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Culture: Definition, Characteristics, Types, and Practices

Culture is a concept that comprises the characteristics and identity of different social groups. It incorporates how you live, talk, and express yourself alongside acting as a way to pass down traditions and values from one generation to another.

What is culture?
Understanding culture hones your sense of self and broadens your perspectives.

Cultures consist of ethnic groups that have survived centuries of outside influence and subcultures that break off to rebel against their larger communities. These groups are influenced by historical, religious, and technological factors that bring new meaning to their typical ways of doing things.

Culture is important in that it brings forth a feeling of togetherness to the people within society and those on the outskirts. For example, people who live an alternative lifestyle may connect with their familial heritage but feel a sense of greater unity when they’re with those who share their lifestyle. Cultural identity brings people together by allowing the members to be able to relate to one another in line with identical experiences, convictions, and practices.

Diversity is the key to cultivating a robust sense of understanding and appreciation amid the present globalized world. The more you know about other people and interact with them, the more empathy and respect you’ll have for others. Therefore, cultures different from your own help you widen your point of view to ensure you learn new things and get exposed to new experiences.

Culture is a multi-composite concept that fills every aspect of human life. It is the point of view from which human beings interpret and react to their social environment. Below, you’ll discover the meaning of culture, its characteristics, and the major practices that encompass culture.

What does culture mean?

Culture is a combination of beliefs, behaviors, objects, and other characteristics common to the members of different groups and societies. Culture is a way for people and groups to define themselves, conform to shared values, and contribute to society. Aspects of culture vary depending on the group and their exposure to outside influence. Each group subsequently spawns unique individual and collective identities that affect how members view the world.

Culture is a concept that is always evolving in response to internal developments and external influences. As societies interact through trade, conquest, or cooperation, cultures borrow from one another. This leads to cultural diffusion and the creation of new cultural forms. These evolutionary processes highlight the fluidity of cultural boundaries and the continuous shaping of cultures by historical and societal forces.

Cultures transmit knowledge and values from one generation to the next through stories, languages, and iconography. Cultural references like these keep members from feeling alienated in new places by cultivating a sense of belonging. For example, the widespread use of traditional symbols in print or even in modern digital communication can connect individuals to their cultural roots. One way you can use modern technology to express your culture is by using your home nation’s flag and associated food as emojis.

What are the characteristics of culture?

The characteristics of culture are aspects that shape society’s identity and lifestyle choices. Each type of culture exhibits one or more of these aspects, and they work together to define those groups. The following list highlights the seven major characteristics of culture.

  • Learned: Learned aspects of culture are achieved through teaching and mirroring others in the group as opposed to inheritable traits.
  • Shared: Shared culture is a collective experience that’s upheld by the entire community, not just individuals or subgroups.
  • Symbolic: Symbolic parts of culture involve expression through emblems or clothing that convey their association with the larger community.
  • Integrated: Integrated elements of culture are interconnected factors that work together to contribute to a culture’s larger identity.
  • Dynamic: Dynamic culture evolves over time as a way to adapt to change and influence from inside and outside of the group.
  • Adaptive: Adaptive culture adjusts to environmental and social challenges that promote survival and societal progression.
  • Continuous: Continuous culture is passed down through generations to ensure the culture survives the test of time.


Learned culture refers to a way of socializing that influences behavior, values, and norms that define a community. These learned cultural traits are by-products of direct teaching and indirect observation. People learn these things about their society from an early age, and they continue learning across their lifespan. For example, parents teach children to respect the elders in their culture by giving up their seats or using honorifics to address them.

Always learning and evolving with the times is a way for cultures to grow and refrain from becoming static. The lessons you learn from members of your group help your culture renew itself from one generation to another. The reason a child should be polite and give up their seat for an elderly member of the community might only be obvious once that child is grown. These are small acts that work together to define a culture’s identity.


Shared culture represents the common beliefs and symbols that a group of people recognizes. These ideals and identities are foundational to the group’s social cohesion to ensure a sense of belonging and community among its members. For example, the members can meet each other on a national holiday or traditional festival to strengthen unity and closeness.

