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While debates surrounding the concept of culture reflect legitimate ideological differences, they are often clouded by misunderstanding—not only is the word used to denote widely different ideas, but it is frequently defined in vague and ambiguous terms (if explicitly defined at all). This research paper seeks to provide a clearer picture of the concept by tracing the details of its use from its earliest applications through its role in contemporary anthropological thought. First, the origins and evolution of the concept are explored, with particular attention to key aspects of its development in American anthropology. Next, the contemporary concept of culture as meanings and symbols is examined in detail. Finally, major critiques of the concept and notable responses to those critiques are presented.


  1. Introduction
  2. The Evolution of the Concept of Culture
    1. Etymology
    2. Cultural Relativism
    3. Culture and the Individual
  3. The Contemporary Concept: Culture as Meanings and Symbols
    1. Culture as Meaning
    2. Culture as Symbolic Systems
    3. The Nature of Symbols
    4. The Pervasiveness of Symbols
  4. The Constitutive Power of Culture
    1. Methodological Implications
  5. Critiques of the Culture Concept
    1. Social Anthropology
    2. Postmodern Anthropology
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography


Culture, as a concept, is one of the most complex ideas in academic use today. It is defined and applied in various and often incompatible ways and is the site of significant disagreement between academic disciplines regarding the fundamental character of human social life and the manner in which it is to be studied. For anthropologists, culture tends to refer to symbolic systems of beliefs, values, and shared understandings that render the world meaningful and intelligible for a particular group of people. While these systems— which provide the basis for such elementary concepts as food and kinship and even influence how individuals experience time, space, and other aspects of reality— often appear to their adherents as natural and objective, they in fact represent variable, socially agreed-upon models. In turn, humans must themselves construct these models in order to find order and meaning in a world lacking an inherent sense of either.

Ironically, just as the anthropological concept of culture has gained extraordinary momentum in popular use, as well as in areas such as law and political science, the concept has come under criticism from within the discipline of anthropology itself. Some anthropologists allege that the culture concept oversimplifies and stereotypes whole societies, erroneously treating them as isolated and uniform while underplaying individuality and diversity of opinion. Others maintain, however, that the concept has never entailed such assumptions, and that culture is simply a useful way to think about the beliefs and shared understandings that make it possible for humans to understand their world.

The Evolution of the Concept of Culture


The original meaning of the English word culture was derived from the Latin cultura, in both the literal sense of cultivation (as in “of a crop”) and the metaphorical sense of self-improvement (the “cultivation of the mind”). The latter was commonly invoked in 18th-century England referring to personal betterment through the refinement of judgment, taste, and intellect; and, by extension, to those activities believed to express and sustain that sophistication (Williams, 1983). This basic sense underlies the most common popular application of the term today, which identifies a specific segment of society as cultural (including, for example, theater and art) to the exclusion of all others.

The anthropological concept of culture took a less direct path in entering the English language, first passing through German in the form of the philosophical concept of kultur. Kultur had emerged from the idea of cultivation as well, but soon thereafter began to develop in opposition to the French word civilisation as the two concepts became the site of tension between the philosophical traditions of the respective countries. Civilisation was linked to the French enlightenment and the idea that society naturally progressed from a primitive state marked by ignorance and barbarism toward universal ideals in science, secularism, and rational thought. Kultur, meanwhile, came to represent local and personal concepts like religion and tradition— the “national character” of a people. In 1871, British anthropologist Edward Tylor combined elements of both concepts in defining culture as “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” (as cited in Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952, p. 81). This is generally considered to be the first formal anthropological definition of the term, as it introduced the idea of culture as a learned, shared, and broadly inclusive framework encompassing nearly every aspect of human social life.

