What is culture? Definition and foundations of the concept of culture

Academic Paper, 2006

35 Pages, Grade: 1,8


Table of contents

List of abbreviations


1. Definitions of culture

2. Cultural programming

3. Values as the core of culture

4. Culture and meaning

5. Culture and communication

6. Cultural boundaries

7. Cultural distinctness
7.1. Culture standards and their function in culture assimilators
7.2. HOFSTEDE's four cultural dimensions
7.3. Criticism of HOFSTEDE's investigation

Bibliography (including further reading)

List of abbreviations

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


Culture is the result of human actions and at the same time has a direct effect on human action. Thus, a situation or action can be interpreted differently by two people with different cultural backgrounds due to the influence of culture.

In order to become aware of this different interpretation, however, it is first necessary to understand what a "culture" is. Therefore, the following work presents the relevant theoretical foundations of the concept of culture.

1. Definitions of culture

There is no generally accepted definition of culture in the scientific literature1 (BOLTEN 2003a:10; JAHODA 1996:33; MALETZKE 1996:15; STRAUB & THOMAS 2003:34; VASILACHE 2003:28). Rather, there are broad and narrow definitions of the concept of culture in large numbers, which set different priorities depending on the scientific field of research (MALETZKE 1996:15; 18ff). This was already documented in the fifties by the American researchers KROEBER and KLUCKHOHN, who published a collection of over 100 different definitions of culture in 1952 (LAYES 2000:17). After systematizing and analyzing them, they proposed the following comprehensive definition of culture, which has been frequently cited ever since.2 (DÜLFER 2001:231:

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behaviour acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artefacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historical derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values, culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action.

KROEBER & KLUCKHOHN (1952), quoted from EHNERT (2004:8)

This definition underlines that culture is, on the one hand, the result of human actions and, on the other hand, has a direct impact on human action. This part of the definition of KROEBER and KLUCKHOHN makes it clear that a situation or action, due to the influence of culture on the perception, thinking and evaluation of a person, can be interpreted differently by two people with different cultural backgrounds.

This is also illustrated by the concept of the living world of SCHÜTZ, according to which, from a sociological perspective, culture is defined on a micro-level as the living world of the individual (SCHÜTZ & LUCKMANN 1975:23ff). This living environment of everyday life is the "... predominant and excellent reality of man" (SCHÜTZ & LUCKMANN 1975:23), which, when shared by a group of people, can be thought of as a collective memory that enables routine action (BOLTEN 2003a:14).

In relation to the above-mentioned possibility of different interpretation of the same action by two people with different cultural backgrounds, this means that these persons are located in different worlds and thus live in the reality shared by their societies.

Definitions of the concept of culture that are formulated from a political perspective and equate cultures with nations have no validity in the context of this work, since nations often unite different cultures in their borders or cultures are divided by national borders. Cultures cannot therefore be equated with nations. The same applies to language areas or geographical areas. The above-mentioned definition perspectives assume due to overgeneralizations and stereotypings3 Similarities that do not exist (BOLTEN 2003a:14). After this definition of culture and its reflection in the concept of the living world has been defined as the basis for further considerations, the connection between culture and action as well as between culture and communication will now be presented in further steps. For this purpose, the individual components of the above definition of KROEBER and KLUCKHOHN are used.

2. Cultural programming

Every person internalizes "culture" in the course of his life. This culture, which according to the above definition includes patterns of thought and behavior, is used in the context of socialization4 each person taken over from his environment (his family, neighborhood, school, youth groups, etc.) (HOFSTEDE 2001:2ff; LUSTIG & KOESTER 1999:30) and determines in the further course of life the outer limits within which one's own actions are carried out. This process, in which an adolescent individual not only adopts the language, but also the thinking and behaviors of his social environment, is called mental programming by HOFSTEDE, analogous to programming a computer (HOFSTEDE 2001:2ff). Every person carries this mental programming within him.

However, this does not mean that human behavior is fundamentally predetermined by them:

... he [man] basically has the ability to deviate from them [the mental programs] and react in a new, creative, destructive or unexpected way.

