What is Culture Definition, Meaning and Examples

What is Culture


Culture is the set of forms and expressions that will characterize a given society over time. By the set of forms and expressions is understood and includes the customs, beliefs, common practices, rules, norms, codes, clothing, religion, rituals, and ways of being that predominate in the common people that comprise it. The term culture has a very wide meaning and with multiple meanings. The same happens with words like science, knowledge or faith, concrete words with different valuations and meanings.

The function of culture is to guarantee survival and facilitate the adaptation of subjects in the environment.

Each culture embodies a world view in response to the reality that the social group lives. Therefore, there is no social group lacking in culture or “uneducated”. with respect to the dominant culture and, within even these, different cultural groups.

The term culture is also used in restricted senses, either to refer to the Values ​​and habits that govern specific groups or to refer to specialized fields of knowledge or activity.

  1. Culture
  2. Origin of the term culture
  3. Cultural diversity and human rights
  4. The constant mutation of cultures
  5. Elements of culture
  6. Characteristics of culture
  7. Types of culture
    1. According to the historical sense
    2. According to the anthropological sense
    3. According to the religious paradigm
    4. According to the knowledge of writing
    5. According to the production mode
    6. According to the socio-economic order (or hegemony)
    7. According to the diffusion modes
    8. According to the power struggles within a society
  8. Philosophy of culture
  9. Cultural context
  10. Types of culture
  11. Types of culture according to the knowledge of writing
    1. Oral cultures or literary cultures
    2. Written cultures
  12. Types of culture according to the mode of production
    1. Nomadic cultures
    2. Agricultural or rural cultures
    3. Urban or commercial cultures
    4. Industrial cultures
  13. Types of culture according to the religious paradigm
    1. Theistic cultures
    2. Non-theistic cultures
  14. Types of culture according to socioeconomic order
    1. Elitist cultures or elite cultures
    2. Popular culture
    3. Mass culture or mass culture
  15. Types of culture according to the power struggles within a society
    1. Hegemonic culture
    2. Subaltern culture
    3. Alternative culture
    4. Counterculture
    5. Subculture
  16. Types of culture according to the anthropological sense
  17. Types of culture according to the historical sense
  18. Types of culture according to gender sense
    1. Matriarchal culture
    2. Patriarchal culture
  19. Types of culture according to geographical and/or geopolitical sense
    1. Globally
    2. Locally
  20. What is Western Culture:
  21. Characteristics of western culture
  22. The controversy around the concept of western culture
  23. What is Multiculturality:

Origin of the term culture

The concept of culture has varied throughout history. This term is the past participle of the word colere which means ‘to cultivate’.

In the Middle Ages, culture designated cultivated land. In the Renaissance the idea of ​​the “cultivated” man appeared, that is to say, someone educated in literature and fine arts.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, the term culture began to be used systematically to refer to enlightened knowledge. In the 19th century, culture also included good manners and customs.

With the development of the social sciences in the 20th century, the sense of culture has been expanding, until finding what we attribute to it today.

This is extremely important since sometimes it is only possible to study and understand some human groups that no longer exist, inquiring into what is left of their culture. It is worth mentioning that culture is nourished both by individual contributions or by a few people (such as a poem or a song that reaches our ears), or it may be a manifestation of a collectively organized people , as is the case with carnivals. or rites, all of which make up what is called ‘ popular culture’ .

Cultural diversity and human rights

The word culture is often associated with the concept of progress and civilization : in art, in technology and in the law there are cultural expressions that speak of priorities, but also of issues of less importance for different peoples. However, sometimes culture also incorporates elements that have nothing to do with progress or civilization, but even with values ​​contrary to those, as occurs when it comes to violent or aggressive practices .

Thus, for example, no one doubts that bullfighting is part of the culture of Spain; however, it is a practice highly condemned for the animal suffering it implies. A debate that takes place within western civilization is how to set the boundary between alternative cultural expressions to ours and the human rights that we consider for all. It seems difficult to find a position that respects cultural diversity and at the same time ensures the right of all individuals to freely choose the way they want to live.