Cultural Relativism

While Edward Tylor’s definition was groundbreaking, it lacked an essential element of the original German concept that would later become a key feature of the anthropological concept of culture. Tylor was a cultural evolutionist—he believed that over time and with the right conditions, societies developed toward higher and better forms. Thus, he regarded 19th-century England as the absolute pinnacle of human civilization, and considered all other societies (especially those outside of Western Europe and North America) to be less developed and inherently inferior. Franz Boas, a German American scientist widely regarded as the founder of cultural anthropology, was among the first to dispute the evolutionist view. Boas regarded the principles of cultural evolutionism as unscientific and challenged the crucial assumption that the presence of similar practices across societies necessarily indicated their common evolutionary origin. He cited counterexamples where nearly identical cultural institutions had arisen in different settings for markedly different reasons. Applying an approach that was both historical and comparative, Boas (1940/1995) argued that society did not follow a linear progression toward one ideal form, but instead moved in various directions based on fluid historical circumstances.

Most important, Boas asserted that individuals actually experience reality differently based on the cultural context in which they are raised—that “the seeing eye is the organ of tradition” (1940/1995). This in turn meant that the ideas and practices of a people could only be understood relative to the particular ways in which the members of that community perceived and envisioned their world (1889). Boas reasoned that if cultural patterns for perception and judgment were a product of socialization, their adherence must be grounded in emotions and unconscious attachment rather than in any rational or practical appraisals of their virtue or effectiveness. Thus he concluded that any attempt to rank or comparatively evaluate the practices of diverse societies would be nonsensical.

The mistake that cultural evolutionists made, then, was to view their own culturally derived ideas and perceptions as broadly applicable and uniquely valid. Boas pointed to the analysis of speech sounds as an illustration of why this is a hazardous thing to do. Someone who is unfamiliar with the sounds used in a particular language will often hear those sounds differently than a native speaker, by, for instance, failing to recognize the difference between two sounds treated as functionally identical in his or her own language. The Japanese language, for example, does not distinguish between the English /r/ and /1/ sounds, and unless exposed to English at an early age, speakers of Japanese tend to mistakenly perceive those sounds as the same. This propensity led to an unfortunate (if humorous) episode in which early cultural evolutionists misheard the speech sounds of an indigenous American language and declared it inferior for what they mistakenly perceived to be the lack of a fixed phonemic system.

According to the “linguistic relativity hypothesis” advanced by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, the principle of relativism extends to systems of linguistic meaning as well. Sapir and Whorf argued that the language individuals speak has an impact not only on how they are able to talk about things, but also on how they actually perceive what would otherwise appear to be fundamental aspects of reality. This prompted Sapir to state that in learning a language, one effectively learns a “world.” Whorf drew upon his experience as a fire instructor to show how the connotation of a word like empty could lead people to behave carelessly around spent gasoline drums filled with dangerous vapor. Subsequent research in this field has uncovered linguistic influences on dimensions such as the perception of color and spatial orientation, as well as on moral reasoning and other forms of decision making. Whorf noted that the majority of linguistic categories are “covert,” or existing below conscious awareness, an observation that anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn (1952) extended by concluding that all cultural knowledge incorporates both conscious and unconscious categories that “screen and distort” one’s conception of reality.

While linguistic analysis may offer the clearest illustration of relativism at work, the principle appears to hold for a wide range of cultural phenomena. Not only do beliefs, attitudes, and values differ markedly from one society to the next, but also comparative research has shown that members of different cultural groups can vary even with respect to their emotional and physiological responses to stimuli. Many Americans, for example, would experience disgust and perhaps even nausea at the very thought of eating live grubs. Yet for the members of many other societies, grubs are considered delicious, and the consumption of onions and mushrooms is seen as disgusting.

As a consequence of this relativistic dimension, the concept of culture has been criticized for its perceived role in undermining attempts to formulate objective and universally binding rules for moral human conduct. And indeed, if it is illegitimate to compare diverse beliefs and practices, and if everything from nausea to the nature of reality is experienced through the screen of culture, then it would seem quite difficult to argue in favor of objective, universal moral truth. As a number of theorists have maintained, however, this does not necessarily mean that moral beliefs are impossible. It simply implies that if normative statements are to make sense, then they must be made with reference to common understandings of what the world is like. As with varying ideas on the nature and meaningfulness of reality, the fact that conceptions of moral truth are inevitably local and particular does not necessarily mean that they are irrational, illegitimate, or untenable.

