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I. The Concept of CultureMilton Singer


II. Cultural RelativismDavid Bidney


III. CulturologyLeslie A. White


IV. Cultural AdaptationRobert L. Cameiro


V. Culture ChangeEvon Z. Vogt


The articles under this heading deal primarily with the nature and history of the concept of culture. The study of cultural and social anthropology is discussed under the headingAnthropology; the development of the concept of culture and its applications are reviewed inCulture and Personality; Diffusion; Ecology; Evolution; History, article onCulture History; Social structure. Culture patterns and configurations are described inIntegration, article onCultural integration, and in the biography ofBenedict. Other utilizations of the concept are reviewed inPolitical cultureandStratification, social, article onclass culture. The biographies ofBoas; Kroeber; Malinowski; andTylorshould also be consulted.


In his charter definition of the anthropological concept of “culture,” Tylor stated: “Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” ([1871] 1958, vol. 1, p. 1). His definition does not distinguish social organization and social institutions from a general concept of culture.

This inclusive use of the term “culture” was continued by Boas, Malinowski, and other ethnologists. In other respects the later usage differs from Tylor’s in the new emphasis on the plurality of local cultures as functioning and organized wholes and in the loss of interest in the long-run evolution of discrete customs and institutions. With these many focuses, the three axioms of ninetenth-century anthropology—the psychic unity of mankind, the unity of human history, and the unity of culture— began to fade away. If such unities existed, it was thought, they would have to be laboriously pieced together from the comparative and intensive studies of many individual societies and cultures. Such universal principles could not be invoked as explanatory postulates.

This pluralistic and relativistic conception of culture, a product of the “Boas revolution” in anthropology, has characterized anthropological thought for almost fifty years, at least until the early 1950s, when a revival of interest in universalistic theories occurred. In its relativized form, anthropology did not, however, devote itself exclusively to the study of Tylorian culture. Under the leadership of Radcliffe-Brown social anthropology developed and was made the basis for a separation between social anthropology as the comparative study of “social structures” and ethnology and cultural anthropology, which study cultures comparatively or historically. This separation was probably first dramatized in a famous debate between W. H. R. Rivers, the teacher of Radcliffe-Brown, and A. L. Kroeber on the proper interpretation of L. H. Morgan’s distinction between classificatory and descriptive kinship systems. Out of this debate about the nature of kinship systems grew the two major rival anthropological theories of culture—the theory of “culture patterns,” best represented by Kroeber, and the theory of “social structure,” best represented by Radcliffe-Brown.

This rivalry is still very much alive, although some anthropologists have tried to moderate it with peacemaking formulas and with new, integrated theories. It has mobilized the major factions in modern anthropology and sociology, so that in Great Britain, Malinowski and his followers are regarded as students of culture and of cultural anthropology, while Radcliffe-Brown and his followers are regarded as students of social structure and of social anthropology. In the United States the contrast between culture and social structure has symbolized the institutional rivalry between anthropologists and sociologists. Not until 1958 did the dean of American anthropologists, A. L. Kroeber, and the dean of American sociologists, Talcott Parsons, agree to sign a nonaggression pact in which both culture and society are recognized (Kroeber & Parsons 1958).

British social anthropologists usually set themselves off from American anthropologists who have, with few exceptions, until recently emphasized studies of culture and cultural anthropology (Murdock 1949; Firth 1951). The national labels are out of place, since the “British” Radcliffe-Brown derives from the work of Morgan and the French sociological school, while the “American” cultural anthropologists derive from Tylor and, through Boas, the German diffusionists. Bronislaw Malinowski wrote the article on culture for the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1931), placing emphasis on culture as a functioning, active, efficient well-organized unity, which must be analyzed into component institutions in relation to one another, in relation to the needs of the human organism, and in relation to the environment, man-made as well as natural. This concept of culture became the “common sense” of an entire American generation of anthropologists in the 1930s and 1940s. Similarly, in the 1950s and 1960s, much of British social anthropology became the common sense of a younger generation of American anthropologists.

Behind this rivalry there are, of course, intellectual issues; however, in order to separate the genuine issues from the spurious, we cannot take at face value what the members of one school say about the views of another, nor can the chapter headings in an ethnographic monograph—religion and art, family and marriage—tell us whether the material is treated in a framework of culture patterns or of social structure. The decisive criterion is the general framework of theory which is used for the interpretation and explanation of a particular set of facts. There are two frameworks to discuss, that of “culture patterns” and that of “social structure.”

The pattern theory of culture

A significant text for pattern theory is the historical and critical review by A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn of several hundred definitions of culture and their heroic effort to arrive at a summary formulation which, they believed, would be acceptable to most social scientists:

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action. (1952, p. 181)

This represents a condensation of much of what American anthropologists, at least in the 1940s and 1950s, would call culture. And it is certainly a richer and more adequate formulation than the well-known formula of the 1920s and 1930s, “culture is learned behavior,” which seemed so satisfying then. For as Kroeber and Kluckhohn observed, while the logical construct of culture is based on the study of behavior and behavioral products and makes behavior intelligible,

culture is not behavior nor the investigation of behavior in all its concrete completeness. Part of culture consists in norms for or standards of behavior. Still another part consists in ideologies justifying or rationalizing certain selected ways of behavior. Finally, every culture includes broad general principles of selectivity and ordering (”highest common factors”) in terms of which patterns of and for and about behavior in very varied areas of culture content are reducible to parsimonious generalization, (ibid., p. 189)

A. Irving Hallowell, himself one of the first anthropologists to apply learning theory to the study of culture, has come to a somewhat similar conclusion in a recent discussion of personality, culture, and society in behavioral evolution: “Cultural adaptation cannot be equated with learned and socially transmitted behavior, although it is one of the necessary conditions underlying it. Equally important in behavioral evolution is how much is learned and what is learned, relative to the psychological capacities and total life adjustments of the animal” (1963, p. 492). But even if we accept the Kroeber and Kluckhohn definition of the culture concept, as they themselves say: “But a concept, even an important one, does not constitute a theory… . In anthropology at present we have plenty of definitions but too little theory” (1952, p. 181).

There are, as they also point out, adumbrations of a general theory of culture in the works of Boas (1911), Sapir (1927), Benedict (1934), Linton (1936), Bateson (1936), Kluckhohn (1941), Kroeber ([1923] 1948, chapter 8; 1952; see also “Anthropological Horizons” 1962), White (1949), Opler (1945; 1946; 1959), and others. Essentially this general theory emphasizes the study of pattern, form, structure, and organization in culture rather than discrete culture traits and culture content. While influenced by biological analogies, the pattern theory is also closely affiliated with the nineteenth-century German school of cultural history and with gestalt psychology. Culture patterning is an “emergent” of human creativity transcending the limits of biology and the natural environment.

Different spheres of social life differ in susceptibility to patterning, and culture patterns differ in degrees of consciousness and complexity as well as in kind. The simplest patterns are the explicit and more or less objective patterns of behavior expressed in customs of dress, diet, work, and salutation, and in artifacts. Then there are the more complex patterns underlying social, political, and economic organization and the systems of religion, language, law, philosophy, science, and the arts. Among these Kroeber has distinguished those “basic” or “systemic” patterns in different fields of culture which have persisted (at least in their cultural descendants) for several thousand years as coherent organizations of traits with functional value (e.g., the alphabet, plow agriculture, monotheism), and the “secondary” patterns (of formal social organization, systems of thought, etc.), which are subject to greater variety and instability. Different again from all these kinds of culture patterns are those qualities of cultural organization which come to pervade all or most spheres of some cultures and give them a distinctive individual “slant.” Such are the implicit and unconscious configurations which Ruth Benedict described in her Patterns of Culture (1934). Kroeber saw these configurations as “patterns of patterns” in those cultures which have achieved stylistic integration. Acknowledging that they may have psychological correlates in personality traits, he preferred to analyze these total cultural patterns in cultural and historical terms.

The totality of human culture also contains an element of patterning that provides the general framework for individual cultures and represents a historical summation of those cultures which have segregated themselves out as crystallized historical configurations of culture. The “universal pattern” of human history, in either sense, is not yet known but can only be gradually discovered through comparative-historical studies of the systemic, secondary, and configurational patterns in all cultures, primitive and civilized (Kroeber & Kluckhohn 1952, p. 185; “Anthropological Horizons” 1962).

There are no absolute units or natural boundaries for cultural-historical studies. “The lines of demarcation of any cultural unit chosen for description and analysis are in large part a matter of level of abstraction and of convenience for the problem at hand. Occidental culture, Graeco-Roman culture, nineteenth-century European culture, German culture, Swabian culture, the peasant culture of the Black Forest in 1900—these are all equally legitimate abstractions if carefully defined” (Kroeber & Kluckhohn 1952, p. 185).

Culture patterns tend to persist as organized bodies of custom in spite of changes in items of culture content. Changes in individual items can be explained as selections and rejections consistent with the cultural patterns. But the patterns themselves are also subject to change. There is a cultural orthogenesis, in which “the direction of at least some culture change is more predetermined by earlier forms of the culture than caused by environmental press and individual variability” (ibid., p. 189). Sapir called this “cultural drift”: “Whenever the human mind has worked collectively and unconsciously, it has striven for and often attained unique form. The important point is that the evolution of form has a drift in one direction, that it seeks poise, and that it rests, relatively speaking, when it has found this poise” (quoted in ibid., p. 182).

The relevance of “cultural drift” to studies of cultural continuity and change is obvious. Eggan (1963) has recently applied it to an analysis of cultural changes in the Philippines, and Redfield and the present writer have suggested ways in which the role of cities in cultural change may be interpreted as the product of “orthogenetic” and “heterogenetic” processes (see the article by Red-field & Singer in Redfield 1962; also see Singer 1959).

Another important kind of pattern change has been analyzed by Kroeber in his Configurations of Culture Growth (1944). In this and in later discussions Kroeber showed that the rise and the decline of civilizations can be viewed as phases in the growth and realization of stylistic configurations. The clustering of the peak periods of cultural creativity in each civilization within limited time periods suggests the importance of critical periods of “ripeness” in the process of cultural growth and innovation (Kroeber 1957; 1963).

Pattern theory assumes that culture is created by individuals and groups and interacts with them as well as with the environment. However, these interactions of biology, psychology, and geography are the given conditions and starting points for cultural growth but not its determinants. Such a theory views the process of cultural growth as a historical process, as Boas emphasized, a “growing together” of elements of culture content from different sources, which have become associated in a historical configuration. The end result of this historical process, at any given time, is an associated set of patterns, a precipitate of the history of a particular group, of its past choices, conscious and unconscious. Culture is this precipitate “present in persons, shaping their perceptions of events, other persons, and the environing situation in ways not wholly determined by biology and environmental press. Culture is an intervening variable between human ’organism’ and ’environment’” (Kroeber & Kluckhohn 1952, p. 186). It is “an abstract description of trends toward uniformity in the words, acts, and artifacts of human groups” (ibid., p. 182).

Culture pattern theory has also been used in acculturation studies (Spicer 1962) and in studies which try to relate culture patterns to personality structure (reviewed in Singer 1961; and in Mead 1962) or to changes in environment and demography (Steward 1955).

Applications of pattern theory tend to avoid causal hypotheses, because culture is so intricate, multiple and cumulative that there seems no point in looking for specific external causes of specific cultural forms, either in deterministic laws or in cross-cultural statistical correlations. The primary research task of a pattern theorist is to delineate culture patterns and, beyond that, to compare and classify types of patterns as well as to distinguish the most fundamental and constant patterns from the secondary and variable ones.

Social structure as a theory of culture

The theory of social structure was first developed in an important series of papers by Radcliffe-Brown in the 1930s and 1940s and has since been considerably extended. “Social structure,” is defined by Radcliffe-Brown as a network or system of social relations including persistent social groups and differentiated social classes and social roles. In Radcliffe-Brown’s formulation the theory follows the organic analogy very closely; thus comparative social morphology is concerned with studying and classifying the different types of social structure and social physiology with studying how particular types of social structure function. It is assumed as a working hypothesis that each structural system is a functional unity in which all the component parts contribute in a harmonious way to its existence and continuity. To test this hypothesis all kinds of social phenomena—morals, law, etiquette, religion, government, economics, education, language—need to be studied “not in abstraction or isolation, but in their direct and indirect relations to social structure, i.e. with reference to the way in which they depend upon, or affect the social relations between persons and groups of persons” (Radcliffe-Brown 1952, p. 195).

The study of how particular types of social structure change into new structural types forms a third branch of the theory of social structure. This study requires assistance from history and archeology to trace the actual processes in the formation and transformation of particular structural types. Radcliffe-Brown suggested that the hypothesis of social evolution, which he accepted as plausible, should be defined “as the process by which wide-range systems of social structure have grown out of, or replaced, narrow range systems” (ibid., p. 204).

Radcliffe-Brown’s formulation of the theory of social structure is universal; it is intended to apply to societies of all kinds, at all places and times. In practice, Radcliffe-Brown and others at first restricted social anthropology to a comparative study of the social structure and social physiology of contemporary nonliterate and simple societies. Since primitive societies were assumed not to have histories or historical records, the study of structural change was also restricted to cases of contact with civilized societies. These limitations led to a definition of social anthropology as the intensive study of the structural systems of small, nonliterate communities, or “primitive isolates.”

Developments in social anthropology have since relaxed these restrictions, and studies of structural change in primitive and simple societies have undertaken to combine history and archeology with structural-functional analysis (as in the work of Eggan, Evans-Pritchard, and M. G. Smith) or to restudy the same society at different periods (as in the work of Redfield, Firth, and others); the study of structural conflicts in simple societies was undertaken and the assumption of stability was dropped (Leach, Gluckman, Fallers); and studies of the social structures of peasant and modern communities and of civilizations were begun (Red-field, Warner, Geertz, Firth, Schneider, M. Freedman, E. Wolf and others).

These developments have broadened social anthropology and have brought it closer to the original universal scope of the theory of social structure. The expansion of social anthropology to include macrostructural studies of peasant societies, modern communities, and civilizations has gone more smoothly in comparative social morphology than in social physiology. The reasons for this are obvious—it is relatively easier to trace networks of social relations, social classes, and social groups in a large-scale society than it is to demonstrate how such a macrostructural system constitutes a functioning, integrated unity. To demonstrate the existence of such a functional unity requires consideration of the results of different approaches, such as economics, political science, literary studies, and art history, each of which has made some specialized aspect or subsystem of the total society its peculiar subject matter. Structural changes, on the other hand, are easier to trace at this level because of the longer time perspectives and data provided by historical and archeological studies.

The boundaries and identity of the unit of study also became more problematic when social anthropology moved beyond the primitive isolate. Radcliffe-Brown was very much aware of this difficulty: “It is rarely that we find a community that is absolutely isolated, having no outside contact. At the present moment of history, the network of social relations spreads over the whole world, without any absolute solution of continuity anywhere” (ibid., p. 193).

If this is so, what then is a unit society, asks Radcliffe-Brown? “Is the British Empire a society or a collection of societies? Is a Chinese village a society, or is it merely a fragment of the Republic of China?” The answer is pragmatic: “If we take any convenient locality of a suitable size, we can study the structural system as it appears in and from that region, i.e. the network of relations connecting the inhabitants amongst themselves and with the people of other regions” (ibid.).

Thus, finding the suitable and convenient unit of society becomes a matter of the problem at hand and the resources one has available for dealing with it. In effect, then, there is no “natural” unit of society most suitable for structural analysis which can be defined at the beginning of fieldwork; natural units emerge in the form of structural types only as the results of intensive field studies, comparison, abstraction, classification, and generalization.

Radcliffe-Brown and other adherents of the theory of social structure tended to avoid using the term “culture” after the early 1930s. This avoidance is based on the claim that social anthropology studies social structure, not culture. This claim is misleading. In fact, the theory of social structure both explicitly and implicitly incorporates a concept of culture. Fortes, for example, writes that social structure and social organization are not just “an aspect of culture but the entire culture of a given people handled in a special frame of theory” (1953, p. 21). Fortes uses “culture” in almost precisely the same sense as Kroeber and Kluckhohn. In this frame “the facts of custom—the standardized ways of doing, knowing, thinking, and feeling —universally obligatory and valued in a given group of people at a given time” are then seen “as symbolizing or expressing social relations” (ibid.).

