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Cultural Traits

Cultural Traits

You went for a burger at a local fast-food restaurant. The whole time, that annoying jingle from their ads was playing in your mind. While you munched on your fries, you remembered how your grandparents would take you there when you were a small child.

Turns out that when you left, though you probably weren't healthier than went you went in, you had participated in a cultural complex with its own set of specific cultural traits. In fact, you had consumed a cultural artifact created by a sociofact, and this had triggered a mentifact. Curious?

Cultural Traits Definition

"Culture" is a pretty abstract and general term. We can make it more concrete by referring to the concept of the cultural complex with its set of associated traits.

Cultural Traits are the individual components of a cultural complex and may be mentifacts, artifacts, or sociofacts.

Let's use a brief example to see how these terms work together.

Eating at McDonald's is an important part of culture in the US. Within the broader scope of food culture in the US, we can consider eating at McDonald's as a cultural complex. It is a cultural activity and tradition that many people practice and pass down to the next generation. The cultural traits of this activity include material artifacts such as the Golden Arches, Ronald McDonald, the Big Mac, and so forth, mentifacts such as taste, convenience, personal and group significance, associated emotions and memories, etc., and sociofacts such as McDonald's as an institution that, like many corporations, has a large influence on "fast food culture."

Cultural Trait Importance

The importance of cultural traits cannot be understated. They are the building blocks of culture and they function together to shape cultural identity and the cultural landscape.

Think about an old barn in a Pennsylvania cornfield. It is part of the cultural landscape and of the identity of Pennsylvania farming, and it has many cultural traits. These include all the functions and meanings of the barn, from its architectural style to its history, its location on the farm, to the lumber used to construct it. The barn's mentifacts, artifacts, and sociofacts all work together and interconnect with other cultural complexes in what Clifford Geertz called "webs of significance."1

Now take the Pennsylvania barn cultural complex and connect it to untold millions of other cultural complexes and you end up with "American culture." As the building blocks of culture, you can see how important cultural traits are in supporting cultural identities and creating the entire US cultural landscape (or the cultural landscape of any country).

Cultural Traits Pennsylvania barn StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Pennsylvania barn is a well-known type of US folk architecture. This one is found in a cultural park in Ulster, UK

Characteristics of Cultural Traits

Here are some general characteristics of cultural traits, broken down into their three categories.

Characteristics of Mentifacts

Mentifacts are intangible. They are manifested as images, words, and other symbols and signs. They are often arranged in systems such as spoken language or musical notation.

Mentifacts are primary. They form the base layer of culture. Artifacts are constructed on a base of mentifacts just as sociofacts are constructed based on artifacts and mentifacts.

Mentifacts, as symbols, can last for millennia, or they can be forgotten quickly. For their significance to be understood, there has to be some sort of context, typically a cultural complex or at least some sort of system, in which they are situated.

A word written in an unknown script by itself can completely lose its meaning. But if other words are found in an archaeological inscription, together with artifacts such as pottery, it may become possible to decipher the mentifacts. The Rosetta Stone is a famous example of a "key" that was discovered in Egypt and allowed people to finally decipher what was written in ancient Egyptian.

Mentifacts are contextual. A mentifact can mean different things to different people, and it can function differently in different cultures. A cross, for example, can mean many different things, or nothing at all, depending on the cultural context in which it is found.

Cultural Traits Rosetta Stone StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Rosetta Stone was the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian because it contains an ancient Greek version of a decree

Characteristics of Artifacts

Artifacts are tangible. They have material essence, like a piece of clothing, a tool, or a pottery vessel.

Artifacts have meanings because they "contain" many mentifacts. That is to say, artifacts are constructed based on sets of mentifacts. These can range from religious meanings to linguistic instructions. Another way of putting this is to say that artifacts can't exist without mentifacts.

A violin is an artifact that is often situated within the Western classical music cultural complex. But it has no meaning and probably little use without systems of mentifacts including specific musical compositions like Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, the overall system of musical notation used, and the set of necessary techniques that another element of this cultural complex, the violinist, must learn.

