Unit Four: Culture


What is Culture?

whatisculture                      Previously, we discussed the three most prominent sociological perspectives. Regardless of the perspective, each shares a common orientation towards culture. Culture is a social product that is constantly evolving. It involves people working together to solve problems, and it is relative to time and place. But what does it consist of? Culture is the language, beliefs, values, norms, behaviors, and material objects that are passed from one generation to another. Every person on the planet is a member of at least one culture.

Culture can be further classified into two categories: material and non-material. Material culture refers to the material objects that are shared amongst a group of people. Think of the many day items that define American culture: cars, computers, forks, business suits, etc… Non-material culture refers to a group’s way of thinking. Such things as gestures, beliefs, values, and language are examples of non-material culture.

1. What is Culture?

2. Culture Matters Workbook

Components of Culture

Keep in mind that culture is the lens through which we perceive and evaluate what is going on around us. The list below are some of the ways that enable us to perceive culture.

thumbsupgesture                        1. Gestures. Gestures involve the use of non-verbal body movements to communicate messages to others. Gestures can facilitate communication between members in a group, or cause misunderstandings with non-group members. Think about the “thumbs up” gesture which indicates the successful performance of a task. In other cultures, such a gesture would have an entirely different meaning.

2. Language. Language is the primary way that we communicate. It is sometimes considered the human species greatest invention. Language involves the use of symbols to communicate. Language allows members of a group to share meanings, whether they are past, present, or in the future. Language allows humans to become effective social animals. There are cultural differences in how we read language symbols. For example, people in Western societies read printed words left to right. However, people in northern Africa and western Asia read printed words from right to left.

3. Values. Values refer to the standards by which people judge what is good and bad. Values are statements by a culture of “what ought to be”. For example, many people in the United States tend to value receiving a good education. The sociologist Robin Williams (1970) put together a list of some of the core values of Americans.

1) Achievement and success.
2) Individualism.
3) Activity and Work.
4) Efficiency and practicality.
5) Science and technology.
6) Progress.
7) Material Comfort
8) Humanitarianism
9) Freedom
10) Democracy
11) Equality
12) Racism and group superiority.
13) Education.
14) Religiosity.
15) Romantic love.

Can you think of any new or emerging values that defines American culture?

1. International Comparison of Incarceration Rates

2.  One of the Most Common Questions in American Small Talk is Considered Rude in Much of the World

socialnorms4. Norms. Norms refer to the expectations, or rules of behavior, that develop from our values. For example, a norm for teachers in the United States is that they should encourage and facilitate the learning process in their classroom. People in China consider it normal to use chopsticks to eat their food.

5. Sanctions. Sanctions are a way of enforcing norms. They can be either positive or negative. A positive sanction can be a monetary reward or a prize. A negative sanction could be a fine or an unpleasant facial gesture.

6. Folkways. Folkways are norms that represent the normal, habitual ways a group does things. Violating a folkway is not always strictly enforced. For example, you won’t spend time in jail for eating cereal for dinner. If you appeared at a family funeral wearing a swimming suit, you would receive stares and probably be asked to leave. Generally speaking, you don’t do jail time for a violation of a folkway.

7. Mores. (pronounced “MORE-ayz”) Mores our norms that are strictly enforced because they are thought to be essential core values of a society. For example, if you decided to eat your pet dog or cat for supper, that would be a violation of a more. Society codifies its mores into laws. If you violate a more, you will probably do jail time.

taboo8. Taboo. A taboo is a norm so strong that it brings revulsion if violated. It is the worst violation of a social norm. Examples would be cannibalism and incest.

How We React to Culture

cultureshockIt was stated earlier that culture is relative to time and place. An act in one culture may be considered normal, whereas in another culture is may be thought a crime. Humans react in different ways to various cultural traditions. Culture shock refers to the disorientation that people experience when they come into contact with a fundamentally different culture. Westerns traveling in China experience culture shock when they find out that the Chinese consider the taste of dog to be delicious. People do not have to travel to another country to experience culture shock. A member of a Los Angeles gang would find it difficult to live among the Amish and vise versa. Ethnocentrism refers to the use of one’s own culture as a yardstick for judging the ways of other individuals of societies, which generally leads to a negative evaluation of their values, norms, and behaviors. It is hoped that the study of sociology will enable the student to look at how the elements of a culture fit together without judging those elements as superior or inferior to one’s way of life. Cultural relativism is an attempt to appreciate other ways of life rather than just saying “our way is right”. For most of us this is not an easy thing to do. Conflict theorists say that making associations between customs and the proper functioning of society may lead us to false thinking, called the relativist fallacy. We should guard against viewing all cultural practices as being equally valid and worthy of respect. Customs may be more beneficial to one group than to another and give advantages to men over women or to the rich and powerful over the poor and humble. For example, the tradition of female genital mutilation is considered a form of horrible violence against women and child abuse to most people who live in countries where it is not practiced and to some of the people who live in countries where it is performed. The map below shows where female genital mutilation is practiced. People who believe that the practice is correct say that it causes an enhancement to women’s natural beauty, hard- workingness, modesty, chasteness, health and fertility. It is tied to the idea of family “honor,” especially for the males, and allows a women to be accepted for a good marriage. Actually, a lot of health and emotional problems are caused to the females by this surgery, but many females themselves support the tradition. We could compare it to the cosmetic surgery popular in America, such as breast enhancement, liposuction and lip enhancement, and ask ourselves if women choose to do these things because they think they must in order to conform with our ideas of what is correct. However, many girls on whom FGM has been performed claim that they were given no choice. Adopting cultural relativism does not mean that we like or endorse every custom and practice. It is about understanding, not approval.