Culture and the Individual

A key question in anthropology has been whether culture represents its own level of analysis, or whether it can be reduced to (i.e., explained in terms of) the ideas and actions of individuals. According to Alfred Kroeber (1917), an influential anthropologist and the first of Franz Boas’s many doctoral students, as soon as culture had been recognized as a “distinctive product of men living in societies,” it was only a matter of time until culture constituted a “second level.” Kroeber called that level the superorganic. Under this view, the behavior of individuals combines to form a system that follows its own set of rules. Cultural phenomena are emergent properties of that system, and thus require their own level of explanation. Thus, Kroeber argued, anthropologists need not concern themselves with individuals in dealing with culture; in fact, they might actually produce richer analyses by ignoring them.

Edward Sapir (1917), also a student of Boas and one of the founders of linguistic anthropology, was intensely critical of the superorganic, accusing it of representing “a social determinism amounting to a religion.” Sapir felt the theory treated culture too much like a thing or a concrete object rather than an abstract concept, and left no room for individuals to act in accordance with their own volition. Sapir was similarly critical of the influential theories of Ruth Benedict (1934), another student of Boas who advanced the idea of cultures as highly integrated wholes characterized by an overarching “personality.” In a profile of three indigenous groups in Melanesia and North America, Benedict famously declared that each could be described by a specific personality type (the Dobu of Papua New Guinea, for example, she described as “paranoid schizophrenic”). Sapir was especially scornful of this attempt to use psychological terms to describe whole societies, famously remarking to his students that a culture cannot “be paranoid.”

Sapir’s own theory, presented in a 1924 essay titled “Culture, Genuine and Spurious,” regarded culture as consisting of the peculiar attitudes and ways of life that gave a people its distinctive place in the world. A “genuine” culture, for Sapir, was a harmonious, balanced, and healthy “spiritual organism.” But while this did imply a significant amount of integration, a genuine culture was not merely “efficient”; that is, individuals could not simply exist as cogs in a machine. For Sapir, culture and individual could not exist without each other, since culture could not perpetuate itself without individuals as “nuclei,” and individuals could not simply create culture out of nothing. Sapir’s solution, and his attempt to reconcile the contradiction he saw in Benedict and others, was essentially humanistic: The individual finds a “mastery”—a vocation expressing his or her unique individual skill but that is harmonious with the will and desires of the other individuals in the community. Sapir was careful to emphasize, however, that the very categories of “culture” and “individual” could only be recognized from the anthropologist’s view, since the individual himself could perceive no such distinction, psychologically speaking. The more humanistic elements of Sapir’s theory never achieved wide acceptance, but his ideas on the relationship between culture and the individual anticipated many lines of critique present in “postmodern” anthropological theory (see the section on “Critiques of the Culture Concept”).

The Contemporary Concept: Culture as Meanings and Symbols

Later, some referred to Edward Tylor’s pioneering definition of culture in 1871 as the “everything-is-culture” definition, as it included not only things like knowledge, belief, and values, but also customs and behavior, and even a miscellaneous category called “other capabilities.” Franz Boas and his students gave the concept a more scientific cast in the early part of the 20th century, and added to it the crucial dimension of cultural relativism. But up to and through the 1940s, cultural anthropologists continued to draw little distinction between ideas and behavior—belief in the power of sorcery, for instance, was culture, but so too was the ritual dance performed by the sorcerer, and perhaps even the artifacts created and used to perform the ritual. Margaret Mead, a student of Boas and one of the most well-known cultural anthropologists in history, employed a concept of culture that actually centered on the idea of a “complex of behavior.”

