Culture Defined

“The role of culture is that it’s the form through which we as a society reflect on who we are, where we’ve been, where we hope to be.”
~ Wendell Pierce

What is the broad definition of culture?

As mentioned above, culture is a complex combination of beliefs, values, traditions, and ways of life shared by a people group.

We tend to equate culture only with ethnicity. However, everywhere people gather, culture is cultivated. And while culture and ethnicity are certainly entwined, we also find distinct cultures form within cities, neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces, community associations, religious organizations, activism work, and family and friend groups.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as:

  1. “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group”
  2. “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”
  3. the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

Material culture refers to the objects or belongings of a group of people. Stores, cars, phones and physical structures where people worship like mosques or churches are all part of material culture.

Non-material culture, in comparison to material culture, refers to the ideas, attitudes, values, norms and beliefs of a people group.

Let’s Look at The Interconnection Of Culture and Well-Being

  • Culture and belonging. When we embrace a culture, our sense of belonging and purpose is increased. As we talked about in Module three: Unpacking our Biases, as humans we create helpful categories to make sense of the world around us. These categories then help us to create meaning while discovering our place in society. Identity with culture is intrinsic to belonging.
    Culture isn’t relegated to our ancestry, it’s much broader. Every people group has a distinct culture whether it’s a family, an organization, a church community, a group of people who have immigrated from the same country, people who love The Grateful Dead, or even a group of friends who play Dungeons and Dragons every Saturday.
  • Shared culture connects people. When we experience shared culture, we feel connected to others, and less alone. As we have covered in other parts of this training, connection and interconnection are essential elements of well-being. We will explore different aspects of culture including popular culture, subcultures, and counterculture movements.
  • Consider your own personal connection to culture. Whether that culture is related to your national culture or a subculture you are involved in, how important is that culture to your well-being? How can you nurture your connection to culture?

After we have explored our own connection to culture, we want to increase our acceptance for other cultures through exploring:

  • Why it is essential that in peer support we honour those who identify with cultures that are different from our own, engaging them with humility and deep respect.
  • How disconnection from one’s culture combined with pressure to blend in with a dominant culture, can be very detrimental to one’s well-being.
  • Aspects of Canada’s colonization that have stolen culture from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples, and what we can do to support reconciliation.

We begin with the WHY: the importance of culture.

Then we will move into the HOW: implementing culturally humble practices.

What is Culture?

Culture is learned. As time passes, and current events become history, culture evolves. Culture is like a pair of glasses that influences the way we see and experience the world.

Consider the previous module where we covered worldview as well as categories and containers, and let’s link those concepts to culture. Remember, we create categories and containers to make sense of the world around us. And our worldview is the cumulative sum of all our life experiences. Culture and worldview are very intertwined; a person’s culture makes a huge impact on how they experience and function in the world. The categories we form will be different depending on the culture in which we are immersed.

In the BCcampus textbook Introduction to Sociology – 2nd Canadian Edition, the author William Little states the following in the “what is culture” section:

Firstly, almost every human behaviour, from shopping to marriage to expressions of feelings, is learned. Secondly, culture is innovative. The existence of different cultural practices reveals the way in which societies find different solutions to real life problems…Culture is, therefore, key to the way humans, as a species, have successfully adapted to the environment. The existence of different cultures refers to the different means by which humans use innovation to free themselves from biological and environmental constraints. Thirdly, culture is also restraining. Cultures retain their distinctive patterns through time.” This means that the culture retains its uniqueness even amidst large global changes. (2016)

Historical events can have long-term impact on the culture of a people group. When an event occurs that is shared by many in a people group, together the people create meaning from the event. These events affect collective norms, social practice, and belief systems.

History and lived experience leads to deep-seated beliefs, and the development of worldview. An essential way to understand a particular culture is to look at its history.

As you can imagine, storytelling is an important part of culture. Storytelling is essentially the way we make meaning from past experiences and then share that meaning with others. Storytelling keeps culture alive through the passing down of important meanings from one generation to the next.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of History website says that “history builds empathy through studying the lives and struggles of others. The website goes on to state,

Studying the diversity of human experience helps us appreciate cultures, ideas, and traditions that are not our own – and to recognize them as meaningful products of specific times and places. History helps us realize how different our lived experience is from that of our ancestors, yet how similar we are in our goals and values.

For Reflection

  • What is a culture you identify with?
  • How do you see history affecting the culture of that group?


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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