We explain what culture is and what its main characteristics are. In addition, the elements it presents and what cultural ethnocentrism is..

What is culture?

Culture: Definition, Elements and Characteristics

Culture is a complex system of knowledge and customs that characterizes a certain population and that is transmitted to subsequent generations. The language, habits and values are some of the aspects that are part of the culture.

The word culture comes from the Latin word that means "to cultivate", "to cultivate" or "to care" and refers to cultivating knowledge and education, in the sense of the intellectual capacity that a people or civilization acquires.

Culture is the result of the accumulation of experiences and adaptation to different circumstances, which a population had for a long period. It is culture that guarantees the survival of the social group.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defined culture as “ the set of distinctive spiritual and material, intellectual and affective features that characterize a society or a social group and that encompasses, in addition to the arts and letters, ways of life, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”.

Characteristics of culture

Characteristics of culture

Culture is characterized by being learned, shared and dynamic, that is, it adapts to the context in order to guarantee the survival of the social group.

Culture is not something instinctive or natural of the human being, but it is a product of the learning that it incorporates throughout life . It is a capacity that differentiates it from the rest of the animals.

The way of life in community makes the continuity of culture possible. There is a wide cultural diversity as there are so many societies or countries in the world, that is, different cultures can coexist.

In recent years, human beings have developed new skills and technologies that implied an accelerated advance in cultural evolution worldwide, such as the 2.0 culture of the Internet and social networks.

Elements of culture

Although there are several cultures that are very different from each other, they all share the following elements:

  • Symbols that are recognizable throughout the community.
  • The language and the particular language.
  • The idiosyncrasy, that is, the way of being of the people .
  • The belief system that gives direction to life, such as religion or rituals.
  • The values that provide a social order.
  • The laws that regulate a certain system of rules and sanctions.
  • Customs, such as the type of music , clothing or food.
  • Collective celebrations, such as a national holiday or carnival.
  • The advancement of technology that impacts the development of daily life.

Cultural ethnocentrism

Cultural ethnocentrism

The diversity of cultures around the world generates a phenomenon that anthropology calls ethnocentrism. It consists of the attitude of a person, group or society of superiority over others, by assuming that their own culture is the best and the only adequate way of being.

To a greater or lesser extent, manifestations of ethnocentrism are evident throughout the world. In small doses, it contributes to generating a sense of cultural pride and united groups. In extreme cases where there is no room for tolerance, it can turn into a destructive culture, as in situations of colonization or genocide.

The anthropological analyzes this concept under the precept that no culture is better than another and that only can be judged on whether meet the needs and rights of its population. Cultural diversity is necessary to guarantee the continuity of humanity according to the different environments it inhabits.

Contributions of Lévi-Strauss

The Belgian anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) stood out for his profound contribution after the analysis of man and society, nature and culture. He promoted the ethics of tolerance and cultural diversity (the coexistence between different cultures) for which he used the term "multiculturalism", which starts from the recognition of the right to be different and respect between different cultural groups.

He stated that the indigenous peoples (whom he called agrafos, which means that they did not know how to write) were neither primitive nor simple in their organization, but rather different. For example, native peoples identified with totemism, a system of beliefs and social organization based on a totem (a symbolic figure of animal or plant form).

According to Lévi-Strauss, each culture represents a unique case that needs to be carefully analyzed in time and space. He considers that all that can be thought of is culture and, therefore, the explanations of the world that each population elaborates according to certain structures are a cultural action.


Anas is an editor of a prestigious publishing company in the United States. She studied Mathematics in Arizona. Anas is also a teacher and one of her long-term goals is to build an institution that offers free education to everyone who are financially not stable. .

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