Culture: Definition, Functions, Characteristics, Elements of Culture

Culture consists of all learned, normative behavior patterns – that is all shared ways or patterns of thinking and feeling as well as doing.

Word ‘culture’ comes from the Latin word ‘cultura’ which is related to cult or worship. In its broadest sense, the term refers to the result of human interaction.

The culture of society comprises the shared values, understandings, assumptions, and goals that are learned from earlier generations, imposed by present members of society, and passed on to succeeding generations.

Sometimes an individual is described as a highly cultured person, meaning thereby that the person in question has certain features such as his/her speech, manner, and taste for literature, music or painting which distinguish him from others.

Culture, in this sense, refers to certain personal characteristics of an individual.

However, this is not the sense in which the word culture is used and understood in social sciences.

Sometimes culture is used in popular discourse to refer to a celebration or an evening of entertainment, as when one speaks of a ‘cultural show’. In this sense, culture is identified with aesthetics or the fine arts such as dance, music or drama.

This is also different from the technical meaning of the word culture.

Culture is used in a special sense in anthropology and sociology. It refers to the sum of human beings’ lifeways, their behavior, beliefs, feelings, thought; it connotes everything that is acquired by them as social beings. Culture has been defined in a number of ways.

There is no consensus among sociologists and anthropologists regarding the definition of culture.

There are some writers who add to these definitions some of the important” other capabilities and habits” such as language and the techniques for making and using tools.

What is Culture?

Culture has been defined in a number of ways, but most simply, as the learned and shared the behavior of a community of interacting human beings.

According to British anthropologist Edward Taylor, “Culture is 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”.

According to Phatak, Bhagat, and Kashlak, “Culture is a concept that has been used in several social science disciplines to explain variations in human thought processes in different parts of the world.”         ‘

According to J.P. Lederach, “Culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them”.

According to R. Linton, “A culture is a configuration of learned behaviors and results of behavior whose component elements are shared and transmitted by the members of a particular society”.

According to G. Hofstede, “Culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another.”

According to H.T. Mazumdar, “Culture is the sum total of human achievements, material as well as non-material, capable of transmission, sociologically, i.e., by tradition and communication, vertically as well as horizontally”.

Actually, culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and effective understanding that are learned through a process of, socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.

Characteristics of Culture

All organizations have the culture in the sense that they are embedded in specific societal cultures and are part of them.

Some values create a dominant culture in the organizations that help guide the day to day behavior of employees.

There is also evidence that these dominant cultures can have a positive impact on desirable outcomes such as successfully conducting mergers and acquisitions supporting product – innovation processes, and helping firms cope with rapid economic and technological change.

Culture has various characteristics. From various definitions, we can deduce the following characteristics of culture:

  • Learned Behavior.
  • Culture is Abstract.
  • Culture Includes Attitudes, Values, and Knowledge.
  • Culture also Includes Material Objects.
  • Culture is Shared by the Members of Society.
  • Culture is Super-Organic.
  • Culture is Pervasive.
  • Culture is a Way of Life.
  • Culture is Idealistic.
  • Culture is Transmitted among Members of Society.
  • Culture is Continually Changing.
  • Language is the Chief Vehicle of Culture.
  • Culture is Integrated.
  • Culture is Dynamic.
  • Culture is Transmissive.
  • Culture Varies from Society to Society.
  • Culture is Gratifying.

Learned Behavior

Not all behavior is learned, but most of it is learned; combing one’s hair, standing in line, telling jokes, criticizing the President and going to the movie, all constitute behaviors that had to be learned.

Sometimes the terms conscious learning and unconscious learning are used to distinguish the learning.

Some behavior is obvious. People can be seen going to football games, eating with forks, or driving automobiles. Such behavior is called “overt” behavior. Other behavior is less visible.

Culture is Abstract

Culture exists in the minds or habits of the members of society. Culture is the shared ways of doing and thinking. There are degrees of visibility of cultural behavior, ranging from the regularized activities of persons to their internal reasons for so doing.

In other words, we cannot see culture as, such we can only see human behavior. This behavior occurs in regular, patterned fashion and it is called culture.

Culture Includes Attitudes, Values, and Knowledge

There is a widespread error in the thinking of many people who tend to regard the ideas, attitudes, and notions which they have as “their own”.

