What is culture?

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What is culture?

If you look up the term "culture" in the Oxford English Dictionary you will find that the term "culture" is used in very different contexts, can refer to very diverse concepts and there concepts include very different materials. To name just a few of these contexts which the OED establishes:

  • The cultivation of land / soil, plants and animals and the product of such culture, i.e. crop
  • The cultivation of microorganisms in biology
  • The cultivation or development of the mind
  • The training and improvement of the human body
  • The distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life of a particular nation, society, people,
  • The philosophy, practices, and attitudes of an institution, business, or other organization
  • Things that refine the mind

It appears so, that even though many people speak about culture it is hard to find a single underlying meaning that unifies the description of "culturing" bacteria or "Hawai'i's unique culture and history" (Aloha Feb. 64/3) or observations that "Football is an art more central to our [English] culture than anything the Arts Council deigns to recognize." (Germaine Greer, The Independent, 28 Jun. 1996).

Much rather the term often seems to denote something entirely else depending on the context of utterance. For scholars of culture such as you this poses the question of what you mean when you use the term "culture" and what you are looking for if you want to analyse culture?

You have two options here:

  • You can go and try to find the underlying essential core of meaning that unifies all utterances of "culture" and you can then try to define what culture is.
  • Or you can understand the speaking about culture as a work in progress. You can look at this progress as a constant, ongoing negotiation about what culture is. In these negotiations each speaker constructs the meaning of "culture" specifically and every time anew. In this sense every utterance of the term "culture" participates in the discourse on culture in which each utterance participate in the construction of what culture can mean. Such a perspective allows you to understand and describe the different contexts of use and to find your position in the complex discourse on culture.