CULTURE – Definitions and Dimensions


Article By Prof M Nagarani, a seasoned professional with more than 28 years of teaching, training and consulting experience in the area of Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources.

The study of culture, which was a field of interest to a select group of anthropologists and sociologists till about two decades ago, has now become a dynamic and almost impregnable plasma, from which it has become imperative to find concrete answers.

At this juncture, it would be worthwhile to journey through the various definitions of culture as it has evolved over time.

The first comprehensive definition of culture was given by Edward Tylor (1871), English anthropologist and the founder of cultural anthropology, who said that culture is, “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

While that definition is comprehensive, American cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead (1955) defined culture as something which is not exclusive to a particular period of time or era, but as “…a body of learned behaviour, a collection of beliefs, habits and traditions, shared by a group of people and successively learned by people who enter the society.”

Taking that thought forward, the definition by Geertz (1973), puts culture as “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.”

We find that all these definitions talk about culture as a system which is created by the society for people and generations to follow. In the early 1980s, this evolved from being viewed as a practice of the society to programming of the minds of people belonging to a particular society which again, was the crucial factor of differentiation between one group of people and the other. Hofstede, in 1980, proposed that culture is “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one human group from another.”

By the 2000s, the definition again underwent a change. For the first time, the thought was introduced that culture is not rigid, that it can be changed to suit the times, rendering it flexible. Dahl (2004), thought that Culture is “a shared set of basic assumptions and values with resultant behavioural norms, attitudes and beliefs which manifest themselves in systems and institutions which is learnt, passed on and subject to modification”.

Probably the most comprehensive definition of culture has been given by Schien(1990) when he said that Culture is “a pattern of basic assumptions invented, discovered or developed by a given group, as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation or internal integration that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, is taught to the new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to chosen problems.”

Organizational Culture, a term that is relevant to our times, is the microcosm of this concept. It defines the way the people in the organization think and behave. It is the collective values, beliefs and principles of organizational members, which in turn provides a unique atmosphere which influences the day-to-day aspects as well as the larger values, mission and growth of the organization.

In essence, Culture is the glue that binds a group of people together and provides an answer to everything – from the puzzle of life and death to running our everyday lives. Overall, a convenience mechanism and a conscience keeper, culture defines what is probably the most important aspect to a human being, his or her identity.