solution: Review the section in “What Is Culture?” that discusses the concept of “cultural relativism,” partic

Review the section in “What Is Culture?” that discusses the concept of “cultural relativism,” particularly the claim that the concept is a “double-edged sword,” in light of the social constructivist view of social problems that you’ve learned in this unit. Together, these concepts suggest that identifying and criticizing social problems will not only differ from society to society but that attempting to intervene in the affairs of a society other than one’s own raises serious moral difficulties. Considering these difficulties, do you think it is justifiable for one society to judge another? If so, why? If not, why not?

Your answer must be written in the form of at least two (2) full paragraphs, and you must respond to the answers of at least two (2) of your classmates. You will be graded on how well you considered and answered the question regarding what you have learned in the course so far. Your instructor will also consider whether your responses to other students were a substantial contribution to the discussion.

Speaking of Culture


Nolan Weil

Speaking of Culture by Nolan Weil is licensed under a Creative Commons

Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Speaking of Culture by Nolan Weil is licensed under CC-BY-NC 3.0 US


A Note to Students

Nolan Weil


Nolan Weil


1. Chapter 1: What is Culture?

Nolan Weil

Culture, simply de=ned 8
Brief history of a concept 10
Franz Boas and the birth of American


Later 20th & 21st century developments 16
Final reflections 19


2. Chapter 2: The Human Family

Nolan Weil

Origins and Diversity of Humanity 28
Where did we all come from? 31
The Multiregional Origin Hypothesis 31
The Recent African Origin Hypothesis 32
But why do we all look so different on the


Race is not a biologically meaningful concept 39
Final Reflection 44


3. Chapter 3: Origins and Early Developments of


Nolan Weil

Culture as a product of human activity 49
Paleolithic material culture 50
Stone tools 53
Carved Figurines 55
Painting 58
Origins of mythology 61
Stories of creation – A sampling 62
Similarities among creation stories 69
Accounting for common motifs 72
The Laurasian “Novel” 75
Final Reflection 82
Video Clips & Documentaries 83
References 84


4. Chapter 4: Material Culture

Nolan Weil

The things we make 89
Taking to the road 89
From one end of the country to another 100
Final reflection 103


5. Chapter 5: Culture as Thought and Action

Nolan Weil

Non-material aspects of culture 107
Beliefs 108
Values 109
Norms 110
Customs and Traditions 111
Rituals 112
Final reflection 116


6. Chapter 6: Beliefs, Values, and Cultural


Nolan Weil

Value Orientations Theory 120
Hofstede’s dimensions of culture theory 124
Critique of Hofstede’s theory 133
Final reflection 135


7. Chapter 7: Group Membership and Identity

Nolan Weil

Preliminary remarks 139
Cultures and subcultures 140
Ethnicity 141
Racial identity 144
Social class and culture 148
Nationality 150
The origin of nations 154
National identity 159
Final reflection 161


8. Chapter 8: Religion and Culture

Eliza Rosenberg

What is religion? 167
What religion is not 169
The world’s religions 170
Some common religious questions 171
Religion and right behavior 179
Conclusion 183


9. Chapter 9: Roots of American National


Nolan Weil

Preliminary remarks 187
American beliefs and values 188
A closer look at American cultural diversity 195
Understanding U.S. Cultural Landscapes 197
Spanish influence 199
French influence 200
Dutch influence 201
Albion’s Seed 204
Englanders from Barbados 213
The Westward Expansion 216
Final reflection 218


A Note to Students

Nolan Weil

If you are a student, you may be reading this book because

you are enrolled in:

• IELI 2470—Cross-Cultural Perspectives, or perhaps

• IELI 2475—Cross-Cultural Explorations

These courses are designed to ful<ll General Education

breadth requirements in social sciences at USU (Utah

State University). As the USU Catalog states:

General Education breadth requirements are intended to

introduce students to the nature, history, and methods of

different disciplines; and to help students understand the

cultural, historical, and natural contexts shaping the human


The title of this book is Speaking of Culture and its

purpose is to de<ne culture and other concepts associated

with it. My hope is that the readings in this book will help

S P E A K I N G O F C U LT U R E | I X

you to better understand the breadth of the concept of

culture and provide you with a vocabulary for discussing it

more articulately.

Culture is one of those broad concepts that is used

widely, although somewhat imprecisely, in everyday

English. It also cuts across many academic disciplines, and

this book draws on many of them. It touches, for instance,

on anthropology, biology, history, mythology, political

science, psychology, and sociology.