As part of a seminal treatise on the culture concept, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) were among the first to suggest that the concept of culture should exclude behavior. Their conclusion was based on the recognition that other factors besides culture influence how humans think and act. The problem with treating a particular behavior as a part of culture was that it essentially proposed that the behavior belonged to or was a unique product of culture, ignoring the powerful psychological, social, biological, and material factors that also motivate action. Like the rest of those factors, culture could not include behavior, since, as Kroeber and Kluckhohn noted, culture was itself a “pattern or design” abstracted from observable behavior— something that made behavior meaningful.

This view does not entail, however, that culture is just like politics or economics or any other domain of human social life. Precisely because culture is not behavior itself, but the beliefs and ideas that render behavior meaningful, culture is an essential aspect of nearly every dimension of social-scientific analysis. Even those actions perhaps appearing on the surface to be purely economic or political in character, for instance, are impossible to decipher without an understanding of the particular cultural forms that make the situations in which they occur sensible and meaningful in the first place (see Sewell, 2005).

The contemporary concept of culture, then, focuses not only on behavior and artifacts as such, but also on what that behavior means and what those artifacts symbolize. For David Schneider (1868), an American anthropologist who helped found the approach known as “symbolic anthropology,” this meant that even behavioral norms should be excluded from cultural analysis. Schneider defined culture as a set of “definitions, premises, postulates, presumptions, propositions, and perceptions about the nature of the universe and man’s place in it” (p. 202), explaining that while “norms tell the actor how to play the scene, culture tells the actor how the scene is set and what it all means” (p. 203).

Culture as Meaning

The importance placed on meaning in the modern concept of culture—not only for the anthropologist attempting to understand social life, but for the individual who lives it—is perhaps best accounted for in the writings of Clifford Geertz, whose influential ideas helped to redefine the discipline of anthropology in the late 20th century. Geertz (1973a) observed that humans are “unfinished animals,” set apart not just by our ability to learn, but by the astounding amount that we must learn in order to be able to function at the most basic level. Geertz attributed this to the fact that cultural evolution and biological evolution overlapped by millions of years in the phylogenetic development of the species, such that the human brain became utterly dependent on inherited systems of meaning. While our biological “hardware” might furnish us with basic capabilities, we must be socialized into specific social systems in order to use them. We cannot, for instance, simply speak; we must learn to speak English or Japanese or some other highly particular linguistic form. This accounts for the high degree of variability seen across human societies. As Geertz put it, “We all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end having lived only one” (p. 45), since the gap between what biology dictates and what we need to know in order to survive can only be filled with highly particular cultural forms. Without culture, then, humans would not revert to some basic and primary hunter-gatherer form, but would instead be “monstrosities” unable to accomplish even the simplest tasks (1973a, p. 49).

Culture as Symbolic Systems

A central feature of the contemporary concept of culture is the emphasis placed on symbols. More than just providing the means to express and transmit cultural knowledge from person to person and generation to generation, symbols are seen as essential to the building of that knowledge in the first place. Anthropologists now tend to regard culture itself as a collection of symbolic systems, where the construction of cultural models and concepts relies on the unique properties of symbolic representation.

The Nature of Symbols

According to David Schneider (1968), a symbol is “anything that stands for something else.” The idea is that this “something else,” called the symbol’s referent, is not logically deducible from any characteristic of the symbol itself, but is associated with it purely on the basis of an agreement made by a social group. The word dog, for instance, really has nothing to do with the actual thing that speakers of English call a dog, but the connection is made because a group (the speakers of English) has agreed that a particular symbol (the word dog) will stand for a particular referent (the domesticated descendants of the Asian red wolf). At first glance, this might seem unremarkable. But as Clifford Geertz (1973a) pointed out, while there are many instances in nature of “patterns for processes”—such as when a duckling learns a set of behaviors by imprinting on his mother, or when DNA issues “instructions” on how to build certain tissues—the capacity to represent objects and occurrences as they are is exceedingly rare, and probably unique to humans. Symbolic representation allows the users of symbolic systems to make reference to and reflect on things that are not actually present at the time, converting them into ideas that can be analyzed, manipulated, and combined with other such concepts in the medium of abstract thought.

