What is Culture? Definition, Features, Types, Elements, and Functions

What is Culture?

The term culture refers to the group’s shared beliefs, practices (i.e. human activities), and values for a living. It is the total people’s or group’s way of life. It includes everything produced by society such as peoples’ way of talking, dressing, cooking, mourning, eating, marrying, etc., including all of the values, customs, and traditions. Adherence to culture makes one an integrated member of society.

The word “culture” originated from the Latin word cultura, stemming from colere, meaning “to cultivate.” The English word “Culture” has been used in various concepts. In common literature, it means social charm and intellectual excellence. In sociology, it stands for the moral, spiritual, and intellectual attainment of man.

Sociology defines culture as a composed of integrated customs, traditions, and current behavior patterns of human groups. It is a unique possession of man. The only man is born and brought up in a cultural environment. It is a means by which individuals grow and mature. It is the pattern of behavior and thinking that people living in social groups learn, create, and share. It distinguishes one human group from others. It also distinguishes humans from other animals.

Culture is a very broad term that includes in itself all our walks of life, our modes of behavior, our philosophies and ethics, our morals and manners, our beliefs, language, rituals, customs and traditions, art, technology, styles of dress, ways of producing and cooking food, our religious, political, economic and other types of activities. It includes all that man has acquired in his individual and social life.

Shiv Shankar God of Hindu Culture
Shiv Shankar God of Hindu Culture

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The term culture is given a wide variety of meanings and interpretations. People often call an educated man a cultured man and regard that man as uncultured who is lacking education. In sociology culture’s meaning is quite different. The culture of a society is in the form of the life of its members, the set of ideas and habits which they learn, share and spread from generation to generation. It defined accepted ways of behaving for members of a particular society.


  • Ralf Linton, explaining “The culture of a society is the way of life of its members, the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from generation to generation”.
  • B. Malinowski defines the culture, “as the handiwork of man and as the medium through which he achieves his end”.
  • Clyde Kluckhohn has used an exclusive phrase for culture as “design for living”.
  • E.B. Tylor states, “Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities”.

Characteristics of Culture

The features of culture can be illustrated as:

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Culture is inherent in society

It exists in social systems inherently i.e. with the birth of society itself. It influences how a person behaves, as consciously or subconsciously, we are all governed by culture. Not only do people use their values and beliefs to govern their behavior, but they also expect that others’ behavior would also be similar and consistent. It unites the members of a social system.

It satisfies human/social needs

Cultural values, beliefs, customs, and traditions continue to exist as long as they meet the needs of the people in the society. That is why culture evolves (changes) with time. As the needs of the people change beliefs, values, customs, and traditions also change to meet newer needs and want of the people.

It is not inborn; it is learned as a result of the socialization process

Socialization is the learning process that occurs right from one’s childhood and continues throughout life. In fact, it is the socialization process that instills in us the culture and values of society and helps us adjust to society. The agents of socialization could be family, peers, kin, teachers, etc.

It is shared

It is accepted and imbibed by all the members of society. Social institutions (family), educational institutions (schools, colleges, and universities), political institutions (law, public policy, leaders, and government), and religious institutions (like places of worship, artifacts, and religious leaders), etc. all help in spreading this culture to the members of the society. The mass media, print, and audio-visual also have a role in transmitting it.

It is dynamic and adaptive

It changes (evolves) constantly with time for adaptation to changing environments. As said above, values, beliefs, customs, and traditions continue to exist as long as they satisfy the needs and wants of the people. Once they cease to satisfy people’s needs, they change. Thus, culture changes and adapts to the environment.

It is transmissive in nature

It is transmitted from one generation to another through the medium of language, signs, symbols, etc. Transmission of culture may take place through imitation or instruction.

It varies from society to society

It not only varies with time but also with space. It means that different society has different cultures. E.g. Nepalese society has a different culture than European society, the culture of the Gurung community is different than that of Tharu.

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It is symbolic

Symbols are one of the traits of culture. It is constructed by symbols. The meaning of it is rooted in the meaning of symbols. E.g. in Hindu society, the culture that married women put “Sindur”.

It is social but not individual

It cannot exist in isolation. It is not an individual phenomenon but rather is a product of society as it originates through social interaction and is shared by the member of the society.

It is ideational

Culture helps a man in the formation of ideas and the use of these ideas in assigning meanings to experiences in society.

Elements/Components/Constituent Factors of Culture

It is composed of the following components:

  • Norms
  • Values
  • Symbols
  • Language
  • Myths
  • Folkways (traditional way of life)
  • Mores (i.e. Customs)
  • Rituals
  • Fashion
  • Laws
  • Knowledge

Cultural Traits and Cultural Complexes

The smallest unit of culture is called a trait which means that a trait cannot be reduced to the further smallest part. E.g. dance is a collection of traits such as dance steps, the formula for selecting the performers, and musical accompaniment. Moreover, dance has a meaning, which may mean religious, ceremonial, magical rite, courtship activity, etc. All these traits (elements) combine to form a cultural complex.

A cultural complex is a cluster of related traits. The culture complex is intermediate between the trait and institution.

Types of Culture

It is classified into two types:

Material Culture

Material culture consists of manufactured objects such as technology, tools, furniture, automobiles, buildings, roads, and any physical objects which have been changed and used by man.

Non-material culture

It consists of the words people use, the ideas, customs, morals, values, and beliefs they hold, and the habits they follow.

Functions of Culture

  • Culture is a treasury of knowledge with instincts that adapt to the environment. But man adapts to the environment or modifies it to suit his convenience.
  • It defines situation – It not only defines but also conditions and determines what we drink, eat, wear, and talk about.
  • It defines attitudes, values, and goals.
  • It decides our careers. Whether a policeman, social worker, and so on, is decided by our culture.
  • It provides a behavior pattern.
  • It molds the personality of individuals.

What is Cultural Lag?

An American sociologist, W.F. Ogburn, introduced the concept of ‘Cultural Lag’ in his book “social change” published in 1920. Cultural lag refers to the phenomenon that occurs when changes in material culture (i.e. technology and tools) occur before or at a faster rate than the changes in non-material culture (i.e. norms and morals in the society).

E.g. the advancements in the field of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering involves altering the DNA or genetic material of a cellular organism to change or add new traits. For example, expectant parents can use genetic engineering to select their unborn child’s eye color or sex. However, many people view this type of genetic engineering as unethical and believe it could lead to unintended social consequences. This is an example of cultural lag.

2 thoughts on “What is Culture? Definition, Features, Types, Elements, and Functions”

  1. This presentation was quite helpful.However it should be reviewed to include the various sociological perspectives:functionalism, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism.
    Thank you.


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