This book will not be the only material you will study in

IELI 2470/2475. Your professor may provide you with

additional readings and/or encourage you to do

independent research on topics of interest. You may watch

culturally relevant movies or documentaries. You will, I

hope, also have grand conversations with your peers.

My name, by the way, is Nolan Weil. I have been a

professor in the Intensive English Language Institute

(IELI) since 2004 and have taught this course or similar

courses many times over the years. Perhaps I will be your

teacher for this course, or perhaps you will have another

professor from IELI. If I am your teacher, you will get to

know me better as we meet regularly face-to face

throughout the semester. If I am not your teacher, you

may know me perhaps only as the voice behind this text.

X | N O L A N W E I L


Nolan Weil

Suggested Focus

This introduction to the book will give you a brief survey of the

topics covered in each chapter. Identify two chapters that you think

might be particularly interesting. Why do you think so? Be

prepared to discuss your choices with other readers.

The word culture is among the most frequently used words

in English. We use it frequently in daily speech and

encounter it often in both popular and academic texts.

Directly or indirectly, it is the subject matter of many

university courses. Even when it is not the exclusive focus,

it plays a role in many discussions across the humanities

and social sciences. But most of the time, we use it without

de<ning it or even thinking much about exactly what we

mean by it.

Despite the ease with which we use the term, culture is

S P E A K I N G O F C U LT U R E | 1

not a simple concept. The primary purpose of this book is

to promote a better understanding of the scope of the idea.

Indeed, the word has a very wide range of meanings, and

they are not all consistent with one another. For one thing,

it has a relatively long history, and its primary uses have

changed markedly over several centuries. Even in my

lifetime (I was born in 1953) the ways in which scholars

have de<ned culture have only become more diverse.

To come to grips with culture then will require that we

give an account of the various ways that culture has come

to be de<ned. It also goes without saying that one cannot

de<ne any concept without introducing still other

associated concepts, so this book is rich in such secondary


We begin our mission of de<ning culture in Chapter 1

with a brief recounting of the history of the word. We

point to its Latin root and recount the senses attached to it

in 18th century France, and later, in 19th century England,

before 20th century anthropologists made it a central

concept of their discipline. We round out the chapter by

calling attention to the proliferation of de<nitions of

culture over the last 50 years. We end by introducing seven

themes that Faulkner, Baldwin, Lindsley and Hecht (2006)

have identi<ed as encompassing all of the most common

ways in which scholars have sought to de<ne culture.

In Chapter 2, we put de<nitions of culture on the shelf

temporarily, and put on the hat of the physical

anthropologist. Our purpose is to emphasize the idea that

culture, as anthropologists originally conceived it, is

characteristic of the human species. That being the case,

we want to remind readers of the antiquity of our species

because it lays a foundation for putting human culture

into a historical perspective in the chapter that follows. We

2 | N O L A N W E I L

also want to shine a light on the relationship between

human diversity and geography and advance the

argument that “race” is, biologically speaking, a

meaningless category. Concepts such as those of race and

ethnicity are often seen as bound up with culture, but my

hope is that readers leave Chapter 2 with a sense that when

it comes to humanity, the only “race” is the “human race.”

In Chapter 3, we return to an explicit focus on culture,

de<ning it as a product of human activity. We learn that

the <rst modern humans came into a world already

swimming in culture. Their hominid precursors, for

example, were already tool users. The <rst half of the

chapter features a discussion of the material culture of the

Paleolithic, a time stretching from roughly 50,000 to

10,000 years ago. You will no doubt marvel at the

remarkable tools of stone, bone, horn and ivory, and the

various other artifacts that are hard to describe as

anything less than art. The second half deals with the

remarkable similarities in the world’s mythologies, tracing

their major themes back to Africa, and proposing that a

major innovation that took place roughly 40,000 years ago

may have given rise to most of the world’s mythologies as

they have come down to us today.

Chapter 4 might best be regarded as a bridge from the

Paleolithic to the present. There is no grand theory in the

chapter and no technical terminology to master. It merely

begins with a quote from a renowned folklorist, who

declared that “Material culture records human intrusion in

the environment” (Henry Glassie, 1999: 1). Taking

inspiration from the quote and from Glassie’s descriptive

approach to material culture, I was moved to write a

simple homely narrative based on my travels across several

regions of the country. I caught hold of the <rst

S P E A K I N G O F C U LT U R E | 3

impressions that came to mind when I recalled several

memorable travels. These recollections were of

waterscapes and landscapes, and the most obvious

intrusions were boats and buildings.