This special frame of theory is obviously Radcliffe-Brown’s social physiology. Without using the word “culture” Radcliffe-Brown acknowledges the concept when he defines a social system as “the total social structure of a society together with the totality of social usages in which that structure appears and on which it depends for its continued existence” (1952, p. 181). These social usages include morals, law, etiquette, religion, government, education, and every kind of social phenomenon which is a part of “the complex mechanism by which a social structure exists and persists” (ibid., p. 195). Social physiology, in other words, is a frame of theory which tries to relate all aspects of culture, in Tylor’s sense, to social structure as a network of social relations.

That a concept of culture is implicit in the theory of social structure is usually overlooked because of the notion that social anthropology deals with “actually existing social relations” and not with such abstractions as culture. Radcliffe-Brown, who occasionally writes in this vein (e.g., ibid., pp. 189–190), nevertheless makes it quite clear that while actually existing social relations may provide the raw data of observation, they are not the same thing as the social structure, which is derived from them by abstraction and generalization.

In the study of social structure the concrete reality with which we are concerned is the set of actually existing relations, at a given moment of time, which link together certain human beings. It is on this that we can make direct observations. But it is not this that we attempt to describe in its particularity… . What we need for scientific purposes is an account of the form of the structure. For example, if in an Australian tribe I observe in a number of instances the behaviour towards one another of persons who stand in the relation of mother’s brother and sister’s son, it is in order that I may be able to record as precisely as possible the general or normal form of this relationship, abstracted from the variations of particular instances, though taking account of these variations, (ibid., p. 192)

A social structure, then, is not something directly observed but an abstraction of structural forms from the actually existing relations, which are observable. These abstracted “structural forms” or “normal forms of social relations” cannot be described or understood without reference to culture: “Social relations are only observed, and can only be described, by reference to the reciprocal behaviour of the persons related. The form of a social structure has therefore to be described by the patterns of behaviour to which individuals and groups conform in their dealings with one another” (ibid., p. 198).

Such behavior patterns sound very much like Kluckhohn and Kroeber’s explicit and implicit patterns: “These patterns are partially formulated in rules which, in our own society, we distinguish as rules of etiquette, of morals and of law. Rules, of course, only exist in their recognition by the members of the society; either in their verbal recognition, when they are stated as rules, or in their observance in behaviour” (ibid.).

At the very heart of the theory of social structure we find the concept of culture as a set of rules, implicit or explicit, of standardized modes of behavior and thought. The concept of culture is also implicit in Radcliffe-Brown’s definition of “a social relation” as a mutual adjustment of interests between persons: “Whenever we say that a subject has a certain interest in an object we can state the same thing by saying that the object has a certain value for the subject. Interests and values are correlative terms, which refer to the two sides of an asymmetrical relation” (ibid., p. 199).

This conception of a value as any object of any interest, derived from the American philosopher R. B. Perry, is extended by Radcliffe-Brown to a definition of “a social value” as the object of a common interest. This leads Radcliffe-Brown to the position that values—and their correlative interests —are the determinants of social relations, and hence of social structure. The foundations of the theory of social structure are thus two intangibles —social values and psychological interests.

It is now clear why the theory of social structure can dispense with the word “culture”: it has incorporated the culture concept into the core of the theory, for the theory of social structure deals with social relations not simply as concrete actually existing objects of observations but as institutionalized and standardized modes of behavior and thought whose normal forms are socially recognized in the explicit or implicit rules to which the members of a given society tend to conform.

Culture patterns and social structure as parallel and as complementary

There is a striking formal parallelism between the theory of culture patterns and the theory of social structure. Both are holistic theories in the sense that they try to cover all aspects of society and culture—law, politics, economy, technology, kinship and social organization, art, literature, language, religion, philosophy, science, and so on. Fortes’ formulation applies to both theories: each provides a special frame of theory to handle the entire culture of a people. Or, to put it a little differently, each theory incorporates Tylor’s omnibus concept of culture in a different frame. Both theories are universalistic: they are intended to apply to all kinds of societies and cultures, and not to just one special kind. Each theory defines its basic concepts in such a way that it is possible to deal with different levels and hierarchies of pattern and structures, including the possibility of a single world-wide culture pattern and a world-wide network of social relations.

The early field studies of “primitive” and small-scale societies and cultures were in part associated with two kinds of theoretical interests: the lingering interest in the origins and evolutionary place of “contemporary primitives” and the belief that primitive societies and cultures are instances of simple, functionally integrated units. It was in the latter connection that both the theory of culture patterns and that of social structure came to be thought of as essentially theories of the primitive isolate. As both theories were extended to peasant villages and to modern urban communities, however, the primitive isolate gradually faded as a natural unit; thus liberated, both theories were applied to morphological, functional, and historical studies of both the culture patterns and the social organization of civilizations.

The parallels between the theory of culture patterns and the theory of social structure are numerous and striking. Both theories have explanatory aims, although each finds different factors to be primary.

The relation between basic and secondary patterns, on the one hand, and between the “substructure” of social relations and the “superstructure” of culture, on the other, is not necessarily causal, but it has explanatory value. This, therefore, is the parallelism between the two theories; the difference arises from the fact that the pattern theory does not specify which aspects of culture and society are most likely to form basic patterns—they may be matters of religion, technological invention, or ideas—while the structural theory assigns basic explanatory value to social relations. This difference, in relation to a particular individual society or culture, is not very great, because the structural theory considers an “explanation” achieved when it has shown how each part contributes functionally to the existence and continuity of a particular type of social structure, while the pattern theory’s desideratum for “explanation” is to show how each part fits into an over-all configuration or stylistic pattern of the culture.

The difference between the two concepts is not that one is an abstraction and the other a concrete, observable unit of behavior, for both are abstractions of regularities from observations of actual behavior, whether these regularities are implicit and unconscious or explicit and verbalized. That social structure, too, is an abstraction and not a directly observable, concrete reality was first effectively argued by Bateson (1936) and subsequently reaffirmed by Fortes (1949), Firth (1951), Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952), Nadel (1951), Eggan (1955), Redfield (1955; 1956), Lévi-Strauss (1953), Leach (1954), Schneider (1965), and others. Radcliffe-Brown himself in an earlier paper acknowledged this when he wrote:

In human society the social structure as a whole can only be observed in its functioning. Some of the features of social structure, such as the geographical distribution of individuals and groups can be directly observed, but most of the social relations which in their totality constitute the structure, such as relations of father and son, buyer and seller, ruler and subject, cannot be observed except in the social activities in which the relations are functioning. (1952, p. 181)

A particularly concise and lucid formulation of the issue has been made by Firth:

If … society is taken to be an organized set of individuals with a given way of life, culture is that way of life. If society is taken to be an aggregate of social relations, then culture is the content of those relations. Society emphasizes the human component, the aggregate of people and the relations between them. Culture emphasizes the component of accumulated resources, immaterial as well as material, which the people inherit, employ, transmute, add to, and transmit. (1951, p. 27)

Both Eggan (1955) and Redfield (1962) have systematically analyzed the differences and similarities between the complementary abstractions, culture and social structure. Eggan’s summary includes the essential points: social structures are more limited in variety of forms and more predictable in terms of change than culture patterns and may vary independently; social relations are more abstract and more difficult to grasp than are cultural forms and less likely to be borrowed; social integration and cultural integration are defined by different criteria and can vary independently of one another; cultural integration is perhaps the more essential for personality integration, although the integration of the individual into groups is also important; the data and forms of culture seem to be more amenable to historical study, and social structures more amenable to classification and comparison, although the method of controlled comparison can and should be applied both to social structure and to culture patterns in a given historical framework (Eggan [1955] 1962, pp. 490–501).

Eggan explains the major differences between British social anthropology and American ethnology in terms of the emphasis given to one or the other side of this complementarity:

The British social anthropologists tend to think of themselves as sociologists concerned primarily with the social structures and institutions of primitive societies, or they utilize social structure as a frame for the organization and interpretation of cultural phenomena; most American ethnologists consider culture as the major concept and point of departure and subordinate social structure to it, if they utilize this concept at all, preferring to operate with concepts of culture pattern and cultural form, (ibid., p. 490)

Yet Eggan, along with everyone else who has stressed the complementary nature of the concepts of social structure and culture, emphasizes that these

two aspects of social behavior—social structure and cultural pattern—cannot exist independently of one another in human society: society and culture are mutually dependent, and social relations are carried, or exemplified, only in cultural behavior. Social institutions partake of both aspects: they are composed of individuals organized through recurring social relationships into a social structure, with a set of attitudes, beliefs, and behavior patterns through which the structure is exemplified and the institutional ends achieved. (ibid., p. 492)

If the complementarity between social structure and culture pattern is so intimate and interdependent, how is it possible to construct a global theory of either concept by itself? Eggan suggests that the actual field studies by British social anthropologists and American ethnologists show fewer differences than their theoretical formulations would lead one to expect. This is probably true, but leaves the theoretical formulations in doubt. For if social structure and culture pattern are complementary abstractions, then it follows that a theory of social structure must also make a place for the concept of culture pattern and that a theory of culture patterns must make a place for the concept of social structure. Each is a comprehensive theory which includes both concepts, but not on a basis of equality. The pattern theory subordinates social structure to culture, and the structural theory reverses the subordination. Acceptance of the complementarity of the two concepts is consistent with both theories and does not, therefore, account for the difference between the structural and pattern theories of culture.

Cultural versus structural explanations of kinship systems

The best clue to the difference between the pattern theory and the structural theory is to be found in the Rivers-Kroeber-Radcliffe-Brown debate over Morgan’s distinction between “classificatory” and “descriptive” kinship systems. This debate is well known in the history of kinship studies and served to crystallize the difference between the concepts of a kinship system as a “cultural system” and as a “social system” and the difference between a pattern and a structural theory of culture. All the issues in this debate are by no means dead, so far as can be judged from the revival of Kroeber’s earlier position in the recent development of “componential analysis” of kinship by Goodenough and Lounsbury and, to some extent, in Lévi-Strauss’s “structuralism.” We shall deal briefly with the debate here only insofar as it stimulated both Kroeber and Radcliffe-Brown to sharpen the difference between structural and cultural explanations of kinship systems, and, a fortiori, of other systems as well.

Kroeber’s 1909 paper, “Classificatory Systems of Relationship,” in addition to criticizing Morgan’s conception of classificatory kinship systems, proposed to compare and classify all kinship terminologies in terms of a limited number of categories of relationship and the degree to which these categories are recognized and expressed in different terminological systems. Kroeber identified eight such categories: difference in generation, difference of age in generation, difference between lineal and collateral relatives, sex of relative, sex of speaker, sex of connecting relative, difference between relation by marriage and by blood, and condition of life of connecting relative. In the 1909 paper he used these categories to compare English kin terms and those of several North American Indian languages. His conclusion from this comparison was that while the English terms give expression to a smaller number of the categories, each set of terms forms a consistent and self-contained system. From the comparison he also drew a more general conclusion—that one cannot reconstruct specific social institutions and forms of marriage from specific systems of kinship terms, as was the common practice, because “terms of relationship reflect psychology not sociology,” and are “determined primarily by language and can be utilized for sociological inferences only with extreme caution” (p. 84).

Under the pressure of criticism from Rivers and later from Radcliffe-Brown, both of whom defended the “sociological” theory, Kroeber clarified what he meant by “psychological” and “linguistic” determination of systems of kinship terms. He meant, he explained later, that the systems were “clean-cut made-to-order patterns of culture, speech, and conceptualization” (1952, p. 174). Certainly, kinship terminologies are part of a language, and as such they are classifications, and classifications are based on categories. The categories are conceptual categories subject to the patterning of “unconscious logic.” The result is “a pattern of semantic classification for thinking and speaking of blood relationship.” Some of these patterns may possess “a surprising historical tenacity,” as Kroeber shows in the case of the Philippine kinship system. Such semantic patterns, or “logical schemes,” may also correspond to social institutions, as in the Philippine system, but the correspondence is between the total pattern of terminology and the total pattern of institutions, and reflects the underlying logical scheme rather than any exact detailed causality between kin terms and institutions. The correspondence of the terminology with the general level of culture— language and religion, for example—may be even looser. A kinship terminology, in Kroeber’s view, is primarily a semantic pattern, that is, a pattern of speech and thought, and only secondarily and in special cases is it correlated with a pattern of social institutions.

Kroeber was interested in linguistic and logical systems for their own sake and believed that culture was too intricate to be easily unraveled according to any formula of exact causal determinism. He saw kinship terminologies, like other aspects of culture, as historically developed and, to some extent, independent, stylistic patterns. Patterns of formal social structure, such as clans, moieties, totems, and unilateral groups, are also examples of such stylistic differentiation and secondary elaboration of the primary patterns of subsistence and residence. Kinship terminologies and formal social structures are kinds of culture patterns which, among primitive peoples, express the impulse toward cultural play, innovation, and unconscious experiment. The extent of their mutual correspondence is a matter of historical and functional adjustment and varies from culture to culture. “Kinship terminologies are pattern systems of semantic logic, highly variable in detail and historically derivable, but also classifiable” into “natural types” (ibid., p. 172). In this respect they are analogous to linguistic families and biological types.

Radcliffe-Brown was stimulated by the Rivers-Kroeber debate to develop a concept of kinship system which differed from both of these and which became the foundation of his structural theory. Radcliffe-Brown included in his concept several of the components suggested by Kroeber; he agreed with Kroeber that the terminology of kinship is an intrinsic part of the system and an important starting point for its study. He accepted the position that kin terms designate “categories of relation,” although Radcliffe-Brown did not restrict his analysis to Kroeber’s underlying eight categories. For Radcliffe-Brown, however, a set of kinship terms and associated categories did not constitute a kinship system as it did for Kroeber in the form of a relatively independent semantic system. Radcliffe-Brown agreed that terms and categories do reflect the way a people generally think and feel about kinship, but he believed that social institutions also reflect such general modes of thought and should also be included in the conception of a kinship system. On this point he sided with Rivers rather than with Kroeber: social practices, including forms of marriage, are regularly connected with kinship terminologies. Radcliffe-Brown’s distinctive contribution was the way in which he analyzed these connections. He did not accept Rivers’ causal analysis of the connections or their use for historical reconstruction; kin terms and social institutions are, for him, related, not as cause and effect, but as component and interdependent parts of a structural system. Within such a system the kin terms are used to establish and recognize particular categories of relatives, and the categories fix the actual social relations between the relatives who belong to these categories. The particular behavior manifested in the social relations between relatives is defined by legally formulated rights and duties or by socially approved usages. In this functionally interdependent system, there is no line or direction of causality running either from kinship terminology to standard kinship behavior or conversely. Both terminology and behavior are reflections of the underlying structural principle or principles by which the system is organized and characterized. These principles, such as that of sibling solidarity or solidarity of the patrilineal lineage, need to be discovered by intensive study and comparison of different kinship systems. Why some societies differ in the structural principles they have selected as the basis of their kinship systems and of their respective social structures can only be answered by historical study of how the systems developed in particular environments.

The difference between Kroeber’s and Radcliffe-Brown’s ideas of a kinship system is an illustration and source of the difference between the pattern theory of culture and the structural theory. A kinship system for Kroeber is one of several kinds of culture pattern—as a semantic system it is governed by an inner logic, is historically derived, and has some functional significance. Its relation to social institutions and 10 other aspects of culture is not causal and not entirely accidental but is rather the relation of one culture pattern to other culture patterns which have become historically associated with it and which have undergone some mutual adjustments. In this paradigm, social structure is subordinated to culture only in the sense that social institutions are also subject to the patterning of the experimental play impulse of human creativity.

The Radcliffe-Brown structural paradigm, on the other hand, obviously includes culture as a component of the system. Culture is subordinated to social structure only in the sense that both kin terms and the social usages defining socially approved behavior between relatives are brought together into a single system organized by structural principles. Although history is considered essential for understanding how a system came to be organized the way it is, the morphology and functioning of the system can be understood without reference to its history. If Kroeber’s pattern theory makes social institutions subject to patterning, Radcliffe-Brown’s structural theory makes culture a component of a structural system, that is, subject to “structuring.”

The social organization of culture

Both Kroeber and Radcliffe-Brown regarded kinship systems as natural systems. This was so for Kroeber if they could be shown to be systemic culture patterns and for Radcliffe-Brown if they could be shown to conform to a type of social structure. The natural systems, whether culture patterns or structural types, emerge in the course of field studies and comparative analysis; the boundaries of such systems are relative to the problem being studied.

Thus we may study the culture patterns or the social structures of villages, towns, cities, regions, nations, civilizations, as well as of occupations, social classes, castes, religious sects, or of any groups that may turn out to have them. The interrelation of patterns and structures in groups of different size and composition may also be traced, albeit with extensions and modifications of the methods of analysis that have been used to study the cultural patterns or social structures of relatively small, isolated, and homogeneous groups. How is this extension to be made?