These are cultural practices that are among the hallmarks through which society maintains and passes on its heritage from one generation to another. The shared nature of culture ensures the continuity and coherence of a community’s way of life. This communal aspect of culture fosters a sense of unity and solidarity as individuals navigate their social world through a shared understanding of what is considered meaningful and acceptable. Through participation in cultural rituals and everyday interactions, people contribute to and reinforce this collective consciousness.


Symbolic culture involves the use of symbols to carry and dispatch the meanings and traditions of a given people. These symbolic cultural aspects become the base of public information and individuality in a community. People learn to interpret and use those symbols from early childhood, such as octagonal traffic signs being associated with stop signs.

Different cultures go on using these symbols all throughout life to find their way in the social world. This enables you to communicate with others by using simple gestures or iconography. Moreover, you can express meaningful and complex messages in a very effective and simple way.

Societies maintain cultural identity and spread cultural awareness by using these symbolic elements of culture. By continually displaying and honoring important symbols, members of the society reinforce their collective understanding and pass on a part of history to future generations.


Integrated culture is a deep interconnectedness of various cultural elements that work together to form a cohesive and functional whole. The integrated nature of culture ensures that all aspects of a society’s shared understanding and identity are closely linked and mutually reinforcing.

People learn to maneuver these cultural elements from an early age, and they continue to draw upon and adapt these elements throughout their lives to make sense of their social world. Something such as a simple change in a society’s entertainment economy can lead to shifts in media interests, style of dress, and even language use. For example, Hallyu is a cultural phenomenon that marks the rise of South Korean pop culture on a global scale.

Cultural integration is a way for societies to maintain their overall balance and coherence by ensuring that their shared framework for understanding the world remains intact. These interrelations work together to guide social interactions and shape societal functioning.


Dynamic culture represents the capacity for change and evolution that is inherent in all societies. A combination of inner growth and outer influence drives cultural dynamics. The dynamic quality of culture allows communities to adapt to new challenges and evolve over time to ensure their relevance and sustainability.

People participate in this ongoing process of cultural change from an early age, and they continue to contribute to it throughout their lives. For example, as a society encounters new technologies or interacts with other cultures, the members may selectively integrate these elements into their current identity. This change leads to shifts and transformations in their shared understanding and feelings toward progression.

Promoting a dynamic culture is a way for societies to live on through the years to come. This adaptability ensures that cultural practices remain vibrant and meaningful to exhibit the true essence of the community properly.


Adaptive culture is the ability of a society to adjust to diverse environmental challenges and technological advancements. Adaptive culture is important for the survival and development of communities, as it enables them to prosper in the face of change. People learn to participate in cultural adaptation from an early age and will continue to innovate and embrace change as necessary throughout their lives. For example, as a society faces new environmental challenges, its members may modify their traditional practices or adopt new technologies to ensure their continued well-being.

Encouraging adaptation within your culture or subculture helps the group grow and embrace the new generations. This process promotes a strong community by allowing societies to adapt successfully and thrive amidst the complexities of the modern world. By valuing flexibility and innovation, cultures can maintain their core identity while also being open to new ideas to enhance their future.


Continuous culture leaves a legacy that is passed down from one generation to the next to preserve heritage and tradition. Continuous cultures are able to spread cultural awareness while simultaneously accommodating new experiences and knowledge. This continuity is a way that cultural identity can be maintained over time and provides a sense of connection to the past.

Continuous culture aids in the prosperity of communities across the globe. For example, Aboriginal Australians are one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet, as they’ve existed in an isolated area for generations. Keeping culture alive and relevant maintains a course that reflects both historical roots and contemporary happenings. This enduring cultural presence enables understanding and appreciation of your heritage while you stand firm against pressures from outside societies.

What are the different types of cultures?

The following list describes eight different types of cultures.

  • Material vs non-material culture: Material culture includes the physical objects and artifacts created by a society. Non-material culture encompasses the ideas and beliefs shared by that society.
  • High vs. low culture: High culture refers to the cultural products and practices considered superior or prestigious by society. Low culture relates to more mainstream, popular, or mass-produced cultural products.
  • Popular culture: Popular culture comprises the widespread cultural elements in any given society, particularly those disseminated through mass media.
  • Subcultures: Subcultures are cultural groups within a larger culture that have beliefs or interests differing from those of the larger culture.
  • Countercultures: Countercultures reject dominant societal norms and values and seek alternative lifestyles or beliefs.
  • Ethnic cultures: Ethnic cultures are centered around the heritage, traditions, language, and customs of a specific ethnic group.
  • National cultures: National cultures reflect the shared experiences, customs, traditions, and identity of a country’s citizens.
  • Global cultures: Global cultures transcend national borders to include cultural practices and values spawned by globalization and digital connectivity.

