Culture is defined as the beliefs, objects, values, practices, and norms that constitute a people's way of life. 

It represents the shared way of doing and thinking shared by a particular group of people.

Culture is man's complex whole of knowledge, ideas, values, technology, practices, and behaviour.

It consists of those material and non-material aspects of social life that are shared by members of a social group or society

According to English anthropologists Edward Taylor, "culture is that complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society".

In reading's view, "culture is the totality of learned behaviour transmitted from one generation to the next".

Culture is learned and not inborn. It is what separates one society from another.

Different societies have different cultures but, culture should not be confused with society. 

Culture represents a group object and way of thinking and doing, whereas, Society embodies the people who share those beliefs and practices.

Neither culture nor societies can exist independently of the other.

As the above definitions of culture suggest, culture is divided into two categories: material and non-material culture.

Material culture refers to the objects or belonging of a group. Material culture includes things like jewellery and clothing.

Nonmaterial culture, on the other hand, is a way of thinking(ideas, values) and doing (behaviour, practices) that is shared by members of a social group or society.

Material and non-material cultures are interlinked, as physical things often signify some form of cultural beliefs. 

A Cloth, For example, is material culture, but the propriety or appropriateness of wearing it indicates a non-material culture.

Elements Of Culture

There are five main elements of culture that are crucial to society which are:

1. Values

2. Symbols

3. Language

4. Norms

5. Beliefs.

Let's take a closer look at each one of them.


These are essential elements of culture. Values are culturally defined standards that guide the social living and interaction of members of society. 

Values are shared and learned by members of a group. Values guide our lives, decision, and action. 

They vary from one society to another. 

Though values described ideal culture (how members of a society should behave), they do not always reflect how society actually behaves (real culture). 

Marriage, for example, would be "forever" in ideal culture. However, marriages do end in divorce(real culture).

Real culture refers to the actual values, norms and beliefs that people of society follow or observe. Ideal culture refers to the values, norms and beliefs members' social desire to achieve or attain. It represents the ideal values, norms and beliefs that members of the society are supposed to follow.

Living up to societal values may seem difficult. Violation of values is becoming the new norm in society. 

One means of ensuring people walk by societal values is sanction

Sanctions are means of social control. It could be either positive (rewards) or negative (punishment). 

When people behave according to societal values, there are rewarded.  

For example, a student who assists his teacher in cleaning the board might receive a smile and thank you

On the flip side, People are punished when they violate societal values. A footballer who assaults a referee, for example, may face a match suspension

Likewise, a student caught in exam malpractice may be expelled from the school.

Sanctions may range from less formal ones like praising, excoriating, shame, and disapproval to more formal ones like a national award or arrest.


These are arguably the main elements of culture. They are things like objects, images, and gestures that have specific meanings to members of a group. 

Symbols evoke some reactions and emotions as well as convey recognizable meanings that are acknowledged by members of a group.

For example, the crescent moon symbolizes Islamics. Likewise, a cross would represent  Christianity.

Symbols are traditional ways of communicating messages. Though language is the most obvious system of symbols, other systems of symbols exist.

One of such is gestures. A gesture is a non-verbal way of expressing and communicating emotions. 

It involves the movement of the hand, legs, head, and other parts of the body.

Some gestures are universal. For example, a smile generally signifies joy. Other gestures have cultural differences.

In the United States, for example, a thumbs-up indicate positive support. In Russia, the same gesture may be considered offensive.


This is the most basic form of symbol. Language can be defined as the system of symbols that can be arranged in an infinite number of ways to convey abstract thought and ideas. 

Language is a very common system of symbols that enables people to communicate effectively.

They are very vital for transmitting culture from one generation to another. 

Some languages incorporate the use of written communication, while others make use of spoken communication. 

Some societies are now incorporating gestures into their language system which is called sign language.

The impact of language on our perception of things has been highlighted in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

The Saphir-Whorf hypothesis, also called linguistic relativity, states that people experience the world around them through their language and hence understand their culture through their language.

This hypothesis, largely attributed to Edward Saphir and benjamin Whorf, argues that you only experience what you have words for in your language.

In short, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that you do not experience what you do not have a word for in your language.  


These are expectations or rules of behaviour that reflect or enforce societal values.

They are socially acceptable ways of behaving. They define satisfactory behaviour in society. 

Norms describe what is considered "normal" behaviour in specific situations.

They can be seen in everyday activities. Norms are largely determined by values. Norms may be quadrifurcated into mores folkways, taboos and laws.

Types of norms

1. Mores: These are important and stronger societal norms. 

Mores have strong moral underpinnings. They are widely observed. 

Individuals who violate more frequently may suffer serious consequences like being excluded from religious, social, and political activities.

2. Folkways: These are customs that are common to members of society.

They have minor moral binding. They describe the way of behaving, walking, and talking. 

Folkways assist us in becoming active members of our communities.

Violations of folkways are frequently met with a reprimand or reproof rather than a severe punishment.

Even though folkways are not as important as mores, people have to conform to them. 

A man walking down the street topless, for example, might only raise a few eyebrows for breaking a folkway. 

Think of what would happen if that same man walks down the street wearing nothing on the lower half of his body. 

He will be deemed to be violating one of our most essential mores, the requirement that people cover their genitals and buttocks in public. Consequently, he would be punished.

3. Taboos: These are extremely negative norms that, if broken, can lead to complete exclusion from social groups or society.

Taboos are more powerful norms than mores, and breaking a taboo usually results in strong societal disapproval.

Examples of taboos are incest and cannabis.

4. LawsThese are social norms that are so important to society's functioning that they have been formally enshrined in state or federal constitutions.

Laws are enacted to prevent behaviour that is likely to cause bodily harm or any form of harm to other people in society.

Security agencies such as the police and army, usually enforce laws on behalf of the government

When a person breaks the law, he is subjected to penalties such as fines, life imprisonment, or even death.


These are tenets or specific statements that people hold to be true.

These assumptions or tenets are usually learned from experiences in the past.

One thing to keep in mind is that while individuals in a society have their own beliefs, they all share a set of values.

Characteristics of Culture

 1. Culture is learned: No one is born with culture; everyone enters the world as a blank slate (tabula rasa).

Each individual learns the culture of his or her society through the processes of enculturation and acculturation.

2. Culture is shared: Culture consists of the values, norms, and customs that are shared by members of the society.

Rightly Horton and Hunt observed when they defined "Culture as anything which is socially shared and learned by members of a society"

3. Culture has a language: Language is another important aspect of culture.

The fundamental mechanism through which individuals of society interact and communicate is through language.

Language is, moreover, the principal vehicle through which culture is transmitted from one generation to an another 

4. Culture is pervasive: The extent to which culture affects our lives is not limited to any area of our lives.

Every aspect of our lives is influenced by culture, including eating, drinking, talking, and interacting.

Indeed, Every action and behaviour we take reflects some type of cultural proprietary.

Related Post

5. Culture is transmissible: Culture is not limited to a single generation; it is passed down from one generation to another through agents of socialisation of language.

You will learn more characteristics of the culture here.

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