In 1948 Kroeber wrote that “perhaps how it comes to be is really more distinctive of culture than what it is” (see [1923] 1948, p. 253). And in 1949 and 1952 Radcliffe-Brown talked of culture as “the process by which a person acquires, from contact with other persons or from such things as books or works of art, knowledge, skill, ideas, beliefs, tastes, sentiments” (1952, pp. 4–5). In a particular society one may discover processes of cultural tradition and “in complex modern societies there are a great number of separate cultural traditions. By one a person may learn to be a doctor or surgeon, by another he may learn to be an engineer or an architect” (ibid., p. 5).

”Culture” is thus reintroduced by Radcliffe-Brown as the process by which, in a given social group or social class, learned ways of thinking, feeling, and acting are transmitted from person to person and from one generation to the next. He does not, however, reinstate it as an independent concept but assimilates it to the social process.

Neither Radcliffe-Brown nor Kroeber developed his respective theory further to take into account those processes of interpersonal interaction by which, in a particular society, separate cultural traditions are formed, transmitted, and modified or those processes by which communication is established among separate local cultural traditions, one with another and with wider regional and national cultural traditions. It was Robert Red-field who suggested that these problems might be fruitfully studied through a study of the institutionalized social relations involved in the transmission of cultural traditions. He formulated his suggestion in the concept of “the social organization of tradition,” which he defined as “the way in which elements of action are put together in any particular case of transmission of tradition.” In analogy with Firth’s distinction between social organization and social structure (1951) and Radcliffe-Brown’s distinction between organization and structure (1952, p. 11), the social organization of a cultural tradition represents the expression in concrete, organized activities of “the social structure of tradition,” or, in Redfield’s words, “those persisting and important arrangements of roles and statuses appearing in such corporate groups as castes and sects, or in teachers, reciters, ritual leaders of one kind or another, that are concerned with the cultivation and inculcation of the great tradition” (1956, p. 101). Redfield also generalized these concepts of the social organization and structure of cultural traditions to a conception of a civilization as a structure of different levels and kinds of cultural traditions (”little” and “great”) in mutual contact and communication. Civilizations have both a “societal structure” and a “cultural structure” (Redfield 1962).

These conceptions have proved very fruitful for the study of civilizations, particularly in India which, indeed, has been the major empirical source and proving ground, and they are beginning to be applied to other civilizations. They have stimulated studies of how specific networks of social relations (marriage, trade, political administration, etc.) also serve as channels of cultural transmission; of “cultural performances” as the chief vehicles for discovering and expressing a sense of “cultural identity”; of the roles of different kinds of “cultural specialists” and “cultural policy makers” in forming and changing “cultural identities”; and of continuity and change in the cultural traditions of a historic civilization, and so on (see Singer 1964a, for a review of some of these studies). One reason why this approach is fruitful is that it bypasses the older antinomies—”How can one culture pattern produce another without the intervention of specific agencies?” or “How can ’social structures’ be causally correlated with ’culture patterns’?” By concentrating on the institutionalized social relations, media, and functionaries which transmit specific cultural traditions from person to person and from group to group, this approach is at once both structural and cultural.

This approach to the study of culture is sometimes criticized for being too humanistic, too subjective and evaluational in contrast to the alleged objective and value-free character of other approaches. This is an unjustified criticism. All definitions of culture have contained implicit positive evaluations of the elements of culture and have not been neutral and objective. To bring these implicit evaluations to the surface it is only necessary to conduct the experiment of turning the elements of any of the definitions into their opposites or to ask why, if culture is a neutral concept, one would not think of applying it to a group that lacked the elements of the definition—for example, language, art, knowledge, and skills. The implicit evaluation is that culture consists of positive achievements and desirable characteristics. Even in the context of evolutionary discussions, where one problem is to differentiate human culture from animal behavior, the ostensibly objective definition of culture as learned behavior in contrast to instinctive behavior has not proved very differentiating. And it will not be very useful until, as Hallowell and others have pointed out, we can specify what and how much has been learned and how the learning is transmitted and modified; in other words, until we can tell how learned is learned behavior.

George Stocking, Jr., is probably correct in linking the normative elements in Tylor’s definition of culture to nineteenth-century humanistic discussions such as are to be found in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (Stocking 1963). But Stocking’s highly illuminating article tends to understate the differences between the Tylor conception and that of Arnold. For what was distinctive about Tylor’s conception of culture was not its nonnormative character—Stocking is quite right to challenge this myth—but the breadth of its application. Tylor and anthropologists after him have been able to find evidences of culture among the most primitive and lowly peoples, but many humanists are not yet prepared to accept this finding. In spite of his apparently ethnocentric preference for nineteenth-century English institutions, Tylor sought “to treat mankind as homogeneous in nature, though placed in different grades of civilization,” without regard to hereditary differences. From this broad perspective he could see “scarce a hand’s breadth difference between an English ploughman and a negro of Central Africa.”

Some humanists have come to accept the anthropologists’ broad use of the term “culture.” T. S. Eliot, for example, in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture is very close to this anthropological usage when he writes that in his usage “it includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people,” among the British, for example, “Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar” ([1948] 1949, p. 30).

The problem then in studies of the social organization of cultural traditions and of the relations between the “little traditions” of the uneducated and the “great traditions” of the learned, is not to avoid the normative aspects of culture, an impossible task in any case, but to develop further the methods for observing and analyzing specific cultural traditions within a framework of a general theory of culture.

I have not referred to recent studies of the social organization of cultural traditions in order to introduce still a third general theory of culture to compete with the pattern and social structure theories. On the contrary, these studies illustrate one of the ways in which these two general theories can be extended, with a little modification, to the study of culture in composite societies and in complex historic civilizations.

Current developments—the new ethnography

In the 1930s and 1940s, Radcliffe-Brown’s analysis of kinship systems as social systems tended to prevail over Kroeber’s analysis of them as semantic patterns, even among American anthropologists who had accepted the pattern theory of culture in preference to a structural-functional theory. This situation was later reversed by a return to Kroeber’s semantic analysis of kinship systems. The revival of the semantic analysis of kinship is largely the result of new developments in linguistics and is in turn generating a new theory of culture to compete with structural-functional theory.

Componential analysis

In their papers on the componential analysis of kinship terms, both published in 1956, Goodenough and Lounsbury acknowledge Kroeber’s precedent. The more immediate sources of componential analysis, however, probably come from the methods of phonemic analysis. The analysis of kinship terminologies into their necessary and sufficient conceptual components resembles Kroeber’s earlier efforts to identify a minimal list of conceptual categories of relations and results in a similar conception of a kinship system as a semantic or cognitive system. Methods analogous to componential analysis have been applied to other kinds of folk terminologies—for plants, diseases, colors, directions—in order to determine the underlying semantic structures of the cognitive systems.

These extensions of componential analysis have been regarded as applications of a new method in ethnography and even as a new discipline, “ethnoscience.” Underlying these extensions and the programs of the “new ethnography” is a theory of culture, most explicitly formulated by Goodenough. According to his formulation, culture “is not a material phenomenon; it does not consist of things, people, behavior, or emotions. It is rather an organization of these things. It is the forms of things that people have in mind, their models for perceiving, relating, and otherwise interpreting them” (Goodenough [1957] 1964, p. 36).

The externals and observables—what people say and do, their social arrangements and events—are “products … of their culture as they apply it to the task of perceiving and dealing with their circumstances” (ibid.). Culture then consists of the “concepts” and “models” which people have in their minds for organizing and interpreting their experiences. Goodenough believes that “it is obviously impossible to describe a culture properly simply by describing behavior or social, economic, and ceremonial events and arrangements as observed material phenomena. What is required is to construct a theory of the conceptual models which they represent and of which they are artifacts” (ibid.).

Since the theory is to be empirical, Goodenough proposes as tests of its validity that it predict how informants will behave in response to what goes on in the community as well as in response to the ethnographer’s behavior. In operational practice, however, the concepts and models of a culture are learned “when we learn the system of meanings for which its linguistic forms stand. Much descriptive ethnography is inescapably an exercise in descriptive semantics” (ibid., p. 39). This is as true of every human being learning his own culture as it is of the ethnographer trying to learn another’s culture. Accordingly, “language is not only a part of culture” but “a major instrument for learning it” (ibid.).

This approach does not exclude the nonlinguistic aspects of culture, since “nonlinguistic forms have systematic relationships to each other in paradigms and combine in accordance with principles analogous to those of linguistic morphology and syntax” (ibid.). To one who knows the culture, the non-linguistic aspects “are also signs signifying the cultural forms or models of which they are the material representations” (ibid., p. 36).

Goodenough’s semantic and conceptual theory of culture bears a resemblance to Kroeber’s pattern theory. Kroeber’s semantic analysis, however, was explicitly applied only to the linguistic aspects of culture, to language, and to kinship terminologies. He did not explicitly extend this kind of analysis to other kinds of culture patterning, for example, to patterns of social structure. In Goodenough’s theory, and in the new ethnography, the semantic analysis is generalized to all aspects of culture. All patterns in a culture are conceptual patterns, and if some of the conceptual patterns are not directly expressed in the vocabulary of the language, their semantic structure can nevertheless be determined by analyzing the nonlinguistic forms as “artifacts” and “signs” of the conceptual patterns. All culture thus becomes cognitive and conceptual, and since, according to Goodenough, an individual can know only the concepts in his own mind, his “private culture” is more real than any “public culture.”

The new structuralism

The componential analysis of kinship terminologies treats social structure explicitly only insofar as it can be reduced to a semantic structure and only in terms of a corresponding “cognitive structure.” More direct attention is given to social structure in Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology. This theory combines features of both Kroeber and Radcliffe-Brown and adds some original elements of its own. As in the other cases, the analysis of kinship systems is paradigmatic of the general theory. Lévi-Strauss accepts Radcliffe-Brown’s views that there is a relation of interdependence between kinship terminologies and kinship behavior and attitudes and that the interdependence is not one of linear causality. In agreement with Kroeber, however, he does not believe that the relations of interdependence are point-for-point correspondences. Terminologies, on the one hand, and behavior and attitude, on the other, can be analyzed as separate systems and compared with one another as well as with other kinds of systems, such as those of social organization, religion, myth, ritual, and political ideology. These comparisons can be made within a single society or culture as well as between different societies and cultures. A single culture is “a fragment of humanity which, from the point of view of the research at hand and of the scale on which the latter is carried out, presents significant discontinuities in relation to the rest of humanity” (Lévi-Strauss [1953] 1963, p. 295).

So far this sounds very much like the pattern theory—a kinship terminology is one kind of culture pattern related by varying degrees of morphological and historical relations to other kinds of culture patterns. Lévi-Strauss introduces, however, a far more abstract and mathematical notion of system and structure than either Radcliffe-Brown or Kroeber. Lévi-Strauss makes explicit the distinction in Radcliffe-Brown’s analysis between networks of social relations as the raw materials of observation and social structure as an abstract model of these relations; he goes on to generalize the concept of structure to its mathematical and logical level, as the regular order of relations among elements of any kind. Distinguishing the relationship between kinship terminologies and kinship behavior is thus a problem of constructing structural models for systems of kinship terminologies and for systems of kinship behavior and then investigating whether the relations existing between the structures are homologous, contradictory, and so on. Lévi-Strauss believes that the relations between the structures of kin terms and behavior are dialectical and functional; while behavior and attitudes reflect the terminological classification somewhat, they are at the same time responsive to contradictions created by the terminological classification. Resolving these contradictions leads to terminological changes that call for new behavior patterns, and so on (ibid., pp. 310–311). He has made a similar analysis of the dialectical relations between the structures of myths and the structures of rituals and believes the analysis can be extended to other kinds of structures as well.

The existence of contradictions between different structures and the resolution of these contradictions through changes in the structures is not usually conscious to the participating members of a society. The structures and their relations exist at a deep unconscious level and reflect, in their particular modalities of space and time, universal mental processes. In some societies, however, there may be “home-made” conscious models of these structures, which need to be taken into account by the social anthropologist because they may be accurate and, in any case, form an important part of the data (see, e.g., Leach 1954).

Lévi-Strauss does not believe that all aspects of a culture and society are equally structured or that every culture has a single all-embracing structure. The degree and kind of structuring is a matter for anthropological investigation. He believes the following possess well-ordered structures—language, kinship, social organization, law, religion, myth, ritual, art, etiquette, cooking, and political ideology. Other domains are either not structured or at least their structures have not yet been discovered. The structures of specific domains are not microcosms of the whole society or culture but are “partial expressions of the total society.”

Although he uses a general mathematical–logical concept of structure, Lévi-Strauss has acknowledged the important influence of structural linguistics, especially as developed by Jakobson and Trubetzkoy, and game theory and cybernetics as developed by Von Neumann and Wiener. Both kinds of models are used in his structural analysis, not to establish the identity of language and culture or the identity of communication and society, but as formal analogies only, whose methodological fruitfulness depends on the existence of structural homologies among language, culture, and society. This is the sense, I suggest, in which the exchange of messages, the exchange of goods and services, and the exchange of women all represent, as Lévi-Strauss says, different levels of the communication process and the sense in which culture itself consists of ”rules stating how the ’games of communication’ should be played both on the natural and on the cultural levels” ([1953] 1963, p. 296).

Summary and conclusion

We can now summarize the major conclusions of the analysis in a series of brief propositions:

(1) Tylor’s omnibus conception of culture is still the basis of most modern anthropological theories of culture, although the conception has been refined and developed in several different directions.

(2) Two theories of culture which have dominated anthropological thinking from about 1900 to 1950 are the process-pattern theory derived from Boas and best represented by Kroeber and the structural-functional theory derived from Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown.

(3) While the process-pattern theory takes the concept of culture pattern as basic and the structural theory takes social structure as basic, both theories cover the full range of Tylor’s culture concept.

(4) Each theory is holistic and universal, each seeks to explain all aspects of culture within a single theoretical framework, and each intends to apply that framework to societies and cultures of any kind, from small primitive societies to complex civilizations.

(5) The difference between the two basic theories cannot be derived from the complementary character of the two basic concepts—culture pattern and social structure—since each theory accepts this complementarity but deals with it in a different way.

(6) The difference between the two theories is to be found in the different ways they connect culture and social structure within explanatory systems.

(7) The precise nature of these explanatory systems may be inferred from a paradigmatic model of the analysis of kinship systems. According to pattern analysis, a kinship system is a terminological system which expresses a system of classification and an underlying unconscious logic. The relation of a kinship system, so defined, to social institutions and other aspects of culture is the relation of one kind of culture pattern to others and varies with the history and mutual association of the patterns within particular places and times.

(8) In the structural analysis, a kinship system is a social system which includes a network of social relations, as expressed in customary modes of behavior, feeling, and thought, as well as a set of terms and categories of relations classified by the terms. The interrelation within the system is one of functional interdependence among the parts. The terms express and establish specific categories of relation and the categories fix and regulate specific modes of behavior and feeling in accordance with a limited number of structural principles around which the system is organized.

(9) These different analyses of kinship systems are both examples and models for cultural and structural analysis of all kinds and, hence, for two general theories of culture.

(10) Neither theory attempts to explain the nature of cultural or structural systems in terms of linear causality. Each regards such systems as outcomes of the multiple influences of biology, psychology, and the natural environment, as well as of historical processes and of the creative human responses to these “givens.”

These propositions suggest an underlying convergence of the pattern theory and the structural-functional theory of culture. Although the pattern theory has probably been influenced more by study of language, literature, and the arts and the structural-functional theory more by biological and organic analogies, the direction taken by both kinds of theory has been the same. In closing, it may be useful to characterize this trend as it represents the mainstream of culture theory since Malinowski’s 1931 article and also represents many recent theoretical developments.

Most characteristic is a shift away from a theory of discrete culture traits within a framework of universal cultural history or cultural evolution to a study of the functions, patterns, and structures of cultural forms within a plurality of organized contexts. There has been a corresponding shift from an interest in artifacts and other external manifestations of material culture to an almost overriding interest in social culture and in mental culture.

The definition of culture in terms of learned behavior (or standardized behavior) seemed at first to promise a unified theory of social and mental culture. But with the failure of behavioristic learning theories to account for the differentiated processes and kinds of learning involved in the acquisition of language, kinship systems, and other aspects of culture, this promise has not been fulfilled. Anthropologists, linguists, and psychologists interested in higher mental processes have begun to look to genetics, neurophysiology, maturation theory, ethology, and ego psychology for the mechanisms that enable organisms to acquire, transmit, and modify culture (see, e.g., Hallowell 1963; Chomsky 1959).

