New Horizons in Institutional and Evolutionary Economics series
Chapter 2: The Meaning of Culture
The word ‘culture’, never a technical term with a formal definition, has acquired many layers of meaning. In attempting to define culture, the anthropologists Kroeber and Kluckhohn famously came up with over a hundred different ways in which the word has been used; according to Raymond Williams, it is among the most complicated words in the English language (Kroeber and Kluckhohn, 1952; Williams, 1988). The difficulties in finding a neat definition are clear, and one might be inclined to avoid a word with such a potential for confusion. To do so would be hasty, as culture is too important to be overlooked. Efforts to expunge the word would be unsuccessful, for it permeates both everyday language and academic debate. If one knows its main uses, then a single definition is unnecessary. The various meanings of culture testify to its subtlety and depth. Social sciences have complex, protean subject matter, and social or cultural theory should be correspondingly rich. As long as the meanings of culture do not get out of hand, its plurality can be beneficial and dissuade us from simplistic theorising. Yet a plethora of connotations may lead to inconsistencies: unless authors specify what they mean by culture, their arguments may be loose and imprecise. Possible misunderstandings include whether culture covers just the arts or a whole way of life, whether it is confined to ideas or embraces physical activities, whether or not it exerts a causal influence on the material world, whether it is purely descriptive or entails...
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