Culture refers to a distinct way of acting, relating and thinking that lasts for more than one generation. It is comprised of beliefs, rules, morals, values, traditions and other aspects of life that make a society unique. The term can be broadly defined as all the ways of being and acting that people have accumulated through social learning, or more narrowly, as all systems of learned behavior, including knowledge, language, ideas, customs, behaviors and material objects. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization defines culture as “the totality of a human activity and all of its expressions.”
Many scholars have contributed to the development of a variety of models that explain culture. Some, like the 19th-century classical evolutionists Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis H. Morgan, held that the mind of man was innately endowed with cultural traits and tended to develop them everywhere. Others, known as diffusionists, believed that certain culture traits — such as tools, techniques, beliefs, ornaments and folktales — were contagious and tended to spread from one place to another.
In modern times, the concept of culture has been expanded to include not only traditional practices but also the ideas, beliefs and values associated with them. The UNESCO definition of culture includes the following:
Nonmaterial culture: the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of a person’s life. It consists of values, norms, ideas and attitudes, including those that affect a person’s self-esteem, the way they see themselves, the world around them, their emotions and how they communicate with others. Non-material elements of a culture may be expressed in the form of art and literature, lifestyles, habits, values, beliefs, mannerisms, morals, laws and traditions.
Material culture: the physical evidence of a culture in the form of artifacts, buildings and other artifacts. It is a key component of archeological and anthropological studies.
A country’s culture is often reflected in its language, and it can be a unifying force for its citizens. For example, the Quebecois of Canada have maintained their French-speaking identity despite being surrounded by English-speaking territories in other parts of the country. Other examples of country-specific cultural heritage are distinct rituals and customs that celebrate important milestones in a nation’s history. These can be as simple as a family meal or as complex as the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration in Mexico.
A country’s cultural heritage can also be found in its music, food and sports. The Beatles, for instance, are considered an international cultural phenomenon because of their distinctive sound and style. In addition, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that indigenous cultures should be able to maintain and develop their own cultural expressions. Specifically, the treaty recognizes that indigenous people have a right to “cultural expressions and intellectual property which pertain to their culture.” The treaty goes on to explain that this includes the ability to transmit those traditions from one generation to the next. This is also referred to as the right to inherit cultural heritage.