Furthermore, symbolic reference involves much more than merely matching a word or other symbol to its counterpart in the “real world” of objects. In a famous example, Edward Sapir illustrated that when someone uses the word house in the general sense, they do not think of any one house, but of any and all houses that have ever existed or could possibly exist, as well as the set of collective beliefs, attitudes, and judgments associated with that class of objects. This is what is called a concept. Conceptual thought opens the door to the imaginative and productive capacities of the mind, allowing humans to do such extraordinary things as wonder about our place in the world, reflect on things that could have happened, but didn’t, and then lie about all of it. Closely related to the ability to lie is the ability to form conceptions of things pregnant with collective attitudes and value judgments that far exceed the natural or objective characteristics of the referents themselves. As French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1912/1995) emphasized in his landmark treatise on religion, symbols allow groups to focus their collective mental energy on concretized representations of social phenomena and give tangible expression to bundles of emotions and attitudes that might otherwise remain ineffable. As anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1976) phrased it: “Men begin as men . . . precisely when they experience the world as a concept (symbolically)” (p. 142). It is for this reason that symbols are seen as the building blocks of culture.

The Pervasiveness of Symbols

Language is the most highly developed symbolic system, and the most common form in which cultural meanings are expressed. As the foremost means of “cutting up” the world into sensible and meaningful categories, language is virtually impossible to distinguish from culture, and it’s not surprising that the idiosyncrasies of its particular forms can have a powerful impact on how its speakers perceive reality (see earlier section, “Cultural Relativism”). But words are far from the only type of symbols used by humans. Clifford Geertz (1973b) regarded any “object, act, event, quality, or relation” as a potential symbol, and as it turns out, human social life is replete with organized systems of them. Geertz held up religion as a prototypical example, where acts, artifacts, relationships, and even people serve to symbolize the abstract concept of the supernatural and the beliefs and values associated with it (1973b). Religion also offers examples of what Roy D’Andrade (1984) would later call the directive and evocative functions of symbolic systems, as it serves to guide and motivate action by, as Geertz (1973b) put it, forming an idea of what the world is like and “clothing” that idea in such an “aura of factuality” as to make it seem self-evident.

Symbolic systems can become so engrained in a community’s understanding of the world that they become difficult to spot. Kinship systems, for instance, appeared for a very long time (even to anthropologists) to be deeply rooted in biology. But David Schneider (1968) argued that there is nothing about shared ancestry or genetic relatedness that necessarily leads to a recognition of the rights, duties, and responsibilities associated with cultural systems of kinship. Numerous kin classifications, in fact, ignore that criterion completely. Schneider concluded that biological relatedness is a symbol just like any other, arbitrarily designated to denote shared identity and mutual responsibility among social groups.

The Constitutive Power of Culture

The very act of perceiving an object or event in the world as being a type of something (e.g., perceiving a certain creature as a dog, the clasping of hands as a prayer, or the meeting of lips as a kiss) entails the symbolic interpretation and generalization of a specific, concrete event. Because symbols represent concepts rather than just things as they exist in the world, almost everything humans perceive is at least partially constituted by collective representations and interpretation. But the power of culture is such that, in many cases, symbols do not attach to any referent at all, and instead actually create the objects or events to which they refer. Philosopher John Searle (1969) referred to this as the capacity to enact constitutive rules. In statements like “when a player crosses the goal line, he scores a touchdown” or “the candidate who receives the plurality of votes in the general election becomes president,” constitutive rules actually create the categories of touchdown and president. Societies are built upon intricate systems of these constitutive rules, which generally take the form “x counts as y in context c.” While usually thought of by the members of the community as natural or even commonsensical, these rules are entirely a matter of social agreement. The idea that one owns a house or car or any other piece of property, for instance, is based on the collective belief that transferring something called “money” to an institution called a “bank” entitles one to special rights over some material thing. Most often, others will not even question those rights. But when someone does seek to violate the agreement through force, such as by stealing a car or invading a home, it is understood that people in uniforms with guns will (hopefully) show up to stop them. Those uniformed enforcers of social consensus will only do so, however, insofar as they agree to obey the orders of an imaginary chain of authority that runs all the way to the president of the United States, whose power comes not from any physical or mental capacity of his, but from the collective agreement that he is to have such authority. Thus, personal property—like civil government or American football—relies on a complex, ordered hierarchy of constitutive rules and social facts that have no basis in material reality.