1.   Female Genital Mutilation: A World Wide Call to Eliminate the Brutal Practice

2. The Yanomamo

3. Culture Shock

4.  Recent Example of Political Correctness

Subcultures and Countercultures

Our discussion earlier on cultures focused on the larger, dominant culture that members of a society belong to. The dominant culture is where group members share common meanings and experiences. However, there are places in society where group members maintain a distinctive set of values, norms, lifestyles and even language. These unique segments of society are our subcultures and countercultures. Our identities are shaped by our membership in a dominant culture (the United States) as well as subcultures (such as being a college student).



Subcultures are a world within the larger world of the dominant culture. Everyone in the United States belongs to at least one subculture. Where you live can put you into a subculture. Think of the distinctive Southern culture in the United States. The church you belong to or a professional organization or an ethnic group also constitutes membership in a subculture. For people who like to walk around with no clothes on, would find that a naturist club would be a subculture. As beneficial as subcultures are to its members, they can also be a source of tension and violence. An example of this would be the conflict between different religions around the world. In the United States there are tens of thousands of subcultures. Subcultures provide members with meanings and answer to life’s problems that the larger culture may not be able to provide.

1. A List of Various Subcultures

2.  Trailor From Documentary “Trekkies”


Countercultures are groups that have values, interests, beliefs, and lifestyles that place it in opposition to the dominant culture. Conflict exists between the counterculture and the larger culture. Groups that worship Satan, militant groups, and survivalists are examples of countercultures in the United States. Members of al-Qaeda operating in Western societies would also be an example of a counter culture. Because of the rejection of the dominant culture’s values, countercultures will often try to create their own communities that operate outside of the larger dominant culture.  Religious cults are an example of a counterculture where the cult’s beliefs are severe enough not to be tolerated by state and federal laws. Mormon’s in Utah who still believe in practicing polygamy, which is against the law in Utah, would be an example of a religious cult that is counterculture.  Countercultures can be helpful to society in advocating for change (hippies) or destructive, such as with the use of drugs or the promotion of terrorism.

The most important difference between subcultures and countercultures is that subcultures want to coexist peacefully with the dominant culture, whereas countercultures do not want to coexist with the larger culture.

Culture and Change

Our previous discussion on subcultures and countercultures demonstrated that these groups often have different values than those of the dominant culture. For the sociologist there are many questions to be asked. How do values emerge in a society? What are the core values of a society? How do values change over time in a society? How does a society manage conflict over competing values? These are the questions we will try to answer below.

All societies experience change. When a society experiences change, it undergoes a shift in its core values. Because of contact with other cultures, the values of a society are constantly exposed to the pressures of change. Each culture embraces values which it considers vital to its survival. But societies are not always successful in living up to their core values. Ideal culture refers to the values and standards of behavior that people in a society profess to hold; real culture refers to the values and standards of behavior that people actually follow. In addition, societies face the problem of value contradiction. Value contradictions are values that conflict with one another or are mutually exclusive (achieving one makes it difficult to achieve another). For example, the American values of racism and democracy make it difficult for all members of society to experience equality. Another example is how many societies around the world emphasize being sexually faithful to a spouse, yet research indicates that many people fail to be faithful to their spouses.

How do values in a society change? One way is through cultural diffusion. Cultural diffusion is the spread of cultural characteristics from one group to another. For example, there are people all over the world who listen to American music, watch American television shows, and adopt American business methods. Our ideas of work, leisure, and democracy have spread across the globe. Conversely, we have also imported ideas from other cultures. Look at how American children are influenced today by the Japanese import of “Pokeman”. Cultural diffusion can be either positive or negative.  When Europeans arrived in the Americas five hundred years ago, they were able to take back with them to Europe new foods with them such as tomatoes and corn.  But they also left behind a number of diseases such as smallpox, that killed many Native Americans.

Not everyone in a society is happy about the importation of another cultures values. These people think too much cultural diffusion takes away the distinctive qualities of the native culture. The term cultural leveling refers to the process by which cultures become similar to one another. One can travel to just about any corner in the world and find a McDonald’s or a Burger King, Nike or CNN. Cultural leveling is the end result of decades of cultural diffusion.  Cultural leveling has been accomplished through time shortening use of travel and communication.

