Anthropology Culture Concept

In this 2020 class we read the first part of chapter 2, “Culture” in Kenneth Guest’s Essentials of Cultural Anthropology and then discussed the anthropology culture concept:

In the next class we finished the chapter and tried to apply the ideas to American Gun Culture. These materials were for Cultural Anthropology 2020. For a 2023 update, see Culture.

Summary: Anthropology Culture Concept

Traditional Definitions of Culture

The concept of culture has been central to anthropology for over 150 years. In 1871, E.B. 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” (in Guest 2020, 42-43). Kenneth Guest, in his 2020 textbook, provides a similar definition: “Culture is a system of knowledge, beliefs, patterns of behavior, artifacts, and institutions that are created, learned, shared, and contested by a group of people” (35).

While these two definitions, separated by nearly 150 years, may appear quite similar, Guest’s definition does introduce some new elements. Most notably, Guest emphasizes that culture is not only shared but also contested within groups (36). This idea of culture as contested is a relatively recent development in anthropological thinking over the past 20-30 years.

The Revolutionary Potential of the Culture Concept

When first introduced, the concept of culture was seen as exciting and even revolutionary. Anthropologists like Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead used the idea of culture to challenge prevalent notions of racial and biological determinism. They argued that human capacities and differences were not determined by race, genes, or biology, but by culture. This was a radical departure from the ethnocentric view that Western societies represented the pinnacle of human development.

Charles King’s book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the 20th Century highlights the transformative impact of these early anthropologists. Similarly, the essay collection Margaret Mead Made Me Gay provocatively considers how Mead’s work challenged biological determinism regarding gender and sexuality. These “renegade anthropologists” offered new possibilities for understanding human diversity.

Mainstreaming & Dilution of the Anthropology Culture Concept

Over time, the concept of culture gained widespread acceptance, but in the process, it often lost its critical edge. In popular discourse, culture frequently became a more polite way of talking about race–what some have termed “race lite.” Stereotypical cultural explanations, such as “Muslim culture” or “the culture of poverty,” replaced overtly racist language but did not necessarily challenge underlying essentialist assumptions.

Within academia, the culture concept provided anthropologists with an object of study and a way to distinguish themselves from other disciplines. Anthropologists tended to focus on isolated, non-Western societies, which risked exoticizing cultural others. As anthropologists debated issues like the relationship between culture and the individual, cultural boundaries, and cultural change, the concept became increasingly abstract and removed from its original critical intent.

Divergence of Academic & Popular Understandings

In recent decades, anthropologists have developed ever more sophisticated theoretical frameworks for understanding culture, emphasizing concepts like power, hegemony, structure, and agency. However, these complex academic discourses have often failed to influence popular understandings of culture.

In public discourse, culture is frequently invoked in simplistic ways to avoid grappling with issues of power, inequality, and history. Asserting that something is “just their culture” can obscure the historical processes and power relations that have shaped cultural practices and differences.

Rethinking Culture’s Relevance

Given this divergence between academic and popular understandings, anthropologists must critically examine whether the culture concept remains a useful tool. While the idea of culture as learned, shared, and contested remains valuable, anthropologists need to be attentive to the ways the concept can be misused to perpetuate rather than challenge essentialist thinking.

Ultimately, the value of the culture concept lies in its ability to foster genuine understanding across lines of difference. As Guest suggests, the test of culture’s analytical usefulness is whether it helps people better understand one another and work together to address common challenges (8). Simplistic cultural explanations that avoid considerations of power and history are unlikely to pass this test.

In considering specific issues like American gun violence, anthropologists must think carefully about whether framing the problem in terms of “gun culture” clarifies or obscures the social, political, and economic factors at play. While culture remains an essential concept for anthropology, it is one that must be used with critical awareness of its limitations and potential misuses.

Recap: Anthropology Culture Concept

In this 2020 class we read the first part of chapter 2, “Culture” in Kenneth Guest’s Essentials of Cultural Anthropology and then discussed the anthropology culture concept:

In the next class we finished the chapter and tried to apply the ideas to American Gun Culture. These materials were for Cultural Anthropology 2020. For a 2023 update, see Culture.


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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