“CULTURE” is a problematic word. In everyday language we tend to use it in at least two senses. On the one hand, we speak of cultured people and places full of culture, uses that imply a knowledge or presence of certain forms of behavior or of artistic expression that are socially prestigious. In this sense large cities and prosperous people tend to be seen as the most cultured. On the other hand, there is an interpretation of “culture” that is broader and more anthropological; culture in this broader sense refers to whatever traditions, beliefs, customs, and creative activities characterize a given community—in short, it refers to what makes that community different from others. In this second sense, everyone has culture; indeed, it is impossible to be without culture.
The problems associated with the idea of culture have been exacerbated in recent years by two trends: less respectful use of language and a greater blurring of cultural differences. Nowadays, “culture” often meanslittlemorethan behavior, attitude, or atmosphere. We hear about the culture of the board-room, of the football team, of the marketplace; there are books with titles like The Culture of War by Richard Gabriel (Greenwood, 1990) or The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch (1979). In fact, as Christopher Clausen points out in an article published in the American Scholar (Summer 1996), we have gotten ourselves into trouble by using the term so sloppily.
People who study culture generally assume that culture (in the anthropological sense) is learned, not genetically determined. Another general assumption made in these days of multiculturalism has been that cultural differences should be respected rather than put under pressure to change.