Recent definitions and analyses of culture have grown progressively more abstract, formal, and conceptualistic. Behavior, observed social relations, and material artifacts may provide the raw data for a construct of culture but are not themselves considered the constituents of culture. Rather, the patterns, norms, rules, and standards implicit in the behavior, social relations, and artifacts are considered as the constituents of culture. They are the systems of meanings, ideologies, conventionalized understandings, and cognitive and unconscious structures, which may be recognized in a given society with varying degrees of consciousness and explicit verbal formulation but which, in any case, are to be brought to conscious awareness and precise formulation by anthropological studies (see, e.g., the work of Goodenough).

Those social anthropologists who have been influenced by the theories of Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons are producing a fruitful synthesis of the pattern and structural theories of culture (see, e.g., the work of Fallers, Geertz, and Schneider).

The new ethnography, ethnolinguistics, and ethnoscience and Lévi-Strauss’s new structuralism, share this new emphasis on cultures as abstract structures. They differ only in the procedures they propose for discovering the unconscious structures —in the form of codes, models, rules of the game— which determine the underlying cognitive structures (see, e.g., Romney & D’Andrade 1964; Lévi-Strauss 1953).

Taken as a working hypothesis the cognitive conception of culture offers a promising program of research, the results of which should improve cross-cultural understanding. Taken as a definition of the nature of man or as a general theory of human culture, however, it seems just as narrow and one-sided as previous definitions and theories. That man is a rational animal was long ago enunciated by Aristotle. And it is perhaps timely that anthropology, after neglecting this aspect of man’s nature for over fifty years while it explored causal and structural models of culture, should now explore a logical model. This exploration will not forget, we hope, that there is more to human rationality than how different people classify kin, colors, plants, and diseases and that there is more to human culture than knowledge and the logic of classification. Even Tylor, whose theory of culture has so often been criticized for being too intellectualistic, left room in his omnibus concept, and in his writings, not only for science and language but also for all “the arts of life,” “the arts of pleasure,” religion, all forms of social organization, history, and mythology, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. It is going to take more than one kind of theoretical model to do justice to the variety, complexity, and richness of human culture.

Milton Singer


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Cultural relativism is to be understood as (1) a method in ethnology and social anthropology; (2) a theory of cultural determinism and a philosophy of cultural reality; (3) a guide to the evaluation of value systems, especially ethics, politics, and aesthetics; and (4) an attitude toward practical problems of sociocultural reform and change.

Relativism as a method

Cultural relativism may be described as the method whereby social and cultural phenomena are perceived and described in terms of scientific detachment or, ideally, from the perspective of participants in or adherents of a given culture. Further, cultural phenomena are evaluated in terms of their significance in a given cultural and social context. The methodology of cultural relativism rests on the assumption that the ethnologist is able to transcend, or to eliminate for the moment, his own cultural conditioning and values and to assume the subjective, ethnocentric attitudes and mentality of an adherent of or a participant in the culture. This requires a measure of imagination and empathy on the part of the observer so that he can see others as they see them-selves or as they wish to be seen. The anthropologist is required to report what actually happens and to attempt to interpret his data from the standpoint of his subjects. This may, and usually does, lead the observer to participate in the very institutions he is describing in order to get the “feel” and emotional concomitants of the behavior he observes. He must also collect ethnographic statements, narratives, typical utterances, and items of folklore, inasmuch as they reflect ideology. Thus, although he is objective in collecting his data and observations of cultural phenomena, the anthropologist also tries to identify with his subjects so as to perceive their mentality and their vision of society and the world about them.

The social anthropologist tries to evaluate the artifacts, socifacts, and mentifacts of a culture in relation to given institutions; he seeks to appreciate the “function” a given object or act performs in satisfying the needs of the society. When the anthropologist observes how a given artifact is used and for what purposes in a given context, he is able to provide a relative evaluation of the artifact through its function; he does not rely on the observation of the form alone. Similar detachment is required when he observes and reflects upon the long-range consequences of a ritual act. In evaluating the function of an institution from this impersonal, objective standpoint, the social anthropologist often introduces his own mental construct or hypothesis, which he tests against his observations. To the extent that social scientists tend to differ in their analyses of the function of a given institution—for example, “magic”—they introduce a new subjective and relativistic factor of their own.

All anthropologists are in agreement on the value of the method of cultural relativism and the relative objectivity required to report and interpret data from the perspective of the adherents of the culture. There is considerable disagreement in the use of the method of impersonal, objective, functional evaluation.

Relativism as a theory and philosophy

Cultural relativism is a controversial doctrine that was quite fashionable in the second quarter of the twentieth century but that has since lost much of its support. Melville Herskovits (1948), the most articulate contemporary exponent of a philosophy of cultural relativism, found support for his approach in the Neo-Kantian historical idealism of Ernst Cassirer. According to Cassirer’s “spiritual anthropology” (1944), man lives in a symbolic universe of his own creation. There is, for him, no reality other than the symbolic forms, and hence all reality is cultural or symbolic reality. The physical world is discerned through the screen of enculturation; perception of time, distance, weight, size, and other “realities” is mediated by the recognized conventions of any given group (Herskovits 1955, p. 35). All reality as known is cultural reality, and all human experience is culturally mediated. And if all human experience is structured by enculturation, it follows that all cultural judgments, perceptions, and evaluations are a function of, and are relative to, a given cultural system. Moral values are but one element in cultural experience, and moral relativism is only one aspect of a general theory of cultural relativism.

It should be noted, however, that the theory of cultural determinism originated with Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, both of whom postulated levels of natural phenomena, with social phenomena constituting the top level of phenomenal reality. In America A. L. Kroeber (1917) adopted Spencer’s term “the superorganic” and applied it to culture, which he at first identified with the level of social phenomena. Culture was regarded as an entity sui generis, subject to its own laws of evolutionary development. As such, it was viewed as a closed system in which all cultural phenomena were to be explained only through other cultural phenomena and not by “reduction” to a lower order of reality. After 1948 Kroeber virtually abandoned his old theory of the superorganic and came to think of culture as essentially an abstraction from human behavior. Leslie A. White, however, has continued to uphold the doctrine of the cultural superorganic under the banner of “culturology.”

The point to be marked here is that a theory of cultural relativism can be derived from, and is compatible with, a variety of philosophical approaches: First, as in the case of Herskovits, it may be explained by a theory of Neo-Kantian historical idealism. Cassirer’s own philosophy of symbolic forms was based on the essential postulate of human freedom and creativity. Although Herskovits has utilized Cassirer’s “spiritual anthropology,” it is not necessary to adopt Cassirer’s philosophy of cultural idealism in order to explain the facts of cultural conditioning. Second, as in the case of White, cultural relativism depends on a philosophy of historical materialism. Historical materialism is also a philosophy of cultural determinism whereby the economic core of a culture determines its ideational manifestations and values. Third, for Kroeber (as for Comte and Spencer) cultural relativism depends on a positivistic philosophy of science that postulates the autonomy of cultural phenomena. If human behavior is determined by culture, there is little scope for individual freedom and for creative innovation. All individuals participate in the culture of their society and their age; individual differences are insignificant when compared with the over-all pattern or configuration of a given culture.

Modern ethnology has made us aware of the role played by social institutions in culturally conditioning the personality and experience of the individual. As a result of cultural conditioning, there is some degree of cultural relativism that differentiates the participants in diverse cultures. The philosophical problem is to explain systematically how this diversity of cultural conditioning is to be understood. It is not necessary to subscribe to historic idealism, historic materialism, or evolutionary positivism in order to account for the facts of cultural relativism. All that is really necessary is to recognize that culture is one essential condition of human experience and that all experience is to some extent culturally mediated. It is equally important to recognize other dimensions of reality, those of nature, both human and cosmic, that provide human experience with a common frame of reference within which to test its cultural constructs. In the last analysis, culture is not the measure of all things, but nature is, and there are more things in nature than are ever grasped through our human, cultural symbols. Culture is but our human means of adjusting to nature and utilizing its powers in the service of mankind. This postulate of a metacultural reality renders scientific progress possible and saves us from the culture-centric predicament of historic idealism, historic materialism, and evolutionary positivism. Cultural relativism is a fact of human experience as conditioned by culture. However, a scientific methodology that includes the comparative study of di-verse cultures enables men to transcend some ethocentric limitations and to live in a common world of reality.

Validation and evaluation of values

The principle of cultural relativism affirms that all values are a function or product of their culture and reflect the interests of their society and culture. The fundamental assumption of both sociological determinism and relativism is that society is a newly emergent self-explanatory reality through which all the values of cultural life are to be explained historically. All cultural values are thought to be functions of social organization and to vary with the modes and interests of society. The work of the sociologists Émile Durkheim and William Graham Sumner is devoted to the demonstration of this thesis.

Moral or ethical relativism is one element in a general theory of cultural relativism. It is possible, however, to maintain a theory of moral relativism without subscribing to total cultural relativism. For example, Friedrich Nietzsche in his Genealogy of Morals transvaluated traditional moral values by indicating how they served the respective interests of masters and slaves. Similarly, the contemporary communist ideology rests on the relativity of cultural values to the class interests of capitalists and proletarians.

Furthermore, one may adhere to a theory of moral relativism on psychological and epistemological grounds rather than on those of social and cultural relativism. For example, Edward Westermarck (1932) maintains that moral evaluations are expressions of individual emotions and have no objective basis in fact. His argument, like that of the philosopher David Hume and some modern logical positivists, rests on the assumption of the subjective origin of value judgments, which renders all value judgments relative to the emotional preferences of the individual.

Insofar as moral relativism is considered to be a function of society and culture, it may be said to rest on two distinct postulates or assumptions. First, all value judgments are culturally conditioned or determined, and this limits their validity to the social and cultural context in which they originate. Second, it is impossible to establish any universally acceptable criterion for measuring and comparing values. Hence, all value systems are to be regarded as having equal validity.

This practical assumption of the equality of disparate value systems leads to the prescription of tolerance as a prime virtue. Reverence for cultural values, rather than reverence for life, becomes the absolute virtue advocated by the cultural relativist. Intolerance is said to be a product of an ethnocentric, uncritical prejudice in favor of the absolute validity of one’s own cultural values.

It should be noted, especially, that the cultural and moral relativist does not advocate moral skepticism and nihilism. Those, he would say, are philosophical diseases to which he is not subject. Morality is a cultural universal and is essential for the corporate existence of any society. The members of any given society are obligated to conform to the rules and norms of their society on the practical, utilitarian ground that without such obedience social life would be impossible. Pragmatically, the individual must conform to the rules of his society, and each society must tolerate the codes of other societies in the interest of mutual survival. Obedience and conformity are cultural imperatives once a code of behavior is accepted.

The cultural and moral relativist differentiates between moral universals and moral absolutes. Morality as a whole is a cultural universal in the sense that all cultures have some system of morality. Within all systems of morality there is a limited number of universal values, such as a standard of what constitutes a “good” man, a standard of truth, and some appreciation of beauty. However, the criteria for evaluating and delimiting the content of these values are culturally defined. The cultural relativist would argue that there are no absolute, universal norms that are valid for all cultures. The only possible exception would be the prohibition of incest.

Against this universal formalism of the moral relativist it may be argued that some of the actual values reflected in cultural systems are much the same everywhere and that differences arise over the relative importance of particular values and the extent of their application. In all cultures the perpetuation of the society takes precedence over the life of the individual, and hence no society tolerates treason, murder, rape, and incest. All societies recognize mutual rights and duties in marriage and condemn acts that threaten family solidarity. Similarly, all societies give recognition to some personal property and provide some techniques for the distribution of economic surplus to the needy. The fact of common cultural values provides a basis for mutual understanding between adherents of diverse cultures.

The point at issue is whether, following the cultural relativist, we recognize only empty, formal, universal categories of value with unlimited diversity of content or whether a comparative study of cultures reveals some common content in universal values. As Malinowski, Linton, Kluckhohn, and Redfield have advocated, there is an actual common core of cultural values in all societies, which derives from the universal functions certain acts fulfill in satisfying human needs and aspirations. There are concrete cultural, universal values because there are universal needs, biological, derived, and integrative, common to all societies. These cultural universals are not merely abstract categories but actual regulative modes of conduct and norms of conduct common to all cultures. Such transcultural values may be called absolutes as well as universals. Cultural relativists tend to stress cultural differences but neglect the uniformities and common elements based on the imperatives of a universal human nature.

The cultural relativist is very much concerned lest we commit the fallacy of ethnocentrism, which consists in the attitude that “one’s way of life is to be preferred to all others.” Hence, he prefers not to judge others at all.

Here again it is necessary to distinguish between the fact of ethnocentrism and its value. If by ethnocentrism is meant judgments based on irrational preferences incapable of rational validation, then it is a fact that some degree of ethnocentrism is to be found in all societies and cultures. Modern theories of racism and extreme nationalism are vicious forms of ethnocentrism. Uncritical preference for one’s own culture and its mores and prejudice against alien cultures, the notion that one’s own ethnic society has a true appreciation of spiritual values of civilization whereas other groups and states are debased by materialistic values—these are expressions of ethnocentrism. It is not, however, the mere fact of preference for one’s own cultural values that constitutes ethnocentrism but, rather, the uncritical prejudice in favor of one’s own culture and the distorted, biased criticism of alien cultures. The only antidote to ethnocentric prejudice is comparative knowledge of one’s own and other cultures. This implies that it is possible to transcend the limits of cultural conditioning by empirical observation of cultural behavior.

The cultural relativist, like the skeptic, maintains that cultural determinism leads to ethnocentrism in value judgments but, strangely enough, need not lead to ethnocentrism in judgments of fact. The anthropologist, by profession, is not subject to ethnocentrism so long as he reports the actual facts of behavior and belief of his subjects; he becomes ethnocentric only when he indulges in value judgments and comparative evaluations of values. If it is admitted, however, that cultural relativism does not preclude objective judgments of fact with transcultural, universal validity, why should it preclude judgments of value that have similar objectivity and validity? Only the prejudice induced by a positivistic philosophy of science, which divides the world of phenomena into facts and values, prevents recognition of the factual objectivity of values.

The advocates of cultural relativism counsel us to suspend comparative judgment and to grant, in principle, the equality or equivalent value of all value systems. This assumed ability to doubt and suspend judgment presupposes, as Descartes recognized long ago, an inherent freedom of judgment that liberates the mind from its own prejudices and past cultural conditioning. Hence, the exercise of freedom of judgment and rational analysis in accord with empirical data is as much a fact of human behavior as is cultural determinism. Were it not for man’s innate ability freely to evaluate and verify the truth of his ideas by subjecting them to empirical and critical tests, it would be impossible to overcome ethnocentric prejudices in any way whatsoever. Man would be the prisoner and victim of his own cultural conditioning, and a science of anthropology would, in effect, be impossible. The cultural relativist, in the interests of a science of culture, stresses cultural determinism but completely overlooks the primary, ineluctable fact that freedom of judgment and cultural creativity are absolutely essential for an understanding of the very existence of cultural phenomena.

Pragmatic attitude and cultural ideal

It is necessary to distinguish between the universal fact of cultural relativism and the ideal value of cultural relativism advocated by the liberal ethnologist. The fact of cultural relativism coexists, and is historically compatible, with the very ethnocentrism the ethnologist deplores. As a result of cultural conditioning, especially if it is of a puritanic, dogmatic nature, a people may come to regard their own values as absolute and to disparage those of other societies as inferior to theirs. In an “enlightened” society, however, people will be conscious of the facts of cultural relativism and believe that there is no criterion for making comparative value judgments. Such enlightened people will readily infer that they should treat all other cultural values as equal and equivalent to their own. Cultural relativism may thus be viewed as an ideal postulate of liberal culture which is tolerant of all other cultures. It is assumed implicitly that there is a kind of preestablished harmony of cultures that makes it possible for all to coexist in a pluralistic cultural world. It has taken the shock of World War ii, with its brutalities, to awaken this romantic cultural optimism of our modern Candides to the reality of cultural crises and the actual conflict of cultures.

Thus, the ideal of cultural relativism is to be contrasted with the real, ethnocentric cultural relativism of history. As an idealist, the culturologist may ask other liberals to transcend and shed their ethnocentric prejudices, and especially their predilections for absolute values. He infers from the facts of cultural relativism the ideals of cultural reverence and tolerance. In Kantian terms, he might describe a new cultural imperative: so act as to treat all cultures as ends and never as means. We are not informed, however, how this leap from the ethnocentric real to the ideal of relative objectivity is to be made. It is equally logical, as many a philosopher has seen, to reach the conclusion of nihilism and to treat all cultural values as equally worthless.

