Re: Definitions of culture

Hartmut Krech (kr538@ALF.ZFN.UNI-BREMEN.DE)
Thu, 8 Aug 1996 12:16:01 +0200

Once again it is Anita who provides insight by reminding me of
Kroeber's definition of culture:
> I think that Krober's definition is still the best, "shared learned
> behavior". The definition using the idea of human processes obstructing
> nature doesn't work when one looks at stone tool usage. There is an
> example of people using nature to produce needed goods.
> Anita Cohen-Williams

But the discussion on ANTHRO-L probably also shows that some inter-
pretation is needed to-day. Scholars in Europe do not feel at ease
when they read of "behavior" with respect to (the contents of) higher
mental activities and complex social actions. It might help here to
remember that originally the notion of "behavior" was not reduced
to encompass only observable facts. In its original sense of "hexis"
[e(xij] it is part of the oldest European political theories that
have inspired both anthropological and zoological theory. As such it
means a certain property or quality groups of individuals (populations)
"have" according to their particular specializations.

The emphasis on "learning" is well suited to underline the interpersonal
nature of culture as well as its relative independence of strictly
deterministic natural law. It is also an expression of the intensi-
fication that "cultURa" constitutes over the simple ties of "cultus"

Finally, the aspect of "sharing" sets a goal and a limit to culture.
All human culture(s) can be shared by all humans. Ecologically diver-
sified behavior of animal groups may be transmitted by processes similar
to human learning, but it must not and will not be shared by all local
varieties of a certain species. Therefore (I would argue without knowing
the most interesting specialized literature that has recently been
published on "animal cultures") it makes sense to speak of "animal
societies" but not of "animal cultures", if we mean something different
from a "culture of microbes".

To sum up, Kroeber's is an apt definition that contains the most important
elements of its predecessors in the history of anthropological theory, and
it is a scientific definition that can be tested. Perhaps it will also
become a universally shared definition.

Dr. Hartmut Krech
Postfach 1430
D-27734 Delmenhorst Ph/Fx +49-4221-538 36
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