Even if the meanings of artifacts are lost, they remain artifacts. Many ancient cultural artifacts have no discernible purpose, or bear transcriptions in forgotten languages.

The meaning of artifacts can change. An infamous example is the swastika, which has been used in South Asian art, architecture, and religion for thousands of years (and still is). It has numerous meanings. However, it was appropriated by the Nazi Party and turned into one of the most hated and feared symbols in world history.

Characteristics of Sociofacts

Sociofacts are human institutions in the broadest sense. They range from "the family" to the school to the workplace.

Sociofacts contain the instructions and the actions that direct human activity. Unlike "the global economy" or "the environment," which are open systems that can evolve without centralized decision-making, sociofacts are completely designed and controlled by groups of people and comprise closed systems with defined characteristics.

As a sociofact, a university is an organization of people with a defined, written purpose expressed in its charter, its organizational structure, and its vision and mission. It can only do what humans direct it to do, which can be defined as the production and dissemination of knowledge, thus it is a critical institution in the reproduction of culture.

Sociofacts are the most complex but the shortest-lived cultural traits. Artifacts and mentifacts may last thousands of years (the oldest ones are evidences of human activity in campsites, dating back hundreds of thousands of years), long after the sociofacts that enabled their creation are gone. One of the oldest existing sociofacts is the Roman Catholic Church, which has existed unbroken for over 2,000 years, but this is exceptional.

Sociofacts are constantly adapting and changing; individual sociofacts often quickly cease to exist, but types of sociofacts endure. Thus, "the family" exists in many forms in the world today and is not the same as the family only a few decades ago, but in its many forms it is a type of sociofact that has endured since the beginning of humankind.

Cultural Traits vs Environmental Conditions

Once upon a time, geographers saw the natural environment as having a powerful effect on human activity. This was called environmental determinism, and environmental determinists plunged into racism when they asserted that climate determined human intelligence, for example.

At the other extreme, cultural constructivism suggests that humans create all external meaning and the physical world really isn't important. Culture reigns supreme; nature has been vanquished. This is often equated with modernism and post-modernism.

In the middle is possibilism. The human world is indeed shaped by environmental conditions, but not determined by them. The natural world sets constraints on human activities. We can't grow potatoes in Antarctica any more than we can grow wings and fly. Intelligence has nothing to do with climate. What really happens is that humans adapt all their economic and cultural activities to the environment, while also shaping the environment. Anyone who lives in a floodplain probably knows this: you want to raise up your house, or at least make sure the nearby river is behind a levee. If you want to fly, invent a machine that will allow you to do so.

Thus, for every environmental condition (constraint), humans have probably invented one or more cultural trait to make use of it and control it, or at least make it tolerable. Extreme heat? Plant shade, use a fan, invent air conditioning. A waterfall? Create a series of locks around it so you can still navigate the river. Put in a national park so people can come and enjoy it. Put in a hydroelectric plant to harness the energy of the falling water. You get the idea.

Cultural Traits Examples

As we mentioned above, anything identifiably part of human culture is a cultural trait. There are thousands of cultures and subcultures, each of which has a huge number of cultural traits.

Essential Traits

An essential cultural trait is one that forms part of the very foundation of the culture. You can think of this as the feature of a culture that, if it were absent, would mean that the culture would cease to exist. What types of traits are essential? Here's a clue: a religion can survive even if its sociofacts (specific institutions) change or disappear. It may even survive if its artifacts, such as temples, holy books, or congregations, are lost. So what is the most essential? Its mentifacts. In this case, the set of teachings that people know and follow that define what makes the religion a religion.

Let's take this example a bit further, this time with language. As long as one speaker is alive, then a language can survive. So culture depends on people; without people, no culture can survive. Or can it? Well, maybe not in its current form, but if some evidence is left behind, such as dictionaries, recordings, an ethnic nation who used to speak the language, and even a cultural landscape, it may be possible to rescue and reconstruct the language. The same can happen with a religion, as long as something is left behind for future generations to work with.

