Culture encompasses a range of social activities and institutions in human societies. It includes beliefs, arts, customs, knowledge, law, and other social and societal norms and rules. It also refers to the physical evidence of a culture, including artifacts, buildings and other structures.
Culture is one of the most powerful influences upon humans. It can influence a person’s overt motor activity and even the structure of his brain, as seen by the way people with different cultures perceive the same outcome of an event. It can hold the sex urge in check and lead to premarital chastity or even lifetime vows of celibacy, it can motivate an individual to sacrifice his life for a cause, and it can even drive him to disembowel himself to wipe out a stain of dishonour.
A person enters the world with no culture, and his culture is acquired from the environment around him. Some anthropologists, like Kroeber and Kluckhohn, were convinced that the whole of human behaviour is cultural. Others, such as Sigmund Freud and Leslie A White, argued that although culture is human behavior, it is an abstraction.
It is important for psychologists to consider the effects of culture, since it shapes both conscious and unconscious motives. It also influences the way a person perceives and evaluates events, such as how he interprets the results of his own actions, the motivation to achieve success or avoid failure.
The cultural phenomenon is a complex and interesting subject, with a number of different views arising from it. For example, some 19th-century evolutionary psychologists, following Rousseau, viewed high culture as an artificial development that corrupted people’s authentic nature, and saw indigenous peoples as “noble savages” living genuine lives in natural surroundings. Other anthropologists, such as Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis H. Morgan, were “diffusionists” and argued that certain traits, such as agricultural practices or religious beliefs, tend to spread throughout the world.
A third view is that the elements of a culture are to be understood and judged in terms of their relation to the culture as a whole, or in other words, in a holistic sense. This led to the doctrine of cultural relativism, which essentially held that it was unjustified and meaningless to compare cultures, or to rank some as superior or inferior to others. Thus, it was unwarranted to say that patrilineal descent is better than matriliny (descent through the female line), or that monogamy is superior to polygamy.
Every cultural system exists in a particular natural environment, which exerts an influence upon the culture itself. The degree to which a culture can adapt to its environment depends on its flexibility and how readily it can adjust its customs, laws, beliefs and other features. Examples include the ability of Eskimo tribes to develop tailored fur clothing and snow goggles, boats and harpoons for hunting sea mammals, and hemispherical snow houses or igloos. In addition, a number of processes can affect the evolution of culture, such as assimilation and transculturation.