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What is Culture? Part One: The Word

What is Culture? Part One: The Word

In the first part of a seven-part limited series, we examine the four main ways we use "culture," which may be the worst word in the English language

The Welsh literary critic and cultural theorist Raymond Williams battled Nazis during World War II as a tank commander, but his lifelong foe may have been a single unit of vocabulary: “culture.” Despite penning books like Culture and Society, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, and The Sociology of Culture, Williams called “culture,” “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” Towards the end of his life, he grew even more exasperated: “You know the number of times I’ve wished that I had never heard of the damned word. I have become more aware of its difficulties, not less, as I have gone on.”

But the complexity of the word “culture” isn’t only problematic for anthropologists and sociologists. We all communicate through culture and spend our leisure time on culture. Some make a living in the “culture industry,” and an increasingly large number engage in “cultural politics.” Even with such ubiquity, no one quite knows how to exactly to define “culture.” Early into writing my new book Status and Culture, I naively thought I could lift a basic definition from L.L. Langness’ The Study of Culture, only to discover in the glossary: There is “no standard, commonly accepted definition.” To this point, anthropologists Alfred L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn’s 1950 work Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definition listed out over 150 definitions that were in circulation. No singular definition has emerged since.

We shouldn't blame this on academic incompetence. Raymond Williams surely knew his stuff. The fundamental problem is that culture is not just the “most complicated” word in English but perhaps the worst. “Few terms,” writes scholar William Ray, “are as persistent and ubiquitous in modern western intellectual discourse, and few combine so many contradictory meanings.” We wouldn’t tolerate the word “salad” meaning both “a mix of vegetables or fruit” and “the steak course,” and yet, we use a single seven-letter expression to describe at least four diverse, and often oppositional parts of life: (1) high culture, (2) communal culture, (3) popular culture, and (4) organizational norms. Any useful macro-definition for “culture” would need to incorporate all four of these sub-meanings. So let’s look at each in more detail.

The English word “culture” comes from German as an agricultural metaphor: Just as we cultivate barren fields to bear fruit, we cultivate our minds with arts and letters. This original meaning thus referred to what we’d now call high culture: the serious, intellectually-rigorous, and often difficult art forms celebrated in museums, galleries, symphony halls, opera houses, and academies. High culture is supposed to have “permanent value” and provide standards of excellence. This is culture with a capital-C: Beethoven sonatas, Joyce novels, Swan Lake, and Guggenheim exhibitions. High culture has always been a small cult with its own priests: art historians, literary theorists, critics, and magazine and journal editors. Elitism is inevitable, because these art forms take on their most significant meanings only after intentional study and prolonged exposure. Without the investment of time, energy, and attention as a listener, Bach’s fugues and preludes do little more than serve as pleasant background music for department stores during the holiday season.

Early anthropologists later extended this elitist, Western-centric definition of culture to the customs, practices, and artworks of pre-modern tribal societies. This provides the second usage: communal culture. In T.S. Eliot’s words, culture is “the whole way of life of a people, from birth to the grave, from morning to night and even in sleep.” We thus talk of “Pre-Columbian cultures” or “Southern culture” or “the culture of poverty.” Communal culture is an unconscious storehouse of behaviors, rules, and norms that guide individual lives. Our own communal culture tends to be invisible to us until we see strangers living in oppositional ways. Group identities are formed from the awareness of these cultural differences. This is why, as critic Roger Scruton writes, culture is the “defining essence of a nation, a shared spiritual force which is manifest in all the customs, beliefs and practices of a people.” Bostonians don’t watch the Red Sox because the games happen to be on TV: They are Sox fans.

When we talk about the “culture” of our times, however, we’re unlikely to think about obscure high culture from ivory towers, nor folk cultures far removed from the marketplace. For the last century, the most vibrant culture has been popular culture — the movies, hit songs, TV shows, fashion styles, smartphone apps, slang, foods, and memes that fill our leisure time. In T.S. Eliot’s day, popular culture was “Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August [the first day of grouse hunting], a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.” These days there’s reduced enthusiasm for pickled beets, and more excitement for the commercial products and entertainment content that would be featured on a random episode of the podcast Slate Culture Gabfest: Netflix shows, Oscar nods, summer songs, NFTs, the foibles of Chrissy Teigen.

Finally, in recent years, there has emerged a new usage for culture, most notably on non-fiction bookshelves: the organizational norms within large companies. In 2009, anthropologist Grant McCracken wrote Chief Culture Officer, advocating for companies to hire an executive who could help connect the firm to the outside culture. This would correspond to definitions #2 and #3. Companies instead created Chief Culture Officer roles based on this fourth definition of culture; CCOs are a common name for the top Human Resources position — “an organizational leader who reviews a company's goals, values and day-to-day practices and better aligns them.” While organizational culture can be bad or good (there can always be a “culture of corruption”) the CCO’s goal is to encourage good culture that nurtures employees and raises productivity. Corporations in the 21st century, then, aren't just responsible for running the cultural industry, but have even commandeered the very concept of “culture” as corp-speak. A book like Culture Rules is about the “10 Core Principles of Corporate Culture,” while Reed Hastings of Netflix called his book No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention.

These four definitions aren’t even the only definitions for culture in English. (For example, the website Cultures for Health will teach you how to make beet kvass.) But even if we put aside culture's meaning as bacterial growth, it's still difficult to locate a singular definition for “culture” that encompasses everything mentioned above. To move forward in that direction, the obvious next step would be to extract the common components of these micro-definitions. This will be our task for next time.

Key Takeaway:
“Culture” is an annoyingly polysemous term used to denote at least four different things: fine arts, communal customs, commercial products and media, and the organizational norms inside of large companies.

Next time: Part Two: Commonalities and Components

Illustration by Shoko Kawai