Personal tools

Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Centre for the Study of Culture and Society

You are here: Home / Courses / Undergraduate Courses / Paper 1. Introduction to Cultural Studies / 1. The Concept of Culture

1. The Concept of Culture

This section will look at the various meanings associated with the word ‘culture' and explore ways of understanding the relationship between culture and society. The lesson will take you through a discussion of the following topics:

i. meanings and usages commonly associated with the word 'culture'
ii. range of practices generally denoted by the word 'culture'
iii. history of its usage in English language
iv. new questions for the study of culture in our own context

What is Culture?

What do we understand by the word ‘culture’ today?
When does something become ‘cultural’?
What do we understand when someone talks of ‘cultural events’?

Let us look at the section ‘In the City’ in the Deccan Herald, where events are listed. These include dance programmes, announcements of exhibitions in art galleries, music concerts, religious programmes and book release functions. If we ask right-wing political activists who protested against the film Fire or the film Girlfriend what ‘culture’ might be, they would come up with a definition of ‘culture’ that links it to our ‘tradition’ and ‘nation’ (Please take a look at the CSCS Fire Dossier to know more about the controversy and debates around the film)

Let us look at this excerpt from the Lonely Planet description of 'Indian Culture':
Indian art is basically religious in its themes and developments, and its appreciation requires at least some background knowledge of the country's faiths. The highlights include classical Indian dance, Hindu temple architecture and sculpture (where one begins and the other ends is often hard to define), the military and urban architecture of the Mughals, miniature painting, and mesmeric Indian music. Of course, India's creativity continues to thrive, its most lively contemporary expression being filmi culture.
Religion, cultural diversity, food, classical Indian dance, music, temples, sculpture and architecture, all denote "Indian culture". If you read these lines carefully, you will also notice that these are the descriptions that make India an ancient cultural space. The only way India’s 'creativity continues to thrive’ is through its ‘filmi culture’.

These statements clearly reveal not only the presuppositions being made about India, its past heritage and its current ‘filmi culture’ but also the assumption that culture refers to cultural artefacts. From these statements we get an idea of the commonly held notions about culture.
Within the academic disciplines, however, the word ‘culture’ may be used in more specific ways than this.

For example, in anthropology, ‘culture’ has the specific connotation of ‘a way of life’, and refers to practices of specific groups of people. Let us now try to figure out what we mean by culture in our everyday conversations. Where do we see the word ‘culture’ being used?




• Activity

> What are the things that you are likely to describe as ‘cultural’? What do they say about some commonly held views about ‘culture’? Let us now list some common associations that come to our mind when we talk of ‘culture’

Culture: - distinguishes human beings from animals - refers to music, dance, literature, architecture and other creative activities - suggests tradition and heritage - denotes civilization - indicates the commonly shared ideas and practices of a group of people - suggests diversity We also think of a variety of activities as ‘cultural’. For example, i. A ‘cultural event’ in a college would consist of various activities: Western music, Indian classical music, dance, dumb charades, Mad Ads, personality contests, fashion parades and cooking competitions. ii. When we speak of people of other religions, other languages, we tend to see them as ‘culturally’ different from us. iii. Sometimes in public gatherings such as protest marches, we see the use of different kinds of costumes and other markers in order to indicate the ‘cultural diversity’ of the participating groups, or to appeal to certain sections of the populations. iv. The ‘culture’ and heritage of a nation have been a matter of pride for the people of the nation. When we think of ‘Bharata Natyam’, of a woman in a sari, our great temples, of the Taj Mahal, we are reminded of the culture of our nation. These are only the immediate associations that we make with the word ‘culture’.

However, we are also aware of other contexts where the word ‘culture’ is used. We see photographs in newspapers and TV coverage of protests where claims are made in the name of culture. We come across references to ‘culture wars’ between different groups of people.

Often communal conflicts are seen as conflicts generated by the difference between various religious communities. Click on the following links to refresh your memory of the recent cultural conflicts: Click here for pictures of the demolition of Babri Masjid Also see images of communal conflict from Godhra. Let us try to understand the wide range of meanings associated with the word ‘culture’ by learning about the history of its usage. In his Keywords, the English critic Raymond Williams gives us a detailed account of the history of the word ‘culture’. According to him ‘Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.’ If the word ‘culture’ is so complicated and has meant different things during the past few centuries, it is important to analyse those activities and practices that are understood as belonging to the ‘cultural’ realm.


• Reading 1:

Raymond Williams, ‘Culture’, Keywords (See Williams on Culture) Let us now turn to the entry on ‘culture’ in Williams’ Keywords. The purpose of reading this text is not to arrive at a new definition of the word ‘culture’ but to try and understand how the term has been used in the past in different locations, and what kind of meanings get added to it today.
> Raymond Williams, ‘Culture’, Keywords (See Williams on Culture) Let us now turn to the entry on ‘culture’ in Williams’ Keywords. The purpose of reading this text is not to arrive at a new definition of the word ‘culture’ but to try and understand how the term has been used in the past in different locations, and what kind of meanings get added to it today.


