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Kottak: Cultural Anthropology 9e
Cultural Anthropology, 9/e
Conrad P. Kottak, University of Michigan



What is culture?
Cultures are traditions and customs, transmitted through learning, that govern the beliefs and behaviors of the people exposed to them. This chapter emphasizes that culture is shared, symbolic, all-encompassing, and integrated.

What about culture is universal?
Human culture is necessarily constrained by the biological capabilities of Homo sapiens, which means that all cultures deals with biological universals, such as prolonged infant dependency, year-round sexuality, and a complex brain that allows us to use symbols and language. In addition, there are social universals such as exogamy and the incest taboo, which states that some people are too closely related to be married.

Do animals have culture?
Animals do not have culture in the way that anthropologists typically define it: a shared and symbolic set of customs and traditions that govern the beliefs and behaviors of the people exposed to them. This is not to say that animals do not learn. Animals do learn through experience, such as to avoid fire because it hurts, or through demonstration, such as how to hunt. But these are not symbolic learning.

Do some people have culture while others do not?
As anthropologists define it all people have culture since it is the sum of human beliefs. This contrasts with the definition of "culture" that is restricted to elite social exercises such as art, music, or theater.

Is culture always helpful?
No. Cultural practices can be maladaptive in the long-term. One example is that our own culture prizes consumerism and consumption, the use of the automobile, and climate-controlled living spaces. However, the technologies used to achieve these comforts may be causing environmental damage which is detrimental to us in the long-term.