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The Controversies of Defining Culture Essay

Scientists, sociologist, writers, linguistics, psychologist and religious authorities have all made several but unsuccessful attempts to arrive at an all-inclusive definition of culture. Despite these attempts, there is still no concrete consensus as to the nature and scope of culture. This is because culture is so diverse, dynamic and complex that it cannot be contained within linguistic mechanism of humanity.

Trying to limit culture to definition of words has been the greatest undoing of those who try to define it. Languages are tools that are developed with time to communicate human needs and changes. Suffice to say that culture is beyond human needs and thus cannot be limited to language. Ironically, there are so many common elements of cultural amongst communities. Therefore, one may fail to understand why this term eludes common definition.

Every culture has symbols that have implied meanings, but limited to that particular culture (Changing Minds para 2). There are also value norms and rules, which members of the society must adhere to. Failure to follow these tenets results in punishment and at worst, banishment from that community (Para 10). Attitudes and notions about nature, life and the world accompany these norms in general.

These attitudes are the eyes through which the community views the world (Para 8). Another important element across all cultures is cultural rites, occasions and rituals. These are tools that help every community mark every important ceremony in its way of life (Para 6). Even though there may be similarities in cultural practices norms and beliefs amongst different communities, these similarities are unrelated (Geertz 1).

While these elements are constituents of cultures and help us to reach to a fair understanding of culture, they are still not useful tools to construct a good definition. This is because, their application is depends on context. Different communities have different symbolic definition of the same object.

In liberal communities kissing is very part of socialization. While it is done openly and in full display to the public, conservative cultures only limit it to the confines of romance. How then can culture be defined bearing in kind these unique occurrences? This paper endeavors to describe the various historical attempts to describe culture, the characteristics of cultures and the controversies that have arisen from it.

Characteristics of culture

Culture has a tendency to grow naturally. Other than the common elements of culture, it also has unique characteristics. William has chosen the linguistic as a method that will help to derive the meaning of the term culture. Not only does he describe its historical development but highlights that culture is subject to natural growth.

This means that the meaning of the term has underdone natural changes through out history. Initially it was just a noun that meant, “To take care of something” (87). The meaning naturally grew from its specific meaning to a more general one. Thus, any idea that incorporates taking care of something could be called culture. He continues to explain that the modern progression of its meaning is so complicated that the varied meaning of its application almost overlaps (88).

This means that culture as a product of natural development has attained the complexity status that is beyond simplification of a definition. Nature is no respecter of languages and ideas exists across cultures. Thus because of the expanded meaning of the term culture, different languages have different application, with the same root meaning. The English used it to refer to a civil way of life, while the German’s version Kultur was the other word for civilized.

This however does not mean that its development and similar meanings lead to an existence of a shared and superior culture in Europe. Other languages have borrowed this term through out history but the underlying meaning is the concept of civility and civilization. However, because of its rate of growth it has acquired complicated and contextual meaning such that it is impossible to define it without bearing in mind the context in which it has been used.

The complexity in defining it is not inherent in the root word but in trying to accommodate endless versions of its societal use (92).This add weight to the argument that despite the common root meaning it does not have a universal application. Thus, William agrees with Eliot that superior culture is only experienced amongst small classes and groups of people such as religions or small communities.

Culture is not stagnant

The tendency of culture to grow naturally means that it is not stagnant. It evolves as people evolve. It changes as people and circumstances change and respects the dynamism of natural life. This therefore implies that culture is the beliefs and practices of a community at a particular time and place (The Opinionated Indian para 1). It can only be defined with respect to space and time.

Therefore terming people who have moved to a different environment and lost their original culture as loosing their identity, is loosing the argument. People do not become uncultured because they have adapted new ways of life. This is concurrent with the knowledge that culture is not static. A person does not become less African because of new un African behavior such dressing style or a change in general mannerisms.

To support the argument further, The Opinionated Indian explains that were it that culture is stagnant people would still be as primitive as the other primates; eating raw food, no established language and above all having no cloths to wear (para 5). People cannot therefore carry their cultures wherever they go.

They have to abandon it and adapt new ways of life that are relevant to their time and space. This means that at a given time, people have to rebel against their own culture. This rebellion creates conflict that gives credit to the growth of culture (Eliot 50). This nature seems to concur with Charles Darwin theory of evolution.

Culture is innate but learned

Astran and Sperber explain that all human beings are born with the necessary mechanism to acquire behavior (Para 1). It is necessary to acknowledge that these mechanisms are as a result of evolution and that those organisms that do not develop internal culture acquisition mechanism became extinct.