It is clear from this that the term did not always mean all the things that we commonly associate with ‘culture’. To quote Williams again, "as an independent noun, an abstract process or the product of such a process, [the term] is not important before late 18th century" (Williams, ‘Culture’, Keywords) and is not common before the mid-19th century.

Let us now look at the various meanings of the word ‘culture’ that Williams includes in this entry:
Culture and Cultivation:
Earlier use of the word culture had to do with the idea of ‘cultivation’. We can see traces of this usage in the context of microbiology and biotechnology:
For example,
"Diagnostic tests available for influenza include viral culture, serology and rapid antigen testing" (Microbiology).
"We deliver pure cultures to industry and research purposes. Identification of strains also belongs to our services" (from a biotechnological firm).

Culture and Civilization:
Williams points out that by the middle of the 18th century, the term ‘culture’ came to be used as a synonym for ‘civilization’. To be ‘civilized’ or ‘cultured’ meant ‘to be well-mannered’, to know how to appreciate art, music and literature. We come across a similar use of the term even today. The reference here is often to the individual. With industrialization, all those things associated with the ‘mechanical’ are seen as opposed to the ‘cultural’. This gives rise to some kind of distinction between the ‘spiritual, inner, cultural’ attributes of an individual/people and the ‘mechanical, outer, material’ realms they inhabit to which the tag of ‘civilisation’ gets attached. Romantic poets like Wordsworth who are bent on improving the relationship of the mind with Nature seem to be addressing such a distinction. In Williams’ categorization, this is an understanding of culture as an "abstract noun which describes a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development" and can be traced to the 18th century.

Culture as a Way of Life:
Williams identifies another area of usage for the word culture: it is the independent noun, whether used generally or specifically, which indicates a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, a group, or humanity in general.
Our contemporary use of such terms as ‘folk culture’, ‘Indian culture’, ‘tribal culture’, ‘modern culture’ belong to the above category.

Click on anthropology to understand how this usage has evolved.

Williams suggests that the earliest uses of ‘culture’ to describe ways of life, especially of other groups of people, depended heavily on ideas of human development, from the stage of "savagery through domestication to freedom".
Culture and the Representational Practices:
Recent attempts at theorizing ‘culture’ question such divisions that demarcate the realm of culture into the more individualistic ‘inner’, ‘spiritual’ world of aesthetics and the more ‘outer’, practice-oriented, group-related ‘way of life’.

Williams himself sees an important difference in the meanings that the term has acquired within various disciplinary contexts:

It is especially interesting that in archaeology and in cultural anthropology the reference to culture is primarily to material production, while in history and cultural studies the reference is primarily to signifying or symbolic systems. This often confuses but even more often conceals the central question of the relations between "material and symbolic production, which in some recent argument -- cf. ‘my own Culture’ -- have always to be related rather than contrasted". (In Williams on Culture)

This move to see culture as primarily referring to ‘signifying or symbolic systems’ also indicates a shift in emphasis as a shift from looking at products of culture to the processes of such a production. This also clubs, as Williams rightly points out, the material and the symbolic systems. If you are not familiar with the terms ‘sign’, ‘signifying system’, ‘semiotics’, you could click on the following link: see link
(Extra Reading: Those of you who wish to explore the relationship between ‘sign’, ‘signified’ and the ‘signifier’, language and speech might want to read Roland Barthes’ Elements of Semiology. Clicking on the following link will take you to the book. See link)

Stuart Hall, who was instrumental in creating a new space for the study of culture, thinks that it is important to understand the relationship between signs, systems of signs and the concepts that a culture share. This is what he has to say about signs in a book edited by him, called Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices:

Signs are organized into languages and it is the existence of common languages which enable us to translate our thoughts (concepts) into words, sounds and images, and then to use these, operating as a language, to express meanings and communicate thoughts to other people. (Hall 1997, 18)
We must, however, remember that when he uses the term ‘language’, he means more than the written or spoken language and the signs used by that language. Following semiotics, he also suggests that ‘visual images, whether produced by hand, mechanical, electronic, digital or some other means, when they are used to express meaning’ (Hall, 18-19) are the components of a language because they also contribute to the process of making meanings. All these are included in a system of representation.
Stuart Hall also argues that one way of thinking about culture in our own world, ‘is in terms of shared conceptual maps, shared language systems and the codes which govern the relationships of translation between them’ (Hall, 21; emphasis in the original). If we accept that people who have a common cultural background share ideas and concepts, then we understand the need to look at cultural practices in our world in ways quite different from the ones that we are so far used to. This understanding of ‘culture’ also helps us figure out the complex relationship between representations of culture during the colonial period and the struggle of the colonized to come up with their own notions of what their culture is and what it ought to be.

Let us now see the connotations of the word ‘culture’ both in the past and in the present.

Text 1 - Anthropology by Raymond Williams

Text 2- Civilisation by Raymond Williams

Text 3- Criticism by Raymond Williams

Text 4- Culture by Raymond Williams


• Reading 2:


Tejaswini Niranjana, P.Sudhir and Vivek Dhareshwar ed.,"Introduction", Interrogating Modernity

Read the first seven pages of "Introduction", Interrogating Modernity carefully.
The editors seem to share Hall’s understanding of culture, because they also speak of it as "comprising a variety of signifying practices".

