What is Culture?

If you are going to think about crossing cultures, it is probably a good idea to give some thought to what culture is. Culture is variously defined. Here are a few definitions:

Culture is:
– the beliefs, customs, arts, etc of a particular society, group, or time (Merriam-Webster).
– the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another (Dictionary.com).
– the unwritten book with rules of the social game that is passed on to newcomers by its members, nesting itself in their minds (Hofstede, 2010).

Most often when we are confronted with a culture different than our own, the sensible aspects of culture— dress, smells, behaviours— make the biggest impression on us.

But culture can also be understood as something of an onion. Geert Hofstede provides this model of culture:


What is helpful about Hofstede’s model is that is helps us understand that there is more to culture than just what we can see (symbols). There is also what we collectively love or hate (heroes and villains), what we collectively do (rituals), and what we collectively believe (values).

I find the model of Bunkowske (which I found illustrated here: http://scriptureandmission.com/on-worldview-1-missionary-anthropology/) to be even more helpful:


Here we see that allegiance lies at the centre, finds it expression in worldview, which further manifests itself in beliefs, values, feelings, and behaviours, before finally arriving at artifacts. In other words, what you can understand from a culture through your senses is only the beginning. Like layers of an onion you must peel back the various layers in order to truly understand a culture and what makes it tick.

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