The term "culture" traces its roots back to German Romanticism and Herder's idea of the Volksgeist (the "spirit" of a people), which was adapted for anthropological use by Adolf Bastian. From Bastian the term diffused (via Edward B. Tylor) into British anthropology (where it never received great prominence), and (via Franz Boas) into American anthropology (where it came to define the very subject-matter of anthropology). Nevertheless, in one of the many paradoxical turns of the history of anthropology, it is Tylor's definition that is most often cited as classical.
By Tylor, the term "culture" was used to denote the totality (see holism) of the humanly created world, from material culture and cultivated landscapes, via social institutions (political, religious, economic etc.), to knowledge and meaning. Tylor's definition is still widely cited:
"Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, 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." (Tylor 1958 : 1)
Often this is still what is meant by the term, though there have been a number of attempts at narrowing down the definition and giving it a less totalizing meaning. Two extremes may here be noted:
(1) Within ecological anthropology there is a tendency to describe culture as a "tool" used by society to maintain its adaptation to nature. This "tool" comprises concrete, physical tools, but also knowledge, skills and forms of organization. A classical definition of this kind was offered by Rappaport (1968 : 233). According to this definition, culture is
"... a part of the distinctive means by which a local population maintains itself in an ecosystem and by which a regional population maintains and coordinates its groups and distributes them over the available land."
(2) A number of anthropologists have argued for a purely cognitive definition of culture. The idea is here that "culture" may be limited to the communicative and meaningful aspects of social life: from language to the meaning carried by symbols, persons, actions and events. This definition has its roots in the American Culture and Personality School (see Ruth Benedict). It was formalized in 1952 by Kroeber and Kluckhohn in their famous compilation of 162 definitions of culture that were current in the anthropological literature at the time. In an attempt to bring order into this definitional jungle, the authors suggested that the subject matter of anthropology be culture, defined as the symbolic, linguistic and meaningful aspects of human collectivities. Sociology, in contrast, was to concern itself with "society", i.e. social organization, social interaction etc. In formulating this "division of labor" between anthropology and sociology, the influence of the sociologist Talcott Parsons (who cooperated extensively with Kroeber and Kluckhohn) is clearly visible.
Even in the USA, however, the "division of labor" was never strictly upheld: Clifford Geertz, Kluckhohns influential student, though he adhered to the conceptual division of culture and society, was not (even in his early works) willing to surrender "society" to the sociologists. For British social anthropologists, whose canonical father was Durkheim and who understood anthropology as "comparative sociology", the American "division of labor" was not acceptable at all.
Geertz himself provided a classical "cognitive" definition of culture, as:
"... an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life" (Geertz 1973: 89).
In spite of heated debates and heavy critique, the contrast between (cognitive) "culture" and (sociological) "society" has wide currency in anthropology even today, with the latter comprising the interactive and material aspects of social life: everything people do - with themselves, with objects and with each other.
In the 1980's, the concept of culture was stridently attacked by the postmodernists, who argued that it misleads us to think of societies as static units, with an internal cohesion that is simply taken for granted; the reified exotification of the lifeways of an entire "people" was also heavily criticized by indigenous groups; while other actors saw culture as a politically dangerous term that might legitimize nationalism, ethnic stigmatization and racism. Even in the 2000's, the culture concept has not recovered from this barrage of critique, and many anthropologists have argued that the term (which has gained increasing popularity outside anthropology) should no longer be used by anthropologists. It is worth noting, however, that it is the cognitive definition of culture that is most vulnerable to critique, and that the old, Tylorean definition may still survive into post-postmodernism. Moreover, the critique of culture is to a large extent part of an internal debate in American "cultural anthropology", and has had much less impact in the European anthropological traditions, with their sociological bias.
(See: ethos, habitus, discourse, networks, ethnicity, function, cultural relativism.)
See also Wikipedia's article on Culture, at:
To see texts on AnthroBase, which treat the term Culture,