However, they think this understanding is used to both explain a certain definition that ‘Indian Culture’ seems to have acquired during the colonial period, and its connotations today: "Culture has inevitably meant in our context the monuments of antiquity, the temple sculpture of a glorious past, the texts of ancient scriptures, all ‘the wonder that was’" (Niranjana, P.Sudhir and Vivek Dhareshwar 1993, 1).

This understanding of Indian culture has continued even to this day. Just a cursory glance at texts, practices, art and artefacts that get included under this large category ‘Indian Culture’ will indicate the importance of this observation.

If you click on the following link, you will see a direct correspondence between what the quotation suggests and the associations normally made when someone uses the term Indian Culture.

We need to ask whether such a homogenised description of culture indeed does justice to the complexity of the term ‘culture’. Moreover, if we take into consideration the signifying practices involved in the production of culture, we realise that a number of practices that we ordinarily would not consider part of ‘our’ culture need to be studied as cultural practices.
The essay lists the following as constituting ‘our culture’:
Hindi cinema and its star system, the rath yatra and the demand for a temple at Ayodhya, the proposed Disneyland in Haryana, the devotional fervour aroused by the Ramayana on television, Madonna and Michael Jackson in middle-class homes, the folklorization of ‘rural India’ for elite consumption, or ‘ethnic’ Rajasthani-Gujarati clothes on South Indian women. And not so insistently visible: the demands for regional autonomy; the growth of the women’s movement; the Dalit struggles for the invention of alternate traditions, both cultural and political; the non-conventional left’s attempts to consolidate a lower class/caste base; the questioning of the concept of ‘secularism’ from both right and left; or even the formation of ‘modern’ communal identities. (Niranjana, P. Sudhir and Vivek Dhareshwar, 1)

Click here for the file


• Activity II: 


Politics of Culture:
> Politics of Culture:
  1. Can you come up with your own example that would fit this description of culture? Why do you consider this example as a ‘cultural practice’? Explain.

Why do the authors speak of ‘the folklorization of ‘rural India’ for elite consumption’. Can you think of any pictorial representation that would substantiate this statement? Write a paragraph explaining why you think it fits this description of ‘folklorization of ‘rural India’’?

  1. Click on the following links and read them carefully. See link 1 and See Link 2

What are the assumptions about ‘Indian Culture’ in these two newspaper clippings? What would be the major difference between an ‘Apna Utsav’ and a ‘Beauty Pageant’? Would you say that both these are ‘contemporary cultural practices’? Comment on the use of the term ‘culture’ in both these passages. Can you relate these two texts with the excerpt from Interrogating Modernity?

Politics of Culture: The excerpt from Interrogating Modernity also includes another list of things that belong to the realm of ‘cultural practices’ but are normally not noticed as such. They mention the following things: - the demands for regional autonomy - the growth of the women’s movement - the Dalit struggles for the invention of alternative traditions, both cultural and political - the non-conventional left’s attempts to consolidate a lower class/caste base - the questioning of the concept of ‘secularism’ from both right and left - the formation of ‘modern’ communal identities Take a look at the following picture: Picture Does the image have anything to do with ‘culture’ or ‘politics’? Or is it an image that tells you more about the ‘women’s movement’ in India? Who are these women? What are they protesting against? Read this article from the Hindu: Article You will realise now that there are several issues raised by this incident that involved a 30 year-old Manipuri woman called Manorama. The incident raises questions about gender, politics, and gives us an idea about the movements for human rights. It challenges monocultural understanding of ‘Indian Culture’. We are now in a better position to understand this excerpt from Interrogating Modernity: the dominant ideology attempts to freeze the conflictual and contestatory process of meaning production in order to consolidate its own hegemony which is in a way nothing but social meaning presenting itself as shared and binding. What we would like to claim here is that the work of cultural interpretation- whether academic or ‘popular’- is continuous with and implicated in this process of producing meaning. Viewed thus, culture is pre-eminently the site of the political. Interpretation, whether employed in the interests of the dominant groups or towards undoing the hegemonic culture, needs to be recognized as a political activity (p. 6). Studying culture, then, involves studying the processes that determine how we make sense of the events and practices around us. Both academic disciplines as well as popular practices contribute to these meaning making processes. If the less visible cultural practices ‘"ppear at the intersections of various discourses, including those of gender, class, caste and religion" and make use of ‘traditional’ as well as new media, if they constantly redefine the ‘national’, ‘global’ and the ‘regional’ we need to explore ways of analysing these practices. This kind of critical interpretation of contemporary practices that include both the ‘cultural’ and the ‘political’ will have a bearing on the way we engage with academic disciplines such as sociology or history. For example, a study of caste would include an analysis of the contemporary struggle by the Dalit groups to ‘elaborate their own political agendas’, a study of ‘gender’ would include not just a study of the women’s movement, but also those processes that contribute to our notions of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’(You will read more about this in the module on masculinity and femininity). It is only then that we can understand cultural practice as "a realm where one engages with and elaborates a politics".


Document Actions

Research Programmes