Many people confuse culture with history and vice versa. These two terms, while interrelated, are quite different. We know groups of cultures create historical events within a given geographical location but history cannot determine why certain groups of people dominate a particular region at a particular point in historical time. The culture of those occupying a particular region, instead, becomes a way of explaining why the historical events occurred based on the common interests of the people living in that region.
In general, history demonstrates the growth of a country (country is simply the term being used here to describe a given territory being occupied by a particular group of people). While cultural growth shows what sort of leisure activities the people of a particular country participate in and have as a way of identifying themselves from others they may encounter.
In prehistoric times, the idea of cultural identity was much different than it is today due to a higher degree of isolation between cultural groups. Leading into the ancient times, however, there was more interaction and commerce (or trade) and the cultural uniqueness between each group became more evident than it was during prehistoric times. This uniqueness is primarily a result of “the values and behaviors shared by a group of people, developed over times” being preserved due to the people wanting to pass their collective experiences “down from one generation to the next.” (Sayer, 2013, p. 2) In our modern day and age, for the most part, cultural differences are quickly accepted and valued for their distinct individuality. Therefore, the culture of modern day human beings is less about history or historical events and more about finding a universal identity for humankind to share and appreciate.
Furthermore, the history of a country is usually directed by rulers (or kings) and kingdoms with particular interests, either for themselves or for the people who live under their protection. In many ways, the historical moments within a country are seen as a way for that country dealing with preserving its way of life or its cultural identity. In short, history is comprised of battles, kings, landmark advancements, and monumental achievements. The history of a country boasts the king as the promoter of the culture and the maintainer of the countries way of life.
On the other hand, culture is about the making of an individual based on a common language, religion, cuisine, social habits, social structure, and even music. Each culture is made of artists, poets, dancers, and musicians. These people take the uniqueness of the individuals in their country and turn individual stories into understandable experiences all people within that culture can claim as their own. Culture is simply a way of connecting and identifying with people outside of one’s immediate kinship but still within the larger reaches of their clan.
The other aspects relating culture to history is culture is what brings certain individuals names and historical events within a country to the forefront. Many times historical events will become a way for the culture to relate to its own past history. For instance, in American culture we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr in observance of his birthday each year on the third Monday of January. King’s birthday and the Civil Right Movement are historical event but they are also observed as a remembrance of the cultural reaction between the years of 1955-1968 to the inequality of racial discrimination. The man is a historical figure and the movement is a historical event but culture is what ultimately decided who and what would be remembered. There are a number of individuals and events lost to history because the culture did not see the value in remembering either the person or the event.
It should now be easier to see how culture and history differ while at the same time influence each other.
However, it must be stated that culture is not an immediately identifiable quality when we are born. Culture is not an instinctive part of any human beings. We are not genetically predisposed to know the various aspects of the culture we are born into at the time of our birth. For example, an ethnic Chinese baby who is adopted by an ethnic German family will not grow up knowing Chinese language or customs. Instead the baby will grow up watching its adopted German family and community members carry out cultural customs rooted in German identity. Therefore, what we can learn from this analogy is that everyone informally learns their cultural identity from their childhood caregivers.
As you can imagine the idea of culture and cultural identity has changed over time. For example, during the height of the Roman Empire (~14 – 284 CE) the Romans called the Mediterranean Sea Mar Notorious or Our Sea. Their idea of their cultural identity was synonymous with the territory around them; to them they were the culture and the culture was them. In the eyes of a Roman citizen there was no other culture. Of course, this cannot be true because we know there were many ethnic cultures living within the territories conquered by Roman soldiers.
To summaries the main points about the differences between history and culture:
- In history one can see the making of a country whereas in culture one can see the making of the individual.
- History records the chronological events as they happened within a particular territorial region. Culture demonstrates the accumulation of the art, architecture, dance, and music of a particular group of people.
- History is devoted to the achievements of kings and kingdoms. Culture is specifically about developments made by individual men/women in the realm of the arts.
- Culture is learned not inherited through genetics.
- The ideas and values within of any culture will changes over time.
O’Neil, D. (2012, 04 12). Human culture: Characteristics of culture. Retrieved from http://anthro.palomar.edu/culture/culture_2.htm
Sayre, H. (2013). Discovering the humanities. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
Taflinger, R. (1996, 05 28). Human cultural evolution. Retrieved from http://public.wsu.edu/~taflinge/culture1.html