Introduction to Sociology/Culture
|The well-known playwright, William Shakespeare, wrote in 1597, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell just as sweet.” Later in 1913, Gertrude Stein penned the often-quoted phrase, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Although centuries apart, both Shakespeare and Stein were essentially making the same intellectual point that “things are what they are,” but are they really? Is the world around us truly that simple? For instance, "Is a cow, a cow, a cow?"
Beef hot dogs, hamburgers, and steaks have become a major part of American culture. These culinary delights can easily be found anywhere from athletic stadiums to fine dining establishments. The U.S. has become one of the biggest consumers of beef and beef products. Americans now consume about 200 billion pounds of beef each year. That equates to ten times more beef than what Asian Indians on the other side of the globe consume annually. This is despite the fact that the U.S. population is roughly three times smaller than that of India’s. As one might expect, all kinds of different cuts of beef can easily be found in U.S. grocery stores. In contrast, most states in India still ban the slaughter of cows outright. Article 48 of India’s constitution declares, “The State shall endeavor to organize agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.” As one can see, the Asian Indian culture’s perspective on the cow is very different from that of the American culture. In India, the cow is seen as a sacred animal rather than an epicurean treat according to Hinduism, which is still the largest religion in the country.
It is through cross-cultural comparisons that we observe a notable divergence in not only the perception, but also the consumption of cows. So, is a cow, a cow, a cow? Sociologists would argue that a cow is not necessarily a cow, and that cultural variation ultimately dictates our assessment and treatment of things in society. What we may devour here in the U.S., others may venerate outside of the U.S., just like the dogs that are beloved by so many Americans are a common food staple in other parts of the world. This chapter on culture explains what culture entails as well as its origins before moving onto a comparison of subcultures vs. countercultures and ethnocentrism vs. cultural relativism. The chapter concludes with theories of culture, potential for cultural change, and how sociologists research culture.
The simplest way to think about culture is to think about the distinction between nature (our biology and genetics) and nurture (our environment and surroundings that also shape our identities). Because of our biology and genetics, we have a particular form and we have certain abilities. But our biological nature does not exclusively determine who we are. For that, we need culture. Culture is the non-biological or social aspects of human life, basically anything that is learned by humans is part of culture.
The two individuals in the photos to the above right help illustrate this idea. The naked human comes very close to representing nothing but nature. Aside from the hair cut, which may or may not be a reflection of culture, the individual in the photo is simply human. From the photo, it cannot be discerned which language he speaks, what he believes, what (if anything) he commonly wears, whether he has lots of education or little education, and so on. In short, the naked individual is a reflection of his biology; we have no additional clues about who he is because he is missing cultural artifacts. The other individual wearing a costume illustrates the addition of culture to the individual. From the photo alone we can tell that this individual is trained in ballet, a particular form of dance popular in certain parts of the world. The clothing he is wearing is culture, and it tells us a great deal about this individual.
Generally speaking, the following elements of social life are considered to be representative of human culture: "stories, beliefs, media, ideas, works of art, religious practices, fashions, rituals, specialized knowledge, and common sense" (p. xvi).
Yet, examples of culture do not, in themselves, present a clear understanding of the concept of culture; culture is more than the object or behavior. Culture also includes,
- …norms, values, beliefs, or expressive symbols. Roughly, norms are the way people behave in a given society, values are what they hold dear, beliefs are how they think the universe operates, and expressive symbols are representations, often representations of social norms, values, and beliefs themselves. (p. 3)The opening
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To summarize, culture encompasses objects and symbols, the meaning given to those objects and symbols, and the norms, values, and beliefs that pervade social life. "The definition is understood to include two elements - that which differentiates one group or society from others and the concept of acquired or learned behavior". (p. 43)
Keep in mind that, in any given society, culture is not necessarily rigid and totally uniform. As is the case with most elements of social life, culture is relatively stable (thus it is functional in the structural-functionalist sense) but at the same time contested (in the conflict sense).
In fact, social theorists, such as Michel Foucault, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Erving Goffman, and George Herbert Mead, have long noted that language lies at the root of all human culture. Since language is never static and relies upon continued use for its existence, culture is thus continuously negotiated , and thus may remain relatively stable and / or change rapidly in relation to the ongoing linguistic negotiations and developments within groups, organizations, institutions, and societies.
