Chapter 8: The Characteristics of Culture

The Concept of Culture:

If you ask 100 anthropologists to define culture, you’ll get 100 different definitions. However, most of these definitions would emphasize roughly the same things: that culture is shared, transmitted through learning and helps shape behavior and beliefs. Culture is of concern to all four subfields and while our earliest ancestors relied more on biological adaptation, culture now shapes humanity to a much larger extent.

Characteristics of Culture

Culture has five basic characteristics: It is learned, shared, based on symbols, integrated, and dynamic. All cultures share these basic features.


Biological adaptation in humans is important but humans have increasingly come to rely upon cultural adaptation. However, not all adaptation is good, and not all cultural practices are adaptive. Some features of a culture may be maladaptive, such as fast food, pollution, nuclear waste and climate change. However, because culture is adaptive and dynamic, once we recognize problems, culture can adapt again, in a more positive way, to find solutions.


The diversity of cultural practices and adaptations to the problems of human existence often lead some to question which practices are the best. Ethnocentrism is when one views their own culture as the best and only proper way to behave and adapt.

Multiple Cultural Worlds

Most individuals are members of multiple cultural worlds. Culture exists at several levels. We typically refer to smaller cultures within a larger culture as subcultures. People have some type of connection to that subculture but must also be able to operate effectively within the larger culture. Some of the diversity we see across subcultures is based on class, race, ethnicity, age, and gender. Social stratification is often the result of our recognition of these worlds as different and a belief that they are somehow inferior to our own or to the larger culture.

Valuing & Sustaining Diversity

Anthropologists recognize the importance of diversity and thus try to help maintain or prevent the extinction of cultures. By describing, documenting and even advocating for cultures they study, anthropologists help to contribute to continued cultural survival and diversity.