Cultural relativism involves tolerance based on skepticism of universal, objective standards of value as well as of the idea of progress. The comparative study of cultures has made us conscious of the dangers of uncritical ethnocentrism, but it has also provided us with the materials and the incentive to transcend the limitations of both cultural relativism and ethnocentrism through the pursuit of scientific truths concerning facts and values.

David Bidney

[Directly related are the entriesCulture, article onCulturology; Evolution, article oncultural evolution; Observation; Values, article onvalue systems.]


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Bidney, David 1953a The Concept of Value in Modern Anthropology. Pages 682–699 in International Symposium on Anthropology, New York, 1952, Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory. Edited by A. L. Kroeber. Univ. of Chicago Press.

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Cassirer, Ernst (1944) 1956 An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

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Kroeber, A. L. (1901–1951) 1952 The Nature of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Kroeber, A. L. (1917) 1952 The Superorganic. Pages 22–51 in A. L. Kroeber, The Nature of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in the American Anthropologist.

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Culturology is the branch of anthropology that treats culture (institutions, technologies, ideologies) as a distinct order of phenomena, organized upon principles of its own and behaving in terms of its own laws. The culture process is regarded as self-contained and self-determined. Variations in culture are explained in cultural terms, rather than biological or psychological terms. The science of culture had, of course, to wait upon the development of a scientifically adequate concept of culture. Preliterate peoples have been aware of differences of custom, speech, and belief among themselves. But even so sophisticated a people as the Greeks of Aristotle’s day had no word equivalent to our term culture. The term was borrowed by E. B. Tylor, the great pioneer in English anthropology, from German culture historians. Tylor denned culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor 1871, vol. 1, p. 1). He made it clear that culture was the exclusive possession of the human species.

The symbolic process. Numerous and varied definitions of culture have been formulated since Tylor’s day, but his is substantially the one that prevails today. Culture is the name of those behavioral traits that distinguish man from other species: articulate speech; institutions; codes of ethics and etiquette; ideologies; a continuous, cumulative, and progressive tool process; etc. Man is unique in that he alone possesses the ability to symbol, i.e., to bestow, freely and arbitrarily, meaning upon things and events, objects and acts. Articulate speech is the most characteristic and important form of symboling. All culture was produced and has been perpetuated by symboling in general and by articulate speech in particular.

But things and events that are dependent upon symboling (called symbolates) may be, and commonly are, considered in two different contexts. In a somatic context, their significance lies in their relationship to the human organism, and as such constitute behavior. In the extrasomatic context, symbolates are significant, not in terms of their relationship to the human organism that produces them, but in relationship to other symbolates. In this context they are culture. Thus, mother-in-law avoidance is to be regarded as behavior when viewed in terms of the concepts, acts, and attitudes of human organisms; it is culture when considered in its relationship to other customs, such as forms of marriage, place of residence of the newly married couple, roles of the sexes in subsistence, offense and defense, etc. Culture, therefore, is a class of things and events dependent upon symboling, considered in an extrasomatic context.

Prior to the emergence of culturology in the expansion of the scope of science (White 1949), naturalistic (i.e., nonmythological, nontheological) explanations of the behavior of peoples were bio-logical, psychological, or sociological. Accordingly, peoples behaved as they did because of their physical type; or because of the way their minds worked; or as a consequence of certain processes of social interaction. In all these explanations, man, individually and collectively, was the independent variable; his customs, institutions, beliefs, etc., the dependent variable. Man was the cause; culture, the result.

The culturological explanation. The culture-logical revolution reversed this kind of interpretation. Culturology asserts that peoples behave as they do because they have been born and reared in particular cultural traditions. The behavior of a people is determined, not by its physical type or genetic constitution, nor by its ideas and desires and hopes and fears, nor by processes of social interaction, but by external, extrasomatic cultural tradition. Peoples born into a Tibetan linguistic tradition will speak Tibetan, not English. A people practices monogamy, polygyny or polyandry, or loathes milk, avoids mothers-in-law, or uses the multiplication table, because they are obliged to react to these cultural traditions. The behavior of a people is a function of its culture.

If the behavior of a people is determined by its culture, what determines the culture? The answer is that it determines itself. Culture may be regarded as a process sui generis. It is a process in which culture traits interact with one another, forming new permutations, combinations and syntheses. One trait, or combination of traits, is the result of antecedent and concomitant traits and the cause of subsequent traits and trait combinations. One form of language, writing, social organization, technology, or of culture as a whole, grows out of a previous stage or emerges from an anterior condition.

Every sociocultural system is of course affected by its terrestrial and celestial environment. Climate, topography, flora, fauna, and mineral resources may or do exert influences upon cultural systems. But environments merely permit or prohibit the existence of certain elements or features of culture; they do not determine them. The influence of environmental factors finds expression only in and through cultural means; consequently, they may be dealt with culturologically. Certain elements present in the environment, such as iron or petroleum, do not enter the culture process except at certain stages of development. Finally, in dealing with cultures in general, or with culture as a whole, the factor of environment may be considered a constant and therefore disregarded in explanation of the culture process.

Although culturology treats the culture process without regard to the biological and psychological processes of human beings, the culturologist recognizes the intimate and necessary relationship between culture in general and man in general. Generically, culture is what it is because man is the kind of animal that he is. If man, the animal, were different, his culture would be different. If man did not have spectroscopic, chromatic vision, his culture would be different. If he could subsist only upon meat or cereals, his culture would be different. If he had a rutting season, or reproduced with litters rather than individuals, his culture would be different. Culture was brought into being by the human species, and it functions to serve the needs of this species. Thus, when one considers the question of the origin and functions of culture one must take biological man into consideration. But once culture has come into being, its subsequent variations—its changes, its growth, its additions and subtractions—are to be explained without reference to the animal man, either individually or collectively. We do not need to invoke man when we consider such questions as the evolution of mathematics or currency, sociocultural processes of integration and disintegration, the relationship between social systems and technological systems, the diffusion and distribution of the keystone arch, etc. To be sure, these cultural processes could not take place without people. But it is their culture, not their innate natures, that causes them to behave as they do. Man is necessary to the existence and functioning of the culture process, but he is not necessary to an explanation of its variations.

An atom cannot be understood merely by a consideration of its components; an atom is a system that must be understood in terms of itself. The properties of sugar cannot be discovered in its component atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen; the molecule functions as a molecular system. A living cell cannot be understood in terms of its component molecules; a biological organism cannot be understood in terms of its cells. Individual organisms do not reveal the properties of societies. Every kind of system exists in terms of its own structure and functions, in terms of its own principles and laws. In the human species, societies are cultural; i.e., sociocultural systems. Like other kinds of systems, they must be understood in their own terms.

Linguistic systems are comprehended in terms of lexicon, grammar, syntax, phonetics, and so on. Languages can, of course, have no existence without human beings. But linguistic science proceeds as if mankind did not exist. So it is with culture as a whole. The evolution of culture can be worked out as a cause-and-effect sequence of cultural events. The influence of technologies upon social systems, the interrelationships among technologies, social systems, and ideologies can be ascertained and measured without reference to the human carriers of these systems. Such problems as the evolution of mathematics or of tribal confederacies, processes of integration and disintegration of social systems, or the mechanisms of the regulation and control thereof can be attacked and solved without regard to human organisms as such. We could not have symphonic music, trial by jury, or the Decalogue were it not for respiration and metabolism, but a consideration of these physiological processes does not in the least help us to understand these cultural phenomena.

The phenomena of culture, like biological and physical phenomena, are to be treated scientifically from four standpoints. Our point of view may be temporal or nontemporal, generalizing or particularizing. If we combine these two dichotomies, we get a fourfold classification of scientific interpretation, or treatment of cultural or any other kind of natural phenomena, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1
PARTICULARIZING Historical Descriptive ethnography
GENERALIZING Evolutionist Functional—Structural

Consideration of cultural things and events from a temporal-particularizing point of view results in culture history. The temporal-generalizing approach yields evolutionist interpretations. The nontemporal—generalizing interpretation deals with the structures and functions of sociocultural systems. And the non temporal—particularizing treatment is descriptive ethnography. Thus, all the schools of ethnological theory are embraced by this classification of kinds of interpretation: mere ethnographic description; the historical schools of Graebner, Elliot Smith, Boas; the evolutionist schools of Tylor, Morgan et al.; the functionalist schools of Mali-nowski and Radcliffe-Brown, and their successors, the structuralists of modern British social anthropology. Culturology employs, therefore, these four ways of treating cultural phenomena.

The culturological point of view has encountered considerable opposition from various quarters. Many scholars have insisted that it is people, not cultures, that meet and interact. The culturologist is accused of “reifying” culture into a mystic entity that exists apart from society.

To consider culture—languages, institutions, ideologies, and technological systems—as distinct orders of phenomena, explainable in terms of them-selves, is not to reify them. They are real, observable things and events in the external world, just as atoms, cells, and stars are.

The origin and development of culture traits, such as jury trials, firearms, constitutional government, the theory of relativity, etc., cannot be ac-counted for psychologically; they can be explained only in terms of a developmental culture process. Again, people are necessary for the existence of cultural events, but they are not necessary to an explanation of their origins or variations.

The psychosocial explanation. Emile Durkheim contrasted psychological and culturological interpretations of human behavior and institutions. When “one sees in the organization of the family the logically necessary expression of human sentiments inherent in every mind, the true order of facts is reversed. On the contrary, it is the social organization of the relationships of kinship which has determined the respective sentiments of parents and children” (Durkheim [1893] 1960, p. 340). “Every time that a social phenomenon is directly explained by a psychological phenomenon, we may be sure that the explanation is false” (Durkheim [1895] 1958, p. 104). We may properly substitute “cultural phenomenon” for social phenomenon in the preceding quotation. Race prejudice, war, capitalism, etc. are not to be explained as “the logically necessary expression of concepts and sentiments inherent in the human mind.” On the contrary, it is the structure and behavior of the extrasomatic culture process that establishes racial, marital, and capitalistic ideas and sentiments in the minds of individuals.

The sociologist tends to regard culture as the product of social interaction. One kind of social interaction produces polygyny, another kind, polyandry; one kind produces capitalism, another, communism. But if social interaction alone could produce culture, we would find it among baboons. The institutions of polygyny and polyandry cannot be explained as consequences of the interaction of individuals. But the interaction of one man (husband) and more than one woman (wives), or one woman (wife) and more than one man (husbands) can be explained as a consequence of the influence of external, extrasomatic cultural structures upon them. And these institutions must be explained— in their origins and variations—in terms of other cultural elements, such as the requirements of the sex division of labor, customs of residence, occupational hazards and death rates of the sexes, wealth and prestige, etc.

There is, and can be, no justifiable conflict between the science of psychology and the science of culturology; these sciences complement, rather than conflict with, each other. Both are essential to a complete comprehension of anything that man does as a human being. Just as the origins of institutions must be explained culturologically, the experiences that people undergo within these institutions is the concern of psychology. What are the conceptions and attitudes held by the individuals most directly involved in the mother-in-law taboo, namely, a man, his wife, and his wife’s mother? Are they imbued with supernaturalism, or are they naturalistic in character? Are they attitudes of respect, fear, or contempt? What is it like to be a wife in a polygynous household? Or a husband in a polyandrous one? These are questions for the psychologist rather than the culturologist.

The anthropocentric viewpoint. The opposition to culturology arises principally from the age-old and deeply entrenched philosophy of anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. Man has been conceived as a prime mover, as a first cause, and is often endowed with free will. This is expressed by Sapir: “It is always the individual that really thinks and acts and dreams and revolts.” There have also been others who insist that culture originates in the creative acts of individuals, or that only the individual is real.

This anthropocentric conception receives support from the fact that the behavior of all nonhuman species is a function of their respective biological constitutions. The biological principle applies to ducks, sharks, sunflowers, and all other nonhuman species. But it does not apply to human beings, who live in a symbolic environment and respond to different kinds of extrasomatic traditions. The institutions of man are to be explained in terms of culture.

The anthropocentric point of view receives support also from the fact that, as a biological organism, man is a dynamic system. He reacts positively to his terrestrial habitat and to his enveloping culture. But with regard to the latter, he can respond only within the limits set by his culture. Although physically and biologically a thermodynamic system, man is, and remains, a puppet of his culture.

Leslie A. White


The first explicit, self-conscious formulation of a scientific study of culture as a distinct order of phenomena was made by Tylor 1871. As early as 1909, the German chemist and philosopher Wilhelm Ostwald coined the term “culturology,” which he defined as the science of cultural, i.e., specifically human activities. Leslie A. White gathered many of his earlier articles and lectures in a single volume, The Science of Culture 1949. The essays in this collection expound the scope, principles, and objectives of culturology. They include “The Symbol: The Origin and Basis of Human Behavior,” “The Expansion of the Scope of Science,” “Culturological vs. Psychological Interpretations of Human Behavior,” “Energy and the Evolution of Culture,” and a sketch on “The Science of Culture.”

Dole, Gertrude E.; and Carneiro, Robert L. (editors) 1960 Essays in the Science of Culture: In Honor of Leslie A. White, in Celebration of His Sixtieth Birthday and His Thirtieth Year of Teaching at the University of Michigan. New York: Crowell.

Durkheim, Émile (1893) 1960 The Division of Labor in Society. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in French as De la division du travail social: Étude sur I’organisation des sociétés supérieures. The extract in the text was translated by L. A. White.

Durkheim, Émile (1895)1958 The Rules of Sociological Method. 8th ed. Translated by Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller and edited by George E. G. Catlin. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published as Les règies de la méthode sociologique.

Kroeber, A. L. (1917) 1952 The Superorganic. Pages 22–51 in A. L. Kroeber, The Nature of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in the American Anthropologist.

Lowie, Robert H. 1917 Culture and Ethnology. New York: Boni & Liveright.

Lowie, Robert H. (1936)1960 Cultural Anthropology: A Science. Pages 391–410 in Robert H. Lowie, Selected Papers in Anthropology. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → First published in Volume 42 of the American Journal of Sociology.

Murdock, George P. 1932 The Science of Culture. American Anthropologist New Series 34:200–215.

Ostwald, Wilhelm 1909 Energetische Grundlagen der Kulturwissenschaft. Philosophisch–soziologische Bücherei, Vol. 16. Leipzig: Klinkhardt.

Sapir, Edward (1910–1944)1949 Selected Writings in Language, Culture, and Personality. Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Sapir, Edward 1917 Do We Need a Superorganic? American Anthropologist New Series 19:441–447.

Tylor, Edward B. (1871) 1958 Primitive Culture: Re-searches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith. → Volume 1: Origins of Culture. Volume 2: Religion in Primitive Culture.

White, Leslie A. 1949 The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. New York: Farrar, Straus. White, Leslie A. 1959a The Concept of Culture. American Anthropologist New Series 61:227–251.

White, Leslie A. 1959b The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome. New York: McGraw-Hill.

White, Leslie A. 1962 Symboling: A Kind of Behavior. Journal of Psychology 53:311–317.

White, Leslie A. 1963 The Culturological Revolution. Colorado Quarterly 11:367–382.


Culture, a uniquely human attribute, is something which man interposes between himself and his environment in order to ensure his security and survival. As such, culture is adaptive.

This way of looking at culture, uncommon a few decades ago, has within recent years won increasing support among anthropologists. Leslie A. White (1949, p. 360), for example, speaks of culture as “a specific and concrete mechanism employed by a particular animal organism in adjusting to its environment,” and Ralph Piddington ([1950] 1952, p. 219) holds that “culture is essentially an adaptive mechanism, making possible the satisfaction of human needs, both biological and social.”

As this attitude has gained currency, cultures have ceased to be treated as unique constellations of traits, each the fortuitous product of history. A culture is now more frequently thought of as the resultant of a parallelogram of forces—forces whose identity can be ascertained and whose effects can be weighed.

Within culture as a whole, anthropologists have generally recognized the adaptive function of technology. As Robert Lowie succinctly expressed it, the purpose of an ax is to fell trees. Some anthropologists, however, have seemed unsure of the function of social organization. Lowie ([1920] 1947, p. 439) said it had “unknown ends,” and A. L. Kroeber ([1923] 1948, p. 307) found many of its manifestations “strange, unpredictable, … [and] unreasonable.” To Kroeber (1938, p. 308), “the phenomena of formal social organization … rep-resent a field of experimentation or play on the part of cultures … .”

