What the heck is “Culture”, anyway?

“Culture” is such a useful word, and so hard to pin down. Often, when discussions of organizational or community culture come up, people get lost in a big long discussion of “what is culture”. A couple of years ago, I was reading a fascinating book Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation by Michael Agar, and I came across the following paragraph:

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior, acquired and transmitted by symbols constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (I.e, historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action. [Kluckhohn and Kroeber]

I had to put the book down, take deep breaths, and say “why didn’t I read this book 15 years ago?” because it moved “culture” from the vagueness of “I know it when I see it” to something I could clearly talk about.  In particular,  this definition makes it clear that “culture” is BOTH emergent from behavior  and the rules for the behavior, constantly in negotiation with each other.

So, culture is stories, culture is what we’re conveying when we say “That’s not what we do around here”, culture is the material objects we surround ourselves with,  culture is memory made public  …  all of those partial ways  of grasping at describing what culture is, and many more, are embedded and implied in that paragraph.

Since that day,  I have found myself going back to my notes and quoting this paragraph over and over again, and I’m putting it here because that will make it easy for me to find for the next 17 times I want to talk about “what the heck is culture anyway?”