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What is culture?


Explanations > Culture > What is culture

Definitions | Culture as shared meaning | Culture as behavioral rules | So what?



Here are two good definitions by two people who should know. Geert Hofstede defined a very common set of models for international cultures, whilst Edgar Schein is an authority on a several topics and has written one of the best books on organizational culture.

“Culture is the collective programming of the human mind that distinguishes the members of one human group from those of another. Culture in this sense is a system of collectively held values.” -- Geert Hofstede

“Culture is the deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organization, that operate unconsciously and define in a basic ‘taken for granted’ fashion an organization's view of its self and its environment.” -- Edgar Schein

A simpler definition

A simple way of defining culture is:

"Culture is a system for differentiating between in-group and out-group people."

Culture is what keeps people together, so you could even say:

"Culture is social glue."

Culture as shared meaning

Culture is very much about groups, and a basic need of groups is to be able to communicate, both at a superficial level (for which ordinary language largely suffices) and also at a deeper level of meaning.

At this deeper level, words, actions and things can become imbued with special and specific meaning for the group, for example:

  • A group-specific jargon and language, for example derogatory descriptors of outsiders.
  • Rituals for greetings, meetings, punishments and other group processes.
  • Artwork and artifacts that symbolize and remind the group of their history.
  • People and roles that help share

Culture as behavioral rules

When a group of people are to exist together, they need a set of rules, or social norms, that helps everyone know what to do in various circumstances, from arguing with one another to dealing with outsiders.

These rules help to propagate the shared meaning and also use the systems of meaning to make sense of what is happening and what is done.

So what?

If you can understand a culture, then you have some chance of interacting successfully with it, and maybe even changing it (although this is notoriously difficult).

See also

Beliefs, Values, Groups, Theories about conforming


Brown, A., Organizational Culture, Pitman, London, 1995

Schein, E., Organizational Culture and Leadership, (Jossey-Bass Psychology Series, 1994


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