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A Dictionary of Sociology
John ScottJohn Scott


When social scientists use the term culture they tend to be talking about a less restrictive concept than that implied in everyday speech. In social science, culture is all that in human society which is socially rather than biologically transmitted, whereas the commonsense usage tends to point only to the arts. Culture is thus a general term for the symbolic and learned aspects of human society, although some animal behaviourists now assert that certain primates have at least the capacity for culture.

Social anthropological ideas of culture are based to a great extent on the definition given by Edward Tylor in 1871, in which he referred to a learned complex of knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, and custom. Some writers make distinctions within this category. German usage distinguishes between Kultur and Zivilisation, the former referring to symbols and values, while the latter refers to technical, economic, and political ideas and organization. Archaeological usage, though acknowledging the wholeness of human societies, makes a distinction between material culture (or artefacts) and the non-material or adaptive culture transmitted by teaching and tradition. Only material culture is accessible to archaeology, whereas adaptive culture is the subject of history, sociology, and anthropology.

19th-century anthropologists, such as Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan, saw culture as a conscious creation of human rationality. Civilization and culture, in this conception, show a progressive tendency towards what are regarded as higher moral values, and this enabled the Victorian mind to construct a hierarchy of cultures or civilizations that provided a rationale for colonial activities by apparently higher-order Western civilizations.

Contemporary ideas of culture arose through the work of field anthropologists such as Franz Boas, around the turn of the century, and tend towards relativism. The intention is to describe, compare, and contrast cultures, rather than rank them, although Boas and some later North American anthropologists have also been interested in the processes by which cultural traits may be borrowed or otherwise transmitted between societies. This has led to the development of the idea of culture areas, and a comparative ethnography of North America, both of which are largely absent in British social anthropology. For the latter, culture is generally taken to mean a collection of ideas and symbols that is generally distinguished in the discipline from social structure, and this distinction is also central to European and North American sociological usages of the term.

In cultural anthropology, analysis of culture may proceed at three levels: learned patterns of behaviour; aspects of culture that act below conscious levels (such as the deep level of grammar and syntax in language, of which a native language speaker is seldom aware); and patterns of thought and perception, that are also culturally determined. An interesting review of approaches to culture is Adam Kuper’s Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account (1999). See also consumption, sociology of; Culture and Personality School; cultural relativism; cultural studies; cultural theory; evolutionary universals; Parsons; popular culture.