Subject Material

Definitions of Culture

Published: 15.05.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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Pre-reading activity: Discuss the following in pairs.

  • What is culture?
  • What is multiculturalism?

fraught, multifaceted, heritage, inherited, embodied


MulticulturalismMulticulturalismWe use the expression “multicultural society” for a group of people in which several cultures coexist. What is a culture, however? This topic is fraught with debate, and different definitions exist, but most would probably agree that whenever there is a culture, there are beliefs being shared within a group, and that these beliefs lead to shared behaviours. As a result, phenomena such as art, language, religious practice, institutions, family structure, custom, etiquette, norms, values and so forth may – to some extent, at least – be qualified as “cultural”. In just so many words, whenever there is culture, there is a shared way of living.

Defining Culture

On the internet – for instance in dictionaries, encyclopaedias and scientific articles – you will find many different ways of understanding the word culture. Although they don't necessarily disagree directly, they emphasize, nevertheless, different aspects of this multifaceted phenomenon. Some will stress the idea that a culture represents a heritage, while others will be more interested in the set of beliefs it is built up around, or in the way people who are a part of a culture are, as such influenced in the way they act and live.

Examples of definitions:

Source: Unity and Diversity in Multicultural Societies 

  • Culture refers to a historically inherited system of meaning and significance in terms of which a group of people understand and structure their individual and collective lives. It defines the meaning or point of human activities, social relations and human life in general, and the kind and degree of significance or value to be attached to them. A culture’s system of meaning and significance is embodied in its beliefs and practices, which collectively constitute its identity.
Source: - culture
  • ... the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group
  • Anthropology: the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

Source: Wikipedia - culture 

  • The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization, or group (source:


Work in pairs and have a look at several sources, and try to come up with at least three different (content, length, context...) approaches to what a culture might be. Then follow the four steps below. Remember to jot down notes throughout the process, since each step depends on the previous one.

  1. Compare the definitions you’ve gathered: in which fields are they different and which similarities are there between them?
  2. Assess them: try to form an idea of their respective strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Take position: Which one(s) do you prefer? Why?
  4. In larger groups, each pair present their preferred definition(s) and why they chose it(them). Discuss and comment on the results.