Human Culture

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Human Culture

I use the term culture to refer collectively to a society and its way of
life or in reference to human culture as a whole.

The Modern technical definition of culture, as socially patterned human
thought and behavior, was originally proposed by the nineteenth-century
British anthropologist, Edward Tylor. This definition is an open-ended
list, which has been extended considerably since Tylor first proposed it.

Some researchers have attempted to create exhaustive universal lists of the
content of culture, usually as guides for further research. Others have
listed and mapped all the culture traits of particular geographic areas.

The first inventory of cultural categories was undertaken in 1872 by a
committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which
was assisted by Tylor. The committee prepared an anthropological field
manual that listed seventy-six culture topics, in no particular order,
including such diverse items as cannibalism and language. The most
exhaustive such list is the “Outline of Cultural Materials,” first
published in 1938 and still used as a guide for cataloging great masses of
worldwide cultural data for cross-cultural surveys. Like the table of
contents of a giant encyclopedia, the outline lists 79 major divisions and
637 subdivisions. For example, “Food Quest” is a major division with such
subdivisions as collecting, hunting, and fishing.

There has been considerable theoretical debate by anthropologists since
Tylor over the most useful attributes that a technical concept of culture
should stress. For example, in 1952 Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn,
American anthropologists, published a list of 160 different definitions of
culture. Although simplified in the brief table below, their list indicates
the diversity of the anthropological concept of culture. The specific
culture concept that particular anthropologists work with is an important
matter because it may influence the research problems they investigate,
their methods and interpretations, and the positions they take on public
policy issues.

|TABLE: Diverse |
|Definitions of |
|Culture: |
|Topical: |Culture consists of everything on a list of|
||topics, or categories, such as social|
||organization, religion, or economy|
|Historical:|Culture is social heritage, or tradition, that|
||is passed on to future generations|
|Behavioral:|Culture is shared, learned human behavior, a |
||way of life|
|Normative:|Culture is ideals, values, or rules for |
|Functional:|Culture is the way humans solve problems of|
||adapting to the environment or living|
||together |
|Mental: |Culture is a complex of ideas, or learned|
||habits, that inhibit impulses and distinguish |
||people from animals|
|Structural:|Culture consists of patterned and interrelated|
||ideas, symbols, or behaviors|
|Symbolic:|Culture is based on arbitrarily assigned|
||meanings that are shared by a society|
Culture involves at least three components: what people think, what they
do, and the material products they produce. Thus, mental processes,
beliefs, knowledge, and values are parts of culture. Some anthropologists
would define culture entirely as mental rules guiding behavior, although
often wide divergence exists between the acknowledged rules for correct
behavior and what people actually do. Consequently, some researchers pay
most attention to human behavior and its material products. Culture also
has several properties: it is shared, learned, symbolic, transmitted cross-
generationally, adaptive, and integrated.

The shared aspect of culture means that it is a social phenomenon;
idiosyncratic behavior is not cultural. Culture is learned, not
biologically inherited, and involves arbitrarily assigned, symbolic
meanings. For example, Americans are not born knowing that the color white
means purity, and indeed this is not a universal cultural symbol. The human
ability to assign arbitrary meaning to any object, behavior or condition
makes people enormously creative and readily distinguishes culture from
animal behavior. People can teach animals to respond to cultural symbols,
but animals do not create their own symbols. Furthermore, animals have the
capability of limited tool manufacture and use, but human tool use is
extensive enough to rank as qualitatively different and human tools often
carry heavy symbolic meanings. The symbolic element of human language,
especially speech, is again a vast qualitative expansion over animal
communication systems. Speech is infinitely more productive and allows
people to communicate about things that are remote in time and space.

The cross-generational aspect of culture has led some anthropologists,
especially Kroeber (1917) and Leslie White (1949), to treat culture as a
superorganic entity, existing beyond its individual human carriers.

Individuals are born into and are shaped by a preexisting culture that
continues to exist after they die. Kroeber and White argued that the
influence that specific individuals might have over culture would itself be
largely determined by culture. Thus, in a sense, culture exists as a
different order of phenomena that can best be explained in terms of itself.

Some researchers believe that such an extreme superorganic interpretation
of culture is a dehumanizing denial of “free will,” the human ability to
create and change culture. They would argue that culture is merely an
abstraction, not a real entity. This is a serious issue because treating
culture as an abstraction may lead one to deny the basic human rights of
small-scale societies and ethnic minorities to maintain their cultural
heritage in the face of threats from dominant societies. I treat culture as
an objective reality. I depart from the superorganic approach in that I
insist that culture includes its human carriers. At the same time, people
can be deprived of their culture against their will. Many humanistic
anthropologists would agree that culture is an observable phenomenon, and a
people’s unique possession.

