Culture, a word in common use but with complex meanings, derived, like the term broadcasting, from the treatment and care of the soil and of what grows on it. It is directly related to cultivation and the adjectives cultural and culture are part of the same verbal complex. A person of culture has identifiable attributes, among them a knowledge of and interest in the arts, literature, and music. Yet the word culture does not refer solely to such knowledge and interest nor, indeed, to education. At least from the 19th century onwards, under the influence of anthropologists and sociologists, the word culture has come to be used generally both in the singular and the plural (cultures) to refer to a whole way of life of people, including their customs, laws, conventions, and values.

Distinctions have consequently been drawn between primitive and advanced culture and cultures, between elite and popular culture, between popular and mass culture, and most recently between national and global cultures. Distinctions have been drawn too between culture and civilization, the latter a word derived not, like culture or agriculture, from the soil, but from the city. The two words are sometimes treated as synonymous. Yet this is misleading. While civilization and barbarism are pitted against each other in what seems to be a perpetual behavioural pattern, the use of the word culture has been strongly influenced by conceptions of evolution in the 19th century and of development in the 20th century. Cultures evolve or develop. They are not static. They have twists and turns. Styles change. So do fashions. There are cultural processes. What, for example, the word culture means has changed substantially since the study of classical (that is, Greek and Roman) literature, philosophy, and history ceased in the 20th century to be central to school and university education. No single alternative focus emerged, although with computers has come electronic culture, affecting kinds of study, and most recently digital culture. As cultures express themselves in new forms not everything gets better or more civilized.

The word culture is now associated with many other words with historical or contemporary relevance, like corporate culture, computer culture, or alien culture, as is the word cultural. There are cultural institutions of various ages, some old, like the Royal Academy, some new, like the UK Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. They each follow cultural strategies or cultural policies and together they constitute what is sometimes called a “cultural sector”. How commercialized that varies from culture to culture. The American writer Leo Bogart, the author of eight books on communications and former vice-president and general manager of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, wrote an important paper in 1991 on the spread of the Internet with the title “The American Media System and its Commercial Culture”.

The more recently widespread use of the word culture in sport, for example, has rendered largely obsolete two older usages of culture—the idea of it as a veneer on life, not life itself, a polish, the sugar icing, as it were, on the top of a cake and, at the opposite pole, the sense of it being the pursuit of perfection, the best that is known and thought in the world. The second meaning necessarily involves an ideal as well as an idea and critical judgment and discrimination to realize it. Both meanings have been influential, however, and the second, propounded in the 19th century, remained influential in literary criticism and in education, particularly in the teaching of English literature, in the 20th century.

The multiplicity of meanings attached to the word made and make it difficult to define. There is no single, unproblematic definition, although many attempts have been made to establish one. The only non-problematic definitions go back to agricultural (for example, cereal culture or strawberry culture) and medical (for example, bacterial culture or penicillin culture). Since in anthropology and sociology we also acknowledge culture clashes, culture shock, and counter-culture, the range of reference is extremely wide.


In 1952 two distinguished American anthropologists, A.L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckholm, listed no fewer than 164 definitions of culture made by anthropologists from the 1840s onwards. The most quoted early anthropologist was (and is) Edward Tylor, who drew no distinction between culture and civilization, and defined culture and civilization when in his Primitive Culture (1871) he wrote “culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, 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”. Many later anthropologists offered a less universalistic and more pluralistic and relativistic conception of culture, confining the term to a particular group of people.

It was to Tylor that the poet and critic T.S. Eliot turned in his properly named Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, first published in 1948. Eliot and Kroeber and Kluckholm rightly pointed out that Tylor’s approach had been anticipated by the German anthropologist Gustav Klemm, who defined culture comprehensively almost 30 years before Tylor as “customs, arts, and skills, domestic and public life in peace or war, religion, science and art”.

Tylor pointed to the relationship between culture and society, Klemm to the relationship of culture to religion. Eliot was preoccupied with both of these relationships. For him, it was the function of the superior members and superior families in a hierarchical society to preserve the “group culture” as it was the function of the producers to alter it. Yet the culture of a whole people was “an incarnation of its religion”. Tylor had a marked distaste for religious authority.

Tylor, like Klemm before him and Eliot after him, was also aware, however, of the importance of “material culture”, raw materials and artifacts, utensils and tools both in the making of cultures and in their role as witnesses to past cultures. Anthropology and archaeology thus went together, with British anthropologists considering their field of study as social anthropology and American and continental European anthropologists preferring the description cultural anthropology. Historians learned both from social and cultural anthropologists and from sociologists. Eliot, who died in 1965, had by comparison little influence on them as the study of everyday things became an increasingly significant element in the study of history, culminating in the identification of a consumer culture, which had its origins, some historians maintained, in the 18th century. More broadly, historians, particularly in France, stressed that the concept of culture cannot be separated from its history. A very different and far stronger influence on historians was exercised by Marxist writers, therefore, although by 1965 there were more diversities of approach and methodology within Marxism than there were among anthropologists.

