The terms that describe social behaviors and norms among different human societies can at times, be confusing. Culture is a very broad definition with an entire scientific field of study associated with it-anthropology. Customs is another term that is used to sometimes describe culture, or at least a particular part of one’s culture. There are differences between the two terms though, and they should not be used interchangeably.
The largest difference between the terms culture and customs refer to the scope of their meaning. Culture is much broader and encompasses customs, among other factors. There are many definitions of culture and different types of culture. Some practices are considered cultural universals which would be found in all societies. These include language, kinship, marriage, art, music, dance, ritual, religion, tool usage, cooking, shelter construction and the development of clothing.[i] Some of these aspects of culture may have a set of customs or norms associated with the activity, that can vary across cultures. The definition of a custom is ‘a way of behaving or a belief that has been established for a long time among a group of people.’[ii] So while the broad definition of marriage would be a cultural norm for all societies, the individual ceremonies may vary and each would be a part of the set of customs unique to most societies.
There is another aspect of culture, called material cultures that consists of the physical expressions of culture. Examples of this include technology, architecture and art. Those things that exist as principles of social, political, and institutional organization are considered the intangible cultural heritage of a society. These would include mythology, philosophy, literature, and science. Each of these aspects of culture may include distinct customs that represent the larger culture.[iii]
- History and meaning of the terms (etymology)
The modern word for culture is based upon a term used by the Roman orator Cicero in the first century when he was first writing about the soul, which he called the cultura animi. He wrote this to indicate his belief that the philosophical soul be considered the ideal for human development. In the 17th century, Samuel Pufendorf took Cicero’s metaphor and rejected the philosophical component. He defined culture as ‘all the ways in which human beings overcome their original barbarism, and through artifice, become fully human.’[iv]
A differing etymology was proposed by Edward Casey in 1996, which traces the roots of the word culture to the Latin word colere, which means ‘to inhavit, care for, till, worship,’ and the word cultus, which describes a religious cult. The combined meanings, according to Casey, “to be cultural, to have a culture, is to inhabit a place sufficiently intensive to cultivate it-to be responsible for it, to respond to it, to attend to it caringly.”[v]
Richard Velkley described culture as “originally meant the cultivation of the soul or mind, acquires most of its later modern meaning in the writings of the 18-th century German thinkers, who were on various levels developing Rousseau’s criticism of modern liberalism and Enlightenment. Thus, a contrast between culture and civilization is usually implied in these authors, even when not expressed as such.” E.B Tylor also wrote that culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Though these definitions are considered the most common ones used for the term culture, there are many others that can also be used.[vi]
In contrast to the long and varied history of the meaning and usage of the term culture, custom is much more straightforward. Its first use comes later, around the 12th century, and is derived from the Old French word costume, which meant “custom, habit, practice; clothes, dress.”[vii] There is only one alternate etymology proposed, which indicates that its meaning is synonymous with tradition, a term that has Latin roots. The original term, traderere or tradere, meant to give something for safekeeping and was initially used to describe transfers and inheritance. This term came to mean something different during the Enlightenment, when the idea of tradition was put in the context of social progress.[viii]
- How they are learned
Culture and customs, or traditions, are always learned by new members of any society. This typically occurs when they are children. Customs and traditions consist of knowledge and practices that are passed down from generation to generation. They exist as a link to the past for any society, including the pieces of their historic culture. They commonly persist in any society, even if they are impractical, simply due to their cultural importance.[ix]
Unlike a particular custom, which is considered a fixed practice, the whole culture of a society can and frequently does, change. It can respond to internal and external forces that demand a change take place. For instance, it is thought that humanity is currently going through an accelerating culture change period due to globalism. This is dictated by the expansion of international commerce, the mass media and a human population boom. Social conflict and new technologies can also produce cultural changes simply by changing social dynamics in a way that promotes new cultural models. These may accompany ideological shifts such as feminism, conservationism, the promotion of social rights, etc. Cultural ideas may also be shared between societies through diffusion or acculturation. This is something that customs are resistant to, their cultural uniqueness is celebrated simply for being something completely distinct.[x]