The constant mutation of cultures

Undoubtedly, the main means of maintaining the cultural heritage of a people is through oral transmission, within the home and vertically, that is, from one generation to another . Thus, the language or the first words that children learn to refer to their most elementary ties are already cultural expressions and will surely be transmitted in the same way to their future children. However, it is not a static process , because even though the home is an important source of transmission of cultural patterns, the crossing with other cultures generates interactions and changes, and in that becoming cultural expressions sometimes mutate.

The colonial-era witnessed the imposition of very strong cultural values from one person to another: it is no coincidence, then, to see in museums in Europe elements of the cultures of countries in America or Africa. Although these practices ended, for the most part, the globalization that came about as a result of the general access to the media and the Internet is a factor of great weight in the dynamics of cultures. Thus, today there is an important uniformity in the cultural patterns of young people (who tend to listen to the same music, to follow the same artists, even to eat the same type of food), in which their condition of a globalized young man that his origin.

The occupation of time by individuals, the maintenance and defense of interpersonal relationships, as well as expressions of celebration and commemoration, are part of the ‘ cultural soul’ that social anthropology seeks to reveal.

Elements of culture

set of basic elements. The most important are the following:

  • Beliefs: encompasses the set of ideas that the cultural group establishes what is true or false. It is linked to the value system.
  • Values: these are the criteria that serve as evaluative models of behavior since they guide what is considered acceptable or unacceptable principles and attitudes to guarantee the continuity of the group.
  • Norms: they are specific action codes that regulate the relationship between individuals based on shared values. Includes the sanctions system. There are two types of standards:
    • Prescriptive norms: they indicate the duties and obligations.
    • Proscriptive rules: they indicate what not to do.
  • System of signs and symbols: they are all the arbitrary and conventional communication resources that the social group uses to transmit messages. We can mention the language, the writing, the graphic signs, and the symbols.
  • Non-normative forms of behavior: these are the behavioral traits that differentiate one social group from another, even within a shared culture. It is what is called idiosyncrasy.

Other approaches to cultural phenomena establish the following as elements of culture:

  • The immaterial or spiritual culture corresponds to the culture that is transmitted by oral tradition. For example:
    • belief system
    • values
    • language
    • music
    • laws, etc.
  • Material culture is that which is represented in a material way, such as technology, cultural consumer goods and tangible heritage. For example:
    • architecture
    • plastic arts
    • clothing
    • kitchen
    • tools
    • weapons etc.

Characteristics of culture

All characterized by sharing a series of elements following:

  • they encompass the totality of human practices 
  • they arise in opposition to nature (instinct vs. knowledge)
  • they represent a world view 
  • they are symbolically expressed 
  • they provide social order 
  • their survival depends on communication 
  • they consolidate traditions 
  • they are dynamic, that is, they transform
  • more or less open, susceptible to the influence of other cultures. Therefore, subject to processes of
    • enculturation 
    • transculturation 
    • acculturation 
    • inculturation.

Types of culture

Culture can be classified according to different criteria. This will depend on the objective of the study and the theoretical-ideological approach. Normally, cultures are classified according to topics, that is, matters of collective interest. The most frequent ways of classifying are as follows:

According to the historical sense

This refers to cultures framed within a limited period of time. Cultural transformation does not imply an absolute dissolution but its adaptation to historical changes.

For example:

  • renaissance culture
  • baroque culture
  • medieval cultural.

According to the anthropological sense

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

It refers to the culture that identifies a people in a comprehensive way.

For example:

  • Egyptian culture
  • Inca Culture
  • Greek culture
  • Western culture
  • oriental culture etc.

According to the religious paradigm

In the anthropology of religions, cultures are classified according to the type of religious paradigm they develop. Within these categories are those of monotheistic and polytheistic cultures.

For example:

Monotheistic cultures:

  • Jewish cultures
  • Christian cultures
  • Muslim Cultures.