These institutions reflect a more basic property of symbolic representation: The meaning of cultural units tends to be layered upon many other orders of meaning. Something as simple as reading this sentence, for instance, plays upon such varied levels of conventional meaning as the denotation of speech sounds by individual letters, the definitions of words and groups of words, the grammatical rules that operate at the sentence level, and matters of tone and style conveyed by the structure of the paper as a whole.

Methodological Implications

The centrality of meanings and symbols in contemporary concepts of culture poses challenges for the study of social life. To begin with, there really is no such thing as a symbol per se, although almost anything can function as one. Symbolism is not an inherent quality of any word or sign, but rather a product of interpretation and consensus. Nor is the meaning of a symbol rigidly determined even by the force of collective agreement. As a number of theorists have argued, the interpretation of symbols relies on complex and often emotionally charged processes in the mind of the interpreter, which it must call upon a broad range of preexisting schemas, scripts, and tacit understandings in order to make any sense at all. Consider the following short description of a sequence of events: “Roger went to the restaurant/The waiter was unfriendly/Roger left a small tip.” In their work on artificial intelligence, Schank and Abelson (1977) showed how little sense such a sequence makes without detailed prior knowledge of what normally happens at a restaurant, what is expected of a waiter, and what is communicated in the complex practice of tipping.

For Clifford Geertz (1973c), the ambiguity and polysemy of the subject matter of anthropology meant that cultures could not be explained, but instead could only be interpreted through a process he called “thick description.” To truly grasp the meaning and significance of a belief or action, Geertz argued, one must first acquire a comprehensive understanding of the social and cultural context in which it occurs. Drawing on literary theory, Geertz suggested that culture must be “read” like a text—a text that, from the anthropologist’s point of view, is “foreign and faded,” full of abbreviations, omissions, and contradictions, and written not by anyone’s pen but by sporadic instances of socially meaningful behavior.

Critiques of the Culture Concept

Social Anthropology

While culture has long been the central object of inquiry in American anthropology (hence the term cultural anthropology), scholars in the British social-anthropological tradition have historically been skeptical of culture, and have instead framed their investigations around the concept of society. In social anthropology, society refers to a complex web of social relationships and systematized patterns of behaviors and ideologies known as institutions (e.g., the military, primitive magic, the nuclear family, or the National Football League). Social anthropologists compare institutions across different societies in order to ascertain their “function.” They are particularly interested in “latent” functions: those consequences of institutionalized behavior of which the actors are unaware, but which nevertheless work to motivate the very existence of the institution. The functionalist approach rests on the assumption that particular types of institutions, such as kinship or government, are motivated by the same basic factors and oriented toward the same basic ends in all human societies in which they are present. Underneath their superficial differences, the various cultural manifestations of these institutions are seen as essentially similar, like species belonging to the same genus.

As concepts, culture and society are not necessarily incompatible, and have been viewed by some as closely related and even complementary. But for several generations of social anthropologists, culture was something of a taboo term. A. R. Radcliffe-Browne, one of the discipline’s founders, insisted that the concept of culture erroneously treated abstract ideas as real and concrete, and was too broad a concept to be useful in the study of social life. He claimed that society, on the other hand, was the proper object of anthropology, since societies were bounded and concrete, and social structure was embodied in directly observable social behavior. Eventually, however, social anthropologists recognized that no attempt to study social relationships could be successful without consideration of the cultural beliefs and values associated with them. Oxford anthropologist John Beattie (1964) identified this as the primary reason that Radcliffe-Browne’s limited conception of social anthropology as “comparative sociology” never fully caught on: The behavior of people in society cannot be understood without reference to what social relationships mean to those who participate in them.