- 1 'High' Culture
- 2 The Changing Concept of Culture
- 3 Level of Abstraction
- 4 The Artificiality of Cultural Categorization
- 5 Subcultures & Countercultures
- 6 Ethnocentrism & Cultural Relativism
- 7 Theories of Culture
- 8 Cultural Change
- 9 Cultural Sociology: Researching Culture
- 10 Conclusion
- 11 Additional Reading
- 12 Discussion Questions
- 13 References
- 14 External links
Many people today think of culture in the way that it was thought of in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries. This concept of culture reflected inequalities within European societies and their colonies around the world. This understanding of culture equates culture with civilization and contrasts both with nature or non-civilization. According to this understanding of culture, some countries are more civilized than others, and some people are more cultured than others. Theorists like Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) believed that culture is simply that which is created by "the best that has been thought and said in the world" (p. 6). Anything that doesn't fit into this category is labeled as chaos or anarchy. From this perspective, culture is closely tied to cultivation, which is the progressive refinement of human behavior.
In practice, culture referred to elite goods and activities such as haute cuisine, high fashion or haute couture, museum-caliber art and classical music. The word cultured referred to people who knew about and took part in these activities. For example, someone who used culture in this sense might argue that classical music is more refined than music by working-class people, such as jazz or the indigenous music traditions of aboriginal peoples.
People who use culture in this way tend not to use it in the plural. They believe that there are not distinct cultures, each with their own internal logic and values, but rather only a single standard of refinement to which all groups are held accountable. Thus people who differ from those who believe themselves to be cultured in this sense are not usually understood as having a different culture; they are understood as being uncultured.
The Changing Concept of Culture
During the Romantic Era, scholars in Germany, especially those concerned with nationalism, developed a more inclusive notion of culture as worldview. That is, each ethnic group is characterized by a distinct and incommensurable world view. Although more inclusive, this approach to culture still allowed for distinctions between civilized and primitive or tribal cultures.
By the late 19th century, anthropologists had changed the concept of culture to include a wider variety of societies, ultimately resulting in the concept of culture outlined above - objects and symbols, the meaning given to those objects and symbols, and the norms, values, and beliefs that pervade social life.
This new perspective has also removed the evaluative element of the concept of culture and instead proposes distinctions rather than rankings between different cultures. For instance, the high culture of elites is now contrasted with popular or pop culture. In this sense, high culture no longer refers to the idea of being cultured, as all people are cultured. High culture simply refers to the objects, symbols, norms, values, and beliefs of a particular group of people; popular culture does the same.
Most social scientists today reject the cultured vs. uncultured concept of culture. Instead, social scientists accept and advocate the definition of culture outlined above as being the "nurture" component of human social life. Social scientists recognize that non-elites are as cultured as elites (and that non-Westerners are just as civilized); they simply have a different culture. Further, recent studies have demonstrated that highly valued notions of culture are often produced via the strategic use of existing tastes, preferences, and patterns of social inequality, which, rather than demonstrating refinement or progress, actually reveal existing power relations within and between socio-political structures .
The Origins of Culture
Attentive to the theory of evolution, anthropologists assumed that all human beings are equally evolved, and the fact that all humans have cultures must in some way be a result of human evolution. They were also wary of using biological evolution to explain differences between specific cultures - an approach that either was a form of, or legitimized forms of, racism. Anthropologists believed biological evolution produced an inclusive notion of culture, a concept that anthropologists could apply equally to non-literate and literate societies, or to nomadic and to sedentary societies. They argued that through the course of their evolution, human beings evolved a universal human capacity to classify experiences, and encode and communicate them symbolically. Since these symbolic systems were learned and taught, they began to develop independently of biological evolution (in other words, one human being can learn a belief, value, or way of doing something from another, even if they are not biologically related). That this capacity for symbolic thinking and social learning is a product of human evolution confounds older arguments about nature versus nurture. Thus, Clifford Geertz argued that human physiology and neurology developed in conjunction with the first cultural activities, and Middleton (1990:17 n.27) concluded that human "instincts were culturally formed."