Polytheistic cultures:

  • Hindu cultures
  • ancient Greco-Roman cultures.

According to the knowledge of writing

Another way to classify cultures is according to their knowledge of writing. The terms oral cultures or agraph cultures are used to refer to cultures that do not have writing systems. Those who have or have owned script systems are called written cultures .

For example:

Agraph cultures:

  • Yanomani indigenous culture (Venezuela)

Written cultures:

  • Egyptian cultures (hieroglyphic writing)
  • Mesopotamian cultures (cuneiform writing).

According to the production mode

Rice cultivation fields in China.

Cultures are transformed along with their modes of production or vice versa. Among them we can mention the following types:

  • Nomadic cultures: those that depend on hunting and gathering, for which they migrate frequently.
    • Example: the Chichimeca cultures in Mexico.
  • Agricultural cultures: those that become sedentary thanks to the development of agricultural and livestock technology.
    • Example: Chinese cultures.
  • Urban cultures: those that are established in urban centers governed by commercial activity.
    • Example: the Renaissance culture or the culture of today’s cities.
  • Industrial cultures: those that apply massive industrial production modes.
    • Example: Western society today.

According to the socio-economic order (or hegemony)

In the study of culture within the same society, the classification of culture according to social class, socio-economic order or hegemony has predominated, due to the impact that the material order has on cultural processes.

At first, it was spoken of high and low culture. High culture was represented by the enlightened elite of society, which was the one that held power. The low culture was attributed to the illiterate popular sectors, which were the most vulnerable sectors. This classification, already in disuse, responded to a level assessment based on the hegemony of the dominant group.

With the rise of nationalism, the popular sectors were considered representatives of the national identity. Thus, the expression of popular cultures began to be used more frequently to the detriment of low cultures. High culture became known as elitist cultures, elite cultures, culture “cultured”, official culture, and academic cultures.

For example:

  • popular cultures: folk traditions such as carnival.
  • elite cultures:
    • the fine arts (“cultured”)
    • the official religion or ideology of a State (official or official)
    • medicine as an area of ​​(academic) knowledge

According to the diffusion modes

With the entry of the mass media, cultural processes were altered. From there new cultures have emerged.

By mass culture is known as the culture that arises from the information disclosed by the mass media, that is, the culture of consumption. It affects both elitist cultures and popular cultures.

For example:

  • The global phenomenon of The Beatles and other pop idols
  • The universal consumption of certain products and the imaginary associated with them (for example, carbonated beverages).

The cyberculture is another culture defined according to their media. Cyberculture is understood as that which is formed through the interaction of subjects through social networks and virtual reality.

For example:

  • Second Life, virtual community.
  • The culture of Facebook and other social networks.

According to the power struggles within a society

The differences between the sectors of society generate resistance and/or innovation movements confronted with the hegemonic order. Often they have to do with generational differences that are accentuated in light of technical and scientific advances. Within this category, we recognize the concepts of subculture and counterculture.

For example:


  • rockers
  • gothic.


  • Hippie movement
  • feminism.

Philosophy of culture

The philosophy of culture is a branch within the philosophical discipline that aims to understand the concept of culture and its impact on the subject. In an essay entitled “Idea and history of the philosophy of culture” published in the book Philosophy of culture (VV.AA., 1998), the researcher David Sobrevilla defines the philosophy of culture as:

… the philosophical reflection on the elements and dynamics of cultural phenomena, the foundation of the concepts extracted from them and the evaluation and criticism of said phenomena from a philosophical perspective.

According to the researcher, the difference between the approach that philosophy makes to cultures with respect to other disciplines (anthropology or psychology, for example), is that philosophy is devoted to the study of the conceptual. Thus, the philosophy of cultures does not address the empirical analysis of cultural phenomena as facts. On the contrary, it tries to understand them from a philosophical point of view.