That social life is not something mysterious or capricious, but that like technology it is adaptive, has long been appreciated by biologists. The ecologist Angus Woodbury (1954, p. 412) recognized that social life is an adaptation for efficient use of time and space upon the earth. The existence of a social life, he thought, was forced upon members of a group by their need to cooperate in order to succeed in the struggle for existence. The zoologist William Etkin (1954, p. 134) wrote of the essential role played by social behavior in an animal’s adaptation to its environment and stated that various forms of group behavior were as necessary to survival as any of an animal’s physiological or structural characteristics. In their joint work, Life: Outlines of General Biology, J. Arthur Thomson and Patrick Geddes (1931, vol. 1, pp. 120–126) listed seven advantages of social life, and in Natural Communities, Lee R. Dice (1952, pp. 285, 287) enumerated nine such advantages.

Social organization, generally, is the way in which the individuals of a group within an animal species coordinate their behavior in adapting to the exigencies of life. Human social organization is simply the way in which human beings, through cultural means, do the same thing. As White has observed: “Human beings have to be related to each other in an effective manner- in order to carry on the business of life successfully. Social, political, ethical, artistic, ecclesiastical, and educational systems operate to accomplish this purpose. They are means of coordinating, integrating, regulating, and directing human endeavor toward the goal of all life.- a secure and agreeable existence” (1947, p. 183).

But granting that social organization is adaptive, can the same be said, for example, of rituals and ceremonies? Some anthropologists have held them to lie outside the realm of the rational and the functional, and therefore to be nonadaptive. Yet it is possible to examine rituals and ceremonies in the context of a broader theory of adaptation, and the results of such analyses have been to throw new light on them.

The celebrated potlatch of the Northwest Coast Indians provides an example of this. It has always been regarded by anthropologists not only as non-adaptive but also as ostentatiously wasteful. Suttles (1960, p. 304), however, writing of the potlatch among the Coast Salish, concludes that “the drive to attain high status is clearly not the explanation of the potlatch. Nor is the production of surplus. Nor the cooperation achieved by the potlatching community. The potlatch is a part of a larger socio-economic system that enables the whole social net-work, consisting of a number of communities, to maintain a high level of food production and to equalize its food consumption both within and among communities. The system is thus adaptive in an environment characterized by the features indicated before—spatial and temporal variation and fluctuation in the availability of resources.”

Another example may be cited. After taking a second look at the practice of scapulimancy among the Montagnais-Naskapi, who used this form of divination in selecting hunting routes, 0. K. Moore (1957, p. 73) suggested that “it is in essence a very crude way of randomizing human behavior under conditions where avoiding fixed patterns of activity may be an advantage.” In other words, by leading them to hunt randomly over their territory, and thus preventing the overhunting of any one area, the practice of divination may well contribute to the preservation of game animals and thus ultimately to improved chances for the survival of the Montagnais—Naskapi themselves.

Acknowledging, then, that all aspects of culture may contribute to the ecological adjustment of a society, let us examine the process of cultural adaptation more closely. Basically, societies adapt to their environment by three means: technological, organizational, and ideational.

Technology, which may be taken to include tools, machines, utensils, and weapons, along with the techniques associated with their use, is the most directly adaptive facet of culture. Man’s occupancy of every corner of the earth could not have come about without the implements necessary to cope with the peculiar problems posed by each habitat. This is especially well illustrated by harsh environments. To survive in their Arctic habitat the Eskimo must rely on such sophisticated and specialized traits as the igloo, the kayak, the seal-oil lamp, the dog sled, the harpoon with bladder float, and snow goggles.

Other cultures in other environments furnish us with additional examples of highly specialized and effective technical adaptations. The boomerang of the Australian aborigines, the bolas of the Patagonian guanaco hunters, the snowshoe of the sub-Arctic, the blowgun of Malaysia and South America, pemmican among the Plains Indians, the outrigger canoe of Polynesia, the manioc squeezer of Amazonia, and the agricultural terraces of the Incas are only a few of the illustrations that could be cited.

In addition to implements of subsistence, technology includes weapons of war. Hostile relations often prevail among neighboring societies, and military technology may at times be as important as subsistence technology.

In bronze age China, the invention and use of the ch’i, a combination of the halberd and the spear, is credited with helping the state of Ch’in to defeat its rivals and to unify China for the first time (Li 1957, p. 58).

Stirrups, an Asiatic invention which reached Europe in the eighth century, had a profound effect on warfare during the Middle Ages. “The use of stirrups enabled an armored horseman, carrying a lance at rest under his right arm, to brace himself in the saddle so firmly that the shock of his attack could combine the momentum of horse and rider. This feature made the mounted knight the most powerful instrument of medieval warfare, rendering obsolete the older Roman and Germanic military tactics of fighting on foot in close order” (Homans 1962, p. 396).

The second major aspect of culture is the organizational. While it is logically distinguishable from the technological aspect, in actuality it is closely related to it. Indeed, White maintains that “social systems are social means of operating technological systems” (1947, pp. 182–183). It is certainly true that cooperation in human societies, especially simpler ones, exists principally for the purpose of pro-curing food, providing shelter, and meeting the demands of offense and defense. Accordingly, all forms of social organization involved in achieving these ends must be regarded as adaptive. Going beyond this, however, it can be argued that forms of organization developed to deal with an increased population are also adaptive, since they contribute to a society’s integration and, therefore, to its survival.

Plains Indian cultures afford a striking example of how seasonal aggregations of population connected with subsistence can lead to an elaboration of social organization. During most of the year, bands of a typical Plains tribe were dispersed over a wide area, subsisting separately from other bands and acting independently of them. The band chief had little authority, and the socioceremonial life of the band was simple. For the summer buffalo hunt, however, the bands came together and assumed a form of tribal organization that was distinctly more complex. Band chiefs, previously without superiors, now formed themselves into a council from which a paramount tribal chief was selected. The tribal chief wielded considerably greater authority than he had as band chief; it was now his responsibility to coordinate and direct the activities of the tribe as a whole.

Men’s associations, inactive during most of the year, re-formed when the bands came together and carried out activities that took place only when the entire tribe was assembled. One of these men’s societies was designated by the tribal chief to serve as a police force charged with punishing violations of the strict rules that prevailed during the buffalo hunt, as well as with preserving order during the march and on the occasion of the sun dance.

That the emergence of these structural features was an adaptation to the problems created by a supraband aggregation is demonstrated by the fact that all the features—the council, the tribal chief, the men’s societies, the police force, the sun dance organization—lapsed when the tribe broke up into its constituent units in the autumn.

The adaptiveness of a society’s internal organization, tested repeatedly by the food quest, may be tried even more severely by warfare. Survival is the ultimate measure of fitness, and however well adapted a society may be in other respects, if it is unable to stand up to its enemies, it must be found wanting in its over-all adaptation. Superiority in military technology may be the decisive factor in armed conflict, but where the weapons of war are alike on both sides, success may well go to the society better organized to wage war.

Continual and successful involvement in war tends to leave its stamp on all segments of a society, sometimes to a remarkable degree. The ancient Spartans afford a classic example of this. Everything in the life of a Spartan was subordinated to his military obligations. The institutions of war were paramount, and other institutions were adjusted accordingly. Among preliterate peoples, the Zulu and Masai of Africa and the Northern Cayapo of South America provide examples of the same phenomenon.

The ideational aspect of culture also serves to adapt a society to the prevailing conditions of existence. For example, it has been noted of nomadic peoples like the Eskimo, Tehuelche, and Lengua that even when the food supply is unusually plentiful, after a band has spent more than a few days or weeks in one spot, everyone becomes restless and anxious to be on the move. Ecological necessity has developed in them a psychology of nomadism. By being mentally adapted to normal ecological conditions, the individuals in a culture are always ready, and even eager, to make what is ordinarily the most appropriate response. The matter may be put this way: a sociocultural system works best when it makes people want to do what they have to do.

A question that remains to be answered is how cultural adaptation is related to cultural evolution. The two are not synonymous: adaptation is the adjustment of a society to its external and internal conditions of existence, while evolution is change by which a society grows larger, more heterogeneous, and more coherent. While adaptive changes are usually evolutionary, they are not necessarily or always so. Adaptation may sometimes involve simplification, as when deteriorating environmental conditions force a society to split into smaller groups, move its settlements more often, and give up some of its ceremonies. Here, although the chances of survival under worsened conditions have increased, complexity has decreased, so that while the changes are adaptive, they are not evolutionary. Nevertheless, most adaptive changes undergone by a society do tend to render it more complex and better integrated—in a word, more evolved.

An evolutionary advance characteristically begins with an adaptive solution to an ecological problem and is followed by a series of readjustments whereby cultural elements successively further removed from the source of the change are affected by the change and accommodate themselves to it. Wittfogel (1957) has suggested that the need to establish or extend irrigation systems in certain heavily populated and and parts of the world brought about basic changes in the economic and political institutions of several of the early civilizations and that these basic changes eventu-ally ramified throughout their entire social systems.

During the course of these kinds of readjustments within a culture, new traits appear which are alternative to, and therefore competitive with, existing ones. In this competition traits are subjected to the cultural equivalent of natural selection : the better adapted traits survive and expand, and the less fit decline and disappear.

Competition, selection, and displacement among traits can readily be illustrated from contemporary American culture. We see them exemplified by the diesel engine replacing the steam locomotive and by the corporation replacing other forms of large-scale business enterprise. The operation of this process was recognized and expressed years ago by E. B. Tylor when he wrote: “the institutions which can best hold their own in the world gradu-ally supersede the less fit ones, and … this incessant conflict determines the general resultant course of culture” ([1871] 1958, vol. 1, p. 62).

Robert L. Carneiro

[Directly related are the entriesEcology; Evolution, articles oncultural evolutionandsocial evolution; Technology.]


Dice, Lee R. 1952 Natural Communities. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Etkin, William 1954 Social Behavior and the Evolution of Man’s Mental Faculties. American Naturalist 88:129–142.

Homans, George C. 1962 [Review of] Medieval Technology and Social Change, by Lynn White, Jr. American Journal of Sociology 68:396–397.

Kroeber, Alfred L. (1923) 1948 Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, Prehistory. New rev. ed. New York: Harcourt. → First published as Anthropology.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1938 Basic and Secondary Patterns of Social Structure. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 68: 299–309.

Li, Chi 1957 The Beginnings of Chinese Civilization: Three Lectures Illustrated With Finds at Anyang. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Lowie, Robert H. (1920) 1947 Primitive Society. New York: Liveright. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Harper.

Lowie, Robert H. (1934)1952 An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. Rev. ed. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

Moore, Omar K. 1957 Divination: A New Perspective. American Anthropologist New Series 59:69–74.

Piddington, Ralph (1950) 1952 An Introduction to Social Anthropology. 2d ed. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.

Suttles, Wayne 1960 Affinal Ties, Subsistence, and Prestige Among the Coast Salish. American Anthropologist New Series 62:296–305.

Thomson, J. Arthur; and Geddes, Patrick 1931 Life: Outlines of General Biology. 2 vols. London: Williams & Nor gate.

Tylor, Edward B. (1871) 1958 Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → Volume 1: Origins of Culture. Volume 2: Religion in Primitive Culture.

White, Leslie A. 1947 Evolutionary Stages, Progress, and the Evaluation of Cultures. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 3:165–192.

White, Leslie A. 1949 Ethnological Theory. Pages 357–384 in Roy W. Sellars et al. (editors), Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism. New York: Macmillan.

Wittfogel, Karl A. 1957 Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.

Woodbury, Angus M. 1954 Principles of General Ecology. New York: Blakiston.


Culture change is the conceptual formulation that refers to the many ways in which societies change their patterns of culture: Internal factors such as new inventions may lead to an increased food supply and population growth, or external factors such as conquest by another society may bring about culture change. We know from the records of prehistory and history that the patterns of culture of every human society are constantly changing. The rate and type of change may be slow and gradual, as it was during the Paleolithic, or fast and drastic, as it has been in contemporary societies. The basic problem is a question of how and why there are shifts in rate and type of change, rather than a question of static versus changing cultures.

Our knowledge about culture change may be summarized in four basic questions: (1) What are the internal or external factors that generate shifts in rates and types of culture change? (2) What are the processes by which culture change takes place? (3) What models and methods are now available for the study of culture change? (4) How is the concept of culture change related to the closely associated phenomena of diffusion, innovation, evolution, acculturation, and nativism?

Factors influencing culture change. The data on change do not yet permit any easy generalizations concerning the relative primacy of various factors that may generate significant shifts in rates and types of culture change. Some anthropologists favor a basically Marxist, or Neo-Marxist, interpretation and give primacy in their theories to such factors as “the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year” (White 1949). Some, such as Steward (1955), place emphasis upon ecology and stress the “adaptation of a culture to its environment” as the primary factor. Other scholars emphasize the importance of “religious ideology” (Weber 1922), cultural “themes” (Opler 1945), and “cultural focus” (Herskovits 1955) or, like Geertz (1957), point to inherent incongruities and tensions in social and cultural systems that generate constant pressure for change. Still others have developed more specialized theories, such as Murdock (1949, p. 199), who concludes that “… social organization is a semi-independent system comparable in many respects to language, and similarly characterized by an internal dynamics of its own,” or Hallowell (1955) and Wallace (1961), who stress the psychological aspects of culture change.

Whatever special emphasis may characterize a theory, it is useful to isolate three general factors that can influence change in a given culture:

(1) Any change in the ecological niche occupied by a society influences culture change. Such a change may occur as a result of either (a) natural environmental changes, e.g., the gradual desiccation of the great basin of Utah and Nevada following the retreat of the last glaciation; or (b) the migration of a society from one ecological niche to another, e.g., the movement of southern Athabascans from the subarctic territory of interior Canada and Alaska to the and southwestern United States. New cultural adaptations are always required for survival in the case of such shifts in ecological niche.

(2) Any contact between two societies with different cultural patterns influences change in both societies. The diffusion, or borrowing, of cultural elements that occurs has made these exchanges important in culture change throughout history. More profound and sustained cultural contact, usu-ally called “acculturation,” generates even more significant shifts in the rates and types of change in the two cultures.

(3) Any evolutionary change occurring within a society is obviously a factor of critical importance. Following Murdock (1949, p. 184), “evolution” is used here simply to designate “processes of orderly adaptive change.” For example, when a society with a food-gathering economy has domesticated its plants and animals and has thereby in-creased its food surplus potential, the requirements of the new food-producing technology and the ensuing population growth pose critical problems. The need for division and specialization of labor, social control, and distribution of the surplus leads to adaptive changes in the cultural patterns. Or if a society (for whatever reasons) shifts from matrilocal to patrilocal residence, then again there are adaptive changes in a whole range of cultural patterns, as Murdock (1949) has demonstrated.

Processes of culture change. The study of the processes of culture change refers to the actual social mechanisms by which the change takes place. Some scholars take the position that the basis of all culture change is located in changes in the attitudes and behavior of individual members of a society. This point of view is found in Barnett (1953), who focuses upon the individual innovator in a society and analyzes the cultural conditions that stimulate him to innovate, the incentives that motivate him, and the mental processes he experiences in innovation. In this study Barnett also treats the basic innovative processes in terms of recombinations, identifications, substitutions, etc., in mental configurations. He finds those who accept innovations are likely to be individuals who are “dissident,” “disaffected,” or “resentful.”

Other scholars take the point of view that although individuals are the carriers of a culture, there are processes of change in social and cultural systems which have dynamic properties of their own that can be isolated and studied. Thus, we can study the mechanisms of “cultural evolution” (White 1949; Sahlins & Service 1960), the “configurations of culture growth” (Kroeber 1944) over long time spans, or the “evolution of social organization” (Murdock 1949) over at least several generations.

Systematic theories interrelating processual phenomena observed in changes in both individual behavior and social and cultural systems are currently one of the outstanding problems for future research and analysis. Firth (1951, p. 40) differentiates between “social structure,” which he views as providing the principle of continuity in society, and “social organization,” in which lies the principle of variation or change “… by allowing evaluation of situations and entry of individual choice.” Herskovits (1955, pp. 497–514) emphasizes “individual variation,” which is found even in the most isolated and primitive societies, and the importance of this variation in the mechanisms of culture change. Wallace (1961, pp. 143–152) attempts to combine individual personality and cognition with changes in cultural systems in his study of “revitalization” processes, in which he has described “… a common process structure which can be conceptualized as a pattern of temporally overlapping, but functionally distinct, stages.”