Cultural relativism
View that norms among different cultures set the standard for what counts
as normal behavior, which implies that abnormal behavior can only be
defined relative to these norms. Therefore, no universal definition of
abnormality is therefore possible, only definitions of abnormality relative
to a specific culture are possible
Cultural relativism ?asserts that concepts are socially constructed and
vary cross-culturally. These concepts may include such fundamental notions
as what is considered true, morally correct, and what constitutes knowledge
or even reality itself??. (Harper Collin Dictionary of Sociology). The
concept of culture, like any other piece of knowledge, can be abused and
misinterpreted. Some fear that the principles of cultural relativity will
weaken morality. ?If the Bugabuga do it why can?t we? Its all relative
anyway? (Kluckhohn 1944:43). But this is exactly what cultural relativity
does not mean. Cultural relativity challenges our ordinary beliefs in the
objectivity and universality of moral truths. Different societies have
different moral codes. There is no objective standard that can be used to
judge one societal code better than another. The moral code of our own
society has no special status; it is only one among many.

|Definition| |the ability to view the beliefs and customs of other |
|:| |peoples within the context of their culture rather|
|| |than one’s own.|
ethnocentrism noun belief in the intrinsic superiority of the nation,
culture, or group to which one belongs, often accompanied by feelings of
dislike for other groups
Ethnocentrism is ?the attitude of prejudice or mistrust towards outsiders
that may exist within a group (in-group) in relation to other (out-
group)??. (Harper-Collin Dictionary of Sociology). Importantly, there are
also three levels of ethnocentrism: a positive one, a negative one, and an
extreme negative one. The positive definition defines ethnocentrism as ?the
point of view that one?s own way of life is to be preferred to all others?
(Herskovits 1973: 21). There is nothing wrong with such feelings, because
?it characterizes the way most individuals feel about their own cultures,
whether or not they verbalize their feelings? (Herskovits 1973:21). It is
this point of view that gives people their sense of people-hood, group
identity, and place in history. Ethnocentrism becomes negative when ? one?s
own group becomes the center of everything, and all other are scaled and
rated with reference to it?(Herskovits 1973:21). It reaches extreme
negative form when ?a more powerful group not only imposes its rule on
another, but actively depreciates the things they hold to be of value?
(Herskovits 1973:103). This third level of ethnocentrism is found in
examples of racial segregation, the holocaust, and genocide of a race of

It is only clear that a negative attitude towards other culture or groups
arise out of ethnocentrism, while positive attitude is the result of a
cultural relativist approach. One must never feel that not understanding
another culture is problematic. It is always a disadvantage to view culture
in an etic way. To understand culture one must endure and encounter the
culture from the emic, the inside. It would be mere arrogance for us to try
to judge the conduct of other cultures. We should perhaps keep an open mind
and a genuine insight that different cultures do have different moral codes
The Noble Savage
noble savage
noun (in romanticism) an idealized view of primitive man
Basic Concept: Primitivism and the Noble Savage
“Primitivism” is a belief that arose during the European Romantic Movement
that held that, because God is revealed in nature, people who live in the
wilderness are closer to God; that they live purer lives.


The “Noble Savage” is an idealized stereotype of indigenous people as found
throughout the world. Its features include the exaltation of the character
in wilderness settings, an exaggeration of physical prowess, a simplistic
interpretation of the indigenous world view, and an assignment of lofty
virtues and innocence to the common man.


The roots of the concept of the Noble Savage are to be found, according to
Hoxie Neale Fairchild (The Noble Savage), in 1) the histories and
chronicles of the European explorers and 2) Romantic philosophies. The
term “Noble Savage,” itself, was coined in the 18th century by Jean Jacques
Rousseau in his famous essay, “Social Contract.” To Rousseau, the Noble
Savage represented the “natural man,” that individual in an initial purer
state, uncorrupted by contact with the complexities and compromises of
society, living in nature according to nature’s own rhythms and patterns
(according to “natural law”).


In America, the concept of the Noble Savage complements the early
nineteenth-century fascination with the American frontier. The idealized
aboriginee personified the mystery, the primitive power, and the
spirituality assigned to the pristine forests.

In his text, The Great Frontier, Walter Prescott Webb notes the four
options European colonists faced in dealing with the “Indian problem”: 1)
inter-marriage, 2) social integration, 3) segregation, or 4) genocide.

With few exceptions, United States government policy and practice adopted
the latter two options. The Anglo population, however, registered a
nervous ambivalence on the subject of the indigenous populations. In a
disdain stemming from his early encounters in the American West, Mark Twain
once noted, “Take the beggar instinct out of the Goshoot Indian, and he
wouldn’t ‘go’ anymore than a clock without a pendelum. The Goshoot Indian
hoards dirt–for days, weeks, generations.” While Mark Twain came to
change his attitudes about indigenous people, in doing so, his vacillation
reflects the same anxiety. Ironically, while some Anglo-Americans
supported the removal of indigenous people for the American frontier,
others, through the arts, came to idealize them in painting and literature.

The fullest exploration of the Noble Savage appears in the Leatherstocking
Tales of James Fenimore Cooper.


The celebration of the Noble Savage stopped short of cultism, but Cooper’s
five volumes came as close as any other artistic treatment to the
canonization of the image. Cooper creates the frontiersman Natty Bumpo,
pairs him with a faithful Indian companion, Chingachgook, and sets them
together in the American forest where they champion natural goodness set
apart from innate evil, more specifically registered in incessant conflict
between the Deleware Indians (the good guys all but extinct) and the Hurons
(a tribe of the detestable Iroquois).


The Leatherstocking Tales (The Deerslayer (1841), The Last of the Mohicans
(1826), The Pathfinder (1840), The Pioneers (1823), The Prairies (1827))
chronicle the exploits of Cooper’s hero, variously known as “Pathfinder,”
“Hawkeye,” and “Natty Bumpo.” In each work, Cooper paints with broad
strokes the natural “propensities” of his two heroes, so broad, in fact, as
to attract a maelstrom of protests, led most hilariously by Mark Twain’s
“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” In his 1852 edition of the series,
Cooper lashed out at his critics, defending his “poetical view” of his