It is easy to overestimate the uniqueness of one’s own attitudes and ideas. When there is an agreement with other people it is largely Unnoticed, but when there is a disagreement or difference one is usually conscious of it.

Your differences, however, may also be cultural. For example, suppose you are a Muslim and the other person is a Christian.

Culture also Includes Material Objects

Man’s behavior results in creating objects.

Men were behaving when they made these things. To make these objects required numerous and various skills which human beings gradually built up through the ages. Man has invented something else and so on.

Occasionally one encounters the view that man does not really “make” steel or a battleship.

All these things first existed in a “state nature”.

The man merely modified their form, changed them from a state in which they were to the state in which he now uses them. The chair was first a tree which man surely did not make. But the chair is’ more than trees and the jet airplane is more than iron ore and so forth.

Culture is Shared by the Members of Society

The patterns of learned behavior and the results of behavior are possessed not by one or a few people, but usually by a large proportion.

Thus, many millions of persons share such behavior patterns as the use of automobiles or the English language. Persons may share some part of a culture unequally.

Sometimes the people share different aspects of culture.

Culture is Super-Organic

Culture is sometimes called super organic. It implies that “culture” is somehow superior to “nature”. The word super-organic is useful when it implies that what may be quite a different phenomenon from a cultural point of view.

For example, a tree means different things to the botanist who studies it, the old woman who uses it for shade in the late summer afternoon, the farmer who picks its fruit, the motorist who collides with it and the young lovers who carve their initials in its trunk.

The same physical objects and physical characteristics, in other words, may constitute a variety of quite different cultural objects and cultural characteristics.

Culture is Pervasive

Culture is pervasive it touches every aspect of life. The pervasiveness of culture is manifest in two ways.

First, culture provides an unquestioned context within which individual action and response take place. Not only emotional action but relational actions are governed by cultural norms.

Second, culture pervades social activities and institutions.

Culture is a Way of Life

Culture means simply the “way of life” of a people or their “design for a living.” Kluckhohn and Kelly define it in his sense”, A culture is a historically derived system of explicit and implicit designs for living, which tends to be shared by all or specially designed members of a group”.

Explicit culture refers to similarities in word and action which can be directly observed.

For example, adolescent cultural behavior can be generalized from regularities in dress, mannerism, and conversation. Implicit culture exists in abstract forms which are not quite obvious.

Culture is Idealistic

Culture embodies the ideals and norms of a group. It is sum-total of the ideal patterns and norms of behavior of a group. Culture consists of the intellectual, artistic and social ideals and institutions which the members of the society profess and to which they strive to confirm.

Culture is Transmitted among Members of Society

The cultural ways are learned by persons from persons.

Many of them are “handed down” by one’s elders, by parents, teachers, and others. Other cultural behaviors are “handed up” to elders. Some of the transmission of culture is among contemporaries.

For example, the styles of dress, political views, and the use of recent labor-saving devices. One does not acquire a behavior pattern spontaneously.

He learns it. That means that someone teaches him and he learns. Much of the learning process both for the teacher and the learner is quite unconscious, unintentional, or accidental.

Culture is Continually Changing

There is one fundamental and inescapable attribute (special quality) of culture, the fact of unending change.

Some societies sometimes change slowly, and hence in comparison to other societies seem not to be changing at all. But they are changing, even though not obviously so.

Language is the Chief Vehicle of Culture

Man lives not only in the present but also in the past and future.

He is able to do this because he possesses language which transmits to him what was learned in the past and enables him to transmit the accumulated wisdom to the next generation.

A specialized language pattern serves as a common bond to the members of a particular group or subculture.

Although culture is transmitted in a variety of ways, language is one of the most important vehicles for perpetuating cultural patterns.

Culture is Integrated

This is known as holism, or the various parts of a culture being interconnected.

All aspects of a culture are related to one another and to truly understand a culture, one must learn about all of its parts, not only a few.

Culture is Dynamic

This simply means that cultures interact and change.

Because most cultures are in contact with other cultures, they exchange ideas and symbols. All cultures change, otherwise, they would have problems adapting to changing environments.

And because cultures are integrated, if one component in the system changes, it is likely that the entire system must adjust.

Culture is Transmissive

Culture is transmissive as it is transmitted front one generation to another.

Language is the main vehicle of culture. Language in different forms makes it possible for the present generation to understand the achievement of earlier generations.

Transmission of culture may take place by imitation as well as by instruction.