Other recent contributions to the conceptual mapping of processes of culture change include Herskovits’ formulation (1955, p. 492) of “reinterpretation” as the process by which old meanings are ascribed to new elements or by which new values change the cultural significance of old forms; Firth’s description (1951, p. 86) of the process of “social convection,” by which individuals not directly involved in a change in the first instance tend to modify their behavior to adjust to the change, and the process of “social conduction,” by which an innovation brings unforeseen results that must be adapted to; and Vogt’s distinction (1960, pp. 21–22) between “recurrent processes,” found in micro time-scales, which characterize the daily, seasonal, annual, and generational life of a society, and “directional processes,” found in macro time-scales, which involve nonrepetitive, cumulative shifts in the structures of social and cultural systems.

Models for the study of culture change

Culture change can be studied as it occurs over long time spans (e.g., the analysis of cultural evolution in human societies from the Lower Paleolithic to the twentieth century) and in the microscopic sense, as it occurs in short periods of time (e.g., the, analysis of how individual American Indians altered their behavior patterns during one generation of education in Indian Service schools). The more specific methods for the study of culture change always require a comparative framework of some type. Sequences of change in individual behavior, in social structure, or in stages of cultural development are compared in order to yield systematic statements reaching beyond the concrete case.

Stable equilibrium versus constant change. From the writings of earlier social theorists such as Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown, students of culture inherited a conceptual image of human society based upon an organismic analogy that emphasized the ways in which a custom, institution, or social activity preserved or maintained the social order. This conceptual image has led us to assume that social and cultural systems tend to maintain equilibrium unless they come into contact with some force from the outside, or develop some inner strain that disturbs the equilibrium. The problem then is to discover how the equilibrium is restored.

From the writings of other theorists, notably Max Weber (1922), students of change inherited a more dynamic image of society. The adequacy of the stable equilibrium model as a conceptual framework for the analysis of culture change has been questioned by such writers as Firth (1951), Leach (1954), Herskovits (1955), and Vogt (1960), who all maintain that the basic tendencies in social and cultural systems are toward change, rather than toward states of equilibrium. Furthermore, it can now be demonstrated from our accumulated archeological and historical data that a culture is never static, but rather that one of its most fundamental properties is change.

The problem for students of culture change has therefore become one of describing, conceptualizing, and explaining a set of ongoing processes of change that occur at varying rates, move in varying directions, and that are triggered and maintained by complex interactions of ecological, technological, social, cultural, and psychological variables.

Macroscopic models. The most inclusive models, with respect to both cultural coverage and time span, are those utilized by White (1949) and Childe (1951) for the study of cultural evolution. Both deal with trends and stages in the culture of mankind as a whole. White’s most significant proposition is that technological development expressed in terms of man’s control over energy underlies social changes and cultural achievements (1949, pp. 363–396). Childe is especially noted for his formulation of the important shift from food-gathering to food-producing societies in early human history. These models, dealing with what Steward (1955) has called “universal evolution,” advance propositions about world culture as a whole but cannot explain particular features of particular cultures. An attempt to solve this conceptual and methodological difficulty has more recently been proposed by Sahlins and Service (1960), who differentiate between “general” and “specific” cultural evolution. They write:

General cultural evolution … is passage from less to greater energy transformation, lower to higher levels of integration, and less to greater all-around adapt-ability. Specific evolution is the phylogenetic, ramifying, historic passage of culture along its many lines, the adaptive modification of particular cultures. (P. 38)

In his model, Steward proposes a different methodological solution described as “multilinear evolution,” in which “regularities in culture change” are studied by comparing sequences of change in a series of particular cultures. His classic paper (1955, pp. 178–209) utilizing this model is his comparison of the development of “irrigation civilizations” in five and or semiarid areas of the world: Peru, Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. Although more recent empirical evidence has not supported his generalizations concerning irrigation works as the crucial factor in all these areas, the comparative framework he proposes is a fruitful one that can be utilized on other ranges of culture change data.

Another model that involves social and cultural changes over relatively long time spans is that of Redfield, whose classic study (1941) of the shift from “folk” to “urban” society has stimulated many further studies of culture change, including the present interest in the emergence of and changes in “peasant society.” Drawing upon the earlier ideas of Durkheim, Maine, Morgan, and Tonnies, Redfield designed a field study that compared four communities in Yucatan: a tribal village, a peasant village, a town, and a city. Using degree of isolation and degree of homogeneity in culture patterns as the independent variables, he shows how three types of culture change accompany lessening isolation and homogeneity: disorganization of the culture, secularization, and individualization.

Redfield’s model generates a number of interesting propositions. Perhaps the major methodo-logical difficulty in his Yucatan study was that two quite different types of phenomena were inextricably intertwined. Although his cases certainly range from “folk” to “urban” types of society, they are also cases that have involved a massive confrontation between the Mayan Indian and the Spanish cultural traditions. It is difficult to distinguish between changes that have derived from a shift in type of society from folk to urban and changes that have derived from the contact between Mayan Indians and Spaniards.

A more recent model dealing with sweeping changes in societies over long time spans is that of Rostow (1960), whose formulation of the stages of socioeconomic growth ranging from “a traditional society” to a stage of “durable consumers’ goods and services” is currently influencing anthropological thought about the processes of culture change in the modern nations of the world. Other aspects of this long-range process of growth and development (at least in our own Western society) are treated in such studies as Riesman’s characterization (1950) of the sequence of “tradition-directed” to “inner-directed” to “other-directed” systems.

Microscopic models. Among the many models that are less extensive in scope, but still focused upon changing social and cultural systems, are those of Murdock (1949) and Leach (1954). Murdock (1949, pp. 201–221) is mainly concerned with changes in social organization, and he singles out the “rule of residence” as the aspect of social structure that acts as a filter, capable of responding to a variety of quite diverse external stimuli but in only a limited number of ways. He proposes that change in a social system regularly begins with a modification of the rule of residence, and other changes in kinship structure and terminology follow in predictable order. Leach, on the other hand, utilizes what might be called an “oscillation model” in his description of Kachin society, where there is a regular oscillation between two polar types of political value systems to which the people can appeal and still be considered members of the society.

On a still more modest scale of comparative analysis, there are models for the study of changes in individual and group behavior within one culture. An example of such a model is that of Spindler and Goldschmidt (1952), who present an experimental design for the study of sociological and psychological variables in the changes that are occurring in individual and group behavior among the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin.

Finally, mention should be made of the “genetic model” proposed by Romney (1957), which provides for the analysis of culture change a comparative framework that offers the possibility of controlling geographical and historical factors to the maximum extent and of utilizing the full range of linguistic, archeological, and ethnographic data as these become available. The model, building upon earlier suggestions by Sapir (1916) and Eggan (1954), assumes that genetically related tribes, as determined by related languages, common physical type, and shared systemic patterns, form a “genetic unit” that derived from a small protogroup with a protoculture at some time in the past. The term “genetic” implies nothing beyond a concern with origins and mode of development of a unit of culture history. It is not assumed that all the people in the genetic unit necessarily descend from the ancestral group in a strict biological sense; biological mixture is expected wherever people of the genetic unit are in contact with other groups. What is required is a distinguishable physical type that converges, rather than diverges, as one goes back in time.

The model resembles that of the zoologist who views a certain species of animal as evolving and making an adaptive adjustment to a given ecological niche and then radiating from this point as the population expands into neighboring ecological niches. As the population moves into different ecological settings, further adaptive variations occur in the species. But these variations are traceable to the ancestral animal, or, in other words, back to the prototype. In applying the model to human populations, we may assume that a small protogroup succeeds in adapting itself efficiently to a certain ecological niche and in developing certain basic systemic patterns, which constitute the basic aspects of the protoculture. Once the adaptation proves to be efficient, the population expands, and the group begins to radiate from this point of dispersal. As members split off from the protocommunity, move into neighboring ecological niches, and come into contact with alien cultures, they make appropriate adaptations to these new situations and begin to differentiate—that is, there are adaptive variations from the prototype as the members of the genetic unit spread from the dispersal area. The use of this model not only makes possible the controlled comparative study of pre-historic and historic sequences of culture change in a geographically and historically meaningful unit but also sets the stage for more precise structural-functional comparisons of the various branches of the genetic unit as these continue to undergo change in the contemporary world. An example of a recent application of the model may be found in Vogt (1964).

EvonZ. Vogt


Barnett, Homer G. 1953 Innovation: The Basis of Cultural Change. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Childe, V. Gordon 1951 Social Evolution. New York: Schumann.

Eggan, Fred 1954 Social Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Comparison. American Anthropologist New Series 56:743–763.

Firth, Raymond W. 1951 Elements of Social Organization. London: Watts. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Beacon.

Geertz, Clifford 1957 Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example. American Anthropologist New Series 59:32–54.

Hallowell, A. Irving 1955 Culture and Experience. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Herskovits, Melville J. 1955 Cultural Anthropology. New York: Knopf. → An abridged revision of Man and His Works, 1948.

Keesing, Felix M. 1953 Culture Change: An Analysis and Bibliography of Anthropological Sources to 1952. Stanford Anthropological Series, No. 1. Stanford Univ. Press.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1944 Configurations of Culture Growth. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Leach, Edmund R. 1954 Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. A publication of the London School of Economics and Political Science. London School of Economics and Political Science; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Murdock, George P. 1949 Social Structure. New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by the Free Press.

Opler, Morris E. 1945 Themes as Dynamic Forces in Culture. American Journal of Sociology 51:198–206.

Redfield, Robert 1941 The Folk Culture of Yucatan. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Riesman, David 1950 The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → An abridged paperback edition was published in 1960.

Romney, A. Kimball 1957 The Genetic Model and Uto-Aztecan Time Perspective. Davidson Journal of Anthropology 3, no. 2:35–41.

Rostow, Walt W. (1960) 1963 The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Sahlins, Marshall D.; and Service, Elman R. (editors) 1960 Evolution and Culture. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Sapir, Edward (1916) 1949 Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: A Study in Method. Pages 389–462 in Edward Sapir, Selected Writings in Language, Culture and Personality. Edited by D. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Spindler, George; and Goldschmidt, Walter 1952 Experimental Design in the Study of Culture Change. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 8:68–83.

Steward, Julian H. 1955 Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Vogt, Evon Z. 1960 On the Concept of Structure and Process in Cultural Anthropology. American Anthropologist New Series 62:18–33.

Vogt, Evon Z. 1964 The Genetic Model and Maya Cultural Development. Pages 9–48 in Conference on the Cultural Development of the Maya, Burg Wartenstein, Austria, 1962, Desarrollo cultural de los Mayas. Edited by Evon Z. Vogt and A. Ruz Lhuillier. University City: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1961 Culture and Personality. New York: Random House.

Weber, Max (1922) 1963 The Sociology of Religion. Boston: Beacon. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1964.

White, Leslie 1949 The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. New York: Farrar, Straus. → A paperback edition was published in 1958 by Grove.

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Culture is notoriously one of the most difficult terms to define. The cultural historian Raymond Williams (19211988) notes that the difficulty in defining the word is located on its intricate historical development in European languages and on the fact that despite its long history the term is relatively new in the English language (Williams 1983, p. 87). The word derives from the Latin cultura, which in turn comes from the Latin verb colere, which had a wide range of meanings that corresponded to different domains in life: agricultural (to cultivate), domestic (to inhabit), religious (to honor a deity through worship), social (to protect). Williams pointed to the eventual divergences of these original meanings, such as the derivation of the term colony, from the meaning of cultura to inhabit, or cult, from the meaning to honor through worship. The primary meaning of cultivation, in cultura, has nevertheless been retained within the integrity of the word. Hence culture and cultura still echo the original main meaning of cultivation. The poet and critic T. S. Eliot (18851965), in his 1949 book Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, observed that the term cultivation applies as much to the work of the bacteriologist or the agri culturalist as to the improvement of the human mind and spirit, (p. 19) although he concludes that the primary location of culture is religion.

By the mid-eighteenth century the term appears in both French and English in its proto-modern form, and in German it appears as a borrowing from the French first as Cultur (in the eighteenth century) and then as Kultur (in the nineteenth century) as almost synonymous with civilization. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803) observed that the slippery nature of the two terms denoted the slippery understanding of culture and civilization and the frequent conflation of the two. Herder separated the notion of civilization from the notion of culture and developed the theory of cultures in the plural, refuting the universalist theories of a unified development of humanity. The anthropological development of the theory of culture rests precisely on this notion of culture-in-the-plural, the acknowledgment that specific cultures existed in different times and places, and that even within specific nations there existed a number of different cultures (Herder [1784] 1968).

The English anthropologist Edward Tylor (18321917) in 1871 proposed a definition of culture that conflated culture with civilization and informed early anthropological definitions of the term: Culture, or civilization is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society (Tylor 1871, p. 1). Franz Boas (18581942), one of the key figures in modern anthropology, especially in the history of U.S. anthropology, comes from the intellectual tradition begun by Herder and furthered by Tylor; Boas developed a theory of culture from which he derived a theory of racism. He noted that cultures cannot be judged according to an a priori value system. Rather, each culture has its own integrity, and all cultures are equal to each other and ought to be gauged according to their own system of values. This relativist approach to culture underlined Herders original idea that one ought not be thinking about a culture to which all the rest would be held accountable but about cultures as they appear in different formulations and places over time. Boas wrote: Culture may be defined as the totality of mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize the behavior of the individuals composing a social group (Boas 1938, p. 159)a definition strangely constricted from the one he had produced only eight years earlier: [C]ulture embraces all the manifestations of social habits of a community, the reactions of the individual as affected by the habits of the group in which he lives, and the products of human activities as determined by these habits (Boas 1930, p. 79). Leslie White expanded the definition of culture provided by Boas by including in its definition not only the traits that characterize it but also the traits that do not characterize it including, thus, within the definition of culture as comprising the characteristic traits of a group those traits which could be considered as marginal, resistant, or, even, abjected (White and Dillingham 1973, p. 32).

The anthropological definitions of culture were in part a reaction to the exclusionary definitions put forth in 1869, two years before Tylors, by the British poet and critic Matthew Arnold (18221888). Against the Herderian opening of culture and civilization to all human societies, Arnold erected the discourse of a priori perfection: I have been trying to show that Culture is, ought to be, the study and pursuit of perfection, Arnold wrote, and that of perfection as pursued by culture, beauty and intelligence, or, in other words, sweetness and light, are the main characters (Arnold 1869, p. 11). Arnold thus articulated the difference between what is called high culture (sublime, light, sweet, beautiful) and low culture (what later came to be called popular culture).

In a critique of this sublimity of culture as presented by Arnold, the literary theorist Edward Said (19352003) argued that high culture was complicit with the project of imperialism. In his 1979 book Orientalism, Said showed the ways in which the constructed distinctions made between the Orient and Occident as fabricated geographical ideas were mainly located in the internalization of the idea of high culture as intrinsic to Europe set against cultures that needed to be translated into the European intellectual idiom.

The Frankfurt School philosophers Max Horkheimer (18751973) and Theodor Adorno (19031969), in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, apply a rigorous critique to popular culture (especially what they call the culture industry of Hollywood and jazz music). They argue that popular culture destroys the careful distinctions between the object of high culture (the elevation of the individual as an autonomous subject) and that of popular culture (the degradation of the subject into the position of the nonthinking object). Popular culture as a means of production of a compliant body politic is at the core of the theory of hegemony as developed by the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci (18911937). In a gentle critique of Marxs theory of revolution, Gramsci explains that the reason why the industrial workers of the large capitalist countries did not become a revolutionary force was that capitalism makes enough minor cultural concessions to them (primarily minor commodities) to assure their acquiescence. For Gramsci, keeping the cultural programs of the Italian Fascist state in mind, the process of producing a compliant body politic, what he calls hegemony, is mapped onto the process of participation in popular culture. In a tone more celebratory of popular culture, the German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin (18921940) notes how the availability of mechanical reproduction of art problematized the notions (in his view outdated) of genius and creativity. Benjamin proposed that proletarian art might thus be able to participate in the production of a form of culture that would neutralize the distinction between high and low.

The French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard (19292007) in Symbolic Exchange and Death attempts to provide a radically different theory of culture. He first presents his theory of the simulacrum as the delineation of the relationship between reality and its artistic reproduction. For example, Disneyland is the result of simulation of the reality of southern California in the 1930s and 1940s as it had been represented in the comic cartoons of Mickey Mouse, which, in its turn, has been simulated as its actualization in the United States of the 1950s. In this sense the comic cartoons simulated southern Californian realities in the 1930s and 1940s, which southern California simulated in the 1950s and then Disneyland represented in the 1960s. Baudrillard then substitutes the notion of symbolic exchange for the classic Marxist notion of exchange value, claiming that symbolic exchange (e.g., the living providing prayers for the salvation of the dead in exchange for the intercession of the dead with God on behalf of the living) dislocates utility from the center of the exchange system and replaces it with a cultural value that rests on a symbolic rather than a monetary value system.