What are the major cultural practices?

Major cultural practices are the primary manifestations of cultures and include different behaviors, traditions, and values. Figure 1 below showcases nine cultural practices that serve as forms of expression for various groups.

9 cultural practices
Figure 1. This infographic shows the interconnected nature of the nine major cultural practices.


Ethos refers to the guiding values and social norms that shape the behavior and practices of communities. These values and norms are deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of society and influence the way you interact with one another and make decisions.

Ethos encompasses the moral principles and ethical standards that form the foundation of a community’s identity. It guides the actions and attitudes of individuals and determines what is considered acceptable or inappropriate within a given cultural context.

For example, a society’s ethos might prioritize values such as honesty and social responsibility. These traits encourage community members to act with integrity and consider the well-being of others. Alternatively, a community’s ethos might emphasize individualism and personal achievement to shape a culture that values self-reliance and rewards individual success.

Social organization

Social organization is the structure and hierarchy of communities and institutions within a society. These organizations can greatly influence how groups interact and relate to one another. Social communities or institutions include religious groups, political networks, and professional organizations.

These groups influence how cultures view other societies, shape their values, and express themselves. For example, a religious institution might encourage congregants to dress according to bylaws or promote specific rituals central to the religious body’s identity.

Social organization in a society defines roles and responsibilities by establishing a framework for social behavior and interaction. Political networks shape governance and public policies by influencing societal norms, while professional organizations set industry standards and practices. These organizations facilitate the functioning of society and participate in cultural evolution by endorsing or challenging existing norms.

Intangible heritage

Intangible heritage includes the non-physical aspects of culture, such as folklore and traditions passed down through generations. These intangible elements are essential to the cultural identity and continuity of communities by providing a sense of belonging and shared history.

Intangible heritage is a wide range of cultural expressions that include oral traditions, music, dance, and traditional craftsmanship. These practices carry deep meaning and significance because they reflect the subtle intricacies of the communities.

For example, folk tales and legends passed down through generations serve as a means of imparting moral lessons such as Aesop’s Fables. These stories preserve cultural history and promote a sense of shared identity. Similarly, traditional music and dance forms can be used as emotional expression to connect individuals to their cultural roots and one another.


Language is the primary medium of communication within a culture and includes spoken word, written form, and non-verbal cues. Language shapes how you perceive the world around you, and influences thought patterns and social dynamics.

Language allows for the spread of ideas and experiences by carrying cultural knowledge and traditions across generations. It serves as a marker of cultural identity by uniting people through shared linguistic heritage. People will feel connected to others if they share a similar mother tongue.

Moreover, language reflects the unique worldviews and conceptual frameworks of a culture, with specific vocabularies and grammatical structures making up different vernaculars. The way a language evolves and adapts over time mirrors the changing needs and experiences of its speakers.


Ceremonies are the rituals and traditions that mark significant events and transitions in the life of a community. These events serve as a vital expression of cultural identity and cohesion. Ritual ceremonies hold deep symbolic meaning and are guided by specific protocols and customs.

Ceremonies can range from rites of passage, such as weddings and funerals, to seasonal celebrations and religious observances. For example, during Chuseok, the South Korean harvest festival, celebrants will eat a type of rice cake called songpyeon as a way to encourage abundance. These events serve to reinforce social bonds and provide a sense of continuity and connection to ancestral traditions.

The performance of ceremonies involves elaborate preparations, special attire, and the use of sacred objects or spaces. Participation in these rituals can evoke powerful emotions and provide a way for people to feel fulfilled in their identity.


Technology within the culture wheel refers to the tools and techniques developed by a society. The evolution of technology reflects a culture’s capacity for innovation and adaptation to environmental and social challenges. It involves the practical application of knowledge and skills to create solutions that improve daily life and support traditions.