Culture Varies from Society to Society

Every society has a culture of its own. It differs from society to society. The culture of every society is unique to itself. Cultures are not uniform.

Cultural elements like customs, traditions, morals, values, beliefs are not uniform everywhere. Culture varies from time to time also.

Culture is Gratifying

Culture provides proper opportunities for the satisfaction of our needs and desires.

Our needs both biological and social are fulfilled in cultural ways. Culture determines and guides various activities of man. Thus, culture is defined as the process through which human beings satisfy their wants.

So we can easily say that culture has various features which embodied it in an important position in organizations and other aspects too.

Functions of Culture

We will review the functions that culture performs and assess whether culture can be a liability for an organization. Culture performs a number of functions within an organization.

  • First, it has a boundary-defining role; that is, it creates distinctions between one organization and another.
  • Second, it conveys a sense of identity for organization members.
  • Third, culture facilitates the generation of commitment to something larger than one’s individual self-interest.
  • Fourth, it enhances the stability of the social system. Culture is the social glue that helps hold the organization together by providing appropriate standards for what employees should say and do.
  • Finally, culture serves as a sense-making and control mechanism that guides and

shapes the attitudes and behavior of employees. It is this last function, that is of particular interest to us.

The role of culture in influencing employee behavior appears to be increasingly important in today’s workplace.

As organizations have widened spans of control, flattened structures introduced, teams reduced formalization and empowered employees. The shared meaning provided by a strong culture ensures that everyone is pointed in the same direction.

Elements of Culture

Culture is transmitted to employees in a number of ways. The most significant are stories, rituals, material symbols, and language.

The culture of society also comprises the shared values, understandings, assumptions, and goals that are learned from earlier generations, imposed by present members of society, and passed on to succeeding generations.

There are some elements of culture about which the managers of international operation should be aware of.

  • Languages,
  • Norms,
  • Symbols,
  • Values,
  • Attitude,
  • Rituals,
  • Customs and Manners,
  • Material Culture,
  • Education,
  • Physical Artifacts,
  • Language, Jargons, and Metaphors,
  • Stories, Myths, and Legends,
  • Ceremonies and Celebrations,
  • Behavioral Norms, and
  • Shared Beliefs and Values.


It is a primary means used to transmit information and ideas. Knowledge of local language can help because-

  • It permits a clearer understanding of the situation.
  • It provides direct access to local people.
  • Understanding of implied meanings.

Religion: The spiritual beliefs of a society are often so powerful that they transcend other cultural aspects. Religion affect-

  • The work habit of people
  • Work and social customs
  • Politics and business


Cultures differ widely in their norms, or standards and expectations for behaving. Norms are often divided into two types, formal norms, and informal norms.

Formal norms, also called mores and laws, refer to the standards of behavior considered the most important in any society.

Informal norms, also called folkways and customs, refer to standards of behavior that are considered less important but still influence how we behave.


Every culture is filled with symbols, of things that stand for something else and that often suggests various reactions and emotions.

Some symbols are actually types of nonverbal communication, while other symbols are in fact material objects.


Values are a society’s ideas about what is good or bad, right or wrong – such as the widespread belief that stealing is immoral and unfair.

Values determine how individuals will probably respond in any given circumstances


Attitude is a persistent tendency to feel and behave in a particular way.

Actually it is the external displays of underlying beliefs that people use to signal to other people.


Rituals are processes or sets of actions that are repeated in specific circumstances and with specific meaning. They may be used in such as rites of passage, such as when someone is promoted or retires.

They may be associated with company events such as the release of a new event. They may also be associated with a day like Eid day.

Customs and Manners

Customs are common and establish practices. Manners are behaviors that are regarded as appropriate in a particular society. These indicate the rules of behavior which enforce ideas of right and wrong.

They can be the traditions, rules, written laws, etc.

Material Culture

Another element of culture is the artifacts, or material objects, that constitute a society’s material culture. It consists of objects that people make. Like-

  • Economic infrastructure (transportation, communication and energy capabilities)
  • Social infrastructure (Health, housing, and education systems)
  • Financial infrastructure (Banking, insurance and financial services)


It influences many aspects of culture.

Actually, culture is the entire accumulation of artificial objects, conditions, tools, techniques, ideas, symbols and behavior patterns peculiar to a group of people, possessing a certain consistency of its own, and capable of transmission from one generation to another.

