Why It Matters: Culture and Society

Why differentiate between culture and society, describe the basic elements of culture, and compare types of societies?

Human beings have faced similar problems of survival across the years of human existence. Different groups have found various answers to the question, “How shall we live?” When a group of humans successfully found a way to survive, they began to value that approach to life. They built beliefs around their survival and acted on those beliefs and values. Such activities became normal to that group, and created their culture. Some cultures appear quite similar to our own while others seem extremely different.

Through their development, some cultures became increasingly complex while others remained simple. Anthropologist, scientist, and author Jared Diamond puzzled over this question (known as Yali’s question in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel) and attempts to understand why some cultures have dramatically more “stuff” than others.

Photo showing the backs of women wearing saris while shopping in India.

These Indian women are wearing colorful saris.

If you have traveled or lived outside the borders of the United States, or even if you have traveled within our own borders, across the country or sometimes simply across town, you already know that different groups of people have responded to the needs of life through creating different customs. Since the United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world, gaining an understanding of how other people “do” their cultural beliefs helps us to better understand and interact with people at home and abroad. Just like playing a game, if you know the rules, you will be more successful than if you do not. Understanding the basics of culture helps us to understand one another. Consider the following story:

An American business decided to combine a project with a sister company in India. The company made plans to send five employees over for a long-term stay in order to help orient the Indian employees to the company and provide some training and perhaps build some relationships. Once they landed in India, one of the Americans found that all of her luggage had been lost! She had to go out and purchase clothing and shoes to wear for their extended stay until her luggage might be located. Because she purchased clothing styled and made in India, she had no leather belts, jackets, or shoes and she was garbed in more traditional Indian clothing. As it turned out, the new employees took to her much more readily because she dressed as they did. They felt  much more comfortable with her than they did with the other Americans who dressed “strangely.”


  • Define culture, society, cultural universals, and cultural relativism
  • Describe the basic elements of culture
  • Examine pop culture, subculture, and cultural change
  • Discuss the major theoretical approaches to cultural interpretation
  • Describe of the evolution of societies
  • Contrast the various theoretical perspectives on society
  • Explain how society shapes reality