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What is Culture?

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Every culture has a set of moral and social values. These derive over the pre-history and are modified with each generation.  Some cultures or societies change faster than others, but there is a stability found in a common set of values.

These values, true enough, are often held as ideals more than implemented as realities.  Still, the accepted set of values, ideals, goals and standards are part of the character of a "culture."

It is a basic goal of every culture, tribe or nation to maintain its own identity as a group.  The specific values found in a certain culture will relate to this maintenance.

There are areas which define the common aspects of values found in all human societies.  These have been developed by sociologists and anthropologists in great detail.  Here are some of the ranges of cultural values.

Diversity-Similarity: In order to maintain a group identity, there has to be some definition and expectation about similarity.  Most societies have a recognizable range of acceptable differences which are tolerated.  The USA, for instance, is highly individualistic, allowing a wide range of variation in personal beliefs, lifestyle, activities and affiliations.  Yet there are expected standards (though often vague) for patriotism and loyalty.  Some socieites are very rigid in their requirements for acceptable behavior.

Change-Stability: Much of the identity of a society consists in its social institutions, discussed earlier.  If these institutions change too much, the society may become unstable, threatening the identity of the tribe or nation.  This may involve political change, acceptable language, conformity in role or attitude.

Significant and Insignificant Factors: Societies vary in their stress on various human characteristics, that is some societies value the same human characteristic more than others.

Some societies stress valor in war, thus killing and defense may become positive values.  In a prolonged period of peace, these values may diminish in importance.

Independence of thought is valued by some societies but not others.  Some nations are noted for mechanical efficiency, others for intellectual achievement.

These give an idea of differences arising between cultures due to differences in value systems.


Originally published in the "What is Culture?" series in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, August 1992
This version posted 19 June 2001

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright © 1992, 2001 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.   Other rights reserved.
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