Structural de<nitions of culture often consist of lists of

elements that refer to products of thought (or those things

that can be expressed by means of language) and those

things which are recognizable primarily as actions (i.e.

performances, or ways of doing things). The intent of

Chapter 5 is to de<ne a handful of terms that are generally

regarded as aspects of culture: beliefs, values, norms,

customs, traditions, and rituals. This certainly does not

exhaust the list of elements typically mentioned as integral

to culture, but they are terms that we routinely fall back on

when challenged to de<ne culture. They are also terms that

we <nd dif<cult to differentiate. What, for example, is the

difference between a custom and a tradition? Although it

may be a fool’s errand, we will do our best to distinguish

this handful of interrelated terms one from another.

In Chapter 6, we take a closer look at several ways in

which anthropologists have put beliefs and values to work

in the service of cultural inquiry. We look at the theory of

Florence Kluckhohn and Fred Strodtbeck, known as Values

Orientation Theory, which proposes that human societies

can be compared on the basis of how they answer a limited

number of universal questions. We then summarize the

results from another approach to universal values, that of

Geert Hofstede, who has proposed a theory purporting to

identify different orientations across national cultures.

We contrast that with a Chinese Values Survey reflecting a

Confucian worldview. We wrap up the chapter with a

critique of Hofstede’s theory, motivated by a suspicion

4 | N O L A N W E I L

that the persistence of the theory is due more to charisma

than to the veracity of the theory.

Chapter 7 takes up the theme of culture as group-

membership, questioning the labeling of large national

groups as cultures on the grounds that few people in

today’s multicultural societies actually live in groups where

everyone shares the same culture. In other words, we

argue, culture is not something that is contained within

groups. We de<ne some social categories often discussed

by sociologists including race, ethnicity and social class.

We then examine group-membership as historians and

political scientists have often discussed them through the

lens of nationalism.

Chapter 8 explores some relationships between religion

and culture, not the least of which is the fact that the word

“religion,” like the word “culture,” comes to us from the

Latin. Therefore, like the word, “culture,” the word

“religion” does not have exact equivalents in many

languages. Throughout the chapter, we will touch on many

of the world’s historically prominent religions. Along the

way, we will see that while some religions are rooted in

particular shared beliefs, other religions place more

emphasis on everyday practices. In the end, exploring all

the various aspects of religion might lead us to wonder

whether “religion” and “culture” aren’t simply two different

terms for referring to the same things. On the other hand,

it seems unlikely that ordinary speakers of English could

get by without distinguishing that which is simultaneously

religious and cultural from that which is “merely” cultural.

In Chapter 9, we explore the roots of American culture.

In doing so, we employ many of the elements of culture

discussed in Chapters 5 and 6, most particularly: beliefs,

values, and folkways. But whereas Chapter 5 focused on

S P E A K I N G O F C U LT U R E | 5

de<ning the terms, and Chapter 6 looked into beliefs and

values as cultural universals, Chapter 9 examines some

beliefs and values particularly associated with the United

States. We start with a conventional depiction of the

United States as exemplifying values such as

individualism, freedom, equality, and beliefs in change and

progress, and as embracing norms of competitiveness,

informality, and so on. We continue by challenging that

as perhaps too much of a stereotype. Then, drawing on

the “nation” concept from Chapter 7, we take a historical

view of the United States as a country of eleven nations

all exerting regional influence, and four dominant cultures

dueling for political authority.

This book does not explicitly cover all of the seven

themes introduced in Chapter 1. There isn’t really much

about culture as process or culture as re<nement. And

culture as power and ideology is only suggested in Chapter

9. However, perhaps there is enough here for every student

to gain some small measure of appreciation for the many

ideas we might want to keep in mind when speaking of



Faulkner, S. L., Baldwin, J. R., Lindsley, S. L. & Hecht, M. L.

(2006). Layers of meaning: An analysis of de<nitions of

culture. In J. R. Balwin, S. L. Faulkner, M. L. Hecht & S.

L. Lindsley, (Eds.), RedeQning culture: Perspectives across the

disciplines. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Glassie, H. (1999). Material culture. Bloomington, IN:

Indiana University Press.

6 | N O L A N W E I L


Chapter 1: What is Culture?

Nolan Weil

Suggested Focus

Here are some questions and some tasks to guide you in your

reading of the chapter. If you can address everything on this list,

you will be off to a good start.

1. Simply stated, what is culture?

2. How has the meaning of the word changed over time?

Trace its evolution over the centuries.

3. Contrast Sir Edward Tylor’s 19th century view of culture

with that of Franz Boas at the beginning of the 20th

century. How are they similar? How are they different?

