Chapter 3: Culture
Chapter Overview


  1. What is Culture?
    1. Culture and Human Intelligence
    2. Culture, Nation, and Society
  2. The Components of Culture
    1. Symbols
    2. Language
      1. Language and Cultural Transmission
      2. Is Language Uniquely Human?
      3. Does Language Shape Reality?
    3. Values and Beliefs
      1. Key Values of U.S. Culture
      2. Values: Inconsistency and Conflict
      3. Values in Action: The Games People Play
    4. Norms
      1. Mores and Folkways
      2. Social Control
    5. "Ideal" and "Real" Culture
    6. Material Culture and Technology
    7. New Information Technology and Culture
  3. Cultural Diversity: Many Ways of Life In One World
    1. High Culture and Popular Culture
    2. Subculture
    3. Multiculturalism
    4. Counterculture
    5. Cultural Change
      1. Cultural Lag
      2. Causes of Cultural Change
    6. Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativity
    7. A Global Culture?
  4. Theoretical Analysis of Culture
    1. Structural-Functional Analysis
    2. Social-Conflict Analysis
    3. Sociobiology
  5. Culture and Human Freedom
    1. Culture As Constraint
    2. Culture As Freedom
  6. Summary
  7. Key Concepts
  8. Critical-Thinking Questions
  9. Applications and Exercises
  10. Sites to See

  • To begin to understand the sociological meaning of the concept of culture
  • To consider the relationship between human intelligence and culture
  • To know the components of culture and to be able to provide examples of each
  • To consider the current state of knowledge about whether language is uniquely human
  • To consider the significance of symbols in the construction and maintenance of social reality
  • To identify the dominant values in our society and to recognize their interrelationships with one another and with other aspects of our culture
  • To be abe to provide examples of the different types of norms operative in a culture, and how these are related to the process of social control
  • To be able to explain how subcultures and countercultures contribute to cultural diversity
  • To begin to develop your understanding of multiculturalism
  • To be able to differentiate between ethnocentrism and cultural relativism
  • To be able to compare and contrast analyses of culture using structural-functional, social-conflict, and sociobiological paradigms
  • To be able to identify the consequences of culture for human freedom and constraint

There are 6.0 billion people on earth. While we are part of a single biological species, Homo sapiens, we are distributed around the globe in many different cultures.


Cultureis defined as the beliefs, values, behavior, and material objects that constitute a people's way of life. Sociologists differentiate between nonmaterial culture, or the intangible creations of human society, and material culture, or the tangible products of human society. Society refers to people interacting within a limited territory guided by their culture.

Sociologically, culture is viewed in the broadest possible sense -- referring to everything that is part of a people's way of life. Out lifestyles are not determined by instincts, or biological programming over which animals have no control. The fierce and warlike Yanomamo, the peace-loving Semai of Malaysia, the achievement-oriented and cooperative Japanese, and the achievement-oriented and individualistic people of the United States, all attest to the influence of culture on personality and everyday life experiences. Culture shock, or the personal disorientation accompanying exposure to an unfamiliar way of life is illustrated by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon's first visit to the territory of the Yanomamo culture in the tropical rain forest of southern Venezuela.

We are the only species whose survival depends on what we learn through culture, rather than by what we are naturally given through biology. For a few animal species, most notably chimpanzees, a limited cultural capacity exists.

Culture and Human Intelligence The primate order among mammals, of which our species is a part, emerged some 65 million years ago. Humans diverged from our closest primate relatives -- the great apes -- some 12 million years ago. However, our common lineage remains apparent -- grasping hands, ability to walk upright, great sociability, and affectionate and long-lasting bonds for child rearing and protection.

Fossil records indicate the first creatures with clearly human characteristics lived about 3 million years ago. Our species homo sapiens (meaning thinking person) evolved a mere 250,000 years ago. Civilization -- based on permanent settlements -- has existed only for the last 12,000 years. Human culture and biological evolution are linked. Over evolutionary time, instincts have been gradually replaced by culture and our ability to fashion the natural environment.

Culture, Nation, and Society Culture refers to a shared way of life. A nation is a political entity. A society is the organized interaction of people in a nation or within some other boundary. Many societies, including the United States, are multicultural, meaning that they include various ways of life.