This view of culture argues that people living apart from one another develop unique cultures. However, elements of different cultures can easily spread from one group of people to another. Culture is dynamic and can be taught and learned, making it a potentially rapid form of adaptation to changes in physical conditions. Anthropologists view culture as not only a product of biological evolution but as a supplement to it; it can be seen as the main means of human adaptation to the natural world.
This view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, which varies from place to place, led anthropologists to conceive of different cultures as defined by distinct patterns (or structures) of enduring, although arbitrary, conventional sets of meaning, which took concrete form in a variety of artifacts such as myths and rituals, tools, the design of housing, and the planning of villages. Anthropologists thus distinguish between material culture and symbolic culture, not only because each reflects different kinds of human activity, but also because they constitute different kinds of data that require different methodologies to study.
This view of culture, which came to dominate anthropology between World War I and World War II, implied that each culture was bounded and had to be understood as a whole, on its own terms. The result is a belief in cultural relativism, which suggests that there are no "better" or "worse" cultures, just different cultures.
Recent research suggests that human culture has reversed the causal direction suggested above and influenced human evolution. One well-known illustration of this is the rapid spread of genetic instructions that left on a gene that produces a protein that allows humans to digest lactose. This adaptation spread rapidly in Europe around 4,000 BCE with the domestication of mammals, as humans began harvesting their milk for consumption. Prior to this adaptation, the gene that produces a protein allowing for the digestion of lactose was switched after children were weaned. Thus, the change in culture - drinking milk from other mammals - eventually led to changes in human genetics. Genetics has, therefore, resulted in culture, which is now acting back on genetics.
Level of Abstraction
Another element of culture that is important for a clear understanding of the concept is level of abstraction. Culture ranges from the concrete, cultural object (e.g., the understanding of a work of art) to micro-level interpersonal interactions (e.g., the socialization of a child by his/her parents or guardians) to a macro-level influence on entire societies (e.g., the Puritanical roots of the U.S. that can be used to justify the exportation of democracy – a lá the Iraq War). It is important when trying to understand the concept of culture to keep in mind that the concept can have multiple levels of meaning, and that each of these levels may continuously act upon one another in complex ways.
The Artificiality of Cultural Categorization
One of the more important points to understand about culture is that it is an artificial categorization of elements of social life. As Griswold puts it,
- There is no such thing as culture or society out there in the real world. There are only people who work, joke, raise children, love, think, worship, fight, and behave in a wide variety of ways. To speak of culture as one thing and society as another is to make an analytical distinction between two different aspects of human experience. One way to think of the distinction is that culture designates the expressive aspect of human existence, whereas society designates the relational (and often practical) aspect. (p. 4)
In the above quote, Griswold emphasizes that culture is distinct from society but affirms that this distinction is, like all classifications, artificial. Humans do not experience culture in a separate or distinct way from society. Culture and society are truly two-sides of a coin; a coin that makes up social life. Yet the distinction between the two, while artificial, is useful for a number of reasons. For instance, the distinction between culture and society is of particular use when exploring how norms and values are transmitted from generation to generation and answering the question of cultural conflict between people of different cultural backgrounds (say, the Japanese and Americans). Further, the distinction is useful for explicating the historical development of specific social structures, and the persistence or demise of social inequalities within and between societies. 
Subcultures & Countercultures
A subculture is a culture shared and actively participated in by a minority of people within a broader culture. A culture often contains numerous subcultures. Subcultures incorporate large parts of the broader cultures of which they are part, but in specifics they may differ radically. Some subcultures achieve such a status that they acquire a name of their own. Examples of subcultures could include: bikers, military culture, Bronies, and Star Trek fans (trekkers or trekkies).
A counterculture is a subculture with the addition that some of its beliefs, values, or norms challenge or even contradict those of the main culture of which it is part. Examples of countercultures in the U.S. could include: the hippie movement of the 1960s, the green movement, polygamists, feminist groups, BDSM Communities, and LGBTQ communities.