4. What is the signiTcance of Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s

classic work published in 1952?

5. List the seven themes that seem to capture the

S P E A K I N G O F C U LT U R E | 7

scholarly literature on culture. Which theme(s) do you

Tnd most compelling?

Culture, simply deTned

Trying to settle on a simple de<nition of culture is not an

easy task. Maybe you will feel the same as you work your

way through this chapter. You will see, for example, that

the idea of culture has changed many times over the

centuries and that in the last 50 years, scholars have made

the idea more and more dif<cult to understand. But in this

chapter, I will try to offer the simplest de<nition that

seems reasonably up to date. Scholars might object that

this de<nition is too simple, but I hope it will be useful for

the purpose of furthering cross-cultural understanding. In

that spirit, we shall regard ‘culture’ simply as a term

pointing to:

all the products of human thought and action both material

and non-material, particularly those that exist because we live

in groups.

Or to repeat the same idea in a slightly different way:

culture consists of all the things we make and nearly

everything that we think and do, again, to the extent that

what we make, think and do is conditioned by our experience

of life in groups.

8 | N O L A N W E I L

The <rst thing to emphasize is that we are not born with

culture, like we are born with blue or brown eyes, or black

hair. We are born into culture, and we learn it by living in

human social groups. The way this idea is often expressed

is to say that culture is something that is transmitted from

one generation to the next. This is how we become


But we humans are clever animals, so although much of

what we make, think, and do is a result of the cultural

environment into which we were born, not every material

object that a person may make, or every thought, or every

action is the result of enculturation. Think about it for a

moment. While much of what we call culture is

transmitted from generation to generation, new items of

culture are invented from time to time. That is to say,

sometimes, some of us make things, think things, or do

things that are new and different. We are then either

honored as innovators or even geniuses, or we are

punished as heretics or criminals, or dismissed as

eccentric, depending on how open or how closed our

societies are to change.

Of course, few things are ever entirely new. For the most

part, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before

us. Still, suppose some clever person creates a completely

unique tool to serve some entirely personal purpose of no

interest or use to another living person. Then by our

de<nition of culture (above), that tool would seem to have

all the marks of culture except one; it would play no role in

the life of any group. The same would go for an idea. Any

idea not shared by one’s fellow group members would not

seem to belong to culture. And similarly, a completely

idiosyncratic practice marks a person as merely different,

S P E A K I N G O F C U LT U R E | 9

if not strange, not as a person participating in a shared

cultural practice.

Having proposed a brief, simple and fairly modern

de<nition of culture that not every scholar of culture

would <nd satisfactory, let us next survey some of the

complications one <nds in academic studies of culture.

Brief history of a concept

Since this discussion is intended for an international

audience, it is important to know that the English word

‘culture’ does not refer to a universal concept. In fact, it

may not even have direct counterparts in other European

languages closely related to English. For example, even

though the German word ‘Kultur’ and the Polish

word ‘kultura’ resemble the English ‘culture’, there are

important differences in meaning, and in more distant

languages like Mandarin Chinese (wen hua), we might

expect the differences to be even greater (Goddard, 2005).

What this means is that if you are a speaker of Mandarin,

you cannot rely on a simple translation of the term from a

bilingual dictionary or Google Translate.

Scholars often begin their attempts to de<ne culture by

recounting the historical uses of the word. As Jahoda

(2012) has noted, the word ‘culture’ comes originally from

the Latin, colere, meaning “to till the ground” and so it has

connections to agriculture. Now for historical reasons, a

great many English words have Latin and French origins,

so maybe it is not surprising that the word ‘culture’ was

used centuries ago in English when talking about

agricultural production, for example, ‘the culture of

barley.’ Gardeners today still speak of ‘cultivating’

tomatoes or strawberries, although if they want to be more

1 0 | N O L A N W E I L

plain-spoken, they may just speak of ‘growing’ them.

Moreover, biologists still use the word culture in a similar

way when they speak of preparing ‘cultures of bacteria.’

Later, in 18th century France, says Jahoda, culture was

thought to be “training or re<nement of the mind or

taste.” In everyday English, we still use the word in this

sense. For instance, we might call someone a cultured

person if he or she enjoys <ne wine, or appreciates

classical music, or visiting art museums. In other words,

by the 18th century, plants were no longer the only things

that could be cultured; people could be cultured as well.

Still later, culture came to be associated with “the

qualities of an educated person.” On the other hand, an

uneducated person might be referred to as “uncultured.”

