What is Culture?
I prefer the definition used by Ian Robertson: "all the shared
products of society: material and nonmaterial" (Our text defines
it in somewhat more ponderous terms-- "The totality of learned, socially
transmitted behavior. It includes ideas, values, and customs (as well as the
sailboats, comic books, and birth control devices) of groups of people"
The Importance of Culture
The concepts, culture and society are closely related. Culture is
defined as all the products of society-- material and nonmaterial;
Society consists of interacting people living in the same territory who share
a common culture. We really can't have one without the other (unless you want
to call archaeological remains and historical records "culture").
People in society create culture; culture shapes the way people interact and
understand the world around them.
determines what we know-- the sum of all the angles in a
triangle; what a screw driver is used for; how to use a computer to
find out where Peloponnesians are...
- Culture also
determines what we don't know-- how to catch a fish by hand;
how to build a dugout canoe and navigate the South Seas without chart
determines what we want to be-- lawyer; dairy
farmer; computer programmer; doctor; shaman; pearl diver
It varies with the physical setting or geography: (A good
example here is music. Think of all the differences in music that are related
to geography. We're a mixed society in the United States, but think of the
regional origins of much of our our music: Clogging in Tennessee; Cajun music
(Zydeko) in Louisiana; City music vs. Country/Western Music, etc.)
It also varies with time: Have
you ever tried to read Beowulf; Shakespeare; work a slide rule; drive a
buggy; understand Victorian morality and ethics? I asked my young daughter
if she wanted to go to a record store. "What's a record?",
she asked. (Her generation has been exposed only to tapes and CDs).
Think of culture as a stream
flowing down through the centuries from one generation to another. Each
generation contributes something to this stream, but in each generation
something is left behind, some sediment drops to the bottom and is lost to
society, (Bierstedt). Examples of things lost to society the art of stained
glass window making, violin making (The greatest violins ever produced by man
were made in Cremona, Northern Italy in the mid 16th century). (Science 84
5:2 pp 3643).
Culture is Critical to the Survival of Human Race
Because of the nature of the animal that we are. Unlike most animals that
are specially adapted to the environment in which they live, we lack special
physical characteristics such as long fangs, sharp teeth, claws, fur,
feathers, or scales; or even physiological behavior patterns such as
hibernation, to enable us to survive in a hostile environment. But, like the
higher primates, (which we are one type of), we share a number of important
Characteristics of all
(Primates are gregarious and like to be in groups)
(large brain/body weight ratio) Humans' brains are most complex.
hands: (All primates have an opposing thumb).
(Primates are extremely vocal).
(All primates can assume an erect posture which frees the hands);
characteristics possessed by humans, alone:
and Mating: (Year around mating-- Unlike other
primates, we lack a special breeding season. This, has important
implications for gender roles).
(The young have a long period of dependence on adults. This also has
implications for gender roles).
Speech: (Although there are numerous examples of
chimpanzees being taught to use symbols to communicate, humans alone
have developed a highly complex system of symbolic speech).
(Humans alone, walk erect).
Humans possess a highly developed, complex brain,
which allows us to communicate symbolically, to learn quickly, and to
innovate. We lack instincts (or if they do exist they are not readily
apparent). It is our culture that enables us to survive as a species. Culture
provides answers to such basic problems as finding shelter, food, and
clothing. Culture provides guidance for our every day lives; social organization
which keeps us from tearing each other apart.
Every generation has to learn from scratch
the culture of its society or it will perish. All the basic institutions of
society that we discussed earlier; the economy, education, religion,
recreation, politics represent needs that society must meet. Ways of meeting
these needs are handed down from one generation to the next. They represent
our culture. What we lack in physical attributes and strength, we make up for
in our ability to communicate and learn culture from one generation to the
This, in my opinion, is precisely why
Sociology is so important. It's humankind's almost total reliance upon
socially transmitted patterns of behavior that enable it to survive. Society
and culture are the subject matter of Sociology.
The Sociobiology Debate
There is a school of thought,
Sociobiology, which sees much of human behavior as being instinctual.
Sociologists generally hold that culture evolved (or developed) due to the
influence of values (ideas) or due to changes in the material base of society
(technology fire, the wheel, the computer). They usually argue that
biology (genetic programming) has a limited role. Sociobiologists, claim that
human culture and social behavior derive from a process of natural selection
and genetic transmission. Our genes predispose us to certain patterns of
behavior unique from other animals.
