Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Culture means that which is indicative of a given society or group.

explanatory context

Culture can be used to distinguish one society from another, or one social class from another, or one ethnic group from another, or males from females.


Culture is also used at an individual (and usually value-laden) level to suggest that an individual is more or less cultured than another or of some generalised (an arbitrary) norm.


Essentially, culture can be used to refer to individuals, groups or classes, or whole societies.


Culture is used to refer to three kinds of social products. First, is the elitist or ideal notion of culture summed up as ‘high culture’. This refers to specific cultural products that represent the ‘highest’ or ‘best’ manifestations of culture and of human achievement. (This tends to be a term used by Western Europeans to refer to ‘classical’ music, literature, art, etc.) This sense of culture involves an implicit or explicit hierarchy, which is applied both internally (to distinguish between high and low culture of a society) and externally (to compare the cultures or ‘civilisations’ of two societies). Such comparisons are invidious and tautological as they depend on an uncritical acceptance of what constitutes ‘high culture’.


Second, culture refers to all aspects of human achievement that are recorded in some kind of documentary form, including, painting, sculpture, literature, film, photographs, video.


Third, culture is taken to refer to all aspects of the ‘way of life’ of a given group or society. This social (or ‘democratic’) view includes everything that is part of a society or indicative of a class or group (including, e.g. bullfighting in Spain, or football in England). Thus culture is closely associated with the idea of society.


Some views on culture

Arnold argues that the upper class is composed of superior individuals, grouped together to be an elite group who oversee, retain and safeguard culture.


Conservative critics (like Ortega Y Gasset) argue that the apparent move from elitist to democratic views of culture is undesirable as not enough effort is put into conserving the best.

Other conservative critics (e.g Bell) argue that the population is getting better educated through a plurality of tastes and we are moving from democratic to elitist appreciation of culture.

Eliot defines culture as having three senses, which he relates to different social units (the individual, the group or class, the whole society). These are interdependent but the culture of the whole society is the primary determinant. Eliot thus refers to self-cultivation, group culture, and societal culture. A cultured individual is a learned scholar (including manners), an intellectual/philosopher and appreciates the arts. Eliot talks of looking for culture in the society rather than the individual or group of individuals and this is where he eventually develops a religious analogy (he is unable, however, to disentangle, what as he regards as, the effects of religion on culture and vice versa). He discounts class-based 'culture' as a basis for developing social culture. By social culture, Eliot means that which is over and above what is necessary to survive. Basically, behind all the religious dogma, intolerance and gobbledegook, Eliot is saying that societies exhibit cultures in the widest sense, that this is manifest in various ways (art, philosophy, religion, etc.) and that a 'cultured person' is one who has 'come to grips' with each of these aspects. However, there is more to culture, it is also a way of life, it is, in short, society (which for Eliot includes a dose of religion). Eliot concludes with value judgements about 'highest culture' being Western European Christian culture.


Adorno argues that the state apparatuses actually deform both high culture and popular culture and all that is left is a sterile middle ground, externally defined.

Marcuse agrees with Adorno but argues that elitist culture is an ideal that helps to keep other forms of culture alive.

Parsons argues that individuals cannot create a cultural system, as culture reflects slow moving deep structures in society.

Williams defines culture as having three levels;

1. culture as creative cultivation of the mind: a. developed state of mind - cultured person b. process of this development - cultural interests/activities c. means of these processes - 'the arts', 'humane intellectual works'.

2. whole way of life (of a distinct people) - not just art and learning but also institutions and ordinary behaviour. a. an idealist notion of culture - informing spirit of a way of life, universally present but notable in certain spheres (language, art styles, etc.) b. materialist notion of culture - a whole social order within which specific are styles, etc., are seen as direct or indirect products of an order constituted by other social factors.

Arguably, cultural practice and cultural production are not simply derivatives of social order, i.e. they are not simply superstructural and dependent on the infrastructure, they are major elements in the constitution of social order. That is, culture is constitutive (not on its own as the idealist approach would have it) but in the sense of being a signifying system through which a social order is communicated, reproduced, explained and expressed. Thus the way of life and the artistic or intellectual activity/ideas of culture coverage (signifying system) is encompassed by a way of life and informs artistic or intellectual activity.

Bourdieu argues that the class that has access to power also has power to define what is to be culture, i.e. it can legitimate its culture.


analytical review

O'Neil (2002–2006) wrote:

The word culture has many different meanings. For some it refers to an appreciation of good literature, music, art, and food. For a biologist, it is likely to be a colony of bacteria or other microorganisms growing in a nutrient medium in a laboratory Petri dish. However, for anthropologists and other behavioral scientists, culture is the full range of learned human behavior patterns. The term was first used in this way by the pioneer English Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor in his book, Primitive Culture, published in 1871. Tylor said that culture is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Of course, it is not limited to men. Women possess and create it as well. Since Tylor's time, the concept of culture has become the central focus of anthropology.

Culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is a fragile phenomenon. It is constantly changing and easily lost because it exists only in our minds. Our written languages, governments, buildings, and other man-made things are merely the products of culture. They are not culture in themselves. For this reason, archaeologists can not dig up culture directly in their excavations. The broken pots and other artifacts of ancient people that they uncover are only material remains that reflect cultural patterns--they are things that were made and used through cultural knowledge and skills.


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated):

Following is the classic definition by the anthropologist Sir Edward B. Tylor, "That complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society."1 According to Alfred L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn, "culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values."2 Of course, symbolic interactionists would add that the essence of culture is language (i.e., symbols), as the essence of reality is language or symbols. For this school, culture is most generally identified as "systems of human meaning." It should be pointed out that some sociologists exclude artifacts or material objects from their definitions of culture; they include in culture technical knowledge about the artifacts but do not include the artifacts themselves. Other sociologists and cultural anthropologists have suggested combining the concepts culture and society contending that all human phenomena are sociocultural in nature. In Marxian sociology culture is conceptualized as part of the superstructure; and is thus seen as an outgrowth-upgrowth of the economic infrastructure.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines culture and various other culture-related terms as follows:

CULTURE. The values, norms and material goods shared by a given group. Your instructor prefers to restrict the term to refer to symbolic aspects (values and norms).

CULTURAL LAG. A dysfunction in the sociocultural system caused by change occurring in one part of the system and the failure of another part of that system to adjust to the change. An example would be married women engaged in outside employment and the continuance of the domestic division of labor.

CULTURAL MATERIALISM. A macro-social theory that attempts to account for the similarities and differences between sociocultural systems by focusing on the environmental constraints to which human action is subject. Your instructor uses a variant of this theory constantly.

CULTURAL PLURALISM. The more or less peaceful coexistence of multiple subcultures within a given society.

CULTURAL SUPERSTRUCTURE. Sociocultural materialism term used to refer to the shared symbolic universe within sociocultural systems. It includes such components as the art, music, dance, rituals, sports, hobbies and the accumulated knowledge base of the system.

CULTURAL TRANSMISSION. The socialization process whereby the norms and values of the group are internalized by individuals.

CULTURAL UNIVERSALS. Values or practices shared by all human cultures.

associated issues


related areas

See also

cultural relativism



Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

O'Neil, D., 2002–2006, What is Culture?, last updated 26 May 2006, available at, accessed 4 February 2013, still available 17 December 2016.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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