(HOFSTEDE 2001:3)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 1: Three levels of mental programming5

At the lower level of the model is human nature, which is equal to all human beings. It should be understood as genetically inherited and includes human abilities such as the feeling of fear, anger, love, joy or sadness.

On the middle level is the culture. It is learned by every human being and determines how the above-mentioned human nature finds expression. Culture is shared by collectives and includes forms such as language, generally accepted goals, religion, but also the design of everyday activities such as greetings, food, hygiene, etc. In this sense, culture is the totality of a society's ways of thinking and behaving. It is the pattern of interpretation and action used by a social group to cope with adaptation problems in human interaction with his environment.

On the basis of this culture, which is similar to all people in a society, people form an individual personality through their experiences in life (upper model level). When using the concept of culture, it is therefore important to ensure that it is not used as a determinant of action and thinking. This understanding of the concept of culture, which occurs again and again not only in everyday discussions, can be explained by means of the so-called puppet model developed by LEIPRECHT:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 2: Puppet model of culture6

In this model, people who are attributed to the culture xy appear as puppets who hang on their culture like a wire and are controlled by it. Their actions and their thinking are perceived as completely determined by culture. Their expressions of life are perceived through the filter of culture xy and reduced to it (LEIPRECHT 2001:31f). Human individuality, based on the development of different personalities, is not taken into account.

The so-called puppet model thus represents the widespread misconceptions of culture, in which culture is perceived as a static, homogeneous quantity that completely determines the behavior of its members without them being able to exert influence on their culture.

This false view makes use of a reduction of culture and leads to the exclusion of developments, conflicts, opposing points of view and ultimately the individuality of each person. It is also misunderstood that cultures overlap and that every human being is a member of several (sub-)cultures (cf. LEIPRECHT 2001:31; VASILACHE 2003:26ff).

3. Values as the core of culture

As shown in the previous section, culture is learned. It enables people to master everyday situations routinely (BOLTEN 2003a:14) and makes a new definition of already experienced situations superfluous. For example, after learning to eat with a knife and fork or greeting them with a handshake, it is no longer necessary to relearn these behaviors in future situations. Culture is therefore collectively shared knowledge that pre-structures situations and reduces complexity7 and forms the frame of reference for "right" thinking, feeling and acting in typical situations (ESSER 2001:1).

Within culture, the values shared by society determine which thinking, feeling and acting are right in the frame of reference of the prevailing culture (LUSTIG & KOESTER 1999:32).

Values thus form the core of every culture and define in it the meaning of evil and good, dirty and clean, ugly and beautiful, unnatural and natural, anomal and normal, paradoxical and logical, irrational and rational (HOFSTEDE 2001:9ff).

They are taken over by the social environment as part of the socialization. According to HOFSTEDE, this process is largely completed within the first ten years of a child's life.

The values are stable in the further life and largely immutable8 (HOFSTEDE 2001:10).

Values are not visible to the people who carry them and are often not conscious. Nevertheless, they guide human action (ibid.). These values are expressed in rituals, patterns of behaviour and symbols.

Rituals are activities that are performed by all members of a culture. They themselves do not serve the achievement of a goal, but are carried out for their own sake as e.g. forms of greeting and religious ceremonies. They are the most enduring expression of values in a society (ibid.).

Heroes are the behavioral models of a culture that represent the qualities that are positively regarded in a society and thus transmit values by encouraging imitation (ibid.).

Symbols, on the other hand, are the most striking expression of values. At the same time, they are subject to rapid change. Symbols of a culture are language, fashion, flags, status symbols, drinks, etc. (ibid.)

The values of a society, internalized by the individual, thus find expression in rituals, heroes and symbols. They determine what is rated as positive in a society and let the members of the respective society strive for it.

The distinction between the invisible values of a culture and its visible manifestations is often illustrated by the so-called iceberg model (BOLTEN 2003a:17):

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 3: Iceberg model of culture9

The model makes it clear that culture is both a component visible to everyone10 includes (such as language, clothing, food), which is above the "waterline", as well as an invisible11, the values that underlie the visible manifestations of culture and lie hidden in the model below the "waterline" (BREDENDIECK et al. 2002:44ff).


