The Concept of Culture Essay

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Raymond Williams (1976) informs us that ”culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language,” which is a good place to begin. Despite the contemporary upsurge of interest in the idea – what Chaney (1994) refers to as the ”cultural turn” in the humanities and social sciences – culture is a concept with a history.

One compelling account is that the idea of culture emerged in the late eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth century as part of (and largely as a reaction to) the massive changes that were occurring in the structure and quality of social life – what we might also refer to as the advance of modernity. These changes at the social, political, and personal levels were both confusing and disorienting, and at least controversial. The machine was viewed as consuming the natural character of humankind and whereas we began with ”culture” mediating between humankind and Nature, it can now be seen to mediate between humankind and Machine.

Another account looks back to classical society. Civilization, deriving from the Latin civis, is a term descriptive of a state of belonging to a collectivity that embodied certain qualities, albeit self-appointed, which distinguished it from the ”mass” or more lowly state of being typified as that of the ”barbarian.” In this context the idea of culture is not so much descriptive as metaphoric, and derives philologically from the agricultural or horticultural processes of cultivating the soil and bringing fauna and flora into being through growth. Whereas the former concept, ”civilization,” is descriptive of a kind of stasis, a membership, a belonging, indeed a status once achieved not to be relinquished, the latter, ”culture,” is resonant with other ideas of emergence and change, perhaps even transformation. Thus we move to ideas of socialization as ”cultivating” the person, education as ”cultivating” the mind, and colonialization as ”cultivating” the natives. All of these uses of culture, as process, imply not just a transition but also a goal in the form of ”culture” itself.

Just as in many forms of discourse culture and civilization are used interchangeably, so in others culture, society, and social structure are conflated, though not necessarily confused. The idea of culture as a theory of social structure has given rise to the major division between ”social” and ”cultural” anthropologies, the former stressing universality and constraint and the latter emphasizing relativism and difference between societies. In contemporary cultural studies some would argue that the concept of social structure has been abandoned altogether and that culture has become the sole source of causal explanation.

Social theories that are based on a materialist interpretation of reality, such as the variety of Marxisms, see culture as essentially an ideological set of understandings that arise from the sometimes calculated but more often simply distorted representations of the basic set of power and economic relationships at the heart of the society. Contrasting with this body of thought are the interpretive social theorists who argue that culture is realized far more as an autonomous and self-sustaining realm of social experience: a repertoire and a fund of symbolic forms that although related to their time are nevertheless both generative and self-reproducing in a way that escapes the constraints of materiality. Here culture is liberating rather than constraining; here creativity exceeds replication as a causal force.

Culture to British and US social theorists tends to have been most usefully applied as a concept of differentiation within a collectivity. That is to say that the concept has become artfully employed in the manner of ”subculture.” A subculture is the way of defining and honoring the particular specification and demarcation of special or different interests of a group of people within a larger collectivity.

We can summarize some of the above accounts of the genesis of our concept ”culture” through a four-fold typology. First, culture is a cerebral, or certainly a cognitive, category. Culture becomes intelligible as a general state of mind. Second, culture is a more embodied and collective category. Culture invokes a state of intellectual and/or moral development in society. Third, culture is a descriptive and concrete category: culture viewed as the collective body of arts and intellectual work within any one society. Fourth, culture is a social category: culture regarded as the whole way of life of a people.


  1. Chaney, D. (1994) The Cultural Turn: Scene-Setting Essays on Contemporary Social History. Routledge, London.
  2. Geertz,    (1975)   The  Interpretation   of Cultures. Hutchinson, London.
  3. Williams, R. (1976) Keywords. Fontana, London.

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