The acquired mechanisms are transferred to the offspring for their survival. Individuals are therefore the principle carriers of culture. Therefore, Culture cannot be taught but acquired socially when people interact (Klein 4, 5). These theorist suppose that the similarities in cultural practices across the world is not because to learning but for the fact that all human beings are born with certain abilities and knowledge.

The environment in which people is the platform for establishment of culture (Heathfield Para 1). Therefore, similar cultural norms such as loving offspring’s, and flight/fight defense mechanism can only be innate. However, there are certain behaviors that are not innate and have to be actively acquired. People have to learn how to behave in social groupings, eating habits, work experience among many others.

This learning can be through positive or negative motivation as well as through repetitive actions (Heath field Para 10). This means that cultural behavior is only attained with experience. The lessons learned form these experiences make up culture. Interpreting of the real life experiences becomes a vital tool for formulating cultural ideas.

But is the ability to interpret innate or leaned? While the answer to this question is difficult to answer, what cannot be ignored is the fact that interpretation cannot be learned actively. Therefore it means that there is higher possibility that it is innate. From this argument, one can conclude that culture is a function of both innate and learned characteristics.

Culture is a system of building identity

Eliot argues that diversity and conflict are what helps to create culture and without them culture is nonexistent (50). A well-established culture is made up of classes that are the basis of developing cultural values. This means that each of these classes has an established set of rules that each of the members must strive to attain. It also means that societies have a system that ensures these established cultural values are adhered to and rebels punished.

Punishment of the rebellious discourages errant behavior and encourages the adherence to established rules. This is building identity. When two communities are in conflict, there is a likelihood of war. Whichever community wins is deemed stronger and its culture supersedes it foes, which has been defeated. Thus, the victorious community reinforces its culture. Sadashivan adds that building cultural identity starts at birth.

A person is born with certain cultural knowledge. In the process of growing, the person seeks the platform to reinforce those behaviors and thus build a very strong identify (Para 1). To develop an identity also needs time and space. People need a lot of time to learn and relearn cultural values and encode them as part of the daily life. They also build on this knowledge progressively from birth.

Theories of culture

The diversity of culture

Eliot Thomas a renowned poet argues that cultures are thing that makes living worthwhile (27). This means that culture adds meaning to life and that without it life would not exist. Culture is the foundation of life. It makes solely dependent on culture. This however does not mean that culture creates life but is the engine in which life is driven. Therefore, for life to be worthy the engine that drives must be good. Culture therefore involves practices that differentiate the good and the bad.

It promotes the good and punishes the bad. However, he explains that this does not mean that culture is deliberately acquired and can be taught. Those norms beliefs practices are involuntarily acquired and have profound effect on human life (51, 52). Therefore, one cannot claim to be cultured if they have made deliberate effort to learn the element of culture. It does not exist in our conscious minds but in our semi-unconscious selves. Suffice to say that the semi conscious self is the most powerful stimulus to what people do.

Geertz explains that there cannot be universal understanding of the meaning of culture because of its nature to be diverse (40). Elliot agrees with this and adds that culture is dependent on its own diversity and that even though there are common elements across cultures, its diversity makes culture recognizable (50).

This means that community only recognizes culture not because of the similarities between them but the differences. Communities recognize culture because they recognized that other people have different and peculiar ways of life. Elliot means that unity is an enemy of culture. If people unite behind similar values and there emerges a society without conflicts, that cannot be termed as culture.

Culture is the product of conflict between people. It is not nor friend that make culture but enemies, people who are opposite what others are. Actually Elliot proscribes that “lucky is the person who makes enemies. Conflict that emerges from enmity enhances development of culture (59). Conflict and culture are thus symbiotic. Conflict leads to culture, which leads to further conflict.

Culture and religion

Elliot and Geertz differ on the matter of culture and religion. While Geertz doesn’t recognize religion as a genuine and independent entity from culture, Eliot thinks other wise. Geertz wonders if there is any difference between culture and religion. He postulates that religion is just a set of symbols with meanings hidden under factual reality (90).

What he means is that religion is just culture that has a divine orientation. The divine orientation offers motivation to people because it has manipulated factual existence; thus setting it own mechanism to be inspirational. Religion therefore becomes another form of culture. Eliot sees culture and religion as genuine phenomena existing on their own right. So genuine is religion that culture exists within the realms of religion (27). He continues to explain that:

“The way of looking at culture and religion which I have been trying to adumbrate is so difficult that I am not sure I grasp it myself except in flashes, or that I comprehend all its implications.” (30)

What Eliot means is that culture and religion are so intertwined that one cannot exist without the other. For any culture to stand out it must operate under the religious platform. Therefore, such cultures as paganism, heathenism, secularism or any other way of life that does not recognize the power of religion will ultimately fail.