The original formulation of a Marxist concept of culture was deceptively simple. Marx himself distinguished between an economic base and a cultural superstructure, although he did not use the latter adjective. He was interested in the superstructure, but he did not analyse it as 20th-century Marxists were to do, the first of them the so-called Frankfurt School of sociologists, founded by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. It was they who developed a critical theory of the media as culture makers before being driven out of Germany in 1934 and moving to the United States. Their return to Frankfurt after World War II revived their influence which, for a time, drew in Jürgen Habermas, whose writings on the public sphere became more influential among sociologists than theirs, and Herbert Marcuse, a joint father of the School, who had become an American citizen. A philosopher, who linked Marx and Freud and discussed class and sex, he played a key role in rebellious students’ movements in the United States during the 1960s. His attack on the repressive power, as he conceived of it, of liberalism seemed a threat to American values.

In Italy Antonio Gramsci, general secretary of the Italian Communist Party, who in 1926 was put into jail by Benito Mussolini, used his time there in severely restrained circumstances to write nine volumes of Prison Notebooks, which were to be widely studied throughout European universities during the 1960s. Distinguishing between forms of culture, he rejected the base/superstructure model and concluded that intellectuals created the “hegemony” or cultural domination by which the ruling class secured the mass support in order to achieve its aims. Culture demanded the discipline of knowing one’s inner self, but it was through cultural institutions, particularly the Church, through the media and through language itself that the cultural climate was determined, this, in turn, shaping political options and prospects of life. He was a pioneer of what came to be called “cultural studies”.

So, too, in England, in particular, was Raymond Williams, whose writings on culture and society—culture for him was what he called a “keyword”—culminated in 1977 in his adoption of a Marxist approach. He had not followed such an approach—and he explained why—in his first highly influential books, among them Culture and Society: 1780—1950 (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961), which more than any other books published in Britain drew attention to the concept of culture and a specifically English tradition, centred on it, which developed after and in response to the Industrial Revolution. The key book was Culture and Anarchy (1869) by Matthew Arnold in which he identified culture with “sweetness and light”. In the 20th century, the tradition was expressed in a conservative fashion, as Williams saw it, by Eliot and the prominent Cambridge literary critic, F.R. Leavis.


Williams was one of the main influences on the lively development of cultural studies in Britain during the 1960s, although before Culture and Society appeared the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was founded by Richard Hoggart, whose Uses of Literacy was published in 1957. It was widely read outside and inside universities and was published in paperback in the centenary year of Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. Like Williams (and the Frankfurt School), Hoggart, never a Marxist, was deeply interested in communications, the subject of a paperback by Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974). In 1970, Hoggart left Birmingham for Paris to serve as UNESCO’s assistant director-general (for social sciences, human sciences, and culture).

Another major influence on the Birmingham Centre was Edward Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963), who traced his origins to a different tradition from that analysed by Williams, a radical culture emerging in the 18th century but with deeper roots that went underground under repression after the French Revolution. Thompson criticized The Long Revolution on the grounds that no way of life is without its dimension of struggle. Such criticism—and a reading of continental European Marxist writers on literature and culture, notably Lucien Goldmann and György Lukács—impelled Williams to take up Marxist theories.

Meanwhile, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, influenced not by Marx but by Émile Durkheim, had set out to redefine culture, his own keyword, in structural terms, claiming that “any culture may be looked upon as an ensemble of symbolic systems in the front rank of which are to be found language, marriage laws, economic relations, art, science and religion”. His range of reference extended to material culture and, above all, to food. The complexity of cross-influences and counter-influences is brought out in the history of various “structuralisms”, some specifically Marxist, which shaped much of the language of European sociology in the 1960s and 1970s.


