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Other pages in this series:
» What is "Culture"?
» "Culture" Metaphors
» 3 more metaphors
» Create metaphors
» Iceberg
» High and Low Context
» Culture "embodied"

Washington State University's interactive "What is Culture" site

What is "Culture"?

"What is Culture?" is one of those questions that is impossible to answer crisply. In the following set of webpages we approach the question from various angles.

This current page offers a few definitions and a caution. The next page gives an overview of many metaphors for "culture" used by business consultants, cross-cultural communication trainers, diversity consultants, and journalists. There are lots of (small) graphics, because metaphors are about images, not about words! A third page looks at metaphors I use as an anthropologist working with organizations. The final page talks briefly about Edward Hall's notion of culture as extensions of the human body, and offers a training exercise to explore this further.

Starting point: Culture as Knowledge

Anthropologist James Spradley gives an elegantly succinct definition of culture, in which every word is carefully chosen:

Culture is the acquired knowledge people use
to interpret experience and generate behavior.

Edward Hall's ideas and metaphors

  1. Culture = models, templates.
  2. Culture is the medium we live in, like the air we breathe.
  3. Culture is innate but learned (i.e. we are born with the physical necessity and capacity to specialize our bodies, brains, hearts in line with cultural patterns.)
  4. Culture is living, interlocking system(s)--touch one part, the rest moves.
  5. Culture is shared, it is created and maintained through relationship.
  6. Culture is used to differentiate one group from another. (In other words, division into groups comes first; deliberate differentiation via cultural symbols comes second.)
Look for these ideas in Edward Hall's classic book Beyond Culture). Hall's idea that cultures are systems that "extend" the abilities of the human body gets a page of its own.

A word that means several different things ...

When you're talking about "organizational culture", remember to check that you are all conversing about the same thing. People may use the word culture to mean any of these:

  1. National / ethnic culture:
      The group assumed to be site of child's primary socialization -- "THE Latvian culture," "THE African-American culture." In the U.S. this is usually the assumed meaning of culture, and people revert to this narrow view of culture out of habit, even when you may have been quite explicit about defining culture more broadly than this.

  2. Secondary or subgroup culture:
      cultural groups we've been socialized into: Organizational culture, professional culture, manager culture, Muslim culture, peer culture, prison culture, nerd culture and so on.

  3. Culture in the anthropological sense
      -- the meanings and behaviors groups of people develop and share over time.

  4. Capital C Culture:
      the high arts of theater, painting, music, etc., or a superior upbringing.
Next page: Metaphors in the field »

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