Still, a number of social anthropologists remain reluctant to refer to the semiotic dimension of social life as culture. Adam Kuper (1999) argued that it is more legitimate to analyze religious beliefs, arts, and other institutions as separate domains than as “bound together in a single bundle labeled culture” (p. 245). But as William Sewell (2005) observed, and as Ruth Benedict (1934) noted before him, basic beliefs and symbolic representations of the world tend to cut across the lines that sociologists would use to carve up the social sphere, reaching across institutions, linguistic communities, age-groups, and even religions to span entire societies. This suggests that any attempt to approach such beliefs as though they were miscellaneous qualities of separate institutions risks completely missing the presence of a single, pervasive cultural theme. The more or less unquestioned belief in the sanctity of human life in modern society, for instance, affects almost every conceivable institution, from industrial development and urban planning to the cultivation of food and medicinal testing. To effectively treat such an idea as a product of any one institution would thus be a significant analytical mistake.

Postmodern Anthropology

In recent years, some of the strongest criticisms of the culture concept have come from within the discipline of cultural anthropology itself. Adherents of a loosely defined movement known as “postmodern anthropology” (also variably referred to as postcultural, poststructural, and reflexive anthropology) have questioned the very usefulness and validity of culture as an abstract concept. Often associated with a 1986 collection of essays edited by James Clifford and George Marcus called Writing Culture, the movement can be viewed an extension of the theories of Clifford Geertz—particularly his use of literary theory and his emphasis on the importance of context. Michael Silverstein (2005) identified the “symbols and meaning-ism” that Geertz helped usher in as the point at which anthropology became a hermeneutic and interpretive project rather than an observational science. But for those affiliated with the Writing Culture movement, Geertz stopped short of the inevitable conclusion of his argument—that the description or “interpretation” of a culture is as much a reflection of the point of view of the anthropologist as it is of the culture itself. From this perspective, the anthropologist does not simply record facts about others’ ways of life; instead, she actually creates (or at least coconstructs) the culture as she describes it. This is obviously very troubling for the credibility of anthropological knowledge, and it becomes especially problematic when, as was traditionally the case, the anthropologist is a member of a dominant society granted unilateral authority to depict the beliefs and practices of a subjugated population. Critics point to this unequal power dynamic as at least partially to blame for misguided attempts to capture complex realities using false dichotomies like “savage vs. civilized,” “rational vs. irrational,” or “individualist vs. collectivist.”

This “reflexive” critique is linked to an older, more basic criticism in anthropology, suggesting that culture is a tool for the preservation of existing systems of power and oppression. Proponents of this view argue that by ascribing too much importance to tradition, the concept of culture legitimates the domination and mistreatment of traditionally powerless segments of societies. A frequently cited example is the disadvantaged place that women are perceived as occupying in traditionally patriarchal societies. Others have argued, however, that the perception of inequality and discrimination in other cultures is prone to error, since it often fails to take into account the subtle cultural mechanisms that redistribute power and shape social relationships. And while there certainly are cases where the idea of culture is misused to justify atrocities, this does not explain why the concept should be rejected as an analytical tool.

