Culture-An Overview


by Aaron Jonas Stutz
Originally published 31 May 2013, updated 15 Sep 2015 & 24 Aug 2016. 
CC-BY 4.0

The question of culture has long vexed the discipline of Anthropology–almost from its turn-of-the-last-century emergence. Then, Franz Boas led the establishment of a holistic framework for investigating human diversity–biological and cultural, past and present (and possibly future). At its most basic, culture–it is agreed–is a fuzzily open concept about what links human individuals to larger groups. The culture concept further emphasizes how larger groups persist over time. In short, culture aims to explain human sociality in all of its diverse forms. The problem is with “aims to explain.” Disagreement persists over HOW culture generally explains human sociality. And so the culture concept has become a kind of placeholder for pending or hoped-for theoretical coherence within the discipline of anthropology. This is where we are today. Although most major American and Canadian academic Anthropology departments maintain a three- or four-field structure–with cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology comprising the “Boasian” subdisciplines–the concept of culture does not run continuously among or within these subdisciplines as a mutually understood, foundational theoretical thread.

Human life history strategies have co-evolved very closely with culture.
Human life history strategies have co-evolved very closely with culture.

Let me put this another way. Franz Boas successfully founded North American Anthropology, which quickly became a widely acknowledged academic discipline. He established the “four-field” umbrella structure that laid the intellectual groundwork from which “biocultural evolution” concepts emerged in the 1970’s. Yet, no single definition of culture took hold then, nor has one taken hold now–within cultural anthropology or across the four main subfields of Boasian Anthropology. As I discuss in the post “What is Biocultural Evolution?” this vagueness or confusion over the culture concept continues to limit inquiry into biocultural evolution. This, despite widespread implicit agreement that biocultural evolution, whatever it actually is, is an important force in human evolution. If we are to clarify the question of culture–and I really do simply mean, “What is culture in the first place?”–we need to identify where anthropologists have lost the thread.


The thread clearly starts with information transmission, especially across generations, so that human populations constitute communities that retain cultural traits on multi-generational timescales, at least up to centuries and perhaps longer. The thread is also anchored in some basic agreement over what kinds of human traits are cultural–as opposed to physiological, immunological, or strictly genetic–traits:

  • socially transmitted knowledge about the environment, technology and technological products, and complicated social practices, such as rituals and family formation
  • socially transmitted beliefs, the content of which many members of a cultural community never have the experience of confirming–with obvious examples including religious and magical beliefs, along with tradition, history, and notions of time
  • socially transmitted values about morality, hygiene, and humanity: what kinds of actions and statements are right and wrong, purer or less pure, in the community or outside the community

This bullet list is simply an updated, 21st century “translation” of Edward B. Tylor’s seminal definition of culture. One enduring strength of this definition is that today, it helps us to understand how, through recursive learning, individuals can encode socially guided–but also directly experienced–knowledge on the same plane as beliefs and values: they can all be encoded as information in individual memory. And because knowledge, beliefs, and values are all associated with social experiences and relationships, individuals also acquire social information that can help in the formation of moral values. Cultural knowledge, beliefs, and values provide a general symbolic and emotional association, linking the individual to the group.

This core definition of what culture is seems great! Or, more cautiously: a close consideration reveals that it begins to explain why human individuals inextricably identify themselves with (or sometimes, against) larger groups. To paraphrase Karl Marx, humans cannot think or act outside of society. Whether we like it or not. And that is a pretty important aspect of the human condition to understand and explain.


It turns out that this definition is incomplete. In particular, it is insufficient for explaining why culture shapes and affects individuals so thoroughly. So what is missing? It turns out that cultural anthropology has indeed made major progress in elaborating the culture concept, so that it better explains how culture links the individual to the group. One of the scientific triumphs of 20th century North American cultural anthropology, British social anthropology, and French sociology and anthropology has been the robust documentation of:

  • just how pervasive cultural knowledge is
  • how it is embodied
  • how much of it is unconscious

In other words, modern ethnographic research and analysis has established that we grow up learning so many minute details of technology and social practice, that our body knows what to do and how to present itself socially, even if we are not consciously aware that our stance or gestures or expressions have been learned from the social group. Thus, our gait and posture are also socially transmitted. Although we might think that gait is natural–because it must be biomechanically constrained for balance and locomotion–closer observation reveals that variations in gait among adults may be symbolically associated with generation, national or ethnic identity, racial identity, gender, socio-economic class, or some combination of all of these dimensions of identity that can symbolically mark us as similar to some, but different from others. I have called this a scientific triumph–and in particular, a social science triumph–because highly detailed qualitative, ethnographic data have repeatedly confirmed this insight. Again, a huge amount of our cultural knowledge, also including aspects of speech, is embodied and unconscious in most situations.

