soft drinks).

The cyberculture is another cultures defined according to their media. Cyberculture is understood to be one that is formed through the interaction of subjects through social media and virtual reality.

For example:

  • Second Life, virtual community.
  • The culture of Facebook and other social networks.

According to the power struggles within a society

The differences between the sectors of a society generate movements of resistance and / or innovation facing the hegemonic order. Many times they have to do with generational differences that are accentuated in the light of technical and scientific advances. Within this category we recognize the concepts of subculture and counterculture.

For example:


  • rockers;
  • gothic.


  • Hippie movement;
  • feminism.

Philosophy of culture

The philosophy of culture is a branch within the philosophical discipline that aims to understand the concept of culture and its incidence on the subject. In an essay entitled “Idea and history of the philosophy of culture” published in the book Philosophy of culture (VV.AA., 1998), researcher David Sobrevilla defines the philosophy of culture as:

… the philosophical reflection on the elements and dynamics of cultural phenomena, the foundation of the concepts extracted from them and the evaluation and criticism of said phenomena from a philosophical perspective.

According to the researcher, the difference between the approach that philosophy makes on culture with respect to other disciplines (anthropology or psychology, for example), is that philosophy focuses on the study of the conceptual. Thus, the philosophy of culture does not address the empirical analysis of cultural phenomena as facts. On the contrary, it tries to understand them from a philosophical point of view.

Cultural context

Cultural context is known as those cultural variables that allow the understanding of a certain phenomenon under study. That is, they are those cultural elements that have an influence on a fact, character or product of history, and that therefore must be considered in order to make a fair interpretation of the matter to be studied. For example: value system, customs, dominant spirituality, etc. Understanding the cultural context of an issue allows you to minimize the risk of making value judgments.