The Challenges of Defining Culture

With Indigenous People’s Day protests filling space in our country every October, this quote stood out to me as a good reminder: “We should accept, frankly, that if we extend our culture we shall change it: some of it offered will be rejected, other parts will be radically criticized” (Williams 1958: 16). From the readings this week regarding cultural studies, this resonated with me as the underlying objective of studying culture.


What I found most similar between these key theorists in the work of cultural analysis was this overarching conceptualization that culture is a symbolic, common knowledge derived from what humans think, do and produce through experiences. Still even for me, this is too reductionistic as a definition. As laid out by the many theorists heralding from the cultural studies paradigm, culture seems too complex due to its state of being — like Stuart Hall perfectly states, “a site of convergent interests” (Hall 1980: 35). From the interpretive approach to reading culture as a text in compared to a structuralist perspective that see culture as an influencing superstructure that determines our experiences, I think that the diversity speaks for the complexity of culture. Because of this complexity, the challenges of defining culture seem inherently intertwined with its challenges. If anything, to define a concept that seeks to understand ever-changing processes reeks of endless ambiguity. Like communication which Peters regards as a “rich tangle of intellectual and cultural strands”, culture will always change because of the differences we experience over time and space intertwined with the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, and class (Peters 1999: 2). As we explore the current dilemmas across different paradigms of studying culture, I will refer to the example of Indigenous People’s Day as a way for us to critically think through culture. Before exploring the problematics of these definitions of culture, I clarify the dominating definitions of culture.

Rooted within a British cultural studies perspective, Williams defines culture in two major senses. In one way, Williams argues that culture is a whole way of life through shared common meanings. Secondarily, Williams also suggests that culture is the special processes of discovery and creative effort (Williams 1958: 5). Through these definitions, he believes that we need to clear and open the channels of expression and communication to allow the entirety of life into self-consciousness, self-determination and meaning because in his perspective, cultural growth relies on the continuous active debate and amendment process for common acceptance (Williams 1958: 9, 16). Opening our channels of expression and communication seems to be a call-to-action in the way we think about the ways of paying for our common services which will guarantee proper freedom to those who actually provide the service, while protecting them and us against a dominating minority whether political or financial (Williams 1958: 17). The most interesting aspect of William’s argument for interpretive culture analysis is the acknowledgements for the underlying structures that impact culture. For instance, he references his experiences growing up in a countryside, where he watched the modes of change (learning new skills, relationship shifts, industrial labor changes). These modes of change signified clear economic structural changes within his experiences that he indicates influences the surrounding culture. However, his experiences clearly indicate that these changes are a part of social organization, which economic change clearly affects. Williams recognizes the relationship between culture and production. He acknowledges the cyclical reproduction of the dominating ideological culture that stems from institutions like academia, which he deems are in “no sense the sole product of the commercial middle class.” Rather, the “special processes of discovery and creative effort” produced aligns with these ruling class ideologies and subsequently in a very Brave New World, Huxley-sense or as Gramsci would argue, these working middle class men relinquish consent and end up taking pride in the very class and system that had restricted and excluded them from culture (Williams 1958: 7-8). Revisiting the desire for people to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, our example demonstrates this exclusion from culture and this need for change that Williams mentions. On one hand, some see Christopher Columbus as the man who founded America. Yet, this holiday also marginalizes the natives of America who see this as a celebration of Western colonialism, the enslaved transatlantic trade of people, and the genocide of indigenous people. When we consider the implications of naming a day in honor of a pioneer of European colonialism, we can recognize this exclusion. Through Williams, this example implies that these divisions prevent cultural growth. In this example, I do not believe that a semiotic change from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day will resolve the systemic marginalization and exclusivity in American white culture, but I can align with Williams in that this change from bridging the gap between high and low culture could certainly suffice as a starting point.


In the perspective of American cultural studies, Clifford Geertz argues that the concept of culture stems from a Max Weber quote that, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” Though his views stem from European theory, Geertz develops his own definition of culture as those webs of significance, a public and symbolic system of meanings. In this view, he reinforces that culture is not a matter of power, but rather a context in which something can be thickly described through interpretation. His conclusion that the culture of people is an ensemble of texts which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong emphasizes interpretive approaches to cultural theory (Geertz 1973: 452). Ultimately, Geertz seems to agree with Williams that culture is a collection of meaning, but in contrast, prioritizes the semiotic significance of culture rather than the power implications that flow between high culture of the hegemonic elites to ordinary culture within everyday interactions. Using Geertz’s definition of culture, we are restricted to a pigeonholed view that the implications of power that is deeply intertwined with identity negotiation is insignificant in regards to the debate over the naming of this national holiday.

Thus, we are left with the task to uncover how to improve this limitation. With these similar, yet competing views sieving through intellectual accounts of the terminology culture, Stuart Hall precedes them through exploring the advantages and weaknesses of cultural studies. Hall argues that “no single unproblematic definition of culture” exists and that culture remains a complex “site of convergent interests” (Hall 1980: 35). Revolving around ideology in that culture holds the power to create and produce experience, structuralism combats theorists heralding from the culturalism paradigm, a view that interweaves all social practices with the belief that human experience creates culture. Demonstrating the complexity of culture, Hall sees bridging the gap between these views as the opportunity that may supersede the “endless oscillations between idealism and reductionism” (Hall 1980: 32). In a Western-white-male dominating country, a symbolic name change could resemble the start to expanding culture by including other Americans in the discourse. Yet to dream for this idealism, we must critically focus on the structural implications as well. Only when we imagine an alternative that interpretively understands common meanings, but also analyzes the underlying structures that divide us, we can move closer to reaching a consensus on what culture is and its ever-changing role in society. #decolonizethisplace

Over the two years that I participated in this event, I conducted ethnographic research on this event and presented my findings in a creative activism seminar. You can find the slide deck for this presentation here:

UPDATE: After three years of the Anti-Columbus Day Tours, New York City has met the demand to take down the racist Theodore Roosevelt statue. Read more:



Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected essays. Chapter 1: Thick Description, Chapter 15: Notes on the Balinese cockfights.

Hall, St. (1980). Cultural studies: Two paradigms from Media, Culture and Society, Vol. 2.

Peters, J. D. (1999). Speaking Into the Air. University of Chicago Press.

Williams, R. (1958). Culture is Ordinary.

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