Cultural Traits Last cornish speaker StudySmarterFig. 3 - A painting of Dolly Pentreath, the last person to speak Cornish as a first language, who died in 1777. This language was revived and is still spoken today

Cultural Landscapes and Diffusion

We left the cultural landscape until the end, but it is key for the survival of cultural traits. Not all cultures need a physical landscape, as the examples of today's online cultures demonstrate. However, most do, and when culture diffuses from one place to another, it doesn't just jump from person to person. It also becomes part of and shapes the landscape.

People carry mentifacts with them when they migrate, so they can make the artifacts their culture needs wherever they go. They often also transport the knowledge of the sociofacts they need to reproduce their culture. For example, a single person who moves to another part of the world has the knowledge of how to start a family, though they didn't bring their family with them.

When we talk about the diffusion of cultural landscapes, what we really mean is the transport of mentifacts and sociofacts in people's heads, and also the way material artifacts are used and recreated in different places. In stimulus diffusion, they are reshaped to fit different meanings, just as the potato, a cultural artifact of nutritional and sacred significance in the Andes, ended up as the ingredient for vodka in Russia.

So how does the cultural landscape allow culture to survive? By being a place for artifacts. The ancient Egyptians and their sociofacts are long gone, but it is thanks to the material artifacts they left in their cultural landscapes that we remember them today and have access to their mentifacts. In other words, cultural memory itself survives in large part thanks to all the reminders we have in the cultural landscape. Culture needs the cultural landscape.

Cultural Traits - Key takeaways

  • Cultural traits are the building blocks of culture and are usually found in cultural complexes.
  • Mentifacts, artifacts, and sociofacts are the types of cultural traits.
  • Mentifacts allow people to create artifacts, and sociofacts are institutions that support the creation and diffusion of mentifacts and artifacts.
  • Many cultural traits are developed to overcome environmental adversity, because even though the environment doesn't determine the human condition, it constrains us.
  • Essential cultural traits are mentifacts that need to be preserved for a culture to exist or to be reconstructed.


  1. Geertz, C. The interpretation of cultures. Basic Books. 1973.
  2. Fig. 1: Pennsylvania barn (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pennsylvania_Log_Barn,_Ulster_American_Folkpark_-_geograph.org.uk_-_289297.jpg) by Kenneth Allen (https://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/2282) is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
  3. Fig. 2, the Rosetta Stone (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosetta_Stone_-_front_face_-_corrected_image.jpg) by Awikimate is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Traits

A cultural trait in human geography is an element of culture: an artifact, a mentifact, or a sociofact.

Examples of cultural traits range from words and images, to pottery vessel, works of music, barns, and universities.

Cultural traits are created by people in the form of mentifacts; artifacts are fashioned based on mentifacts; sociofacts enable the creation and diffusion of artifacts and mentifacts in space and time.

Cultural traits spread via various types of cultural diffusion, either expansion diffusion or relocation diffusion.

Cultural traits are also called mentifacts, artifacts, or sociofacts.

Final Cultural Traits Quiz


The Rosetta Stone is a(n)

Show answer


Cultural trait.

Show question


Harvard University is a(n)

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Show question


If all the Pennsylvania barns burned down, their cultural complex would disappear.

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Show question


Which last the longest, a mentifact, a sociofact, or an artifact?

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An artifact.

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The swastika symbol was taken from South Asia to Europe and misappropriated. This is an example of _______ expansion diffusion. 

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Show question


Can a tree be a cultural artifact if people didn't create it?

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Yes, because a tree is a material object that humans assign mentifacts (meanings) to.

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Between environmental determinism and cultural constructivism is _______.

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"The environment constrains human culture" most closely suggests that:

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What we construct should be adapted to natural conditions.

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Is this statement true or false? Why? "Once the last speakers dies, the language dies."

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False. Languages can survive without speakers, and can be revived and reconstructed.

Show question


Do other planets have human cultural traits? Why or why not?

Show answer


Yes, they do. Other planets are assigned mentifacts by human cultures, and several of them, most notably Mars, contain technological artifacts placed there by human agency.

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