Where does culture come from?

Please keep in mind that I am not naturally scientifically inclined.  But my curiosity was piqued this last week as I watched my in-laws and my husband interact.  I thought about what culture is and where it comes from.  Why does my husband act the way he does and do the things he does?

In many ways, he is just like his dad.  He is quiet, brilliant, a voracious reader, persuasive, strong-willed, generally undemonstrative and has an elephant’s memory.  His father is a doctor, but, in so many ways Patrick is the quintessential soldier – most likely a product of his environment in the Army.  He is stoic, commanding, methodical, critical, undemonstrative, determined, silent and competitive.  So, what made Patrick – Patrick?  How is he a product of his culture?  My husband and I are of the same generation.  However, my culture has made me loud, chatty, warm, gregarious, dramatic, emotional, introspective, impulsive and accepting.

Culture (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning “to cultivate”)[1] is a term that has various meanings. For example, in 1952,Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of “culture” in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.[2]However, the word “culture” is most commonly used in three basic senses:

  • Excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture
  • An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning
  • The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group
W. C. McGrew suggests that we view culture as a process. He lists six steps in the process:


1.  A new pattern of behavior is invented, or an existing one is modified.


2.  The innovator transmits this pattern to another.


3.  The form of the pattern is consistent within and across performers, perhaps even in terms of recognizable stylistic features.


4.  The one who acquires the pattern retains the ability to perform it long after having acquired it.


5.  The pattern spreads across social units in a population. These social units may be families, clans, troops, or bands.


6.  The pattern endures across generations.


(also from Wikipedia)


When I read this six step process, it is easy to plug our beliefs into the equation.  Take an outrageous example:


1.  One person tells someone another that it is fun to rob a bank.


2.  The second person takes this on faith and robs a bank.  That must be what fun feels like.  They decide to rob their neighbor.


3.  They continue their new found hobby and tell all their co-workers how much fun it is.


4.   Everyone at work decides to try this new, fun past-time.


5.  These fun-loving adults show their kids how to have the time of their lives.


6.  Bingo!  A new cultural norm.


Who ensures that new cultural norms are beneficial, safe, moral or good?  Who gets makes the first suggestion?   What if they are lies?