Subcultures bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by societal standards and allow them to develop a sense of identity. Subcultures can be distinctive because of the age, ethnicity, class, location, and/or gender of the members. The qualities that determine a subculture as distinct may be linguistic, aesthetic, religious, political, sexual, geographical, or a combination of factors. Members of a subculture often signal their membership through a distinctive and symbolic use of style, which includes fashions, mannerisms, and argot.
Ethnocentrism & Cultural Relativism
Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one's own culture. Many claim that ethnocentrism occurs in every society; ironically, ethnocentrism may be something that all cultures have in common.
The term was coined by William Graham Sumner, a social evolutionist and professor of Political and Social Science at Yale University. He defined it as, "The sentiment of cohesion, internal comradeship, and devotion to the in-group, which carries with it a sense of superiority to any out-group and readiness to defend the interests of the in-group against the out-group." Ethnocentrism often entails the belief that one's own race or ethnic group is the most important and/or that some or all aspects of its culture are superior to those of other groups. Within this ideology, individuals will judge other groups in relation to their own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with concern to language, behaviour, customs, and religion. It also involves an incapacity to acknowledge that cultural differentiation does not imply inferiority of those groups who are ethnically distinct from one's own.
Sociologists study ethnocentrism because of its role in various elements of social life, ranging from politics to terrorism. This is also an area where sociologists often become advocates as they attempt to reveal ethnocentric biases to those who hold them with the aim of helping people realize that such biases are seldom beneficial to social solidarity and peaceful human relations.
Cultural relativism is the belief that the concepts and values of a culture cannot be fully translated into, or fully understood in, other languages; that a specific cultural artifact (e.g. a ritual) has to be understood in terms of the larger symbolic system of which it is a part.
An example of cultural relativism might include slang words from specific languages (and even from particular dialects within a language). For instance, the word tranquilo in Spanish translates directly to 'calm' in English. However, it can be used in many more ways than just as an adjective (e.g., the seas are calm). Tranquilo can be a command or suggestion encouraging another to calm down. It can also be used to ease tensions in an argument (e.g., everyone relax) or to indicate a degree of self-composure (e.g., I'm calm). There is not a clear English translation of the word, and in order to fully comprehend its many possible uses a cultural relativist would argue that it would be necessary to fully immerse oneself in cultures where the word is used.
Theories of Culture
While there are numerous theoretical approaches employed to understand 'culture', this chapter uses just one model to illustrate how sociologists understand the concept. The model is an integrationist model advocated by Ritzer. Ritzer proposes four highly interdependent elements in his sociological model: a macro-objective component (e.g., society, law, bureaucracy), a micro-objective component (e.g., patterns of behavior and human interaction), a macro-subjective component (e.g., culture, norms, and values), and a micro-subjective component (e.g., perceptions, beliefs). This model is of particular use in understanding the role of culture in sociological research because it presents two axes for understanding culture: one ranging from objective (society) to subjective (culture and cultural interpretation); the other ranging from the macro-level (norms) to the micro-level (individual level beliefs).
If used for understanding a specific cultural phenomenon, like the displaying of abstract art, this model depicts how cultural norms can influence individual behavior. This model also posits that individual level values, beliefs, and behaviors can, in turn, influence the macro-level culture. This is, in fact, part of what David Halle finds: while there are certainly cultural differences based on class, they are not unique to class. Displayers of abstract art tend not only to belong to the upper-class, but also are employed in art-production occupations. This would indicate that there are multiple levels of influence involved in art tastes – both broad cultural norms and smaller level occupational norms in addition to personal preferences.
The Function of Culture
Culture can also be seen to play a specific function in social life. According to Griswold, "The sociological analysis of culture begins at the premise that culture provides orientation, wards off chaos, and directs behavior toward certain lines of action and away from others." Griswold reiterates this point by explaining that, "Groups and societies need collective representations of themselves to inspire sentiments of unity and mutual support, and culture fulfills this need." In other words, culture can have a certain utilitarian function – the maintenance of order as the result of shared understandings and meanings.
