Culture is a fundamental concept within the discipline of anthropology. E. B. Tylor, the first professional anthropologist, proposed a definition of culture that includes all of human experience:

Culture . . . is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. (1871:1).

This view suggests that culture includes tools, weapons, fire, agriculture, animal domestication, metallurgy, writing, the steam engine, glasses, airplanes, computers, penicillin, nuclear power, rock and roll, video games, designer jeans, religion, political systems, subsistence patterns, science, sports, and social organizations.

Culture includes all aspects human activity, from the fine arts to popular entertainment, from everyday behavior to the development sophisticated technology.

It contains the plans, rules, techniques, designs, and policies for living. Tylor was using the term culture as a general phenomenon for all of humanity that was different from our physical or biological characteristics.

The fundamental aspect culture recognized by anthropologists today is that it is distinct from our human biological characteristics or genetics. This nineteenth-century definition of culture has some terminology that would not be acceptable to modern anthropologists. For example, it relies on the word man to refer to what we currently would refer to as humanity.

In addition, nineteenth-century theorists such as Tylor tended to think of “culture” as equivalent to “civilization,” which implicitly suggested that there was an increase, accumulation, or growth in “culture” and “civilization” as societies progressed and evolved. This is not the meaning culture that contemporary anthropologists maintain.

Cultures are not evolving in some simplistic manner from early civilizations to modern civilizations as the nineteenth-century anthropologists believed. As we will discuss, humans have had different languages, beliefs, values, dietary habits, and norms or “cultures” that are associated with various regions in past as well as the present.

Notice that Tylor’s definition includes the word society. In general terms, society refers to an organized group animals within a specific territory. In particular, it refers to patterns relationships among the animals within that territory. Biologists often refer to certain types insects, herd animals, and social animals such as monkeys and apes as living in societies.

In the past, anthropologists attempted to make a simple distinction between society and culture. Society was said to consist of the patterns of relationships among people within a specified territory, and culture was viewed as the by-products of those relationships.

This view of society as distinguishable from culture was derived from ethnographic studies of small-scale societies. In such societies, people within a specific territory were believed to share a common culture. However, contemporary anthropologists have found this notion of shared culture to be too simplistic and crude. For example, modern anthropologists conduct ethnographic research in complex societies.

Within these societies there are many distinctive groups that maintain different cultural traditions. Culture is not a uniform by-product of society—within societies there are varieties culture. Even in small-scale societies, the idea that all people share a collective “culture” is also too crude and simplistic.

As we shall see in this chapter, this conception of shared culture often resulted in gross stereotypes of, and extreme generalizations about, groups of people and their behavior. A contemporary definition of culture is that it is a shared way of life that includes material products and nonmaterial products (values, beliefs, and norms) that are transmitted within a particular society from generation to generation.


  • Many anthropologists adopt hybrid term sociocultural system—a combination terms society (or social) and culture to refer to what used to be called “society” and by-product culture. As we shall see in later chapters, many anthropologists use term sociocultural system as basic conceptual framework for analyzing ethnographic research.
  • Bamberger, Joan. 1974. “The Myth Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society.” In Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Eds.). Women, Culture, and Society. pp. 263–280. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Barash, David P. 1987. The Hare and Tortoise: Culture, Biology, and Human Nature. New York: Penguin.
    Barkow, Jerome. H., Leda. Cosmides, and John Tooby (Eds.). 1992. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Barmé, Scott. 2002. Woman, Man, Bangkok: Love, Sex and Popular Culture in Thailand. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
« Back to Glossary Index