Technology can include a wide range of elements, from traditional craftsmanship and agricultural methods to modern digital tools and infrastructure. These technologies are shaped by the unique needs and resources of a given culture, and in turn, they influence the way people interact with that area and the people that live within that culture.

For example, the development of aquatic technology implies the culture was in close proximity to water. Furthermore, the adoption of digital technologies can impact the way communities connect and share information to shift social dynamics.


Artifacts are the physical tools and objects created or used by a culture. These items represent the heritage and technological achievements of a society. Artifacts can range from everyday tools and utensils to works of art and architectural structures. For example, the Mask of Agamemnon is an ancient gold mask from the Bronze Age that gives insight into the Mycenaean culture.

Artifacts serve both practical and symbolic purposes to respect the sensibilities of a culture. They can teach you about the daily lives, social hierarchies, and cultural practices of past and present societies. The materials used in the creation of artifacts can also shed light on a culture’s relationship with natural resources and neighboring nations.


Aesthetics represent cultural expressions through art, literature, music, and other creative works. These practices reveal the intellectual and spiritual factors that influence artistic creation and interpretation. They encompass the creation, sharing, and reception of art and aesthetic experiences.

The art you encounter connects different cultures across the world through a collage of mediums and styles. These factors include history, social dynamics, technological advancements, and cultural traditions. Aesthetics reflect a community’s relationship with its values and emotions. For example, a genre like jazz has spanned the globe and has developed variations that are specific to different regions.

Studying aesthetics provides insights into the creative lives and ways of thinking of specific cultures. It gives people more options for self-expression and helps people better understand others around them.


Foodways represent the eating habits and culinary practices of a culture. These practices reveal the social, economic, and environmental factors that influence diet and food preparation. They include the selection, cultivation, and preparation of ingredients, as well as the social rituals and meanings associated with meals. The food you eat is a bridge that connects different cultures across the world. A complex interplay of factors, including geography, climate, history, and cultural traditions, shapes foodways.

They reflect a community’s relationship with its natural resources, trade networks, and culinary innovations. For example, a dish like curry has made its way around the globe and has different variations that are regionally specific and make use of imported spices and native agriculture. Studying foodways provides insights into the daily lives, health, and cultural priorities of a society. Moreover, food plays a significant role in social bonding and the transmission of knowledge across generations.

Why is it important to learn about culture?

It’s important to learn about culture to understand the diverse ways of life and encourage empathy for others. Learning about other cultures is a way to broaden your understanding of the myriad of ways in which societies function. For example, you might not be able to go abroad to experience a different country’s culture, but you can watch documentaries and read about those places and the people that make them so special.

You become better equipped to navigate the increasingly interconnected world with sensitivity and awareness when you gain insight into these cultural practices that are foreign to you. For example, understanding the cultural significance of certain gestures can prevent misunderstandings in cross-cultural communication. This enhances interpersonal relations and promotes international diplomacy that will leave everyone feeling respected and seen.

How does culture affect people’s lives?

Culture shapes people’s worldviews and behavior, which influences every aspect of human life. It provides a framework for understanding and interpreting the world, guiding people’s actions and interactions with others. For example, culture determines what is considered acceptable or taboo within a society. That’s why you’ll see a lack of 4th floors in China, as a superstition about the number 4 keeps people from wanting to venture between the 3rd and 5th.

Moreover, culture establishes social hierarchies and roles, which dictate expectations for behavior. This causes concern for behaving appropriately according to your culture, which influences how you express yourself, communicate, and form relationships.

Additionally, culture plays a role in forming people’s sense of self and belonging. It provides a shared history and set of traditions that bind communities together and foster a sense of collective identity. Culture is a powerful force that can affect people’s aspirations and life choices, as well as their attitudes toward greater life questions, such as deciding who you will marry and spend your life with.

What are the advantages of culture?

Below is a list of six advantages of culture.