1 BOLTEN (2003a:10) points out that for this reason, after more possible definitions of the concept of culture were added year after year, the Duden now dispenses with any definition of the concept of culture.

2 Another frequently cited cultural definition is the definition of TYLOR (1871:358): "Culture - in the broad ethnographic sense of the word [...] is that complex whole that includes knowledge, faith, art, morality, law, custom, custom, and all other abilities and habits that man has acquired as a member of a society" quoted from DÜLFER (2001:231).

3 In the context of this work, stereotypes are defined as those patterns of perception that provide the unknown with a certain meaning through a certain cultural point of view, which is based on similarities with what is already known. Thus, a zebra e.g. be called a horse by a child who does not know this animal, as this is the obvious similar provision. cf. BOLTEN (2003a:28).

4 This term is intended to apply in the context of this work in the sense of the definition of ROSENSTIEL, according to the socialization "... in a broad sense, the adaptation of the individual to social norms through a learning process [can be described]. If one narrows the term, it presents itself as a process in which a person learns the value system, the norms and the required patterns of behavior of societies, organizations or groups of which he is or wishes to become a member" ROSENSTIEL (1987:123). The recent scientific literature characterizes the socialisnden not only as a socialization recipient, but as an active, flexible being that interacts with its environment. cf. GOETHE (1996:83ff) In the context of this work, a distinction is made between early socialization in childhood and later socialization in adulthood.

5 Taken from HOFSTEDE (2001:5).

6 Taken over by LEIPRECHT (2001:31).

7 This reduction in complexity inevitably arises, since cultural knowledge acts as a selection or interpretation filter that selects from the possibilities of interpreting facts those that are in harmony with the respective cultural interpretation scheme. cf. GOETHE (1996:128).

8 See also HILLMANN (2004:145), who is of the opinion that people hold on to the values defined in their childhood even in a changed environment. A change in values therefore represents a generational phenomenon for HILLMANN. HILLMANN refers primarily to the empirical world values study conducted by INGLEHART, in which the indicators materialism/postmaterialism are used to prove that people who grew up in poor countries and consequently predominantly follow materialistic values retain them, even if their material life situation improves considerably in the further course of their lives. Other authors, as well as HOFSTEDE himself elsewhere, regard individual values as quite changeable, provided that the individual stays in a different cultural environment for a longer period of time. cf. ESSER (2001:25f); HOFSTEDE (2001:286) and ROTH (2002:343). These two different assessments of the stability of values in a culture are based on two different cultural concepts. While the classical anthropological concept of culture, e.g. B. HOFSTEDE's investigation is based on ascribing to culture a relatively constant structure of values and norms, the constructivist concept of culture is based on the assumption that culture is based on collectively shared interpretation schemes that constantly reproduce and continuously change in communication processes. This cultural concept thus underlines the relations between the culture owners as well as their demarcation from other (sub-)cultures. Culture in this sense is the constantly ongoing attempt of groups of individuals to define the group as well as its situation. See GERTSEN & SÖDERBERG & TORP (1998:21ff). Cf. on the change in values BEERMANN & STENGEL (2003:24ff).

9 Taken from BREDENDIECK et al (2002:45).

10 This area is also referred to in the scientific literature as Perceptas denoted. cf. HOLZMÜLLER (1995:30). In English-language literature, this area is referred to as objective culture denoted. cf. CUSHNER & BRISLIN (1996:6).

11 This area is also referred to in the scientific literature as Konzeptas denoted. cf. HOLZMÜLLER (1995:30). In English-language literature, this area is referred to as subjective culture denoted. cf. CUSHNER & BRISLIN (1996:6).

Excerpt out of 35 pages


What is culture? Definition and foundations of the concept of culture
University of Hamburg  (Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaften)
Catalog Number
what, definition
Quote paper
Magister Artium Johannes Germ (Author), 2006, What is culture? Definition and foundations of the concept of culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1169797


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