Sociobiologists support their argument by citing a number of
"cultural universals" found in all societies. They say that
this is evidence of the influence of genetic factors. Examples have
been drawn from the work of anthropologist, George Murdock (1945) who argued
that all societies demonstrated some form of the following:
Sociobiologists argue that human behavior ultimately is derived
from our biology rather than learning. According to
Murdock, all societies have incest taboos. Why? One biological argument
would be that in-breeding can produce genetic defects, or that it may
reinforce undesirable traits (such as hemophilia or mental
instability). Incest taboos force a group to broaden its gene pool
which reduces the probability of passing along "dysfunctional"
traits. One could apply this argument to the Catholic Church: By
forbidding priests and nuns to marry, it forced the recruitment of
individuals from outside the church to keep the gene pool fresh. (This would
prevent the formation of "religious royal families" and the decline
of the faith when a feeble minded monarch emerged).
But there are problems with this
argument. Referring to incest: Why is incest defined differently
from one society to another? The range of variation is
tremendous! Some societies have allowed marriage between brothers and
sisters. Others forbid it between relatives closer than first cousins.
Still others have restrictions going out even further; requiring individuals
to marry outside the tribe. If there is a genetic basis for the incest taboo,
why is there so much variation? Another point is that just as
"dysfunctional traits" can be reinforced through inbreeding; so can
"desirable" characteristics. (Dog breeders and horse breeders
do this very thing).
If everything were programmed genetically, we
would expect to see little variation across societies in the way people
handled the affairs of their everyday lives. But there are tremendous
- the sports that
we play and the way we play them
- the families
that we form and the ways we form them
- the various
ways in which we court our spouses
- the friends we
make and the way we make them
- the tools we
make and how we use them
- the languages
we invent and the way we speak them
- the food we eat
and how we eat it
- the religions
we form and how we practice them
- the laws and
customs we make and how we observe them.
The key point is that this behavior is learned.
Humans can change culture without changing genes. Biology sets the stage by
giving us unique capabilities that distinguish us from other species;
culture determines how we use those unique capabilities.
Values, Norms, and Social Control
Values are socially shared
ideas about what is "right" and "wrong;"
"good" and "bad" in society. Values are general ideas--
broad and abstract. They vary from one society to another and one way
to study society is to examine the values held by its members.
Values are important because it is from them that we derive the norms or
rules that govern our everyday lives. Values help guide conduct in unfamiliar
situations and may lead to the formation of specific norms. Generally
speaking, we tend to hold on to our values and are unlikely to compromise
them. American values have been intensively studied by numerous scholars:
American values (Robin
achievement and success
activity and work
American values (Talcott
maximization of opportunity for individuals and sub
pragmatic acceptance of authority
objection to pretensions of generalized superiority
technology and science
- Individuals as
well as entire societies may experience value conflict. A great
example of value conflict at the individual level is provided by the
1941 movie, "Sergeant York," (starring Gary Cooper).
The movie tells the story of Alvin Cullum York, regarded as one of the
outstanding heroes of World War I, who was awarded the Congressional
Medal of Honor for killing 20 enemy soldiers and capturing over 100 prisoners.
At first, York was a conscientious objector who held deep religions
convictions against killing. The value conflict in this case
involved the Sixth Commandment's prohibition against killing and what
he felt were his duties as a patriotic American-- to answer his
country's call. Cooper, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of
Sgt. York, did a wonderful job showing how individuals
"freeze up" and are unable to do anything until they resolve
these kinds of internal value conflicts.
- One very powerful
example of a value conflict at the societal level is the current
debate over abortion. Values are not readily compromised and it
is often impossible to find "common ground" in these kinds
of disputes. The debate over slavery and states' rights in the
1850s is an example of a value conflict that was eventually resolved
through war-- the bloodiest war in this nation's history. The
deplorable state of affairs we are now observing in what was formerly
Yugoslavia, is essentially another value conflict.
Norms are derived from a
society's overall values. Values determine norms.
Remember, norms are classified into several types.
- Folkways (weak norms customs, etiquette;
three meals a day, wearing shoes to class, tipping after a meal,
taking same seat in class)
- Mores (strong norms considered vital to our
well-being, values, morals; cheating on spouse, child abuse and
- Laws (Norms established and punished by the
state with punishments fixed in advance: written or encoded mores,
folkways, and taboos; from traffic laws to laws against rape and
- Taboos (Very strong norms whose violation is
considered loathsome and disgusting)
Control is the means by which society ensures that its members
follow approved norms. Norms are supported by sanctions-- positive and
negative; formal and informal; which are used to bring people into line.