The two theorists also differ further on the matter. Eliot thinks that true religion should “create confusion and spiritual struggle within a person” (67). Religion is therefore meaningful if it is a source of conflict. Suffices to say, conflict is the essence of culture. Geertz thinks that what people describe as religion are in fact cultural beliefs that consoles individuals when in torment but do not relieve the individual any form of suffering (100).

Eliot makes an effort to define religion unlike Geertz. He explains that a religion is beyond the priest, mere observance of religious tenets and the existence of worshipers. Valid religion will differentiae between what are religious and what is not. Weak religions will not have the capacity to differentiate religious activities and non-religious activities.

They end confusing the two (24). Naturally, when religion distinctively identifies what is religious and what is not, great opposition amounts (67). Thus, genuine religion creates a rivalry in the community. It therefore implies that religions that do not seek to create conflict n the society, such as Zen, is not valid.


An individual importance in the society is subordinated under culture. What is more important is that for cultures to exist, small groups of people must experience them. This therefore means that culture would not exist in a classless society. Social classes create a diverse group of people in the society. This diversity is the genesis of culture (56). What this means is that equality is just an ideal notion that cannot be realized. Equal societies will not have the necessary mechanism for conflict and thus would be cultureless.

The highest classes in the community therefore experience real and genuine culture. It is only the elites and the educated who can claim tom have a real experience to culture. A person’s cultural beliefs are thus shaped by the class they belong to. Class cultures are in turn founded on the larger society’s culture while societal culture is founded on religion. The continuity of culture is realized through the classes.

Arnold sees culture as fairly elitist and as a more political tool in the society. In slight deviation from Hall’s perspective, Arnold argues that culture is the practices that have been derived from past human activities, thus:

“They (best religious thoughts) should be read… with a direct aim at practice. The reader will leave on one side things which, from the change of time and from the changed point of view which the change of time inevitably brings with it, no longer suit him; enough will remain to serve as a sample of the very best, perhaps, which our nation and race can do in the way of religious writing” (para 2).

This means that culture changes and reinvents itself. It is achieved as time goes by and only maintains those practices and beliefs that are relevant to the current needs of the community. What remains after a series of changes is the very best and this constitutes culture. Culture is also powerful that it can only be realized as religion.

The best tenets that have survived the test of time and deemed valuable to a community are ascribed to, as religious truths. It is thus worth to say that religion is formed from long held cultural practices. That religious writings are inspired by culture. Culture makes religion less spiritual and more practical, and brings it closer to the people. Arnold therefore agrees with Eliot on the manner of religion and culture and explains that the elite of the religious class can only experience absolute culture.

Those who are not religious thus find themselves as cultureless. As a result culture therefore becomes the consolation and offers solutions to the problems the community is having. This is because it has been derived from timeless norms, which are thought to be absolute truths and thus have acquired divine status

Culture is internal

Arnold’s analogy of culture as what has been left after along time means that culture is because of the internal machination in community. Seel expounds on this and adds that culture is the result of a society’s internal “evaluative judgments, excuses and tenets that people use to coerce each other into submission into a prescribed way of life” (Para 7). This means that there are no external factors that influence culture.

Thus, it is formed within a community. The daily activities, which involve conflicts, dialogues, work and agreeable ethics are the basis of which culture is derived. A community’s communication mechanism becomes the platform from which culture evolves. Therefore, culture is in a constant state of emergence because of the complexity and the dynamism of everyday life. New cultural norm keep emerging as communities grow.

Seel likens culture to a flower, where the center of the flower is the communities general ideology that governs life. This idea is derived when community members through constant dialogue seek common understanding. The petals of the flower become the varied application of this central idea.

Eliot argues that a community’s diversity and variation in application of cultural rules results in conflicts. This means that the petals are the main activity areas that develop a community’s culture because a lot of negotiations go on when people seek to apply the central idea about culture in real life.

Seel argues further that culture is more emergent than changing. This is because changing it will require changing the central norm which holds the community together. Variation in the application of this central idea brings in new dynamics every day and the resultant conversational agreements emerge.

However, with time people have tendency to forget and drift back to previous lifestyle and forget the emergent culture. This arguments support the saying that the more things change the more they stay the same. Therefore, changing culture becomes a very complicated exercise, almost impossible. Culture emerges continuously, but rarely changes.