  • Identity and belonging: A strong sense of cultural identity and belonging supports mental health by providing individuals with a sense of place and purpose. This sense of identity can foster resilience in the face of adversity.
  • Social cohesion and harmony: Shared cultural practices and values can promote social cohesion and harmony, as they create a common ground for mutual understanding and cooperation. The foundation of shared culture diminishes conflicts by focusing on similarities over differences.
  • Cultural diversity and creativity: Cultural diversity is a wellspring of creativity and innovation, as it encourages the cross-pollination of ideas and practices. Exposure to a variety of cultural expressions can inspire new artistic forms and problem-solving approaches.
  • Cultural heritage and preservation: Preserving cultural heritage connects us to our history and roots, fostering a sense of continuity and identity across generations. This connection enriches personal lives and ensures that valuable knowledge is preserved over time.
  • Economic development and tourism: Cultural assets can significantly contribute to economic development and tourism by attracting visitors interested in local traditions, arts, and history. The celebration of cultural heritage spurs the growth of local businesses and jobs to promote economic resilience.
  • Personal growth and enrichment: Engagement with cultures outside your own promotes personal growth and a deeper understanding of the world. This exploration of diverse cultural landscapes can challenge preconceptions, broaden horizons, and encourage a more nuanced appreciation of the complexity of human societies.

What are the disadvantages of culture?

Below is a list of seven disadvantages of culture.

  • Cultural conflicts: Cultural differences can escalate into conflicts when opposing beliefs and practices clash. These conflicts often stem from a need for more understanding and tolerance between groups.
  • Cultural stereotypes and prejudice: Stereotyping simplifies complex human attributes into fixed categories and promotes prejudice and discrimination. This harms the targeted group and stifles social integration and diversity.
  • Cultural isolation and insularity: Strong adherence to your culture can lead to a refusal to engage with others. This isolation goes on to prevent the exchange of ideas and innovations that drive societal progress.
  • Cultural hegemony and dominance: The predominance of a particular culture can lead to the suppression of minority cultures and identities. This dominance establishes a power dynamic where the values and norms of the dominant culture are considered superior.
  • Cultural relativism and moral dilemmas: While cultural relativism promotes tolerance, it can also justify practices that conflict with universal human rights and moral dilemmas. This perspective hinders efforts to address injustices that are culturally sanctioned within certain societies.
  • Cultural inequality and power dynamics: Cultural practices reinforce and perpetuate social inequalities. These dynamics can limit access to resources, opportunities, and representation for marginalized groups.
  • Cultural degradation and loss: The forces of globalization and cultural homogenization threaten the survival of unique cultural identities and practices, leading to cultural loss and a decrease in global diversity. As dominant cultures spread, local traditions and knowledge are at risk of extinction.

What is cultural identity?

Cultural identity is who you are based on the cultural group or groups you feel you belong to. Cultural identity boils down to the things you have in common with that group, such as your ethnicity, language, religion, and traditions. These shared traits play a big role in shaping your self-concept and how you relate to the world.

Your cultural identity isn’t static and can evolve as you go through life and interact with the broader society around you. You might have multiple cultural identities that overlap or marry into a different culture than your own. How important each of these is to you can vary based on your individual experiences and circumstances.

Having a shared cultural identity gives you a common way of understanding and navigating the world. This anchor to your group influences the way you act in response to the unwritten social rules you follow. Being part of a cultural group can give you a sense of belonging and community and provide support that’s important for your well-being and for keeping society cohesive. However, cultural identity can be a source of tension, and you might feel caught up in conflicting expectations from different cultural groups to which you belong. It’s important to respect yourself alongside the cultures that shape who you are.

How does culture shape personality?

Culture shapes personality by providing you with a foundation on which to base your identity. Cultural norms, values, and practices mold your behavior and emotional responses from an early age.

Cultural context establishes expectations for appropriate communication styles and social roles. For example, your culture will dictate which traits are important, such as independence or conformity. It further shapes what you aim to achieve for personal goals and what motivates you, such as honor or family heritage.

Your personality becomes a source of cultural expression in ways that might not be obvious to you but will stand out to others. The subtle differences in cultural beliefs will influence how you communicate with people and what interests you seek out, with many people wanting to respect their cultures.

Is it possible to belong to more than one culture?

Yes, you can absolutely belong to multiple cultures. Embracing a hybrid identity shaped by your entire cultural background can be an enlightening experience and teach you about aspects of your family you weren’t aware of.

