What Is Culture? What Does It Do? What Should It Do?

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The concept of culture is deeply contested. Between 1920 and 1950 alone, at least one-hundred-and-fifty- seven definitions were presented (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952, 149). Having undergone dramatic transformation over the course of at least two centuries, the notion of culture is ubiquitous in political discourse yet conceptually elusive. Core debates revolve around the content of culture, its relationship to society and civilization as well as its function and role in the human condition. Having deliberately dealt vaguely with the term thus far, the aim of this chapter is to examine three related questions: Of what does culture consist? What does culture do? and What should culture do? Using eudaimonia and the normative account of social goods developed so far as reference points, I examine symbolic, functionalist and structurationalist approaches to culture in order to develop an account suitable for present analytical purposes. The account I develop is fairly sweeping and the examination of the field somewhat cursory. However, consideration of the relationship between the content of culture, its purpose, its association with society and the wholeness of ‘cultures’ suffices to open up key concerns about its current treatment by culturalists, in particular. The conclusions I draw are that: talk of ‘cultures’ should be replaced by talk of ‘culture’, with recognition of the mass of complexities which enter into our cultural lives; culture should serve particular ends; the culture of relevance to political discussion is that which shapes basic institutions and that these institutions should be guided by three core values. In essence, I defend a normative functionalist account in which culture should serve certain ends. I begin by examining the history of the concept of culture.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEvaluating Culture
Subtitle of host publicationWell-Being, Institutions and Circumstance
EditorsMatthew Thomas Johnson
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781137313799
ISBN (Print)9781349333769, 9780230296565
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2013
Externally publishedYes


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