- Positive (informal) sanction: give
child a candy bar for behaving
- Negative (informal) sanction: give a
child a stern look for talking in church
- Positive (formal) sanction: combat
soldier gets Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism
- Negative (formal) sanction: person
gets speeding ticket for doing 56 mph in a 55 mph zone
Signs and Symbols
There is an important
difference between signs and symbols that you should know. Symbols set man
apart from animals. Animals use signs.
are representational: There is a direct connection between the sign
and the reality it refers to. The meaning is clear and unambiguous. Sort of
like stimulus and response. There is no need to interpret meanings.
indicates that fire is present (or will soon be present)
- The family dog scratches
the door to the back yard-- It wants to go outside.
It gets its bowl-- It wants food. (The bowl is directly related to
food). It lays down belly-up-- It displays submission.
Symbols are interpretative:
symbol is an object, gesture, sound, color, or design which stands for
something other than itself.
We humans give meaning to these things. Examples-- wedding band;
leather jacket; sports car; the length and color of a person's hair; (punk
rockers; T.V. ministries where people are neatly dressed; flag burnings). Symbols may have multiple meanings. Example-- the cross on a church
steeple; a burning cross; a red cross on the side of an
ambulance. (A smile can take on many different meanings). Symbols can change meaning over time. Example-- "V" sign was once
obscene. It stood for victory in World War II. During the Vietnam
War it meant peace. Symbols are capable of
stirring up deep emotions. In the debate over abortion,
individuals don't classify themselves as "pro" or "anti"
abortion. Rather, they use the terms "pro-choice", or
"pro-life"-- "choice" and "life" are two
important values in U.S. society. People
often disagree over whether or not a symbol is appropriate for a given place
or circumstance. Several
years ago, there was much debate over whether or not McDonalds' "golden
arches," an internationally recognized symbol in its own right, should
be displayed so prominently over the VCU Student Commons' entrances.
Eventually, the arches were taken down.
people feel that language is unique to human beings. Other
species use signs with genetically fixed meanings and can learn to respond to
specified stimuli-- (Pavlov's dogs salivating at the ring of a bell)-- but only
humans can be said to have language. Language consists primarily of verbal
and written symbols with rules for putting them together. (Language also
consists of the nonverbal expressions which accompany speech in face-to-face
interaction. Raising an eyebrow or winking an eye often relays more
meaning than a hundred words. We can therefore modify our definition to
include "verbal, visual, and written symbols and their associated rules
for putting them together."
Is language really unique to humans? There are
a number of very interesting studies that suggest that certain animals have
a highly developed capacity for language. Click on the links, below
for some serious and scholarly references on animal communication.
This next site has some
interesting material on
- Language is
truly the "keystone to culture" for without it, we could not
pass on the collective experience of society and the lessons it
teaches for survival. It is the primary way that we pass on our
culture from one generation to the next. It enables us to store
meanings so we don't have to relearn everything with each generation.
- Language allows
us to create worlds we've never seen and develop new ideas to explain
the world around us. A good example is atomic theory. Before the
advent of the scanning electron microscope men had predicted the
existence of atoms and molecules using the symbols of language.
Language also allows us to develop new ideas to apply to the future.
- George Orwell realized
the importance of language in his epic work, 1984. Why did the
rulers of Oceania develop "Newspeak"? They wanted to
restrict the creative ability of humankind so they wouldn't have the
concepts of freedom, free enterprise, individuality. "The purpose
of newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the
worldview and mental habits proper to devotees of Ingsoc, but to make
all other modes of thought impossible." (Orwell, p. 246)
SapirWhorf Hypothesis states that language not only reproduces our
ideas, but it also shapes the way we think. It orders our reality. It
may prevent people from being aware of things in the environment and focuses
our attention on certain things. Examples:
- Sexist language
shapes our thinking about women. Coaches who ridiculed male players
when they weren't playing well by calling them ladies? Language that
treats women as objects; "chick, fox, babe, hot cakes, skirts,
etc. will tend to make us think of women as objects, not people.
language, ethnic language; Micks, Spicks, Whops, Pollocks, Degos,
Ollies, etc. tend to lower our image of people.