That is, until we encounter a social situation where we become aware that others really act and speak differently than we do. And we have to figure out if our available beliefs and values are relevant for judging these other people, with their other, largely unconscious embodied cultural knowledge. And if our beliefs and values are not relevant, how do we judge and act in this situation? 20th century cultural anthropology has also theoretically triumphed in systematically using the Western scholarly encounter with other, non-Western people, and their cultural knowledge, values, and beliefs, in order to refute the ethnocentric assumption that Western/European civilization must be morally, intellectually, and aesthetically superior.

This has further led to one of cultural anthropology’s most important general theoretical insights: the symbolic associations linking cultural knowledge, beliefs, and judgment themselves constitute an integrated, higher level of cultural knowledge, with structured, logical rules. These rules simultaneously:

  • facilitate clear communication within the group
  • provide a high level of informational redundancy in symbolic cues for social judgment within and between groups
  • and yet are generative, meaning that these rules allow for novel expression and imagination, the basis for individual agency

All human communities form complex cultures on a rich social and symbolic foundation. All have the capacity for metaphorical creativity, depth and richness of artistic expression, and logical organization of experience that allows for novel inference about the environment. No community is culturally static. And perhaps most importantly, the symbolic cues–including associated beliefs–that facilitate social judgment are essentially arbitrary. There are potentially infinite cultural-symbolic ways of constituting a democratic community, just as there are potentially infinite cultural-symbolic ways of constituting a community with despotic rule.


This leads to a key notion that is central to most undergraduate introductory courses in Anthropology–that of CULTURAL RELATIVISM. Cultural relativism is a key perspective for anthropological inquiry: when we encounter what we observe as differences in cultural knowledge and practice, we must investigate and understand these other forms of cultural knowledge in terms of the rules that symbolically structure values, beliefs, and social judgment… Because we might find that our assumptions about people and their cultural knowledge and practices were in fact ethnocentric, seriously misleading, or condescending (Rosaldo 2000). This is vital, not because each community has its own cultural ethical standards that we are in no position to judge. That is a serious logical error of conflating cultural relativism (a perspective of withholding judgment while you seek understanding of the other) with ethical relativism (because there is an Other, Self cannot judge the Other at all). Rather, cultural relativism is vital if we don’t want to make unfair judgments of each other, if we don’t want to allow our own arbitrary, cultural symbolic cues for social judgment to paint others as bad, unclean, or inhuman.


But this is also where the thread begins to fade and disappear. Cultural anthropology has successfully established that all human communities can produce similarly complex, imaginative symbolic systems of knowledge, communication, and social judgment, but paradoxically, in emphasizing the internal symbolic coherence and complexity of cultural systems, the subdiscipline has often unintentionally reified the perception and experience of difference between culturally defined groups. Here, the notion is that the anthropologist or the immigrant might understand the cultural Other, but they’d never really fit in. This has the potential for implicit condescension. At worst, as Adam Kuper (1999) has shown, the culture concept can actually–albeit certainly without the anthropologist’s intention–support politically potent beliefs and judgments about group differences and group-level hierarchy. This is because it is all too easy to conflate the symbolic coherence and richness of a culture with certain values and beliefs held by stakeholders within that cultural community. This conflation can hide the fact that those values and beliefs are actually politically contested within or beyond that community. Kuper’s concern–that culture became the new race in late 20th century Anthropology–needs to be taken seriously. More specifically, we need to be able to follow the thread in understanding culture, and this means keeping clear that the symbolic organization of a culture is one thing … but the social actions and judgments through which values and beliefs are formed, challenged, and changed … well, that’s something else. They are systemically interrelated. But they are certainly not the same thing.

