Though all humans have a set of basic needs, we meet those needs in very different ways in response to environmental conditions and social circumstances. For example, consider the basic human need for shelter. In places prone to flooding, people often build their houses on stilts, constructing patios and walkways to connect their houses together. In mountainous areas, people sometimes carve their houses into cliffsides. In societies with extreme inequality, some people live in luxury highrise apartments side-by-side with people who pitch their tents on the sidewalk. Humans have even constructed a complex dwelling adapted to the conditions of space, the International Space Center.
Similarly, humans have a wide range of solutions to human needs for clothing, food, family life, health, and social order. In each society, the various solutions combine in a complex totality called culture. In this chapter, we explore the concept of culture, what it is and how to study it. Taking the need for shelter as a central example, we will see how culture is created and how it changes. We will learn about how different elements of culture interact with one another. As culture is a central concept in anthropology, our understanding of culture will guide our exploration of human lifeways throughout this textbook.