Defining Culture

I should stress that this post will not do what it says on the tin. As far as I can tell, it is actually impossible to define culture; my reason for this position being that this is exactly what I have been attempting to do recently. There is a fair reason for this; the term will no doubt come up innumerable times in my writing over the next three years, and if I can’t begin to suggest what I mean by it, it’s hardly going to make a good piece of research. The conclusion I’m coming to, however, is that the importance of looking at definitions of culture lies in understanding that it is not, and never will be, a static term.

High Culture or low culture, culture as society, culture as tradition, culture as tool – it’s no wonder really that Raymond Williams decided that the term was one of the most complex in the English language. And yet, it is so clearly taken for granted. Even as somebody who has long been a fan, an advocate, a consumer of ‘culture’, it is surprising that until I found myself in a position where I might have to define the term, I really hadn’t considered it. And how did I see culture once I began to think about this? Well, as a mixture of all the elements above, really. As someone brought up to appreciate what is most generally termed as high culture – with family visits to museums, galleries, theatres and the like being an important, if not regular, part of my childhood – I suppose these institutions and events are what would have immediately sprung to mind when asked to explain what, exactly, culture means. Yet the reason behind this PhD has always been about more than that, about both the potential for positive outcomes as a result of cultures and cultural events, and also the systems of power and control inherent in its use.

So for now, I’m starting to feel content with a level of confusion over definition. I do not, in fact, think that a singular definition of what I mean by culture – let alone what it means more generally – is particularly productive. Holding multiple understandings of the term concurrently is surely the only way I can begin to understand culture within cities; this openness is something I’ll continue to emphasise, fighting against any blinkered views that others or I myself might try to impose. As will often be the case with these posts, any input from those in similar situations is definitely appreciated!


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