The real problem with cultural relativism is that the anthropologist can unintentionally create a real cultural boundary–implicitly overvaluing cultural difference by emphasizing the coherence and integrity of the distant or different culture under study. Cultural relativism is especially valuable to teach undergraduates in introductory Anthropology courses, because it helps them to suspend judgment while working to understand very different communities, constituted by cultural values, beliefs, and practices that would otherwise evoke strongly negative moral judgment. Yet, it becomes clear that cultural relativism is perhaps best used as a heuristic tool for understanding human social variability; it does not have to be an ethical position per se. Moreover, there are many situations where cultural relativism is counterproductive for understanding culture. Increasingly, undergraduate students bring experiences to the classroom that challenge the “Our Culture Here, Their Culture Over There” framework of cultural relativism. It is clear that wearing a hijab is articulated to a complex set of cultural symbols, but related symbols may suggest contradictory meanings, may be relevant to some stakeholders but not others, or or may rapidly change in their social relevance. Because the very concept of culture–scholarly debate over definitions notwithstanding–has long been linked to the concept of cultural relativism, cultural anthropologists have often struggled to reconcile the extraordinary symbolic organization of culture with its potential for multiple, often changing, context-dependent associations between values, beliefs, and their symbolic markers (for example, the hijab variously as a symbol of female modesty and purity, of male domination, of a return to tradition following decades of secular dictatorship and/or Western influence, or in some situations, as a fashion statement). As Kuper points out, cultural anthropology–and contemporary related fields or interdisciplinary programs usually administratively housed in separate academic departments, such as cultural studies–has hardly resolved the crisis of intellectual identity that has come with recognizing that the “Coherent Cultural System/Cultural Relativism” paradigm was posing more problems and questions than it explained. Beginning in the 1970’s in cultural anthropology, intellectual support for related heuristic concepts, such as “the ethnographic present” or “synchronic structure,” began to fade. It was pretty much gone by the 1990’s. And with the critique of modern 20th century cultural anthropology’s founding paradigm came the post-modern argument that the culture concept should be abandoned (or only used with an ironic wink). All of this recent intellectual history raises the question of whether the culture concept can be saved, the thread re-traced. The main challenge for the culture concept is whether anthropologists–across the Boasian subfields, in related discplines, and in different anthropological/ethnological/sociological disciplinary traditions around the world–can find a common theoretical ground to view culture as a symbolically structured process of learning, social action (or performance), and social judgment, rather than focusing on culture as a valued thing that a community possesses (see Hartigan 2005: Chapter 10 for a thorough and thoughtful and sometimes surprising exposition of this argument).


In fact, in the 1970’s and 80’s, the thread became much more frayed than I have already indicated. As I have discussed in a recent article in Reviews in Anthropology (Stutz 2012), the sociobiology debates of the 1970’s effectively split the discipline along a biological-behavioral/cultural-political divide … and it has not yet recovered. It was in this fraught intellectual context that biological anthropologists, population geneticists, and human biologists began to use the phrase “biocultural evolution,” developing the notion of dual-channel inheritance, with culture simply being information transmission within and between generations. Next-generation sociobiologists–who represent the interdisciplinary field of human evolutionary ecology (or human behavioral ecology) and with whom I share major theoretical agreement–continue to focus on culture mainly as information transmission (Hill et al. 2009). In fact, the biological anthropologist Lee Cronk’s (1999) eloquent evolutionary critique of the culture concept involves arguing that natural selection has shaped both the capacity to transmit representations of values and beliefs AND the individual capacity to act in one’s reproductive self-interest. This is a thought-provoking–and very thoughtful and articulate–argument. And I strongly recommend reading Cronk’s book, even though I disagree with him on what constitutes culture. Although my difference with Cronk may simply come down to a definitional disagreement about where culture ends and the social manipulation of symbols begins (see, for instance, Gerkey & Cronk 2010), I do think that culture can be defined as a focus for joint life-history and social adaptation in humans. For one thing, natural selection has strongly favored delayed reproduction in humans (compared to other apes and our ardipithecine and australopithecine ancestors), and during the juvenile period, the development of the capacity to learn–along with learning of symbolically structured representations of values, beliefs, and complex practices–should set the stage for adult social adaptations for foraging, family formation, and transferring resources to offspring or closely related members of the next generation (or two). Juvenile investment in the capacity for symbolically structured cultural learning and transmission comes at an opportunity cost; there is a trade-off between developing the capacity for culture and reaching sexual and physical maturity quickly. This costly investment in the capacity for culture should be linked to adult adaptations. By restricting the culture concept to the process of information transfer, Cronk suggests that when individuals or factions act contrary to common expressions of cultural values or beliefs, they are simply ignoring their culture (andprobably unconsciously). Given that humans constantly confront situations where their individual or factional interests go against those of the wider community, it would be surprising that something as developmentally and evolutionarily expensive as the biological capacity for transmitting and receiving complex cultural representations would mainly have evolved for communicating a lot of easily ignored cheap talk. I suggest that whatever the lack of consensus about the culture concept within cultural anthropology, the wider discipline–including researchers in human evolutionary ecology–should consider some of the main insights about the symbolic structure of social judgment in cultural systems. Life history theory in biology provides a key conceptual bridge here. What seems to be important is the juvenile development of the capacity for symbolically structured social competence, and this embodied capital supports complex symbolically structured social behaviors among adults. Thus, I strongly argue that the concept of culture should encompass more than information transmission and social learning, in no small part because so much of human behavior involves symbolically structured social action and judgment among adults.