Cultural context

Cultural context is known as those cultural variables that allow the understanding of a certain phenomenon under study. That is, they are those cultural elements that have an influence on a fact, character, or product of history, and that therefore must be considered in order to make a fair interpretation of the matter to be studied. For example value system, customs, dominant spirituality, etc. Understanding the cultural context of an issue helps minimize the risk of making value judgments.

Types of culture

Culture is a very complex phenomenon, which explains why its concept has been constantly redefined since its appearance. To facilitate its study and understand the paradigms from which cultures is interpreted, it is necessary to identify both the criteria for its classification and its different types according to the criterion.

Types of culture according to the knowledge of writing

Culture can also be classified according to the knowledge of writing since this also determines the ways of survival and adaptation. Thus, there are two great types of cultures:

Oral cultures or literary cultures

Oral cultures, also called graph cultures, are those that do not know or did not develop writing systems. Normally, this type of cultures is based on the oral transmission of community myths. Their perception of historical time is usually cyclical.

For example: tribal indigenous cultures.

Written cultures

As its name says, written cultures are those that manage to be transmitted through writing, whether it is hieroglyphic, pictographic, alphabetical, cuneiform, etc.

For example Ancient Egyptian cultures, Mesopotamian cultures, Mayan cultures, Greek cultures, and Roman cultures.

Types of culture according to the mode of production

One of the ways of classifying culture follows from its modes of production, which determine the set of practices on the environment, influence the tools that develop and affect modes of social organization.

Nomadic cultures

This concept applies to those cultures that are sustained through hunting and gathering, which requires constant mobilization in search of resources.

For example: the Bedouin Arab peoples.

Agricultural or rural cultures

Agricultural cultures are understood as all those cultures that are organized from the control of the harvests and the raising of animals for human consumption, which is why they are sedentary cultures . These types of cultures usually live around the countryside, the center of their economy and social order. Although they can give rise to cities, these are subsidiaries of country life.

For example the Egyptian cultures, whose splendor in ancient times is due to the development of agriculture at the foot of the Nile River.

Urban or commercial cultures

Urban cultures are all those whose economic and social model is based on commercial activity and, therefore, the importance shifts to the cities, turned into centers of commercial operations in which the population is concentrated.

For example: Renaissance cultures.

Industrial cultures

They refer to societies that use industrialized means of production. This type of culture has developed since the 19th century and has reached an important point of growth in the 21st century.

For example: current China.

Types of culture according to the religious paradigm

Each society has a set of magical-religious beliefs that influence the way they perceive existence and act on reality. Different cultures, despite also having different religions, can share characteristic features due to the similarity of their structures of religious thought. In relation to this, experts group different cultures into two main types:

Theistic cultures

They are those cultures that believe in the existence of one or more superior gods. Theistic cultures are subdivided into:

  • Monotheistic cultures: those that believe in a single god.
    • For example Jewish cultures, Christian cultures, and Muslim cultures.
  • Dualistic cultures: those that admit the confrontation of two opposing principles, forces or gods, one of which prevails over the other.
    • For example Catharism.
  • Polytheistic cultures: are those that believe in the existence of different gods while responding to a certain hierarchy.
    • For example Hindu cultures and ancient Greco-Roman cultures.

Non-theistic cultures

It refers to those cultures whose religious thought does not attribute the spiritual order to any specific deity, either as an absolute entity or as a creative will.

For example: Taoism and Buddhism.

Types of culture according to socioeconomic order

Within the same society, there are cultural differences related to the current socio-economic order, the type of education received, the modes of dissemination, and participation in power. In this sense, the separation of social classes fosters different notions of cultures (which are not without controversy). two main types of culture

Elitist cultures or elite cultures

The elite cultures or elite cultures refers to the set of codes, symbols, values, customs, artistic expressions, references, and modes of communication that correspond to the dominant groups in society, whether in economic, political, or symbolic terms.

This type of culture is usually identified as an official cultures. In general terms, it concentrates on the ruling class and/or on the enlightened groups of society. Due to its official tendency, it is taught from formal teaching centers and is validated through different institutions such as fine art museums, academies, universities, cultural centers, etc.