Even though considerable variation exists, all cultures share five components: symbols, language, values, norms, and material culture.

Symbols This component underlies the other four. A symbol is anything that carries a particular meaning recognized by people who share culture. Symbols serve as the basis for everyday reality. Symbols vary within cultures, cross-culturally, and change over time. We take much of our culture's symbols for granted. Culture shock, a two way process (both experienced and inflicted), is really the inability to "read" meaning in new surroundings.

Language The significance of language for human communication is vividly illustrated by the story of Helen Keller recounting the moment she acquired language and symbolic understanding of the world, through the help of her teacher Ann Sullivan. Language is a system of symbols that allows members of a society to communicate with one another. All cultures have a spoken language, though not all have a written language.

Language and Cultural Transmission

Cultural transmission is the process by which one generation passes culture on to the next. Oral cultural tradition has been critical throughout human history.

Is Language Uniquely Human? Among other species, communication is based on signals that are primarily instinctual. But some animals, like chimpanzees, do have rudimentary ability to use symbols to communicate. Research with the chimp Kanzi is used to illustrate.

Does Language Shape Reality? Two anthropologists of the early twentieth century, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, argued that language is more than simply attaching labels to the "real world." The Sapir-Whorf thesis holds that people perceive the world through the cultural lens of language.

Values and Beliefs Values are defined as culturally defined standards of desirability, goodness, and beauty, which serve as broad guidelines for social living. They support beliefs, or specific statements that people hold to be true.

Key Values of U.S. Culture There are several central values which are widely accepted in U.S. society. These include: equal opportunity, achievement and success, activity and work, material comfort, practicality and efficiency, progress, science, democracy and free enterprise, freedom, and racism and group superiority.

Values: Inconsistency and Conflict The values people hold vary to some degree by age, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, and social class. Individuals are likely to experience some inconsistency and conflict with their personal values. Further, the dominant values identified above contain certain basic contradictions. Finally, values change over time.

Values In Action: The Games People Play Sociologist James Spates has studied how children's games, like King of the Mountain and Tag, provide experiences for children which stress basic U.S. values. Lessons are learned about what our culture defines as important, like competition.

Norms Norms are rules and expectations by which a society guides the behavior of its members. Norms can change over time, as illustrated by norms regarding sexual behavior.

Mores and Folkways Norms vary in terms of their degree of importance. Mores refer to a society's standards of proper moral conduct. Folkways are a society's customs for routine, casual interaction.

Social Control Norms are reinforced through sanctions, which take the form of either rewards or punishments. Through socialization we internalize cultural norms and impose constraints on our own behavior. We may then experience guilt -- the negative judgment we make of ourselves for having violated a norm -- and shame -- the disturbing acknowledgement of others' disapproval.

"Ideal" and "Real" Culture Values and norms are not descriptions of actual behavior, but rather reflect how we believe members of a culture should behave. Therefore, it becomes necessary to distinguish between ideal culture, or social patterns mandated by cultural values and norms, and real culture, designated by actual social patterns that only approximate cultural expectations.

Material Culture and Technology

Material and nonmaterial culture are closely related. Artifacts, or material objects that society creates, express the values of a culture. For instance, the Yanomamo value militaristic skill, and devote great care to making weapons. In the U.S. we value independence and individuality, and express this in part with our love affair with the automobile. Material culture also reflects a culture's technology, which is knowledge that a society applies to the task of living in a physical environment.

New Information Technology and Culture The U.S., along with some other societies, has entered a postindustrial phase of economic development. The information economy being created changes the skills that dominate our way of life.


We are a land of many peoples, given the many immigrants who have come to the United States over the past 150 years. Today, the majority of newcomers are from Latin America or Asia.

High Culture and Popular Culture Not all cultural patterns are equally accessible to all members of society. High culture refers to cultural patterns that distinguish a society's elite, while popular culture designates cultural patterns widespread among a society's people.

Subculture Sociologists define subculture as cultural patterns that set apart some segment of a society's population. Subcultures can be based on age, ethnicity, residence, sexual preference, occupation, and many other factors.

Globally, ethnicity is perhaps the most recognized dimension with which to identify cultural diversity. While the United States is considered by many to be a melting pot, great diversity still exists, and is perhaps increasing. However, hierarchy, not merely variety is typically involved.

