What is Culture?

Anthropologists and sociologists define culture as “Ways of Living “, built up by a group of human beings, which are transmitted from one generation to another. A culture acts out its ways of living in the context of social institutions, including family, educational, religious, governmental, and business institutions. Culture includes both conscious and unconscious values, ideas, attitudes, and symbols that shape human behavior and that are transmitted from one generation to the next. In this sense, culture does not include one-time solutions to unique problems, or passing fads and styles.

As defined by organizational anthropologist Geert Hofstede, culture is “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one category of people from those of another”.

In addition to agreeing that culture is learned, not innate, most anthropologists share two additional views. First, all faces of culture are interrelated: Influence or change one aspect of a culture and everything else is affected. Second, because it is shared by the members of a group, culture defines the boundaries between different groups.


Definitions of Culture

  • “Culture: learned and shared human patterns or models for living; day- to-day living patterns. these patterns and models pervade all aspects of human social interaction. Culture is mankind’s primary adaptive mechanism” – Damen, L.
  • “Culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them” – Lederach, J.P.
  • “Culture…consists in those patterns relative to behavior and the products of human action which may be inherited, that is, passed on from generation to generation independently of the biological genes” – Parson, T.
  • ” Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, and on the other as conditioning elements of further action.” – Kroeber, A.L., & Kluckhohn, C.

Characteristics of Culture

  • Culture is prescriptive. It prescribes the kinds of behavior considered  acceptable in the society. The prescriptive characteristics of culture simplify a consumer’s decision-making process by limiting product choices to those, which are socially acceptable.
  • Culture is socially shared. Culture, out of necessity, must be based on social interaction and creation. It cannot exist by itself. It must be shared by members of a society, thus acting to reinforce culture’s prescriptive nature.
  • Culture facilitates communication. One useful function provided by culture is to facilitate communication. Culture usually imposes common habits of thought and feeling among people. Thus, within a given group culture makes it easier for people to communicate with one another. But culture may also impede communication across groups because of a lack of shared common cultural values.
  • Culture is learned. Culture is not inherited genetically-it must be learned and acquired. Socialization or enculturation occurs when a person absorbs or learns the culture in which he or she is raised. In contrast, if a person learns the culture of a society other than the one in which he or she was raised, the process of acculturation occurs. The ability to learn culture makes it possible to absorb new cultural trends.
  • Culture is subjective. People in different cultures often have different ideas about the same object. What is acceptable in one culture may not necessarily be so in another. In this regard, culture is both unique and arbitrary.
  • Culture is enduring. Because culture is shared and passed along from generation to generation, it is relatively stable and somewhat permanent. Old habits are hard to break, and people tend to maintain its own heritage in spite of a continuously changing world. This explains why India and China, despite severe overcrowding, have a great difficulty with birth control. The Chinese view a large family as a blessing and assume that children will take care of parents when growth old.
  • Culture is cumulative. Culture is based on hundreds or even thousands of years of accumulated circumstances. Each generation adds something of its own to the culture before passing the heritage on to the next generation.
  • Culture is dynamic. Culture is passed along from generation to generation, but one should not assume that culture is static and immune to change. Far from being the case, culture is constantly changing-it adapts itself to new situations and new sources of knowledge.

Elements of Culture

Culture includes every part of life. The scope of the term culture to the anthropologist is illustrated by the elements included within the meaning of the term. They are:

1. Material Culture – Technology, Economics

Material Culture is divided into two parts, technology and economics. Technology includes the techniques used in the creation of material goods; it is the technical know-how possessed by the people of a society. For example, the vast majority of U.S. citizens understand the simple concepts involved in reading gauges, but in many countries of the world this seemingly simple concept is not part of their common culture and is, therefore, a major technical limitation.

Economics is the manner in which people employ their capabilities and the resulting benefits. Included in the subject of economics is the production of goods and services, their distribution, consumption, means of exchange, and the income derived from the creation of utilities.

Material culture affects the level of demand, the quality and types of products demanded, and their functional features, as well as the means of production of these goods and their distribution. The marketing implications of the material culture of a country are many. For example, electrical appliances sell in England and France but have few buyers in countries where less than 1 percent of the homes have electricity. Even with electrification, economic characteristics represented by the level and distribution of income may limit the desirability of products. Electric can openers and electric juicers are acceptable in the United States, but in less-affluent countries not only are they unattainable and probably unwanted, they would be a spectacular waste because disposable income could be spent more meaningfully on better houses, clothing or food.

