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The Historical Development of “Culture”

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series

"Toward a Biblical Understanding of Culture"

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Historically,1 the term “culture” did not emerge in its common use until the late 18th century. The term itself is much older, its Latin roots centered squarely in discussion of agriculture. As early as 1776, however, the term began to be used metaphorically to describe what Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said in the world.”2 The term used this way first entered German philosophy in Johann Gottfried Herder’s 1776 Reflections on the Philosophy of History, in which he argued that each civilization progresses through a process of enlightenment at which point it begins to produce “culture.” Thus the term was first used to describe what would today be more commonly called “high culture” or “the arts.” This introduced a new vocabulary for describing differences among people groups, but it was not until the rise of the formal discipline of cultural anthropology that the broader idea of culture took its present form.

Darwinian evolutionism influenced all aspects of human inquiry in the mid-nineteenth century, including explanation of cultural differences. For example, Edward Tylor, founding father of British anthropology, developed a theory of cultural evolution that describes stages of human history from primitivism to advancement. Tylor was attempting to explain differences among various people groups, leading to the formation of the discipline of cultural anthropology. This new discipline involved “the description, interpretation, and analysis of similarities and differences in human cultures.”3 Tylor’s ideas reflect Herder’s, but his understanding of culture was much more broad. Instead of defining culture as the more advanced achievements of a society, Tylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”4 Important to this definition is that everything in human society is a subset of the broader idea of culture, even religion; the subtitle to Tylor’s monumental book reveals different aspects of what he understood as culture: “Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom.” Schusky explains how this all-encompassing definition of culture developed to form the field of anthropology:

Scholars recast the history of marriage, religion, politics, the family, mythology, and other social forms, speculating on their origin and stage of evolution. Because such a wide variety of forms were examined, some intellectuals concluded that all aspects of human behavior were valid fields for study. Organization of the study should fall to anthropology, and its concept of culture should be such as to allow investigation of all these facets of human activity.5

Tylor was also an early advocate of cultural relativism, “the judgment of a practice only in relation to its cultural setting.”6

The anthropological notion of culture took a third step in America with Franz Boas, who Jerry Moore calls “the most important single force in shaping American anthropology.”7 Boas shifted cultural anthropology from an evolutionist position to what is called Historicism, which argues that cultures are not progressive advancements of one continuous evolutionary development, but rather that each distinct culture is a product of very specific historical contexts and thus can be understood only in light of those contexts. He was among the first to speak of plural cultures that share no direct connections; similarities that exist between cultures, Boas argued, are purely arbitrary or at most due to similar historical situations, an idea called Particularism. This further enforced the notion of cultural relativism, denying any universal laws of culture and advancing the idea to insist that cultures with different historical backgrounds may not be compared at all. Every cultural expression is learned within a particular historical setting; nothing is innate. This view of human culture became established, especially in American anthropology, becoming the de facto explanation for differences among civilizations.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. This survey is necessarily simplistic and notes only the three most significant stages in the development of the contemporary idea of culture. Historians usually note at least four and as many as seven stages. For a more thorough discussion, see Ernest Lester Schusky, The Study of Cultural Anthropology (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975); Merwyn S. Garbarino, Sociocultural Theory in Anthropology: a Short History (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1983); Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: a New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997); Roger M. Keesing and Andrew Strathern, Cultural Anthropology: a Contemporary Perspective (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998); Jerry D. Moore, Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Lanham, MD: Rowman Altamira, 2009); Jenell Williams Paris and Brian M. Howell, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). []
  2. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy: and Essay in Political and Social Criticism (London: Smith, Elder, and Co, 1869), viii. []
  3. Paris and Howell, Introducing Cultural Anthropology, 4. []
  4. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. (London: John Murray, 1871), 1. []
  5. Schusky, The Study of Cultural Anthropology, 10. []
  6. Ibid., 15. []
  7. Moore, Visions of Culture, 42. []