Culture: It’s Characteristics and Relation with Civilization and Society

The term ‘culture’ means different things to different people. Like most sociological concepts, culture is a term with both a popular as well as a sociological meaning.

In common parlance, when we speak of ‘culture’, many of us think in terms of ‘cultured’ or ‘refined’ individuals. It is also used to convey social charm and intellectual excellence.


To social scientists culture is not limited to refinement or social charm. Sociologists do not judge culture on the basis of the taste or refinement of society it is a part of.

They do not use it in any such sense which connotes the evaluation in any form, i.e., what is good or what is bad. Their use is quite objective having the quality of ethical neutrality.

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The Sanskrit term for culture is sanskriti. Both ‘Sanskrit’ and ‘Sanskriti’ are derived from samaskar, meaning ritual performance, which is a process of refinement. Man is born of as a social being he attains sociality and becomes a cultured man by going through the samaskars.

In general (widest sense) terms, a culture can be said to include all the human phenomena in a society that are not the products of biological inheritance. The ways in which we adapt to our environment are called collectively as culture. The classic definition of culture, given by Sir Edward Tylor (1871), reads as follows: “Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” To put it in simple terms, culture is everything which is socially learned and shared by the members of a society.


It clearly means that human behaviour is largely culturally and not genetically determined. For M.J. Herskovits (1948), culture is a way of life of a people (or members of a society). According to Horton and Hunt (1964), “it is the set of rules and procedures, together with a supporting set of ideas and values.”

No society is devoid of culture. To put it in other words, all societies (preliterate or literate) have culture in some or the other form. But it differs from societies to societies or communities to communities. As a repository of social heritage, it helps in maintaining social order, control the behaviour of people, and establish uniformity in the behaviour of people.

Clark Wissler (1923) pointed out nine cultural facts found in all societies:

(1) Speech including language and writing systems.

(2) Material traits such as food habits, shelter, tools, utensils, dress etc.

(3) Mythology and scientific knowledge.

(4) Art including carving, paintings, drawings, music and dance etc.

(5) Religious beliefs and practices including ritualistic forms, treatment of the sick and treatment of the dead.

(6) Family and the social system—marriage forms, inheritance, social control, sports and games.

(7) Property—real and personal property, trade and exchange.

(8) Government—political forms, judicial and legal procedure.

(9) War.


Most of the definitions that have been offered and studied, emphasise certain features of culture:

(1) It is shared by the members of a society;

(2) It is learned and acquired, not inborn or instinctive;

(3) Its elements are interrelated, constituting a complex whole;

(4) It is transmitted from generation to generation or historically derived;

(5) It is made or created;

(6) It is material and non-material both, whether it is something concrete like a chair, a fan or a car or abstract like a belief or superstition;

(7) It has adaptability;

(8) It is both super-individual and super-organic (its formation and continuity do not depend on any one individual); and

(9) It is composed of ethos (formal appearance of culture) and eidos (cognitive process of culture).

Culture and Civilisation:

In the Anglo-French tradition, the concept of ‘culture’ was often used synonymously with ‘civilisation’. Even in our day-to-day talks and discussions, we use the two terms interchangeably. The earlier idea that culture and civilisation refer to the same state of development of humanity has now been abandoned. As long as people thought of primitive (or preliterate) societies as consisting of persons living in a state of nature, they could contrast ‘civilisation’ to this state.

However, anthropological studies showed that preliterate people created rules, religions, beliefs and tools, developed agriculture and made other changes in the natural order of things, which are the characteristics of culture, in the modem sense of the term.

The concept of civilisation was also equated with highly valued things, respect of people for one another, the sanctity of life, and a high regard for the good, the ethical and the beautiful. In this sense, those who were not civilised were barbaric or barbarians. According to Maclver and Page (1961) “By civilisation we mean the whole mechanism and organisation which man has devised in his endeavour to control the conditions of life.”

Sociologists do not use the term ‘civilisation’ in both the above senses. For Robert Merton (1936), civilisation is impersonal, accumu­lative and objective.

MacIver and Page (1961) note four differences between civilisation and culture:

(1) civilisation has a precise standard of measurement;

(2) It is always advancing;

(3) It is passed on without effort; and

(4) It is borrowed with change or loss. None of these attributes is true of culture.

Some definitions of civilisation simply stress technology, and for some people technology has been synonymous with progress. Bierstedt (1974) emphasises sophistication, self-criticism and other-awareness as the essence of civilisation. William F. Ogburn (1950), in his theory of social change, described two aspects of culture, viz., material and non-material. For him, material aspect of culture represents civilisation. In brief, culture represents what we are, whereas civilisation is what we have and will accumulate.

The distinction between culture and civilisation is that of end and the means. Culture represents the end (values and goals) and civilisation, on the other hand, represents the tools and techniques that help in achieving the end.

Culture and Society:

These two terms are also used synonymously at many times. Sociolo­gists use the term ‘society to mean a group of interacting people living in a specific geographical area, organised in a cooperative manner, and sharing a common culture. It refers to the whole complex of relations of man to his fellows.

Robert MacIver defined society as “the web of social relationships, which is always changing”. A society is made of people who are interacting on the basis of shared beliefs, customs, values and activities, whereas common patterns which govern their interaction make up a culture of the society.

Sociologists use the term ‘culture’ to mean all the components of a society including all learned behaviour as well as material and non-material aspects such as symbols, language, ideas, beliefs, knowledge, values, norms and technology. Culture exists because people are able to share creations, pass knowledge from one generation to the next, and thereby change the very conditions for existence. A culture is a system of behaviour shared by the members of a society.

A society is a social group; a culture is a society’s system of common heritage. Each of us has a culture, because we are all raised in society. We express our culture continuously in our dress, food, work, language, and other activities. We learn our culture from our forebearers and contemporaries and then we pass it on to future generations.

There cannot be a culture apart from society, and no society exists without a culture. As Gillin and Gillin (1948) state, “culture is the cement binding together into a society its component individuals… human society is interacting; culture is the patterning of their behaviour.” In nutshell, society refers to people and culture to patterns of behaviour.

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