Indeed, throughout the 19th century, culture was thought

of as “re<nement through education.” For example, the

English writer Matthew Arnold (1896, p. xi) referred to

“acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known

and said in the world.” If Arnold were still alive today, he

would no doubt think that the person who reads

Shakespeare is ‘cultured’ while the one who watches The

Simpsons or Family Guy is not.

S P E A K I N G O F C U LT U R E | 1 1

Sir Edward Tylor

Near the end of the 19th

century, the meaning of

culture began to converge on

the meaning that

anthropologists would adopt

in the 20th century. Sir

Edward Tylor (1871, p. 1), for

instance, wrote that:

Culture, or civilization … is that

complex whole which includes

knowledge, belief, arts, morals,

laws, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired

by man as a member of society.

Notice that Tylor viewed culture as synonymous with

civilization, which he claimed evolved in three stages.

CAUTION: Today we generally regard Tylor’s theory as

mistaken, so please do not get too excited about the details

that follow, but according to Tylor, the <rst stage of the

evolution of culture was “savagery.” People who lived by

hunting and gathering, Tylor claimed, exempli<ed this

stage. The second stage, “barbarism,” Tylor said, described

nomadic pastoralists, or people who lived by tending

animals. The third stage, the civilized stage, described

societies characterized by: urbanization, social

strati<cation, specialization of labor, and centralization of

political authority.

As a result, European observers of 19th century North

America, noticing that many Indian tribes lived by

hunting and gathering, thought of America as a “land of

savagery” (Billington, 1985). Presumably, tribes that

1 2 | N O L A N W E I L

farmed and tended sheep were not savages but merely

barbarians. But by this de<nition, many early English

settlers in North America, as well as some populations still

living in England, in so far as they lived mainly by farming

and tending animals, could rightly be called barbarians. In

fact, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many

‘cultured Europeans’ did regard Americans in the colonies

as barbarians.

Now just to be clear, Europeans were not the only

people with an inflated sense of their own superiority. In

China, those living within the various imperial dynasties

thought of people living far away from the center of the

empire as barbarians. Moreover, they regarded everyone

outside of China as barbarians. And this included the


But let’s return to Sir Edward Tylor and the elements

that he identi<ed as belonging to culture–knowledge,

beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and so on. This view of

culture is certainly not far from 20th and 21st century

views. But contemporary cultural scholars <nd Tylor

mistaken in equating culture with civilization. Among the

<rst scholars to drive this point home was Franz Boas.

S P E A K I N G O F C U LT U R E | 1 3

Franz Boas

Franz Boas and the birth of American


Franz Boas is widely

regarded as the father of

cultural anthropology in

the United States. Boas

was a German of Jewish

heritage (though from a

not religiously observant

family). Educated in

Germany, Boas was

exposed to two competing

intellectual traditions, the


(natural sciences) and the Geisteswissenschaften (human

sciences). Boas embraced both, as a student of physics on

the one hand and geography on the other. In 1896, Boas

immigrated to the United States (Liron, 2003). Without

the contributions of Boas, American anthropology might

have developed very differently.

Unlike the British scholars of the time, Boas insisted

that the study of culture should be based on careful

observation, not speculation, which was the tendency of

writers like Matthews and Tylor. Boas spent many years

studying Native American cultures, and over the course of

his career, he collected volumes of information on

linguistics, art, dance, and archaeology. Boas’ studies

convinced him of the sophistication of Native cultures, so

in contrast to Tylor, Boas and his students rejected the

idea of indigenous cultures as inferior stages along the

route to civilized re<nement presumably represented by

“Western” cultures (Franz Boas, 2017).

1 4 | N O L A N W E I L

In fact, Boas is responsible for a number of tendencies

in American anthropology:

For one thing, as we have just suggested, Boas rejected

the idea that culture was something that evolved within

societies by stages from lower forms to higher. Instead, he

argued that culture was a historical, not an evolutionary

development. Boas insisted that cultural ideas and

practices diffused across groups who were living in

proximity and interacting within similar environments.

For Boas cultural developments were in many ways just

accidents of history (Franz Boas, 2017).

Moreover, Boas was a vehement opponent of the

scienti<c racism of the era (Liron, 2003). Scienti<c racists

pushed the idea that race was a biological characteristic

and that it was possible to explain human behavior by

appealing to racial differences. During the 19th and 20th

centuries, scienti<c racism had many proponents, not just

in Europe and North America but as far away as China and

Japan (Dikötter, 1992). Many anthropologists in Boas’ day

busied themselves in activities like describing and

measuring the skulls of various groups of people and using

this data to dra

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