Even though there has been a great deal of values being exported from one society to another, there are still some values that are common to all cultures around the world. These are called cultural universals. Examples of cultural universals would be family, funeral rites, humor, and language.

Another area of concern connected to cultural diffusion is the concept of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation means taking over or borrowing aspects of a culture by another culture.  There is a debate over whether cultural appropriation is harmful (disrespects a culture, someone profiting from another culture) or just the natural development of respecting diversity and cultural diffusion.  There is some confusion over the meanings of terms used in sociology and anthropology.  When people use the term cultural appropriation, they should instead be using the term assimilation, or the term exploitation.  Assimilation (which will be discussed in greater detail in Unit 9)  involves a dominant group absorbing a minority group into the dominant group.  The values and customs of the minority group are to be extinguished (ended) and the members of the minority group “converted” into the dominant group.  The goal of assimilation by the dominant group is to leave no trace of the cultural traditions of the minority group. This is where the difference between cultural assimilation and appropriation exists: under cultural appropriation the culture of the minority group continues to exist. It is not erased as it would be under assimilation. When cultural appropriation is done properly, it means there is an exchange or sharing of traditions and values.  When done improperly, it involves the promotion of a generalized stereotype or the attempt to own as property, a cultural tradition or habit for the purpose of making money. In the United States cultural appropriation has meant that a cultural tradition is deemed more acceptable by society when it is done publicly by a member of the dominant group (white community).  It means celebrating a minority culture ( for example African Americans) without the presence of African Americans.  Examples would be the acceptance of rock and roll music through Elvis Presley, a white muscian, but not through black musicians.

Not all parts of society experience change equally. Some elements of society may lag behind in response to pressures to change. Cultural lag refers to a situation in which nonmaterial culture lags behind changes in the material culture. In the United States for example, we still maintain an agricultural based 9 month school year even though we are no longer a predominately agricultural society. Can you think of other cultural issues where cultural lag is present?


Difference Between High Culture and Pop Culture

popcultureIn modern societies with large populations, there tends to be a great deal of cultural diversity. The dominant group, because of their power and prestige, impress their values and interests on the various minority groups. High culture refers to how the elite at the top of society have cultural patterns that distinguish it from other groups in society. For example, here in the United States, opera and classical music are considered high culture, whereas, rap and rock and roll is not. Pop culture, on the other hand, refers to cultural patterns that are widespread throughout the society’s population. For example, in the United States, a popular television show, a top forty music hit, or a best selling novel would be considered pop culture. It would be a safe bet that the vast majority of Americans would recognize the fictional cartoon family pictured above.

1. The History of Cinema and Popular Culture

The Ongoing Culture War

Remember not all members in society share these values. Because there exists a difference of opinion on our core values, there exists in American culture a cultural war. This is a conflict between the traditionalists in our society who wish to keep things as they are, and those groups promoting change.


The culture war going on in American society is not unique to us as a society, nor historically. We have always had a culture war to some degree (Americans, for example, living around 1850, disagreed about issues such as slavery, women’s rights, and immigration). What then, are the general features of the two sides of the culture war? Traditionalists are resistant to change. They see society as a moral system grounded in traditional values that have stood the test of time. There are clear definitions of what is “right” and “wrong”. Traditionalists emphasize strong family values, patriotism, and religious faith. They would be opposed to such issues as abortion, homosexual marriages, and divorce on demand, while in favor of such issues as prayer in school and laws that favor the traditional family. On the other side of the debate are the “progressives“. These are people who believe society is best served by people being free to act on their own thought out principles. Progressives don’t see “right” and “wrong” as clearly defined as traditionalists. They believe right and wrong is a matter of individual conscience. Historical moral codes, such as the Bible, should be open to individual interpretation. Social problems, like poverty and discrimination, are to be overcome by eliminating disadvantages and treating people equally. Which side of the culture wars do you agree with?

1. The Struggle is Real: Understanding the American Culture War

2.  A Comedic View of the Culture War

3.  Among the Believers Trailer ( Culture War in Pakistan)


actionSociology in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

Witness. This film explores the Amish as a subculture.

The Gods Must Be Crazy. A look at the effect of technology on a society, as well as cultural diffusion.

Inherit the Wind. A look at the cultural war in the United States, through the Scopes Trial.

Trekkies. A humorous look at the subculture of fans who have been following the series Star Trek.

Among the Believers.  A documentary that looks at the culture war in modern Pakistan between religious fanatics and mainstream culture.

books03Sociology in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1. Edge City : Life on the New Frontier by Joel Garreau

2. The Cheating Culture : Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead
by David Callahan

3. Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America by Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams, Jeremy C. Pope

4. Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper


Brym, Robert J.
2003 Sociology: Your Compass For A New World Canada: Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Ferrante, Joan

2000 Sociology: The United States in a Global Community United States: Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Henslin, James M.
2000 Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach (3rd Edition) Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Macionis, John J.

1999 Sociology. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Macionis, John J.

2006 Society: The Basics (8th Edition) Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Copyright ©2002, 2013 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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