I would add that my own undergraduate and graduate training (in the late 1980’s and 1990’s) as an anthropological archaeologist made me well aware of the deep biological-cultural intellectual divide. Archaeologists have an interest in theoretically understanding how symbolic systems structure social action and judgment, while also allowing for creativity and agency. The problem, of course, is that archaeological traces preserve little direct evidence of such cultural symbolic systems, let alone the dynamic political discourse–involving shifting alliances, changes in beliefs and values about power and obligations, and struggles of domination and resistance–that might have influenced empirical patterns in those archaeological traces. But archaeology provides a distinctive perspective on the results of cultural dynamics over centennial or millennial timescales. And thus, archaeological inquiry demands a theoretical framework in which culture is not necessarily the stable, coherent system implicit in the traditional Boasian framework. I am especially interested in the idea of biocultural evolution because it is a way to reintegrate anthropology as an umbrella discipline. From a biological perspective, my point of departure is that culture is a complex embodied adaptation that is integrated into a life history adaptation. From a cultural anthropological perspective, culture is a process of symbolically structured social action, judgment, and agency. From a long-term, holistic archaeological perspective, culture shapes complex-system dynamics in symbols, values, beliefs, relationships, technology, landscape, demography, and indeed, biology. This allows us to summarize a useful biocultural view of culture, re-tracing a common, intertwined thread. I offer this summary in the figure above left and the two figures below.

In the meantime, this helps us to return our focus on the evolutionary question of how human cultural capacities evolved as a complex, joint life-history/social behavioral adaptation. As I explore in this blog, one main source for understanding will be the concept of niche-adaptation co-evolution.

Culture is also integrally part of a complex, symbolically structured life-history adaptation. The evolved extended juvenile stage in humans facilitates developing socially learned, symbolically based competence in social action and judgment. In the lengthy adult life-history stage, the cultural capacity for social competence and agency has been favored by natural selection, because only successful alliance-formation and cooperation among a network of adults allows for the intense material and caloric investment in dependent offspring with delayed maturation. Thus, the juvenile and adult cultural adaptations have co-evolved.
In the adult life history stage culture is a symbolically structured system, in which values and beliefs are reinforced, articulated, and negotiated through dramatization and constant, symbolically varied evocation. Culture provides adults with the symbolic means for social action, judgment, and agency. Natural selection has favored this adaptation as a behavioral strategy for forming a family, developing alliances and networks, and obtaining resources to transfer to close relatives in younger generations.


Cronk, L. (1999). That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Gerkey, D. & Cronk, L. (2010). Why do we need to coordinate when classifying kin? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33:385-386.

Hartigan, J., Jr. (2005). Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hill, K., Barton, M. & Hurtado, A.M. (2009). The emergence of human uniqueness: characters underlying behavioral modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology 18:187–200.

Kuper, A. (1999). Culture: The Anthropologist’s Account. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rosaldo, R. (2000). Of headhunters and soldiers: separating cultural and ethical relativism. Issues in Ethics 11(1).