On the other hand, culture can also function to create and sustain social inequalities. According to Collins,  cultural notions of race, class, gender, and sexualities may be used to explain and justify societal level patterns of oppression and privilege by allowing social beings to believe existing inequalities simply reflect the way things have always been. As a result, efforts for social justice and equality must often overcome cultural patterns that lead dominants and subordinates to blindly accept existing social orders as natural or inevitable. Following Collins, sociologists thus explore whether or not the shared understandings and meanings maintained via cultural practice resist and / or reproduce the ongoing subordination of minority groups.
The belief that culture is symbolically coded and can thus be taught from one person to another means that cultures, although bounded, can change. Cultures are both predisposed to change and resistant to it. Resistance can come from habit, religion, science, and the integration and interdependence of cultural traits. For example, men and women have complementary roles in many cultures. One sex might desire changes that affect the other, as happened in the second half of the 20th century in western cultures (see, for example, the women's movement), while the other sex may be resistant to that change (possibly in order to maintain a power imbalance in their favor). Further, the demarcation of human beings into only two sexes (e.g., males and females) culturally erases the biological and genetic reality of intersex people, and justifies the genital mutilation of people born genetically beyond male/female classification schemes. Changing scientific and medical practices of infant genital mutilation in the case of intersex individuals, however, remains difficult due to cultural beliefs promoting and enforcing two sexes with separate but "complementary" roles.
Cultural change can have many causes, including: the environment, inventions, and contact with other cultures. For example, the end of the last ice age helped lead to the invention of agriculture. Another invention that substantially changed culture was the development of the birth control pill, which changed women's attitudes toward sex. Prior to the introduction of the birth control pill, women were at a high risk of pregnancy as a result of sex. After the introduction of birth control pills, risk of pregnancy was substantially reduced, increasing heterosexual people's willingness to engage in sexual activity outside of wedlock. Likewise, the introduction of the television substantially reduced American involvement in civic life.
Several understandings of how cultures change come from Anthropology. For instance, in diffusion theory, the form of something moves from one culture to another, but not its meaning. For example, the ankh symbol originated in Egyptian culture but has diffused to numerous cultures. It's original meaning may have been lost, but it is now used by many practitioners of New Age Religion as an arcane symbol of power or life forces.
Contact between cultures can also result in acculturation. Acculturation has different meanings, but in this context refers to replacement of the traits of one culture with those of another (through force, negotiation, and / or agreement), such as what happened with many Native American Indians as Europeans took over their lands. Many Native Americans were acculturated into European norms, beliefs, and values, from religion to how to raise children because Europeans believed Natives could not adopt these cultural practices. When Natives proved able to practice religion and parenthood in non-European ways, however, many of them were put to death, sent to conditioning camps, and / or moved into uncultivated western lands where they were required to form their own communities based on European values and practices. Related processes on an individual level are assimilation and transculturation, both of which refer to adoption of a different culture by an individual, which may occur through force and / or choice.
Griswold outlined another sociological approach to cultural change. Griswold points out that it may seem as though culture comes from individuals, but there is also the larger, collective, and long-lasting culture that cannot have been the creation of single individuals as it predates and post-dates individual humans and contributors to culture. The author presents a sociological perspective to address this conflict,
- Sociology suggests an alternative to both the unsatisfying it has always been that way view at one extreme and the unsociological individual genius view at the other. This alternative posits that culture and cultural works are collective, not individual, creations. We can best understand specific cultural objects... by seeing them not as unique to their creators but as the fruits of collective production, fundamentally social in their genesis. (p. 53)
Griswold suggests, then, that culture changes through the contextually dependent and socially situated actions of individuals; macro-level culture influences the individual who, in turn, can influence that same culture (see also the discussion of Symbolic Interaction earlier in this text). The logic is a bit circular, but it illustrates how culture can change over time yet remain somewhat constant.
It is, of course, important to recognize here that Griswold is talking about cultural change and not the actual origins of culture (as in, "there was no culture and then, suddenly, there was"). Because Griswold does not explicitly distinguish between the origins of cultural change and the origins of culture, it may appear as though Griswold is arguing here for the origins of culture and situating these origins in society. This is neither accurate nor a clear representation of sociological thought on this issue. Culture, just like society, has existed since the beginning of humanity (humans being social and cultural beings). Society and culture co-exist because humans have social relations and meanings tied to those relations (e.g. brother, lover, friend). Culture as a super-phenomenon has no real beginning except in the sense that humans (homo sapiens) have a beginning. This, then, makes the question of the origins of culture moot – it has existed as long as we have, and will likely exist as long as we do.
