Chapter 9: The Characteristics of Culture


If you ask 100 anthropologists to define culture, you’ll get 100 different definitions. However, most of these definitions would emphasize roughly the same things: that culture is shared, transmitted through learning and helps shape behavior and beliefs. Culture is of concern to all four subfields and while our earliest ancestors relied more on biological adaptation, culture now shapes humanity to a much larger extent.


Culture has five basic characteristics: It is learned, shared, based on symbols, integrated, and dynamic. All cultures share these basic features.

  1. Culture is learned. It is not biological; we do not inherit it. Much of learning culture is unconscious. We learn culture from families, peers, institutions, and media. The process of learning culture is known as enculturation. While all humans have basic biological needs such as food, sleep, and sex, the way we fulfill those needs varies cross-culturally.
  2. Culture is shared. Because we share culture with other members of our group, we are able to act in socially appropriate ways as well as predict how others will act. Despite the shared nature of culture, that doesn’t mean that culture is homogenous (the same). The multiple cultural worlds that exist in any society are discussed in detail below.
  3. Culture is based on symbols. A symbol is something that stands for something else. Symbols vary cross-culturally and are arbitrary. They only have meaning when people in a culture agree on their use. Language, money and art are all symbols. Language is the most important symbolic component of culture.
  4. Culture is integrated. This is known as holism, or the various parts of a culture being interconnected. All aspects of a culture are related to one another and to truly understand a culture, one must learn about all of its parts, not only a few.
  5. Culture is dynamic. This simply means that cultures interact and change. Because most cultures are in contact with other cultures, they exchange ideas and symbols. All cultures change, otherwise, they would have problems adapting to changing environments. And because cultures are integrated, if one component in the system changes, it is likely that the entire system must adjust.


Biological adaptation in humans is important but humans have increasingly come to rely upon cultural adaptation. However, not all adaptation is good, and not all cultural practices are adaptive. Some features of a culture may be maladaptive, such as fast food, pollution, nuclear waste and climate change. However, because culture is adaptive and dynamic, once we recognize problems, culture can adapt again, in a more positive way, to find solutions.


The diversity of cultural practices and adaptations to the problems of human existence often lead some to question which practices are the best. Ethnocentrism is when one views their own culture as the best and only proper way to behave and adapt.


Most individuals are members of multiple cultural worlds. Culture exists at several levels. We typically refer to smaller cultures within a larger culture as subcultures. People have some type of connection to that subculture but must also be able to operate effectively within the larger culture. Some of the diversity we see across subcultures is based on class, race, ethnicity, age, and gender. Social stratification is often the result of our recognition of these worlds as different and a belief that they are somehow inferior to our own or to the larger culture.


Anthropologists recognize the importance of diversity and thus try to help maintain or prevent the extinction of cultures. By describing, documenting and even advocating for cultures they study, anthropologists help to contribute to continued cultural survival and diversity.