The two paradigms of culture

To understand cultural one must be able to evaluate it under the following two paradigms. The first paradigm explains that Culture can only be under stood when people isolate all their common experiences that add meaning to life. Hall explains that:

“Defining culture is a democratic process and. It is not just the sum of the best of what has been thought and said, but regarded as the summits of achieved civilization… it is now a one general process that involves the giving’s and takings of application and meaning of culture to arrive at commonly held ideas.” (59).

It means that societies have to evaluate all cultural definitions and application and with time isolate those things that are common among them. Culture is thus, according to Hall’s first paradigm, a constitution of ideas. However, this theory does not cater for the uncommon practices that are part of a community’s subculture.

The second paradigm is little more simplistic and equates culture to a people’s way of life. It means that culture is a set of social norms belief and practices. This however does not mean that culture is the sum total of a people folk lore and traditional practices. It goes beyond that. It has to evaluate the relationship between the community’s cultural activities and come up with a social design of how these activities are related (60).

This means that culture is not deliberate but a self-revealing phenomenon. People cannot identify their cultures by just evaluating tenets, events, norms and practices but by reflecting on how they are patterned to form a general way of life. This theory is reflected in Geertz works when he and his wife were working in Bali.

Their understanding of the Balinese culture did not reveal itself by just understanding of the Balinese cultural activities but by undertsdniig the meanings of those activities and how the society was organized in general. It is the self-revealing patterns of this society that began to unravel the intricate culture.

By limiting culture to a set of ideas and general practices, it does not meant that Hall is equating culture to the Classical Marxist ideology of materialism and the domination of one (superior) idea over another. It only means that culture is made up of both the complex and the not so complex activities. The pattern that designs the relationship between these activities and forms their relationship makes culture.

Culture and suffering

Geetz asserts that culture consoles the person from daily affliction, by giving them a survival mechanism in the face of suffering (100). Walker agrees on this but adds that culture is the manifestation of silent suffering (para 2). It portrays life as one struggle to live with suffering with no hope in sight.

This means that the ideal life is just a dream, something people wish for but know that they will never achieve. Suffering leads a person to retreat into oneself for an intense self-reflection. This reflection pushes people to their spiritual realms in search of consolation (Para 6). This means that religion and culture exist in the continuum of suffering. Without suffering people would not be religious and possibly not have an established culture. Suffering therefore becomes the vehicle in which culture develops and travels.


Culture is such a complex phenomena that is riddle with controversy after controversy. This is thee reason it has eluded a concrete definition through out history.

The more it evolves the more it becomes complicated and thus draws farther from consensus. Its complexity is not inherent in the word itself but in the dynamic nature of life and nature and the attempts by man to apply it to fit his individual context.

This portrays man as limited in understanding culture beyond his natural environment. Arnold explains that culture is the more commonly physical attribute of the society operating under the platform of religion. While the power of religion cannot be underemphasized; it limits culture to religious realms.

This is a good definition but it does not address the spiritual nature of culture. Eliot agrees to the direct link between religion and culture and explains that the two have as symbiotic relationship. They are connected because of the diversity that religion creates in the society. It therefore can be concluded that culture is equal to conflict. However, this definition leaves the efforts to maintain order in the community hanging in confusion. A well-ordered society is therefore thought as not cultured.

Some theorists opt for the cynical and negative view of culture and equate it to constant suffering and that joy and happiness are just an elusive mirage. While it is worth to notice that suffering is real in all societies, it is just a condition of life and not the real essence of life. Most importantly, there are so many individual and communities that are devoid of mass suffering and it cannot be argued that they are uncultured. Lastly, out of all this definition and theories it can be conclude that culture is the essence of life.

Works Cited

Atran, Scott, and Sperber, Dan. “Learning without Teaching: It’s Place in Culture Culture, Schooling, And Psychological Development.” Human development. Web.

Changing minds.” .” Changing minds.org, 2011. Web.

Eliot, Thomas. Note Toward the Definition of Culture. London: Faber, 1948. Print

Geertz, Clifford. Think Description: Toward s an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In Geertz. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973. Print

Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” 1973. Web.

Hall, Stuart. Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms. Media, Culture and Society, 2 (1980): 57-72

Heathfield, Susan. Culture: “, 2011. Web.

Klein, Zdenek. “The Ethological Approach to the Study of Human Behavior.” NEL, 2002. Web.

Sadashivan. “Culture Is A System Of Building Identity.” Virtual countries, 2011. Web.

Seel, Richard. “” Organizations & People, 7.2(2000):2-9. Web.

The Opinionated Indian. “Evolving culture cannot be stagnant.” The Opinionated Indian, 2008. Web.

Walker, Alice. “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South.” Ms. Magazine. Web.

William, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Print.

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