Another dimension of the postmodern critique takes specific aim at the practice of referring to a culture or to cultures in the plural. Some feel that this use—which is often traced, somewhat controversially, to the theories of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead—oversimplifies and stereotypes other societies, erroneously treating entire communities as uniform, isolated, and unchanging while downplaying diversity and internal disagreement. This implication is ever more frequently seen in popular usage, where terms like Japanese culture imply a universally shared, unquestioned, and totaling “way of life.” And while integration is not necessarily synonymous with cultural determinism, Benedict (1934), for her part, did little to dispel that interpretation in asserting that the individual “is the little creature of his culture. . . . Its habits are his habits, its beliefs his beliefs” (pp. 2–3). In response, critics like Clifford and Marcus (1986) stressed the importance of individual agency and “resistance” to cultural norms, pointing out that cultures are not bounded, homogeneous, or “pure.” Instead, culture is contested, contradictory, and only loosely integrated, constantly subject to change both from within and without. Postmodernists note that cultures have always been hybridized and permeable, but that this has become increasingly so in recent decades in the face of globalization and capitalist expansion. As Clifford and Marcus (1986) observed, difference is now routinely found next door and familiarity at the end of the earth, suggesting that received notions of culture are not only mistaken, but also irrelevant.

Others maintain, however, that the concept of culture has never implied uniformity, and that no serious anthropologist ever viewed individuals as mindless automatons totally controlled by a self-contained and unchanging cultural system. They argue that culture has always been an abstraction; that is, culture does not represent a “thing” that exists in the world as such, but is instead separated by way of observation and logical inference from the context of real-world actions and utterances in which it is embedded. Alfred Kroeber (1952) defended the practice of speaking of cultures in the plural on this basis, anticipating contemporary critiques in pointing out that one could speak at the same time of a Tokyo or a Japanese or an East Asian culture without implying that any of them represented a homogeneous or totalizing way of life. More recently, Marshall Sahlins (1999) has asserted that the concept of culture critiqued by postmodern anthropologists is a myth. Sahlins does argue that cultural communities can have boundaries, but that these boundaries, rather than being barriers to the flow of people, goods, or ideas, represent conscious designations of identity and inclusion made by the members of the community themselves.

Regarding the uniformity and homogeneity of cultural knowledge, anthropologist Richard Shweder (2003) has argued that culture never implied the passive acceptance of received beliefs and practices or the absence of dispute or debate. Shweder points out that every culture has experts and novices, but that such unequal distribution of knowledge does not mean that anyone is more or less a member of that culture. As one of the chief proponents of the resurgent interdisciplinary field of “cultural psychology,” Shweder has helped demonstrate that basic psychological processes such as selfhood and emotion, rather than being products of deep structural similarity, are rooted in culturally specific modes of understanding (Shweder & Bourne, 1984). Such findings have provided some of the driving force behind the growing influence of the concept of culture in the field of social psychology (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991; et al).


Whether prior theories or particular uses of the term carried misguided implications or not, anthropologists continue to recognize culture as an indispensible consideration in the analysis of human social life. As theorists from nearly every area of study surveyed in this research paper have agreed, shared cultural knowledge is absolutely essential for individuals to function in a way that is recognizably human (see Geertz, 1973a, 1973b, 1973c; Whorf, 1956; Beattie, 1964; Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Sewell, 2005; Sahlins, 1976). Clifford Geertz referred to a gap that exists between our species’ innate biological predispositions and what humans must know in order to survive and function— a gap that could only be filled with highly particular systems of beliefs, values, and representations expressed and transmitted through symbols.

Even those most critical of the concept tend to recognize the centrality and pervasiveness of culture. Culture represents the shared ideas that define and give meaning to objects, events, and relationships in our world and the collective representations that create and maintain social institutions. This is true even of those domains of human activity appearing to follow their own logic and obeying their set of rules and principles. Renato Rosaldo (1989), whose work was also included among the 1986 collection of essays that kindled the postmodern anthropological movement, wrote as follows:

—–Culture . . . refers broadly to the forms through which people make sense of their lives. . . . It does not inhabit a set-aside domain as does politics or economics. From the pirouettes of classical ballet to the most brute of brute facts, all human conduct is culturally mediated. Culture encompasses the everyday and the esoteric, the mundane and the elevated, the ridiculous and the sublime. Neither high nor low, culture is all-pervasive. (p. 26)

Thus, the concept of culture, in one way or another, is likely to remain of central concern to the discipline of anthropology for the foreseeable future.


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