Your culture can stem from parts of your heritage, the diverse communities you live in, or the subcultures you connect with. You can even identify with your culture of origin while also embracing the culture you live in or feel connected to based on shared interests. Your culture doesn’t have to be static or have to boil down to one identity.

Do generational trends impact culture?

Yes, generational trends impact culture by introducing new behaviors and technologies that drive cultural evolution. As younger generations come of age, they challenge existing norms and bring fresh perspectives that redefine cultural attitudes and expectations. Generational shifts in values, slang, and creative expressions have molded cultural expression through the years.

Additionally, there are shared generational experiences that bring cultures together and leave a lasting cultural imprint by shaping a generation’s outlook and behavior. For example, the coronavirus pandemic altered the way each generation approached day-to-day life, with reactions varying depending on the culture.

Why do cultures use symbols?

Cultures use symbols to express their values and traditions in a nonverbal way. Symbols act as a cultural shorthand that people use to express their worldview and history with easily recognizable iconography.

Different symbols can evoke deep emotions because of their ties to cultural identity or purpose, such as rallying cries for cultural unity. Moreover, they help preserve and transmit cultural knowledge across generations and help younger people feel connected to their ancestors. Additionally, symbols are used to identify members of different groups. For example, a nation’s flag is a cultural symbol that strengthens social bonds and reinforces a sense of belonging. Other symbols can be used to spread cultural awareness of superstitions, such as birthstone meanings in different religious cultures.

What is the cultural symbolism of rings and fingers?

Rings and fingers have a rich cultural symbolism worldwide that changes with the culture and region. Rings signify marital status, wealth, or social standing, with the specific finger further refining the meaning.

For example, a ring on the left finger usually symbolizes marriage or engagement in Western cultures. However, in some Eastern European traditions, wedding rings are worn on the right hand. Moreover, rings denote authority, like signet rings for sealing documents.

Each finger carries its own symbolism to give further meaning to rings. For example, the index finger may represent power, while a thumb ring can indicate wealth. Even the lack of a ring has meaning and suggests singleness or widowhood.

What role does culture play in forming mystical beliefs?

Culture provides context for spiritual or mystical beliefs and associated practices. Cultural traditions and stories passed down between each generation form the basis of supernatural and paranormal phenomena, such as evil eye amulets used to ward off bad luck.

These mystical beliefs that develop within a culture are influenced by factors like the natural environment, historical events, and interactions with other cultures. Belief systems like animism, the idea that spirits reside in natural objects, are more common in cultures closely tied to nature. Moreover, mystical beliefs can provide explanations for the unknown and help people find meaning. In times of uncertainty or crisis, people may turn to mystical beliefs for comfort or guidance, such as prayers or ritual meditation.

How does culture influence fashion and style?

Culture influences fashion and style through the representation of societal norms, values, and identities. The way you dress and the styles you like are a means of self-expression that reflects your cultural heritage. Cultures encourage fashion that allows their token garments and ways of expression to live on through the generations.

This influence can dictate how you wear certain clothes and the meanings attributed to different styles and items. For example, traditional garments like the Japanese kimono or the Indian saree carry rich cultural significance and history. Wearing these items expresses the values and aesthetics of their respective societies.

Beyond traditional wear, contemporary fashion trends are influenced by cultural shifts, such as the rise of streetwear in urban youth cultures around the world. Alternative styles like streetwear symbolize rebellion, individuality, and social belonging. However, there’s still a distinct difference between the street styles across the world as the cultural influence holds firm.

What impact does culture have on entertainment?

Culture impacts entertainment by influencing the creation, consumption, and interpretation of media. Culture shapes what you create, how you consume media, and how you interpret it. The stories, themes, and characters tap into cultural narratives and archetypes that resonate with people from similar cultural backgrounds.

These cultural identities and norms dictate what’s considered acceptable in terms of content. For example, a conservative culture might have stronger censorship and ratings for commercial media. Moreover, audiences from different cultural backgrounds can have totally different interpretations and emotional responses to the same piece of media based on their unique context and perspective.

At the same time, entertainment is a powerful way for artists to challenge societal norms and promote diversity. By including diverse voices and perspectives, entertainment can foster cross-cultural understanding and empathy.