Definition of Culture

Author’s note: this is part of a long blog series on corporate culture.  Feel free to look back on previous blogs to explore previous material on evaluating, changing and establishing your corporate culture within the business context.

My Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online) lists six different definition of culture. An online search produces dozens more.  My take-away is that the real definition of culture is the sum of all these definitions – and more.

To define culture for our purposes we need to think of “culture” in terms of three distinctly different uses (taken from pg. 87, Keywords by Raymond Williams).

The first is culture as a process of individual enrichment.  This would be a person who we say is “cultured.”  An example might be someone who not only goes to the ballet but understands ballet; or someone who can correctly order wine; or someone who has read many of the classics in literature.

The second type of culture is a group’s particular way of life.  We have heard about this in the recent election in discussions about the Midwest’s culture as compared to say the Northeast’s culture.

Other examples include various religions’ cultures, the elite culture and corporate culture. The Bible is about the culture of His people which fits this definition; God continually calls his people to be separate from the rest of the world.  In the Old Testament, He gave His people laws that were different from everyone else.  They were to worship only one God, eat and dress differently, obey days of worship and rest, marry only within their culture, and treat orphans, widows and aliens with respect and kindness.

The third type of culture is an activity such as going to a museum, concert or movie, read books, or try different foods all in an effort selected to expand our multiculturalism horizons.  Specific games and activities are widely used to introduce people to other interests that they might not otherwise have an interest in.

All three of these definitions actually compete with one another. A “cultured” person might not seriously be interested in culture as an activity or be engaged in the culture of a larger group in which they are associated.  So, unfortunately all our definitions of culture do little to alleviate the confusion over what culture means – is culture personal enrichment or just unconscious groupthink (“The Meaning of Culture”, J. Rothman, 2014)?

Not to add to the confusion over “culture” but we now have Christian authors writing books like Understanding the Culture by Dr. Jeff Myers as if “the” culture is a 427-cubic inch gas powered engine that we can understand how it functions. The Southern Baptist Conference in fall 2016 held an entire conference on how to engage “culture.”

Much of the focus from these books and conferences seemed to be about the artistic elements of our society as if they are the only “culture” that exists. But based on what we have learned so far, everyone has a culture. Yet we continually promote the idea that if I can use chop sticks and have a library card, I’m cultured.  When we talk about culture we are really talking about everyone, not just a few.  It’s no wonder many of us are confused.

As we work to incorporate “culture” into our organization, we must remember that the culture we strive for is a corporate identity, and that identity is more that the sum total of the combined cultures of our employees. Each employee’s culture is important regardless if they are artistic, intellectual, blue collar or rural.