Cultural Sociology: Researching Culture
How do sociologists study culture? One approach to studying culture falls under the label 'cultural sociology', which combines the study of culture with cultural understandings of phenomena. Griswold explains how cultural sociologists approach their research,
- ...if one were to try to understand a certain group of people, one would look for the expressive forms through which they represent themselves to themselves... The sociologist can come at this collective representation process from the other direction, from the analysis of a particular cultural object, as well; if we were to try to understand a cultural object, we would look for how it is used by some group as representing that group. (p. 59)
Cultural sociologists look for how people make meaning in their lives out of the different cultural elements that surround them. A particularly clear example of cultural sociology is the study of the Village-Northton by Elijah Anderson. Anderson is interested in a number of things in his book, but two cultural components stand out. First, Anderson is looking at the border of two culturally and socio-economically distinct neighborhoods. Because these two neighborhoods are distinct yet share a border, this research site provides numerous opportunities for the exploration of culture. Not surprisingly, cultural conflict is an optimal scenario for the exploration of culture and cultural interaction. Additionally, Anderson is interested in how individuals in these neighborhoods negotiate interpersonal interactions, especially when individuals from the Village (middle to upper-middle class and predominantly white) are forced to interact with members of the Northton area (lower class and poor blacks).
Anderson’s methodology is a combination of participant observation and interviews. But when viewed in light of the quote above by Griswold, it becomes apparent that Anderson’s focus in these interviews and observations is self-presentation. Anderson regularly describes the individuals he interviews and observes in light of their clothing, behavior, attitudes, beliefs, and opinions. As he interacts with more and more individuals, patterns begin to develop. Specifically, individuals dressed in certain outfits behave in similar ways. For instance, those dressed in business attire (even when walking their dogs) – the yuppies – have particular perspectives on the future of the Village: they are interested in increasing property values in order to maximize their investment. Another example of cultural significance of clothing is older black men who intentionally wear button-up shirts and ties because of the cultural symbolism of that particular outfit: it signifies to the cultural outsider that the wearer is refined and distinct from the athletic-suit-wearing drug dealers who control numerous Northton corners.
Ultimately, Anderson’s goal is to develop a sort of typology of streetwise individuals: people who can manage awkward and uncomfortable interpersonal interactions on the street in such a fashion that they emerge from the interactions unharmed. While he does develop a loose description of these types of individuals, the important part to understand here is how he explores these aspects of culture. First, he found a cultural border that presented cultural conflict. When individuals have to negotiate meaning publicly, it makes it much easier for the sociologist to tease out culture. Additionally, Anderson observed both the transmission of culture from generation to generation (i.e., socialization, but also the self-representation that is provided by cultural expressions (clothing, behavior, etc). Through years of observation, Anderson gained a familiarity with these elements of culture that allowed him to understand how they interacted.
So what is culture? Understood most simply as a way of life of a particular society, culture entails a variety of aspects that include, but are not limited to: norms, values, beliefs, or expressive symbols. Consequently, culture can encompass anything that provides meaning or can be given meaning among a group of people. As illustrated at the beginning of the chapter, there may be different meanings attached to the same object or symbol depending on the culture at hand. The cow, which can be found across the globe, is an edifying illustration of this point. Each culture has its own interpretation of what a cow is and means. In the U.S., we most often see a cow as something to eat in our daily life, but in India, many people see a cow as something to revere in their spiritual life. However, culture is not static. It is vulnerable to change, sometimes at a slow pace that is less visible and sometimes at a fast pace that is much more observable. For example, in the advent of globalization in recent years, there is some evidence that India has been moving towards greater consumption of beef and beef products. Only time will tell whether or not there will be a dramatic shift in Asian Indian culture with regard to its perception and treatment of cows due to globalization.
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For other sociological studies of culture, see Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction and American Sociological Association, Section on Culture