Multiculturalism Multiculturalism is an educational program recognizing the cultural diversity of the United States and promoting equality of all cultural traditions. The "singular pattern" focus in our culture is called Eurocentrism, the dominance of European (particularly English) cultural patterns. An alternative pattern currently being developed by some multiculturalists to counter these biases is called Afrocentrism, or dominance of African cultural patterns.

Multiculturalists suggest that their perspective will help us develop a more meaningful understanding of our own past, the ethnic diversity of our present, and strengthen the academic achievements of African American children.

Critics argue that multiculturalism fuels "politics of difference." They question whether such an orientation benefits minorities, and are concerned about its potential for limiting political and economic freedom.

Should our nation stress cultural diversity or the common elements of our people? How do we strike a balance within the Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one)? For example, should English be designated as the official language of the United States?

Counterculture A counterculture is defined as cultural patterns that strongly oppose conventional culture. Members of countercultures are likely to question the morality of the majority group and engage in some form of protest activities. The Ku Klux Klan is an example of a counterculture in our society.

Cultural Change Cultural change is continuous, though its rate may vary greatly. Cultural integration, or the close relationship among various elements of a cultural system, is a concept relating to the connections between dimensions of culture.

Cultural Lag

Cultural lag describes the fact that cultural elements change at different rates, which may disrupt a cultural system.

Causes of Cultural Change Cultural change is set into motion by three different causes, invention, discovery, and diffusion. There are illustrations for each presented.

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativity Ethnocentrism is the practice of judging another culture by the standards of one's own culture. It creates a biased evaluation of unfamiliar practices. Cultural relativity refers to the practice of evaluating any culture by its own standards. The issue of cultural sensitivity related to U.S. business ventures overseas is discussed.

A Global Culture? Are we witnessing the birth of a global culture? Global connections involve the flow of goods, information, and people. However, this global culture thesis has limitations, including: the flow of goods, information, and people is uneven, it cannot be assumed that people everywhere want and can afford various goods and services, and while certain cultural traits are found universally around the world, it should not be assumed that the meanings attached to them are the same.


Structural-Functional Analysis Research using this approach draws on the philosophical doctrine of idealism, which holds that ideas are the basis of human reality. Cultures are understood as organized systems devised to meet human needs. Therefore, cultural universals, or traits found in every culture of the world, are looked for and studied. One example of a cultural universal is the family. This approach operates at the macro-level, holding that cultural traits are to be understood in terms of how they function to maintain the overall cultural system. George Peter Murdock has identified dozens of universal traits.

A critical analysis of this approach reveals that while providing significant insights into how cultures are organized systems which attempt to meet human needs, it perhaps underestimates the extent of cultural diversity within and between cultures, and downplays the extent to which societies change.

Social-Conflict Analysis The focus among researchers using this paradigm is the social conflict generated by inequality among different categories of people in a culture. Karl Marx, using the philosophical doctrine of materialism, argued that the way we deal with the material world (in our case through capitalism) powerfully affects all other dimensions of our culture, for example, our values. Theorists using this approach ask: Why are certain values dominant in a given culture?

A critical evaluation of this approach suggests that while it provides insights into structural inequalities and processes of social change within a cultural system, it minimizes a sense about the integrative properties found within these same systems.

Sociobiology Sociobiology is a theoretical paradigm that explores ways in which human biology affects how we create culture. Sociologists argue that Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, which is based on a four stage process, applies to human evolution as it does to all other species. The four stages include reproduction within the natural environment, random variability in genes within the species, different survival odds for an organism based on its individual genetic characteristics, and changes in the frequencies of particular genes within a species over time. In this way a species adapts to its environment.

This approach has been criticized, based on historical patterns, of supporting racism and sexism. Further, to date, there is lack of scientific proof of their assertions.


Culture As Constraint While being dependent on culture and constrained by our particular way of life, the capacity for creating change, or shaping and reshaping our existence, appears limitless. Culture is a liberating force to the extent we develop an understanding of its complexity and the opportunities available within it for change and autonomy.

Culture As Freedom The burden of culture is freedom. Through evolution, culture has become our means of survival. Cultural diversity in our society is significant, and is ever-changing.


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