SEE ALSO Anthropology; Anthropology, British; Anthropology, U.S.; Boas, Franz; Civilization; Cultural Capital; Cultural Relativism; Culture of Poverty; Culture, Low and High; Determinism, Cultural; Disney, Walt; Frankfurt School; Gramsci, Antonio; Hegemony; Marx, Karl; Said, Edward; Symbols


Arnold, Matthew. 1869. Culture and Anarchy. An Essay in Political and Social Criticism. London: Smith, Eler and Co.

Baudrillard, Jean. [1976] 1993. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Boas, Franz. 1930. Anthropology. In The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan.

Boas, Franz. 1938. The Mind of Primitive Man. Rev ed. New York: Macmillan.

Eliot, T. S. 1949. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Herder, Johann Gottfried. [1784] 1968. Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind. Abridged and intro. Frank E. Manual. Trans. T. O. Churchill, 1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 1972. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Seabury Press.

Kroeber, A. L., and Clyde Kluckhohn. 1953. Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. New York: Vintage.

Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Tylor, Edward B. 1871. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, Vol. 1. London: J. Murray.

White, Leslie A., and Beth Dillingham. 1973. The Concept of Culture. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing.

Williams, Raymond. 1983. Keywords. Rev. ed. London: Fontana.

Neni Panourgiá

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culture, in anthropology, the integrated system of socially acquired values, beliefs, and rules of conduct which delimit the range of accepted behaviors in any given society. Cultural differences distinguish societies from one another. Archaeology, a branch of the broader field of anthropology, studies material culture, the remains of extinct human cultures (e.g., pottery, weaponry) in order to decipher something of the way people lived. Such analysis is particularly useful where no written records exist. One of the first anthropological definitions of the term was given by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in the late 19th cent. By 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn had cataloged over 100 different definitions of the word.

The Nature of Culture

Culture is based on the uniquely human capacity to classify experiences, encode such classifications symbolically, and teach such abstractions to others. It is usually acquired through enculturation, the process through which an older generation induces and compels a younger generation to reproduce the established lifestyle; consequently, culture is embedded in a person's way of life. Culture is difficult to quantify, because it frequently exists at an unconscious level, or at least tends to be so pervasive that it escapes everyday thought. This is one reason that anthropologists tend to be skeptical of theorists who attempt to study their own culture. Anthropologists employ fieldwork and comparative, or cross-cultural, methods to study various cultures. Ethnographies may be produced from intensive study of another culture, usually involving protracted periods of living among a group. Ethnographic fieldwork generally involves the investigator assuming the role of participant-observer: gathering data by conversing and interacting with people in a natural manner and by observing people's behavior unobstrusively. Ethnologies use specialized monographs in order to draw comparisons among various cultures.

Theories of Culture

Investigations have arisen from belief in many different theories of culture and have often given voice to new theoretical bases for approaching the elusive term. Many early anthropologists conceived of culture as a collection of traits and studied the diffusion, or spread, of these traits from one society to another. Critics of diffusionism, however, pointed out that the theory failed to explain why certain traits spread and others do not. Cultural evolution theory holds that traits have a certain meaning in the context of evolutionary stages, and they look for relationships between material culture and social institutions and beliefs. These theorists classify cultures according to their relative degree of social complexity and employ several economic distinctions (foraging, hunting, farming, and industrial societies) or political distinctions (autonomous villages, chiefdoms, and states). Critics of this theory argue that the use of evolution as an explanatory metaphor is flawed, because it tends to assume a certain direction of development, with an implicit apex at modern, industrial society. Ecological approaches explain the different ways that people live around the world not in terms of their degree of evolution but rather as distinct adaptations to the variety of environments in which they live. They also demonstrate how ecological factors may lead to cultural change, such as the development of technological means to harness the environment. Structural-functionalists posit society as an integration of institutions (such as family and government), defining culture as a system of normative beliefs that reinforces social institutions. Some criticize this view, which suggests that societies are naturally stable (see functionalism). Historical-particularists look upon each culture as a unique result of its own historical processes. Symbolic anthropology looks at how people's mental constructs guide their lives. Structuralists analyze the relationships among cultural constructs of different societies, deriving universal mental patterns and processes from the abstract models of these relationships. They theorize that such patterns exist independent of, and often at odds with, practical behavior. Many theories of culture have been criticized for assuming, intentionally or otherwise, that all people in any one society experience their culture in the same way. Today, many anthropologists view social order as a fragile accomplishment that various members of a society work at explaining, enforcing, exploiting, or resisting. They have turned away from the notion of elusive "laws" of culture that often characterizes cross-cultural analyses to the study of the concrete historical, political, and economic forces that structure the relations among cultures. Important theorists on culture have included Franz Boas, Emile Durkheim, Ruth Benedict, and Clifford Geertz.


See studies by G. W. Stocking, Jr. (1968), R. Wagner (1981), M. S. Archer (1988), A. Hallowell (1988), and R. Rosaldo (1989).

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culture When social scientists use the term culture they tend to be talking about a less restrictive concept than that implied in everyday speech. In social science, culture is all that in human society which is socially rather than biologically transmitted, whereas the commonsense usage tends to point only to the arts. Culture is thus a general term for the symbolic and learned aspects of human society, although some animal behaviourists now assert that certain primates have at least the capacity for culture.

Social anthropological ideas of culture are based to a great extent on the definition given by Edward Tylor in 1871, in which he referred to a learned complex of knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, and custom. This definition implies that culture and civilization are one and the same. But this equation, although possible in English and French usage, runs counter to the German distinction between Kultur and Zivilisation, the former referring to symbols and values, while the latter deals with the organization of society. Archaeological usage, though acknowledging the wholeness of human societies, makes a distinction between material culture (or artefacts) and practices and beliefs, the non-material or adaptive culture (see CULTURE, ADAPTIVE AND MATERIAL) transmitted by teaching and tradition. Only material culture is accessible to archaeology, whereas adaptive culture is the subject of history, sociology, and anthropology.

For nineteenth-century anthropologists, such as Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan, culture was a conscious creation of human rationality. Civilization and culture, in this conception, showed a progressive tendency towards what were regarded as higher moral values, and this enabled the Victorian mind to construct a hierarchy of cultures or civilizations which provided a rationale for colonial activities by apparently higher-order Western civilizations.

Modern ideas of culture arose through the work of field anthropologists such as Franz Boas, around the turn of the century, and tend towards relativism. The intention is to describe, compare, and contrast cultures, rather than ranking them, although Boas and some later North American anthropologists have also been interested in the processes by which cultural traits may be borrowed or otherwise transmitted between societies. This has led to the development of the idea of culture areas, and a comparative ethnography of North America, both of which are largely absent in British social anthropology. For the latter, culture is generally taken to mean a collection of ideas and symbols that is generally distinguished in the discipline from social structure, and this distinction is also central to European and North American sociological usages of the term.

In America, it is sometimes argued that the concept of culture can provide ways of explaining and understanding human behaviour, belief systems, values, and ideologies, as well as particular culturally specific personality types. One exponent of the latter theory was Ruth Benedict (see, for example, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, 1944

In cultural anthropology, analysis of culture may proceed at three levels: learned patterns of behaviour; aspects of culture that act below conscious levels (such as the deep level of grammar and syntax in language, of which a native language speaker is seldom aware); and patterns of thought and perception, which are also culturally determined. See also CONSUMPTION, SOCIOLOGY OF; CULTURE AND PERSONALITY SCHOOL; CULTURAL RELATIVISM; CULTURAL STUDIES; CULTURAL THEORY; EVOLUTIONARY UNIVERSALS; PARSONS, TALCOTT; POPULAR CULTURE.

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One aspect of the forensic examination of samples or of a crime or accident scene can involve determining whether or not a particular microorganism is present. Disease-causing (pathogenic) micro-organisms including bacteria and viruses are capable of causing illness and death, or may have contaminated a food or water source.

Modern techniques exist that rely on the detection of the genetic material of the microorganism and do not require the growth of the organism. Indeed, the organism can be dead and still remain detectable. However, the more traditional growth-dependent identification techniques are reliable, inexpensive, and are still widely used.

Bacteria require a food source to grow. Depending on the type of bacteria, the liquid or solid food source (growth medium) can be very general or highly specific, requiring the presence of certain types of amino acids, carbon sources, and other compounds. As well, some bacteria require the presence of oxygen (aerobic bacteria), while others require the complete absence of oxygen (anaerobic bacteria).

When the bacteria-containing sample is added to the medium in the step called inoculation, living bacteria will begin to assimilate the nutrients and use them to repair damaged components and construct new components. As a result, the bacteria will begin to grow and divide to produce two progeny bacteria.

Over the course of hours, the cycle of growth and division is repeated thousands of times. With each round of division, cell numbers double (i.e., growth is exponential). This rate of growth quickly leads to huge numbers of bacteria in the liquid medium or on the solid medium. This causes the liquid to become cloudy. On the surface, the countless growth and division cycles lead to the formation of a visible mound of bacteria that is known as a colony.

Bacteria can be cultured in different types of media and the various resulting biochemical reactions can be used to identify the type of organism that is present. Differing appearance of the colonies on the solid medium or the production of various compounds in the presence of specific nutrients can all be clues to the identity of the microoganism. Depending on the type of bacterium, culture-based identification can take from several days to weeks.

Viruses can also be cultured and identified (typically by their shape). However, since viruses cannot grow independently, they require the presence of a host cell. For example, poliovirus is cultured using cells found in eggs. Some viruses known as bacteriophages require a bacterial host.

see also Bacterial biology; Bacteria, growth and reproduction; Biosensor technologies; Pathogens.

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A culture is a single species of microorganism that is isolated and grown under controlled conditions. The German bacteriologist Robert Koch first developed culturing techniques in the late 1870s. Following Koch's initial discovery, medical scientists quickly sought to identify other pathogens. Today bacteria cultures are used as basic tools in microbiology and medicine.

The ability to separate bacteria is important because microorganisms exist as mixed populations. In order to study individual species, it is necessary to first isolate them. This isolation can be accomplished by introducing individual bacterial cells onto a culture medium containing the necessary elements microbial growth. The medium also provides conditions favorable for growth of the desired species. These conditions may involve pH , osmotic pressure, atmospheric oxygen, and moisture content. Culture media may be liquids (known broths) or solids. Before the culture can be grown, the media must be sterilized to prevent growth of unwanted species. This sterilization process is typically done through exposure to high temperatures. Some tools like the metal loop used to introduce bacteria to the media, may be sterilized by exposure to a flame. The media itself may be sterilized by treatment with steam-generated heat through a process known as autoclaving.

To grow the culture, a number of the cells of the microorganism must be introduced to the sterilized media. This process is known as inoculation and is typically done by exposing an inoculating loop to the desired strain and then placing the loop in contact with the sterilized surface. A few of the cells will be transferred to the growth media and under the proper conditions, that species will begin to grow and form a pure colony . Cells in the colony can reproduce as often as every 20 minutes and under the ideal conditions, this rate of cell division could result in the production of 500,000 new cells after six hours. Such rapid growth rates help to explain the rapid development of disease, food spoilage, decay, and the speed at which certain chemical processes used in industry take place. Once the culture has been grown, a variety of observation methods can be used to record the strain's characteristics and chart its growth.

See also Agar and agarose; Agar diffusion; American type culture collection; Antibiotic resistance, tests for; Bacterial growth and division; Bacterial kingdoms; Epidemiology, tracking diseases with technology; Laboratory techniques in microbiology

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cul·ture / ˈkəlchər/ • n. 1. the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. ∎  a refined understanding or appreciation of this: men of culture. ∎  the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group: people from many different cultures. ∎  the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group: the drug culture. 2. Biol. the cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc., in an artificial medium containing nutrients: the cells proliferate readily in culture. ∎  a preparation of cells obtained in such a way: the bacterium was isolated in two blood cultures. ∎  the cultivation of plants. • v. [tr.] Biol. maintain (tissue cells, bacteria, etc.) in conditions suitable for growth. ORIGIN: Middle English (denoting a cultivated piece of land): the noun from French culture or directly from Latin cultura ‘growing, cultivation’; the verb from obsolete French culturer or medieval Latin culturare, both based on Latin colere ‘tend, cultivate’ (see cultivate). In late Middle English the sense was ‘cultivation of the soil’ and from this (early 16th cent.) arose ‘cultivation (of the mind, faculties, or manners)’; sense 1 dates from the early 19th cent.

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"culture." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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1. A population of micro-organisms or of the dissociated cells of a tissue grown, for experiment, in a nutrient medium: they multiply by asexual division.

2. The transfer of behavioural traits between individuals in a non-genetic manner (i.e. the traits are not inherited genetically although they may be passed from parent to offspring by verbal or visual communication). Culture is most developed in primates, particularly humans, but may also occur in other organisms such as social insects.

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"culture." A Dictionary of Ecology. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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culture A batch of cells, which can be microorganisms or of animal or plant origin, that are grown under specific conditions of nutrient levels, temperature, pH, oxygen levels, osmotic factors, light, pressure, and water content. Cultures of cells are prepared in the laboratory for a wide spectrum of scientific research. A culture medium provides the appropriate conditions for growth. See also batch culture; continuous culture; monolayer culture; organ culture; suspension culture; tissue culture.

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"culture." A Dictionary of Biology. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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1. A population of microorganisms or of the dissociated cells of a tissue grown, for experiment, in a nutrient medium; they multiply by asexual division.

2. The transfer of behavioural traits between individuals in a non-genetic manner (i.e. the traits are not inherited genetically although they may be passed from parent to offspring by verbal or visual communication). Culture is most developed in Primates, particularly humans, but may also occur in other organisms such as social insects.

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"culture." A Dictionary of Zoology. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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Culture. A many-layered concept with at least three dimensions: the cultivation of human natural capacities, the intellectual and imaginative products of such cultivation, and the whole way of life of a group or a society. Religion is fundamental in all accounts of culture, leading, e.g., C. Geertz to reformulate the concept of culture as a socially constructed and historically transmitted network of symbol systems (The Interpretation of Cultures, 1974).

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"Culture." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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culture In anthropology, all knowledge that is acquired by human beings by virtue of their membership of a society. A culture incorporates all the shared knowledge, expectations and beliefs of a group. Culture in general distinguishes human beings from animals, since only humans can pass on accumulated knowledge due to their mastery of language and other symbolic systems.

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"culture." World Encyclopedia. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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culture culture shock the feeling of disorientation experienced by a person who finds himself or herself in a notably unfamiliar or uncongenial cultural environment; the term is recorded from the 1940s.
culture vulture a person who is very interested in the arts (humorous formation from the mid 20th century).

See also canteen culture, two cultures.

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"culture." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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culture (kul-cher)
1. n. a population of microorganisms, usually bacteria, grown in a solid or liquid laboratory medium (c. medium), which is usually agar, broth, or gelatin. stock c. a permanent bacterial culture, from which subcultures are made. See also tissue (culture).

2. vb. to grow bacteria or other microorganisms in cultures.

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"culture." A Dictionary of Nursing. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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culture piece of tilled land; cultivation XV; cultivating of the mind, etc., XVI; intellectual training and refinement XIX. — F. culture (repl. earlier †couture) or its source L. cultūra, f. cult-; see prec. and -URE.
Hence cultural XIX.

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"culture." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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culture A population of microorganisms or of the dissociated cells of a tissue grown, for experiment, in a nutrient medium: they multiply by asexual division.

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"culture." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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culturebotcher, gotcha, top-notcher, watcher, wotcha •imposture, posture •firewatcher • birdwatcher •debaucher, scorcher, torture •Boucher, voucher •cloture, encroacher, poacher, reproacher •jointure • moisture •cachucha, future, moocher, smoocher, suture •butcher •kuccha, scutcher, toucher •structure •culture, vulture •conjuncture, juncture, puncture •rupture • sculpture • viniculture •agriculture • sericulture •arboriculture • pisciculture •horticulture • silviculture •subculture • counterculture •aquaculture • acupuncture •substructure • infrastructure •candidature • ligature • judicature •implicature •entablature, tablature •prelature • nomenclature • filature •legislature • musculature •premature • signature • aperture •curvature •lurcher, nurture, percher, searcher

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"culture." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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