Culture Research Paper

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Culture is notoriously one of the most difficult terms to define. The cultural historian Raymond Williams (1921–1988) 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 (1885–1965), 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 agriculturalist” 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 (1744–1803) 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 (1832–1917) 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 (1858–1942), 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 Herder’s 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 Tylor’s, by the British poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822–1888). 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 (1935–2003) 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 (1875–1973) and Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), 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 (1891–1937). In a gentle critique of Marx’s 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 (1892–1940) 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 (1929–2007) 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.


  1. Arnold, Matthew. 1869. Culture and Anarchy. An Essay in Political and Social Criticism. London: Smith, Eler and Co.
  2. Baudrillard, Jean. [1976] 1993. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt Brace.
  4. Boas, Franz. 1930. Anthropology. In The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan.
  5. Boas, Franz. 1938. The Mind of Primitive Man. Rev ed. New York: Macmillan.
  6. Eliot, T. S. 1949. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
  7. Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
  8. 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.
  9. Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 1972. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Seabury Press.
  10. Kroeber, A. L., and Clyde Kluckhohn. 1953. Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. New York: Vintage.
  11. Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
  12. Tylor, Edward B. 1871. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, Vol. 1. London: J. Murray.
  13. White, Leslie A., and Beth Dillingham. 1973. The Concept of Culture. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing.
  14. Williams, Raymond. 1983. Keywords. Rev. ed. London: Fontana.

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