Culture is a wide and complex collection of beliefs, practices, behaviors, rituals, and traditions that are associated with a particular group in a particular time and place.
What Is Culture?
Anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists have been debating the precise definition of culture for generations, but culture generally refers to a collection of beliefs and behaviors that are taught within a group. Elements of culture might include religion, style of dress, style of expression, family structure, values, laws, rituals, customs, relationships between adults and children, and numerous other factors. Any behavior that can be taught can be a part of culture. Because of this, culture can change—sometimes rapidly—and the culture of a particular community 20 years ago might be wildly different from its current culture.
Cultures are not homogenous, and even if the majority of a culture does something, it does not mean an individual member of the culture will do it or that outsiders will not do it. For example, circumcision has historically been a part of Jewish culture. However, not all Jews circumcise children and many people outside of the Jewish faith circumcise their children.
Cultural Competence and Psychology
Mental health professionals are increasingly concerned with practicing cultural competence—the understanding that not all people share one’s own cultural norms and that it is important to engage in behaviors that respect these cultural differences. Cultural differences can affect mental health treatment. For example, one culture might define six months of grief as so short that it’s unhealthy, whereas in the United States months of extreme grief is often viewed as a sign of depression. Good mental health professionals consider their clients’ cultural backgrounds, and many people seeking mental health treatment seek out treatment providers of a similar cultural background.
Animals and Culture
For generations, there has been rigorous debate about whether non-human animals have culture. While culture has historically been viewed as a distinctly human phenomenon, there is increasing evidence that animals, particularly primates, have cultures. For example, one species of monkey living in a particular location routinely washes its food in the ocean, while monkeys of the same species living in a different location do not.
- Laland, K. N., & Galef, B. G. (2009). The question of animal culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- What is culture? (n.d.). Palomar College Department of Anthropology. Retrieved from http://anthro.palomar.edu/culture/culture_1.htm
Last Updated: 08-4-2015
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