The Birmingham Centre, subject to such multiple influences, derived its programme above all from that of Stuart Hall, born in the Caribbean, who worked with and then succeeded Hoggart, and who subsequently became a professor at the Open University. One of his main fields of study was subcultures—the beliefs, attitudes, customs, and other forms of behaviour of particular groups in society, particularly youth. These differed from those of the dominant society, while at the same time were integrally related to it. The concept of subculture referred also to minority groups such as ethnic minorities and drug users, but it incorporated the ways of life of gay communities and religious groups, the last of these prominent in the 21st century. It was sometimes argued that the subcultures created or expressed by such groups in such forms as dress served to provide recompense for the fact that their members are viewed as outsiders by mainstream society. Hence a drug user with a low social status within conventional society would command respect from other drug users because of his or her group’s individual hierarchy and values. Yet the power of Islamic subcultures could not be explained entirely in such terms. Members of some subcultures were bound most closely together if they were at odds with the values and behaviour of the dominant society. A shared language and a common religion with its own traditions and laws were a bond that transcended national frontiers. Subcultures might also emerge within a minority group—such as punk within youth subculture, separatist feminism within a feminine subculture, Rastafarians within a Caribbean subculture, and an Al-Qaeda group within Islam. Boundaries shifted and loyalties could change. Subcultures, like cultures, developed, and with globalization it was recognized that some subcultures, and indeed cultures, might disappear like lost species.

Theories of subcultures emerged during the 1960s and 1970s when the research was carried out on their formation, development, and relationship to society as a whole. Geographical subcultures tend to be described as regional cultures, and there may be subcultures, particularly class subcultures, within them.


The use of the word globalization is relatively new, more recent than the word modernization, but there was recognition even before the rise of the nation state that there were cultures or civilizations that coexisted, in some cases with links between them. The universal history of the 18th century explicitly acknowledged them. So, too, did various stage theories of development, most of them taking it for granted that there were primitive cultures that were the best thought of as obsolete survivals. Progress came to be considered as a law. For the 19th-century French sociologist Auguste Comte, who gave social science the name of sociology, man’s development had consisted of three stages—theological, metaphysical, and scientific, with the scientific (or positivist, the name given to him) dominating as the subject developed. Indeed, the idea of stages went out of fashion, and all cultures came to be treated as unique in time and place. “Colonial cultures”, however, shared common characteristics that implied cultural as well as economic dependence, and even after the end of imperialism, such dependence did not necessarily end.

Before World War II and the withdrawal from formal empire, two 20th-century historians, the German Oswald Spengler and the Englishman A.J. Toynbee, while following different methods and reaching quite different conclusions, produced chronological and comparative accounts of human history in which the units involved were not nation-states or empires but civilizations or cultures, each with a spiritual unity of its own. By comparing Greece and Rome, classical civilization, with the 20th-century West, Spengler, in his two-volume Untergang des Abendlandes (1918-1922), published at the end of World War I, claimed to have traced a life-cycle (birth, youth, maturity, senescence, death) through which all “advanced” cultures or civilizations pass. Translated into English as The Decline of the West (1926-1928), Spengler’s book had less impact in English-speaking countries than it did in defeated Germany. It provoked English rejoinders, however, though not immediately, notably The Recovery of the West (1941) by Michael Roberts, a great admirer of Eliot, who himself referred to other cultures, among them the Indian, more than Roberts did. The differences between Indian and Chinese civilizations are part of the pattern of global history as it is now interpreted, with more questions posed than answered. The multi-volume Science and Civilization in China (1954- ) by the English biochemist Joseph Needham provides the broadest sweep in English of Chinese culture leading up to what he called “the gunpowder epic”, the transfer of technology to the West, but it has itself been subjected to challenge. Meanwhile, Wang Gungwu has noted carefully how the words civilization and culture, although not the conception of change, were new to the Chinese—and Japanese—in the late 19th century. They were translated as wenming and wenhua.

The Cultural Revolution in China, which followed nearly a quarter of a century after the creation of a Communist People’s Republic in 1949 and four years after a brief border war with India in 1962 (see Sino-Indian War), was conceived of as a proletarian purge of anti-revolutionary elements, and in waves of terror its leaders savagely attacked both traditional Chinese culture and all forms of Western culture. The precepts of Mao Zedong stirred several leftist groups in the West, however, and he himself survived the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1969. Marxism too survived, as it did the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union.

Toynbee was the other Western historian to write in terms of “civilizations” and “cultures”—he never clearly distinguished between the two—when he wrote 12 volumes of his magnum opus A Study of History (1934-1961) in which he identified 21 developed civilizations throughout history and 5 “arrested civilizations”. His own experiences were almost as varied as those of most of his civilizations. He had been a delegate to the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919 following World War I, and after having become a professor of Byzantine and modern Greek studies, a journalist, and director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, he became well known throughout the world, if not universally admired, as a historian. Drawn more to Greek and Roman experience, which he knew the best than to Indian or Chinese, nevertheless at least one Buddhist subculture, Cao Dai, hailed him as a prophet and his works were as well known in Asia as in Europe. His theory of civilizations, based on challenge and response, could be quickly understood, however much detail he used to illustrate it. The most relevant current detail would be provided from Africa, where cultures and subcultures confront all the issues raised by globalization.

Contributed By:
Asa Briggs

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