For example: fine arts and literature are expressions of elite cultures.

Dancing devils from Yare, Venezuela.

By popular cultures is understood as the set of codes, symbols, values, customs, artistic expressions, traditions, references, and modes of communication that correspond to the popular sectors or the people.

This type of culture usually faces the elite cultures or the official cultures of the dominant sectors, be it through humor, parody, or criticism. The appearance of the study of folklore or folklore has allowed the dissemination of the contents of popular cultures through academic means or institutions oriented to the protection of cultural heritage.

For example crafts, folklore and religious processions are expressions of popular culture.

Mass culture or mass culture

Mass cultures or mass cultures is one that is built from the dissemination of content through the mass media. Due to its scope, the disclosed content is consumed by both the dominant and popular sectors. This implies that, at present, the borders between popular cultures and elite cultures are porous and that both manage a common repertoire of cultural consumer goods. Mass cultures penetrates all social spheres and modifies the codes and patterns of the various cultural groups.

For example expressions of mass culture are called pop music, advertising, and commercial or entertainment cinema.

Types of culture according to the power struggles within a society

Within a hegemonic culture, internal struggles for recognition or power occur. To recognize and study these phenomena, the following classification is used:

Hegemonic culture

Hegemonic culture is understood as that which establishes a certain system of codes, patterns, customs, values ​​, and symbols as dominant within society through persuasion and/or coercion. The hegemonic dominates over the social whole and seeks to perpetuate itself, which is why it is often imposing and recent dissent. Hegemonic is frequently identified with official culture and is disseminated through official institutions and the mass media.

Subaltern culture

It is one that has a relationship of dependency with the dominant culture, despite differing in some of its aspects. It usually manifests itself in the most vulnerable sectors of society. Within the subaltern culture, individuals fail to form their own conscience as culture and, consequently, they cannot exercise autonomy. Subaltern culture should not be confused with the concept of the subculture, since subaltern culture is fragmentary and disjointed, while subcultures have consciously differentiated codes, patterns, and values.

Alternative culture

Alternative cultures is a fairly broad term that encompasses the set of artistic-cultural manifestations that purport to be an alternative to those that become dominant or hegemonic. If before they arose as a response to the so-called elite cultures, today the alternative cultures aims to open spaces in front of the values ​​and cultural assets promoted by the mass media, which have become hegemonic, even though these may seem “popular”.


Counterculture is understood as those cultures that arise in opposition to the hegemonic culture, challenging imposed values ​​, and trying to spread new paradigms and value systems. They arise from the processes of frustration, injustice, disagreement, and resistance.

For example: feminism ecological movements.


Within a hegemonic culture, diverse marginal cultural groups are formed that develop their own system of values, codes, and patterns. Subcultures can be said to be minority cultures with defined traits. Unlike countercultures, subcultures are not intended to challenge the established order but are gregariously asserted around a certain domain of interests of the dominant culture. For this reason, many of them derive in consumer subcultures that are detected as a market niche.

For example: the gamers , the urban tribes.

Types of culture according to the anthropological sense

We speak of the anthropological meaning of culture when we refer to those practices, uses, and customs that identify a certain civilization in broad terms.

For example:

  • Mayan culture
  • Sumerian culture
  • Chinese culture.

Types of culture according to the historical sense

Cultures can be classified according to their historical context, which defines or delimits the universe of values ​​in force for a given period.

For example:

  • classical antiquity culture
  • culture of the Middle Ages
  • baroque culture.

Types of culture according to gender sense

Cultures can also be studied by reflecting on gender-based modes of social organization. Two types stand out in particular:

Matriarchal culture

Matriarchal cultures is one founded on the female figure as a reference and leader of the social order. Unlike the patriarchal order, there is no evidence that matriarchal cultures have exercised or continue to oppress men. At the dawn of humanity, there have been various matriarchal cultures, although today there are a few living ones.

For example: the minangkabau culture in Indonesia.

