Culture – A Definition of Term

What is culture and what are the concepts of culture? As old as the word itself (it comes from the Latin word cultura), as old is the discussion about what culture is called. We are dealing here with a rather long history of terms. Describing what culture actually is is a bit complicated and, admittedly, also a bit theoretical.

If you like to shine with specialist knowledge and want to be better prepared than others, this is the right place for you. If you don’t like to spend a lot of time on theory and are looking for practical tips for cultural preparation for studying abroad, you will find the following information in our guide texts

Cultural differences in studying abroad
Cultural shock during studies abroad
Intercultural competence through study abroad
I’m sure you’ll find it.

Culture: A wide field!

It is, of course, impossible to give a complete overview of the concept of culture here. In order to better understand cultural differences, to understand the phenomenon of the culture shock and to acquire sound intercultural competence, however, it is very helpful to think about what is commonly understood as culture and what concepts of culture there are.

Culture, or rather cultures (because „the“ culture does not exist) as such is so difficult to comprehend and describe as such, because it is not a „thing“ or a substance, but processes. Cultures are created through communication and actions, which is why they are constantly changing. Cultures are therefore not objects, but they themselves produce (among other things) such as technical achievements, literature or works of art, which thus become part of this culture.

Narrow vs. far. Closed vs. open

The word „culture“ has its origins in the Latin word cultura (maintenance, agriculture, cultivation), which in turn refers to the verb colere, with the following meanings

  1. Maintain (basic meaning)
  2. cultivate, farm, farm
  3. live in
  4. Form, decorate and ennoble
  5. worship

is derived. As you can see, we are dealing here with something man-made, designed. For this reason, culture is also commonly understood as a contrast to (unprocessed) nature. With the meanings of colere, it is also easy to see which diverse areas culture actually extends to and that this is always about the relationships that man has with himself and his environment, which he „cultivates“: Agriculture, socio-culture, culture of mind and body, and endowment of meaning (such as religion).

Tight concept of culture

For a long time, the understanding of culture has been dominated by the meaning of „educating, decorating“, whereby the other meanings have received little or no attention, whereby the term „narrowed“. In this narrow sense, culture is only the „high culture“, such as literature, art or science. Being „cultivated“ in the 18th and 19th centuries meant being „educated“ in the humanities, for example. In the „culture section“ of the newspaper, the arts section, culture is still understood in a narrower sense.

Extended concept of culture

The extended concept of culture also includes all the other levels of colere’s meaning mentioned above and refers to the entire human world, be it language, religion, ethics, technology or education systems. Within this extended concept of culture there are two different perspectives: the closed and open concept of culture.


The cultural products (language, religion, etc.) are assigned to a territory, a nation or a certain period of time and are limited to it. They are therefore closed by drawing borders (e. g. oriented to national borders). The individual cultures and their cultural products are thus, to a certain extent, packed in containers. The closed concept of culture meets the need for objective descriptiveness and unambiguousness by isolating different cultures from each other, labeling them (e. g. individualistic vs. collectivist ect.) and thus structuring them. These limitations are helpful for a rough orientation, but do not do justice to reality and promote the emergence of stereotypes and prejudices.


The open concept of culture does justice to the fact that nation-state structures are increasingly dissolving and transnational organisations are increasingly developing. Cultures „here are arbitrary, more or less large collectives (from nation states to an Internet community) that are networked and not isolated by communication. The open concept of culture is more socially oriented than spatially (politically, geographically, linguistically and historically) and best reflects the fact that cultures are in constant change and in mutual intercultural exchange. On closer inspection, therefore, they cannot be clearly distinguished from each other; because of their cross-linking, they are „fuzzy“ at their edges.

Levels of culture

In order to be able to differentiate cultures better, different levels of culture are distinguished, which are networked with each other. The closer you look at the initially homogeneous (macro) culture, the more microcultures emerge, which in turn consist of many individual idiocultures.

  1. Universalia: All societies have, for example, one language, values and traditions that are handed down from generation to generation.
  2. Cultural area: several macro-cultures,“the West“ or similar, for example with the same language, history, with a similar value system, etc.)
  3. Macroculture: Dominant majority culture: Nation, Christianity etc.
  4. Microculture: Examples include subcultures, Internet communities, etc.
  5. Idio-culture: The own culture experienced by one’s own self, e. g. as a German the own „German“ culture; the individually pronounced culture of one’s own.

It depends on the perspective!

So is the closed concept of culture wrong? No! The closed and open concept is simply two different perspectives, both of which have their advantages and disadvantages. Taken together, they complement each other perfectly. While the closed perspective is a kind of „overview“ and aims at simplification, the open perspective is a zoom-in and concentrates on the small details. While the closed perspective offers orientation, however, also promotes prejudices and stereotypes, the open perspective is more suited to real situations in their diversity and differentiation, but can also lead to a loss of orientation and to uncertainties („You don’t see the forest in front of trees“).

If you come into contact with other cultures during your studies abroad, you should try to take both perspectives and combine them with each other. Even if it can be said that a culture is at its core „collectivist“ or „individualistic“ and that this knowledge is useful for the cultural preparation for a stay abroad, these characteristics cannot simply be transferred to all areas or to all people of this culture. Above all, because different cultures can have different views on what „collectiveist“ / „individualistic“ means.