What Is Culture?
Before investigating the relationship between culture and ways of thinking, we need to clearly define culture. The question of what culture is has been debated among anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists for decades, and there is no general agreement that applies to all fields. Some people focus on the symbolic aspects of culture, others pay attention to the physical artifacts of culture, and some emphasize the habits that a culture contains.
In this book, I use the term “culture” to mean two different things. First, I use it to indicate a particular kind of information: Culture is any kind of information that is acquired from other members of one’s species through social learning that can influence an individual’s behaviors (see Richerson & Boyd, 2005). In other words, culture is any kind of idea, belief, technology, habit, or practice that is acquired through learning from others. Humans are therefore a cultural species, as people have a great deal of “culture” that fits this definition.
Second, I use the term “culture” to indicate a particular group of individuals: A culture is a group of people who are existing within some kind of shared context. People within a given culture are exposed to many of the same cultural ideas. They might attend the same cultural institutions, engage in similar cultural practices, see the same advertisements, follow the same norms, and have daily conversations with one another. At the most global level, sometimes I use the term “culture” to refer to broad expanses of population around the world, which may even include people from a large number of different countries. For example, I often use the phrase “Western culture” to refer to people participating in cultures that stem from countries clustered in northwestern Europe (e.g., the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, and Germany) and societies that largely descend from these countries, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia.
There are a few challenges with thinking about a group of people as constituting a culture. First, as you can see from the above definition, the boundaries are not always clear-cut. For example, individuals might be exposed to cultural ideas that emerge from distant locations, such as those from their immigrant parents, experi- ences they have while traveling, advertisements they see from multinational firms, or ideas they learn from watching a foreign movie. Cultural boundaries are thus not distinct. Although we can never be sure we have identified a clear cultural boundary that separates two or more groups, a shorthand practice used in many research studies is to look at nationality as a rough indicator of culture. For example, Italians may be compared with Germans, even though we know that not every member of the Italian group was exposed to exclusively Italian cultural messages.
Adding to this complexity, there are other kinds of groups aside from coun- tries that we might say have cultures. For example, people speak of Jewish culture, urban culture, LGBT culture, high socioeconomic status culture, vegetarian culture, Millennial culture, Harvard culture, Mac-user culture, or Trekkie culture. What makes these groups arguably qualify as “cultures” is that their members exist within a shared context, communicate with each other, have some norms that distinguish them from other groups, and have some common practices and ideas. The more that people who belong to a group share similar norms and communication, the more the group deserves to be identified as a culture. But, as you can imagine, there aren’t always going to be clear, distinguishing boundaries. The fluid nature of cultural boundaries weakens the ability of researchers to differentiate between cultural groups, but when differences are found, they provide powerful evidence that cultures do vary in their psychological tendencies.
A second challenge is that cultures change over time. Some shared cultural infor- mation disappears as new habits replace the old, although much cultural information persists across time as well (see Chapter 3). Cultures are thus not static entities; they are dynamic and ever changing.
Perhaps the most important challenge in considering cultures as groups of people is the variability among individuals who belong to the same culture:
Each person inherits a distinct temperament (a predisposition toward certain personality traits, abilities, and attitudes).
Each person belongs to a unique collection of various social groups, each with its own distinctive culture (e.g., Jason grew up on Oak Street, attended King George Elementary School, often met with his extended family, played on the Maple Grove junior soccer team, was in the band at Carnegie High School, and was a founding member of the Perspectives school newspaper).
Each person has a unique history of individual experiences that has shaped his or her views.
Individual differences lead some people to reflexively embrace certain cultural messages, staunchly react against some, and largely ignore others. People are nothing if not variable, and the research findings from the studies reported in this book do not apply equally to all members of a culture. Instead, they reflect average tendencies within cultural groups. Sometimes those groups are extremely broad. An example is contrasting Western cultures and East Asian cultures (the latter encompassing groups that have been exposed to Chinese Confucian cultural traditions, such as China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam). Therefore, to say that Westerners are more emotion- ally expressive than East Asians would mean that, on average, people from Western cultures score higher on some measure of emotional expressiveness than people from East Asian cultures—and yet there is an enormous degree of individual varia- tion that includes some extremely expressive East Asians and some quite unexpressive Westerners. Cultural membership does not determine individual responses.
In this latter sense, then, the term “culture” refers to a dynamic group of people who share a similar context, are exposed to many similar cultural messages, and contain a broad range of different individuals who are affected by those cultural messages in various ways.