Patriarchal culture

Patriarchal culture is understood as one in which the only man exercises political, economic, military, and family control, that is, the entire domain of public and private life rests on the authority of man. The woman is conceived as a passive subject that enjoys power, neither public nor private.

For example: Traditional Muslim culture.

Types of culture according to geographical and/or geopolitical sense

This way of classifying culture is usually quite complex since it responds to the universe of political interests in force within a society.


In a broad or global sense, two great poles of cultural power in the geopolitical universe are usually distinguished, from which important international relations and tensions derive. Namely:

  • Western cultures: Refers to the consolidated European cultures throughout the western hemisphere, whose main values ​​are based on the political, legal, and philosophical thought of Greco-Roman antiquity as well as on the Judeo-Christian religion.
  • Oriental cultures: Refers to the cultures that, in its broad sense, has developed and spread in the eastern hemisphere. It encompasses a great diversity of cultures within it, which obey political, religious, and philosophical values ​​different from those of the West.


In a restricted sense, focused on the local, the following types of culture can be distinguished:

  • National cultures: refers to those cultural identities that arise within the framework of national States. They are therefore associated with the demonym.
    • For example Venezuelan cultures, Mexican cultures, French cultures, Moroccan cultures, etc.
  • Regional culture: refers to cultures that develop in specific areas within a given nation, but that have specificities with respect to the dominant culture.
    • For example Andean cultures, coastal culture, etc.

What is Western Culture:

Western cultures are known as the universe of values, customs, practices, traditions, religious beliefs, economic system, and political-social organization representative of western Europe and western Europe, either because they originated there, or because they were assumed as their own.

The names of western society, western civilization, European civilization and Christian civilization are also used with the same meaning.

By extension, those countries where Western Europe established its hegemony and inherited its languages, socio-political ordering system, religion, a system of law, educational model, values ​​and customs are considered part of western culture or westernized countries.

Characteristics of western culture

The set of characteristics that are considered distinctive of Western cultures are the following:

  • Permanent refers to the culture of Greek antiquity, with an emphasis on rational thought (philosophy, literature, science, politics, and art);
  • Civil-military and administrative heritage of the Roman Empire, with emphasis on Roman law;
  • Christian religion (Catholic and Protestant);
  • The set of values ​​and customs contributed by Celts, Germans, and Slavs;
  • The claim of universality in the name of the cultural heritage;
  • The modern development of the national state and capitalism (a phenomenon that occurred in the last two centuries).

Based on the inheritance it received, Western culture reworked the system of social, cultural and political order into the forms we know today, of which the contradictions are also part. Thus, it reshapes:

  • The concept of democracy,
  • The Education (Western culture develops the concept of university )
  • The scientific research,
  • The concept of the modern state (based on Roman law), among many other aspects.

The controversy around the concept of western culture

The concept of Western culture is highly controversial as a consequence of the models of political domination exercised by Western Europe in the world since the 16th century.

Although the political and economic models have varied, they have all had in common the promotion of western cultures as a universal value.

In this sense, it has been denounced that one of the characteristics of western cultures is its ethnocentric character, a paradigm that they specifically call Eurocentrism.

All these notions are now under review and discussion, especially since the decolonization processes of the world began.

What is Multiculturality:

Multiculturalism is the existence of several cultures that coexist in the same physical, geographical, or social space. It encompasses all the differences that are framed within the culture, be it religious, linguistic, racial, ethnic, or gender.

Multiculturalism is a principle that recognizes the cultural diversity that exists in all areas and promotes the right to this diversity.

According to sociology or cultural anthropology, multiculturalism is the confirmation that several cultures coexist in the same geographical or social space, but it does not necessarily imply that there is an important influence or exchange between them.

That is why multiculturalism can be seen in the formation of isolated communities such as, for example, the Italian, Chinese or Palestinian neighborhoods that exist in some large cities, without or with very little contact with the local community.

When the communities manage to maintain an exchange in respect and tolerance, the experts call it multiculturalism.

See also Globalization