Twelve important characteristics of culture – Essay

If we carefully examine the tradition of sociology and anthropology, we find that culture has remained, all through the last hundred years, a major theme of discussion.

The emergence of ethnology, as a new branch of social science, establishes that culture is super-organic in all its manifestations. However, approach to culture has two distinct methods.

For cult urology or ethnology, culture is the ultimate reality sui generis and society is the vehicle of culture a necessary but not sufficient condition of culture. For sociology, on the contrary, society is the ultimate reality which renders intelligible the nature of man and of the social institutions by which he is governed.


Actually, sociolo­gists consider society as the creator of culture whereas anthropologists think that it is culture which keeps the organization of a society go­ing. David Bidney observes:

Both sociologists and ethnologists (anthropologists) agreed that cul­ture is the product of social intercourse and independent of psychology; they differed only as regards the metaphysical or metascientific issue of the ontological priority of society and culture.

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Bidney’s explanation of the different approaches made by anthro­pologists and sociologists has been further clarified by Kroeber when he says:


Sociology tends to be concerned with society, anthropology with anthropos, man and his especially human product, culture. All in all, these are differences only in emphasis. In principle, sociology and an­thropology are hard to keep apart.

The reality is that both the disciplines consider culture as a core theme though their methods of interpretation differ. Our argument is that traditionally anthropologists have brought out certain charac­teristics of culture.

One very essential characteristic of culture is that it is related to society. There cannot be culture without society; neither there can be society without culture. We shall discuss below some of the characteristics of culture:

(i) Culture is a process:


Culture of any society is not sterile; it is a process. Traditions change; new traditions emerge. In other word, the structure of culture goes from one generation to another and each generation adds or subtracts from inherited culture. This continuity and change-shows that it is a process.

(ii) Culture is a social heritage:

Whatever we get in culture is transmitted and communicated. The in­dividual is thought of as being born into a man-made world of artifacts, symbols and social institutions which he acquires from his ancestors. The culture moulds the individual to conform to the pre­vailing cultural patterns.

Among the tribals and villagers of our country there are some well-known cultural practices which constitute the heritage of the people. Each village and for that matter each tribal group has’ its own local deities.

When we talk about India, we very often say that our country has great social heritage. This heritage is manifest in festivals, fairs and rituals.

(iii) Culture is super-organic and super-individual:

Most of the social anthropologists consider that culture is above soci­ety. It is a tradition which is inherited. This view of culture goes with another characteristic which is called super-individual.

This interpre­tation of culture in terms of super-individual shows that quite like Durkheim’s social fact culture is also above the individual. It is a readymade thing borrowed from preceding generations.

(iv) It is an abstraction:

Kroeber and Kluckhohn, in their discussion of culture, have con­cluded that culture is an abstraction of the study of behaviour and behavioural products. But, what is interesting in the statements of these two anthropologists is that they do not consider concrete behav­iour as culture.

Culture, as we know it, is an abstraction of concrete behaviour; for instance, if India as a nation pays its respect to the na­tional flag, the flag itself is not culture. The abstraction is that a nation has some symbols which indicate its nationalism. Kroeber writes but culture is not behaviour or the investigation of behaviour in all its concrete completeness.

For Kroeber, culture is an emergent, autonomous reality. In fact, it is the logical construct of human behaviour. Bidney supports both Kroeber and Kluckhohn, and says that culture from all considerations is a logical construct of patterns or forms.

(v) Culture is integral:

Functionalists, despite their variability in approach, have a consensus that culture is all-inclusive; it contains all aspects of human society in­cluding beliefs, law, art, literature, norms, values, traditions, etc. This holistic view of culture has been popularized by functionalists and evolutionists.

In simpler terms, culture can be analyzed only with ref­erence to the total social system. It is this integral aspect of culture which is advocated by anthropologists.

(vi) Culture is tradition:

True, culture is integral. It is comprehensive. It is holistic. But, in all this, tradition is its dominant part. Each tribal group has its traditions which die a very slow death. Indian traditions are a good example of our culture. Tribal traditions have a great hold over their practitio­ners.

(vii) Culture is acquired:

Kroeber analyzes a large number of definitions on culture. He says that whatever may be the definition, what is important is that culture is characteristically acquired. When Tylor defined culture, he talked about “capabilities and habits acquired by man”.

Thus, culture gives away its survival if it is not acquired. The wider meaning of ‘acquired’ includes inheritance. Most of the definitions of culture talk about in­heritance.

When Lowie says that culture is ‘social tradition’ he means that there is social inheritance of culture. In simple words, culture does not discuss much about what it consists of, but it emphasizes on how it is acquired. Yet another meaning of ‘acquired’ is learning. One can say that culture is learned.

(viii) Culture is two-faceted:

Eriksen stresses yet another aspect of culture. According to him, cul­ture has two sides. There are some aspects of culture which are basic to all the cultures; e.g., marriage, kin, family and polity.

A Gond, for instance, has some system, some rule of acquiring a match, and simi­larly a Tiv has some method of getting a wife. Thus, culture has one aspect which is similar in all the human societies.

But, there are also some aspects of culture which are different from others. Social anthro­pology tries to bring out both similarities and differences in the cultures of various societies.

(ix) Language as part of culture:

Kroeber presents a very interesting account of anthropology, in which he emphasizes on language. He says that the culture of a society is manifest in its language. He even goes to the extent of classifying the races in terms of linguistic families. D.N. Majumdar has also done a similar exercise in identifying race elements in India.

When he talks about Dravidian people, actually he uses Dravidian language family as a criterion of race classification. In any discussion of culture race occu­pies a decisive place. Further, the caste composition in our country partly is explained in terms of language family.

(x) Culture is cumulative:

Culture is never constructed overnight. It evolves over a period of time. Because of its evolutionary nature it has a tendency of accumula­tion. Indian culture is a product of hundreds of years of evolution. It is this cumulative nature which provides continuity to culture.

(xi) Distinctness of culture:

Culture is conditioned by several factors. It is this aspect of culture which gives it an undifferentiated identity. If we look at the world’s civilizations, we find that these civilizations have been the products of certain geographical, ecological, political and historical conditions.

Arnold Toynbee, in his classical work, A Study of History, has dis­cussed the comparative development of civilization. He propounds a theory of the development of culture and says that it is the challenge given by physical, social and cultural factors which shape the nature of civilization.

(xii) Culture as a standard of society:

Each culture provides some standards of behaviour to its people. These standards constitute norms and values and the members of the society are expected to take these standards as their ideals. However, the standards are never rigid. They keep changing.

In conclusion, we observe that openness is one of the general char­acteristics of culture. The culture of today is largely received from yesterday: that is what tradition or transmission means; it is a passing or sending along, a ‘handing through’ from one generation to another.

Even in times of the most radical change and innovation, there are probably several times as many items of culture being transmitted from the past as there are being newly devised.

Yet another common and general characteristic of culture is its or­ganic diversity and cultural hybridity. Culture is organic in the sense that it is influenced by individuals. Indian culture has been influenced by several spiritual and national leaders.

Besides, there is so much in­termixing of varying cultures that it is difficult to find a pure culture of a particular group. This is what we call ‘cultural hybridity’. In the present era of globalization where there is interaction between global culture and local culture, there has emerged cultural hybridity.

We have also discussed at length the continuity in every culture. Continuity is an inherent part of any culture and the survival of a cul­ture depends on its continuity. The receptivity and assimilativeness of a culture makes the totality of culture a continuum.

The parts merge into each other without definite breaks. It is generally assumed that all life is also a continuum; but the continuity of life is traceable only by going back in its history and then accessing other branches.