chapter
culture
Pages 1

The word ‘culture’ is probably the single most central concept in twentieth-century anthropology. It has an especially complex history, of which anthropological usage is only one small part. Etymologically it is linked to words like ‘cultivate’ and ‘cultivation’, ‘agriculture’ and ‘horticulture’. What these different words have in common is the sense of a medium for growth, a meaning quite transparent in modern biological usage where a mould or bacterium may be grown in a laboratory in an appropriate ‘culture’. In English in the seventeenth century it became common to apply this meaning metaphorically to human development, and in the eighteenth century this metaphorical meaning developed into a more general term (Williams 1983). In German (where the word was spelt first Cultur, and then Kultur), the term was used in works of speculative history from the second half of the eighteenth century and, crucially, started to be used in the plural in the sense of humanity being divided into a number of separate, distinct cultures.