Physical Artifacts

These are the tangible manifestations and key elements of organizational culture.

If you visit different organizations, you’ll notice that each is unique in terms of its physical layout, use of facilities, centralization or dispersion of common utilities, and so on.

This uniqueness is not incidental, instead, they represent the symbolic expressions of an underlying meaning, values, and beliefs, which is shared by people in the organization. The workplace culture greatly affects the performance of an organization.

Language, Jargons, and Metaphors

These elements of organizational culture play an important role in identifying a company’s culture.

While the language is a means of universal communication, most business houses tend to develop their own unique terminologies, phrases, and acronyms.

For instance, in the organizational linguistics code, “Kremlin” may mean the headquarters; in Goal India Limited, the acronym. J.I.T. (Just In Time) was jokingly used to describe all the badly planned fire-fighting jobs.

Stories, Myths, and Legends

These are, in a way, an extension of organizational language. They epitomize the unwritten values and morals of organizational life.

If you collect the various stories, anecdotes, and jokes that are shared in an organization, they often read like plots and themes, in which nothing changes except the characters.

They rationalize the complexity and turbulence of activities and events to allow for predictable action-taking.

Ceremonies and Celebrations

These are consciously enacted behavioral artifacts which help in reinforcing the organization’s cultural values and assumptions.

For example, every year Tata Steel celebrates Founder’s Day to commemorate and reiterate its adherence to the original values of the organization.

Stating the importance of ceremonies and celebrations, Deal and Kennedy (1982) say, “Without expressive events, and culture will die. In the absence of ceremony, important values have no impact.”

Behavioral Norms

This is one of the most important elements of organizational culture. They describe the nature of expectations which impinge on the members’ behavior.

Behavioral norms determine how the members will behave, interact and relate with each other.

Shared Beliefs and Values

All organizations have their unique set of basic beliefs and values (also called moral codes), shared by most of its members. These are the mental pictures of organizational reality, and form the basis of defining the right or wrong in the organization.

In an organization, for instance, if the predominant belief is that meeting the customers’ demands is essential for success, any behavior which supposedly meets these criteria is acceptable, even if it violates the established rules and procedures.

Values and beliefs focus organizational energies toward certain actions while discouraging the other behavioral patterns.

Factors Affecting the Culture

There are so many ways of examining cultural differences and their impact on international management. Culture can affect technology transfer, managerial attitudes, managerial ideology, and even business-government relations.

In overall terms, the cultural impact on international management is reflected by these basic beliefs and behaviors.

Here are some specific examples where the culture of a society can directly affect management approaches:

Centralized vs. Decentralized Decision Making

In some societies, top managers make all-important organizational decisions.

In others, these decisions are defused throughout the enterprise; middle and lower-level managers actively participate and make decisions.

Safety vs. Risk

In some societies, organizational decision-makers are risk-averse and have great difficulty with conditions of uncertainty. In others, risk-taking is encouraged, and decision making under uncertainty is common.

Individual vs. Group Rewards

In some countries, personnel who do outstanding work are given individual rewards in the form of bonuses and commissions. In others, cultural norms require group rewards, and individual rewards are frowned on.

Informal vs. Formal Procedures

In some societies, much is accomplished through informal means. In others, formal procedures are set forth and followed rigidly.

Cooperation vs. Competition

Some societies encourage cooperation between their people. Others encourage competition between their people.

High Vs. Low Organizational Loyalty

In some societies, people identify very strongly with their organization or employer. In others, people identify with their occupational groups, such as an engineer or mechanics.

Short-term vs. Long-term Horizons

Some cultures focus most heavily on short-term horizons such as short-range goals of profit and efficiency. Others are more interested in long-range goals, such as market share and technological development.

Stability vs. Innovation

The culture of some countries encourages .stability and resistance to change. The culture of others puts a high value on innovation and change.

Goals and Objectives

The culture of the organization is also affected by its goals and objectives. The strategies and procedures designed to achieve these goals and objectives of the organization also contribute to its culture.


  • Language and dialect
  • Religion
  • Wealth
  • Climate and weather
  • Dress sense and clothes-fashion
  • Level of education and literacy
  • General living standards
  • Employment regulations

These cultural differences influence the way that comparative management should be conducted.

Sometimes these factors affect international business because some international managers are unknown and unfamiliar about these factors and day to day business protocol.

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