Nkanyiso Media

Defining culture, heritage and identity

Home  >>  Uncategorized  >>  Defining culture, heritage and identity

Defining culture, heritage and identity

On August 1, 2016, Posted by , In Uncategorized, With No Comments


Culture refers to the way of life of a specific group of people. It can be seen in ways of behaving, beliefs, values, customs followed, dress style, personal decoration like makeup and jewellery, relationships with others and special symbols and codes. Culture is passed on from one generation (parents) to the next (children). Culture is not static but always changing as each generation contributes its experience of the world and discards things that are no longer useful to them.

Culture has been called “the way of life for an entire society.” As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behavior such as law and morality, and systems of belief.

Various definitions of culture reflect differing theories for understanding, or criteria for evaluating, human activity. Edward Burnett Tylor writing from the perspective of social anthropology in the UK in 1871 described culture in the following way: “Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, 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.”

More recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2002) described culture as follows: “… culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”.

While these two definitions cover a range of meaning, they do not exhaust the many uses of the term “culture.” In 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of “culture” in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.

These definitions, and many others, provide a catalog of the elements of culture. The items cataloged (e.g., a law, a stone tool, a marriage) each have an existence and life-line of their own. They come into space-time at one set of coordinates and go out of it another. While here, they change, so that one may speak of the evolution of the law or the tool.

A culture, then, is by definition at least, a set of cultural objects. Anthropologist Leslie White asked: “What sort of objects are they? Are they physical objects? Mental objects? Both? Metaphors? Symbols? Reifications?” In Science of Culture (1949), he concluded that they are objects “sui generis”; that is, of their own kind. In trying to define that kind, he hit upon a previously unrealized aspect of symbolization, which he called “the symbolate”–an object created by the act of symbolization. He thus defined culture as “symbolates understood in an extra-somatic context.” The key to this definition is the discovery of the symbolate.

Seeking to provide a practical definition, social theorist, Peter Walters, describes culture simply as “shared schematic experience”, including, but not limited to, any of the various qualifiers (linguistic, artistic, religious, etc.) included in previous definitions.

How does culture happen?

Culture is not something you are born with. It is learned from family, school, religious teachings, television and media and the government of a country. Advertisements, magazines and movies are also powerful guides. For example American music videos promote a certain style of dress, values, expression and attitude for young people. Many young people like the cool speak of American pop music rather than talking in their home language. Schools and religious organisations also play a big role. Religion has many rituals specific to a particular culture.

South Africa has been called the rainbow nation because it is made up of so many diverse cultures. Cultural practices are how we talk and behave, the ways in which we pray, the special things we do when we have festivals, births and deaths. We have groups with different languages, religions, race, customs and traditions e.g. Zulu, Ndebele, Khoisan, Hindu, Muslim and Afrikaner people. All of these people are united by being South African and all of their ways of life form part of our country’s identity and culture. It is important to promote and be proud of our South African culture and identity. This helps South Africans to understand and respect each other and to learn from each other’s cultural practices. This is part of the healing that democracy has brought after culture was used to divide South Africans in the past. For this reason the government has a project called “Proudly South African” that encourages South Africans to value each other and the country.


A person’s identity is made up of their own character combined with their family and social roots. Identity, like culture, is ever changing. For example a woman can be a teacher, mother, wife and driver to her children. She can also be a famous politician fighting for justice or a farmer growing crops for food. She may also be involved in looking after her community or supporting the extended family. To herself she may be all of these and much more. At the same time her being a woman of a particular race or being rich or poor influences her identity.


A person’s heritage is made up of the practices and traditions that are passed on from parents to children. Heritage is also about what has been passed on from the family, community and place where people have been raised. For example a person may have grown up in a family of medical professionals or in a proudly Zulu family where the old customs are still followed. This is part of their heritage. People also have a national heritage. A person who was born in South Africa has a South African heritage. This also means they have an African heritage because they were born on this continent.

There are different types of heritage. A country’s natural heritage is its beautiful environment and natural resources like gold and water. Areas that are very special and where animals or plants are in danger of extinction like the St. Lucia Wetlands and uKhahlamba Drakensberg Parks in KwaZulu Natal are world heritage sites. They are respected and protected against harm.

Cultural heritage is formed by those things or expressions that show the creativity of people. These can be special monuments, like a building, sculpture, painting, a cave dwelling or anything important because of its history, artistic or scientific value. The styles of buildings can also be part of our cultural heritage because of their architecture, where they are built or what they were used for. Robben Island, The Cradle of Humankind at the caves of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Kromdraai in Gauteng, the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park and the ancient city of Mapungubwe in Limpopo are all examples of South Africans cultural heritage.

– See more at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/defining-culture-heritage-and-identity#sthash.I41Tx9sU.dpuf

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *