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This blog is some of my musings on cultural trends + values and how brands can respond to them. 

What do we mean when we say "culture"?

What do we mean when we say "culture"?

I recently had a coffee with one of the most successful strategists in Portland. While we chatted, he kept mentioning culture - about moving culture forward or transforming culture through communication. Now, within academic anthropological debate, there's a great deal of controversy of what is meant by culture; you ask different social scientists what they mean by culture, you hear a different answer all the time. I remember during my degree we learned about how a pair of anthropologists, annoyed by the confusion around the word, made a list of all definitions of culture they found in published texts and concluded that there were 164 different definitions (Kroeber and Kluckhorn 1952). As a result, before discussing culture or cultural facts, many social scientists define exactly what they mean by the word. 

When I pressed my companion on his definition, he described how "culture is everything we don't choose". That's an interesting definition - and one which would resonate with many social scientists. Indeed, it connects nicely to Bourdieu's ambiguous concept of habitus which was defined by his student Loïc Wacquant as ‘the way society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in determinant ways, which then guide them’ (Wacquant 2005: 316). It is an internalization of society - an internalization of the structures and logic presiding in a society. Think about how you cut your food or how you greet your boss- that unconscious behavior is habitus

Then, as I we talked further and I pressed him for more details, my companion went on by asking me to imagine "food without cuisine, clothes without fashion, action without manners," then to see culture as an added layer. Using the analogy of cars, he said that a Toyota Camry would be perfect for fulfilling the role of a vehicle, and yet it is not popular because the reason people buy cars isn't rational. It's emotional - and this emotion is culture. 

Again, this is an interesting way to view culture - but, I would note, it is not the same as his first. Culture here is no longer an internalization of society, but an explanation for man's irrational decision making. It is an explanation for emotions. It suggests that there is existence outside of culture. 

Very often in marketing we discuss culture - we ask whether a campaign is "culturally sensitive" or we are told in a brief that "culture is sick" or we are questioned about being a good "cultural" fit - though I have yet to hear a firm definition from anyone. As professionals in the communications industry, this seems especially negligent. Without defining what we mean when we say culture, we find ourselves quibbling on shifting ground. Differing definitions are OK - we just need to know where each other stands. 

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BTW, the definition of culture I use is: "the acquired, cognitive and symbolic aspects of existence, whereas society refers to the social organization of human life, patterns of interaction and power relationships” (Eriksen 2004). 

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