2. Social Institutions – Social organizations, Education, Political Structures

Social Institutions include social organization, education, and political structures that are concerned with the ways in which people relate to one another, organize their activities to live in harmony with one another, teach acceptable behavior to succeeding generations, and govern themselves. The positions of men and women in society, the family, social classes, group behavior, age groups and how societies define decency and civility are interpreted differently within every culture. In cultures where the social organizations result in close-knit family units, for example, it is more effective to aim a promotion campaign at the family unit than at individual family members. Travel advertising in culturally divided Canada pictures a wife alone for the English audience but a man and wife together for the French segments of the population because the French are traditionally more closely bound by family ties.

Education, one of the most important social institutions, affects all aspects of the culture from economic development to consumer behavior. The literacy rate of a country is a potent force in economic development. Numerous studies indicate a direct link between the literacy rate of a country and its ability for rapid economic growth. According to the World Bank no country has been successful economically with less than 50 percent literacy, but when countries have invested in education the economic rewards have been substantial. Literacy has a profound affect on marketing.

It is much easier to communicate with a literate market than to one where the marketer has to depend on symbols and pictures to communicate. Each of the social institutions has an effect on marketing because each influences behavior, values and the overall patterns of life.

3. Humans and the Universe -Belief Systems

Within this category are religion (belief systems), superstitions, and their related power structures. The impact of religion on the value systems of a society and the effect of value systems on marketing must not be underestimated. Religion impacts people’s habits, their outlook on life, the products they buy, the way they buy them, even the newspapers they read.

Acceptance of certain types of food, clothing, and behavior are frequently affected by religion, and such influence can extend to the acceptance or rejection of promotional messages as well. In some countries, focusing too much attention on bodily functions in advertisements would be judged immoral or improper and the products would be rejected. What might seem innocent and acceptable in one culture could be considered too personal or vulgar in another. Such was the case when Saudi Arabian customs officials impounded a shipment of French perfume because the bottle stopper was in the shape of a nude female. Religion is one of the most sensitive elements of a culture. When the marketer has little or no understanding of a religion, it is easy to offend, albeit unintentionally.

Superstition plays a much larger role in a society’s belief system in some parts of the world than it does in the United States. What an American might consider as mere superstition can be a critical aspect of a belief system in another culture. For example, in parts of Asia, ghosts, fortune telling, palmistry, head-bump reading, phases of the moon, demons, and soothsayers are all integral parts of certain cultures. Astrologers are routinely called on in Thailand to determine the best location.

4. Aesthetics – Graphic and Plastic arts, Folklore, Music, Drama, and Dance

Closely interwoven with the effect of people and the universe on a culture are its aesthetics, that is, its arts, folklore, music, drama, and dance. Aesthetics are of particular interest to the marketer because of their role in interpreting the symbolic meanings of various methods of artistic expression, color, and standards of beauty in each culture. Customers everywhere respond to images, myths, and metaphors that help them define their personal and national identities and relationships within a context of culture and product benefits. The uniqueness of a culture can be spotted quickly in symbols having distinct meanings.

Without a culturally correct interpretation of a country’s aesthetic values, a whole host of marketing problems can arise. Product styling must be aesthetically pleasing to be successful, as must advertisements and package designs. Insensitivity to aesthetic values can offend, create a negative impression, and, in general, render marketing efforts ineffective. Strong symbolic meanings may be overlooked if one is not familiar with a culture’s aesthetic values. The Japanese, for example, revere the crane as being very lucky for it is said to live a thousand years, however, the use of the number four should be avoided completely because the word four, shi, is also the Japanese word for death.

5. Language

The importance of understanding the language of a country cannot be overestimated. The successful marketer must achieve expert communication, and this requires a thorough understanding of the language as well as the ability to speak it. Advertising copywriters should be concerned less with obvious differences between languages and more with the idiomatic meanings expressed. It is not sufficient to say you want to translate into Spanish, for instance, because, in Spanish-speaking Latin America the language vocabulary varies widely. Tambo, for example, means a roadside inn in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; in Argentina and Uruguay, it means a dairy farm; and in Chile, a tambo is a brothel. If that gives you a problem, consider communicating with the people of Papua, New Guinea. Some 750 languages, each distinct and mutually unintelligible, are spoken there.

Carelessly translated advertising statements not only lose their intended meaning but can suggest something very different, obscene, offensive, or just plain ridiculous. Language may be one of the most difficult cultural elements to master, but it is the most important to study in an effort to acquire some degree of empathy. Many believe that to appreciate the true meaning of a language it is necessary to live with the language for years. Whether or not this is the case, foreign marketers should never take it for granted that they are communicating effectively in another language. Until a marketer can master the vernacular, the aid of a national within the foreign country should be enlisted; even then, the problem of effective communications may still exist. One authority suggests that we look for a cultural translator, that is, a person who translates not only among languages but also among different ways of thinking and among different cultures.

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