The word culture comes from the Latin root colere, to inhabit, cultivate, or honor. In general it refers to human activity; different definitions of culture reflect different theories for understanding, or criteria for valuing, human activity. In 1952 Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of over 200 different definitions of culture in their book, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.
The popular use of the word culture in many Western societies reflects the fact that these societies are stratified. Many use the word "culture" to refer to elite consumption goods and activities such as fine cuisine, art, and music. Some label this as "high" culture to distinguish it from "low" culture, meaning non-elite consumption goods and activities.
18th and early 19th century scholars, and many people today, often identified culture with "civilization" and opposed both to "nature." Thus, people lacking elements of "high culture" were often considered to be more "natural," and elements of high culture were often critized, or defended, for repressing human nature.
By the late nineteenth century, anthropologists argued for a broader definition of culture that they could apply to a wide variety of societies, they began to argue that culture is human nature, and is rooted in the universal human capacity to classify experiences, and encode and communicate them symbolically. Consequently, people living apart from one another develop unique cultures, but elements of different cultures can easily spread from one group of people to another. Anthropologists have thus had to develop methodologically and theoretically useful definitions of the word. Technically, anthropologists distinguish between material culture and symbolic culture, not only because each reflects different kinds of human activity but because they consitute different kinds of data that require different methodologies. As a rule, archeologists focus on material culture, and cultural anthropologists focus on symbolic culture, although ultimately both groups are interested in the relationship between these two dimensions. Moreover, anthropologists understand "culture" to refer not only to consumption goods, but to the general processes by which such goods are produced and given meaning, and the social relationships and practices in which such objects and processes are embedded.
In the early twentieth century anthropologists understood culture to refer not to a set of discrete products or activities (whether material or symbolic) but rather to underlying patterns of products and activities. Moreover, they assumed that such patterns were clearly bounded (thus, some people confuse "culture" for the society that has a particular culture). In smaller societies in which people were divided by age, gender, household, and descent group, anthropologists believed that people more or less shared the same set of values and conventions. In larger societies in which people were further divided by region, race or ethnicity, and class, they believed that members of the same society often had highly contrasting values and conventions. They thus used the term subculture to identify the cultures of parts of larger societies. Since subcultures reflect the position of a segment of society vis a vis other segments and the society as a whole, they often reveal processes of domination and resistance.
Cultural studies developed in the late 20th century, in part through the reintroduction of Marxist thought in sociology, and in part through the articulation of sociology and other academic disciplines such as literary criticism, in order to focus on the analysis of subcultures in capitalist societies. Following the non-anthropological tradition, cultural studies generally focus on the study of consumption goods (such as fashion, art, and literature). Because the 18th and 19th century distinction between "high" and "low" culture is not appropriate to the mass-produced and mass-marketed consumption goods with which cultural studies is concerned, these scholars refer instead to popular culture.
Today some anthropologists have joined the project of cultural studies. Most, however, reject the identification of culture with consumption goods. Furthermore, many now reject the notion of culture as bounded, and consequently reject the notion of subculture. Instead, they see culture as a complex web of shifting patterns that link people in different locales, and link social formations of different scales.
(see Culture theory)