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Within ecological anthropology there is a tendency to describe culture as a "tool" used by society to maintain its adaptation to nature. This "tool" comprises concrete, physical tools, but also knowledge, skills and forms of organization. A classical definition of this kind was offered by Rappaport (1968 [1980]: 233). According to this definition, culture is

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The term "culture" traces its roots back to German Romanticism and 's idea of the (the "spirit" of a people), which was adapted for anthropological use by . From Bastian the term diffused (via ) into British anthropology (where it never received great prominence), and (via ) into American anthropology (where it came to define the very subject-matter of ). Nevertheless, in one of the many paradoxical turns of the history of anthropology, it is Tylor's definition that is most often cited as classical.

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A number of anthropologists have argued for a purely . The idea is here that "culture" may be limited to the communicative and meaningful aspects of social life: from language to the meaning carried by symbols, persons, actions and events. This definition has its roots in the American (see ). It was formalized in 1952 by and in their famous compilation of 162 definitions of culture that were current in the anthropological literature at the time. In an attempt to bring order into this definitional jungle, the authors suggested that the subject matter of anthropology be culture, defined as the symbolic, linguistic and meaningful aspects of human collectivities. Sociology, in contrast, was to concern itself with "society", i.e. social organization, social interaction etc. In formulating this "division of labor" between anthropology and sociology, the influence of the sociologist (who cooperated extensively with Kroeber and Kluckhohn) is clearly visible.

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