The human eye can discern thousands of different shades of color, yet
in our society we identify only 6 to 8 particular ones. A tribe
in New Guinea breaks colors into categories of "warm" and
"cold" (so much for the science of spectroscopy in that
- The Eskimos
have many different words for snow. Unless we ski a lot, most of
us use one-- "snow."
missionaries in Hawaii were shocked to find no word or concept for
- In (North)
American society, we tend to treat physical objects as if they had
wills of their own. If a pen rolls off a table, we'll say "It
fell off." or "It rolled off the table and fell on the
floor." The Russian culture works differently. Their response
would be something like "They did it." or "They caused
it to fall on the floor."
Are we slaves to our
language? The language we speak predisposes us to see the world in
certain ways, but language is extremely flexible. As we find ourselves
lacking words to describe new ideas, machines, processes, and technologies,
we coin new terms and phrases. "Black holes," "Quarks,"
and even "Supply side economics," are all creations of the mind and
examples showing where language has lagged behind conceptual ideas in the
Terms and Definitions
Related terms and definitions:
- Cultural universals: These imply practices common
to every culture. We've already discussed the Anthropologist, George
Murdock's proposed list of general traits found in every culture. It
seems that there are a large number of very general traits common to
all cultures, but no specific ones like what, exactly, defines murder,
incest, etc. in a society?
- Ethnocentrism: This is the tendency to judge
other cultures by the standards of our own. ("Body Ritual Among
- Cultural relativism: The recognition that one
culture cannot be arbitrarily judged by the standards of another. We
need to adopt this stance when studying other cultures.
- Cultural Integration: Culture is not a random
assemblage of skills, customs, values, and beliefs. These elements are
woven into a definite pattern and are somehow related to one another.
- Cultural Diversity: Common culture gives us a
sense of identity but there is a great deal of variation among groups.
We witness cultural diversity on both the international and national
levels. We've already talked about regional differences when we
compared the North with the South in the United States.
- Subcultures: Within a culture there may exist
groups of people who have their own distinct sets of values, customs,
and lifestyles. (Italian Americans, African Americans, Catholics,
Protestants, Jews, the young, the middle-aged, the old, etc.). We can
even say that there is a subculture of college life.
- Countercultures: a counterculture that is fundamentally
at odds with the dominant culture. (The youth movement of the 1960's,
- Real and Ideal culture: Ideal culture is what
the values say we believe in, what we should practice, while real
culture is what actually exists. Often there is a discrepancy between
the two resulting in cultural strain.
Approaches to the Study of Culture
There are several approaches
to the study of culture. Here are two examples:
- Functionalism looks at the roles that
components of culture play in maintaining the social order as a whole.
What are the consequences for a society if we remove or change one
element of its culture? (i.e. in America, the computer). The problem
with this approach is that it tends to overlook change when stressing
the functional relationships between variables. It also has a
pejorative or negative view of unbalance in the system, even when such
unbalance may mean social improvement.
- The Ecological approach examines the culture
of a given society in relation to the total environment in which it
exists. For example, why do people in India let sacred cows roam
the streets by the millions (100 million) when so many people are
hungry? One reason is that cows are needed to produce the oxen
which Indian farmers must have to plow the fields. Without them, even
more people will starve. Also, the cows produce over 700 million
tons of manure each year. Half of it is used for fertilizer; the other
half is used for fuel. When the cows die, they are eaten by the
untouchables or outcasts who are the hungriest people in the
population. The cows' hides are used in the leather industry.
Are we prisoners of our Culture?
No. Culture does make humans what
they are, but humans also make culture. We constantly make changes to our
culture. It guides us through life, but we also change and modify it to our
needs and desires. If we could not do this, everything would be the same from
generation to generation just like the bees and termites. It's hard for 2.
Processes of cultural change: Cultural change is usually slow and deliberate.
When changes occur in one cultural element (the economy) changes can be
expected elsewhere (politics). Things generally tend to be linked together.
There are three mechanisms by which cultural
- Discovery the perception or recognition of
something that already exists-- fire, the New World.
- Invention combining old knowledge to produce
something that did not exist before, the compass, for example.
- Diffusion the spread of cultural elements
from one culture to another. i.e. gun powder from China to the West.
Most cultural change occurs in this manner-- (Linton's "One
hundred Percent American" article).