Culture and Society

Culture and Biology

Culture relates to nature (our biology and genetics) and nurture (our environment and surroundings that also shape our identities).

Learning Objectives

Examine the ways culture and biology interact to form societies, norms, rituals and other representations of culture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • “Culture” encompasses objects and symbols, the meaning given to those objects and symbols, and the norms, values, and beliefs that pervade social life.
  • Values reflect an individual’s or society ‘s sense of right and wrong or what “ought” to be.
  • Humans also have biological drives—hunger, thirst, need for sleep—whose unfulfillment can result in death.
  • Because of our biology and genetics, we have a particular form and we have certain abilities. These set essential limits on the variety of activities that humans can express culture, but there is still enormous diversity in this expression.
  • Culture refers to the way we understand ourselves as individuals and as members of society, including stories, religion, media, rituals, and even language itself.
  • Social Darwinism was the belief that the closer a cultural group was to the normative Western European standards of behavior and appearance, the more evolved they were.
  • Culture is the non-biological or social aspects of human life.
  • Culture refers to the way we understand ourselves as individuals and as members of society, including stories, religion, media, rituals, and even language itself.
  • Social Darwinism hinged on the belief that the closer cultural groups were to the normative Western European standards of behavior and appearance, the more evolved they were.

Key Terms

  • Social Darwinism: a theory that the laws of evolution by natural selection also apply to social structures.
  • culture: The beliefs, values, behavior, and material objects that constitute a people’s way of life.

Culture and Biology

Human beings are biological creatures. We are composed of blood and bones and flesh. At the most basic level, our genes express themselves in physical characteristics, affecting bodily aspects such as skin tone and eye color. Yet, human beings are much more than our biology, and this is evident particularly in the way humans generate, and live within, complex cultures.

Defining Culture

Culture is a term used by social scientists, like anthropologists and sociologists, to encompass all the facets of human experience that extend beyond our physical fact. Culture refers to the way we understand ourselves both as individuals and as members of society, and includes stories, religion, media, rituals, and even language itself.

It is critical to understand that the term culture does not describe a singular, fixed entity. Instead, it is a useful heuristic, or way of thinking, that can be very productive in understanding behavior. As a student of the social sciences, you should think of the word culture as a conceptual tool rather than as a uniform, static definition. Culture necessarily changes, and is changed by, a variety of interactions, with individuals, media, and technology, just to name a few.

The History of Culture as a Concept

Culture is primarily an anthropological term. The field of anthropology emerged around the same time as Social Darwinism, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Social Darwinism was the belief that the closer a cultural group was to the normative, Western, European standards of behavior and appearance, the more evolved that group was. As a theory of the world, it was essentially a racist concept that persists in certain forms up to this day. If you have ever heard someone reference people of African descent as being from, or close to, the jungle, or the wilderness, you’ve encountered a type of coded language that is a modern incarnation of Social Darwinist thought.

During the late 19th and early 20th century time period, the positivist school also emerged in sociological thought. One of the key figures in this school, Cesare Lombroso, studied the physical characteristics of prisoners, because he believed that he could find a biological basis for crime. Lombroso coined the term atavism to suggest that some individuals were throwbacks to a more bestial point in evolutionary history. Lombroso used this concept to claim that certain individuals were more weak-willed, and more prone to criminal activity, than their supposedly more evolved counterparts.

In accordance with the hegemonic beliefs of the time, anthropologists first theorized culture as something that evolves in the same way biological organisms evolve. Just like biological evolution, cultural evolution was thought to be an adaptive system that produced unique results depending on location and historical moment. However, unlike biological evolution, culture can be intentionally taught and thus spread from one group of people to another.

Initially, anthropologists believed that culture was a product of biological evolution, and that cultural evolution depended exclusively on physical conditions. Today’s anthropologists no longer believe it is this simple. Neither culture nor biology is solely responsible for the other. They interact in very complex ways, which biological anthropologists will be studying for years to come.

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Guildford Cathedral relief (UK): People began domesticating cattle many years before they developed the genes for lactose tolerance.

Culture and Society

Culture is what differentiates one group or society from the next; different societies have different cultures.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the various meanings of culture within society

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Different societies have different cultures; a culture represents the beliefs and practices of a group, while society represents the people who share those beliefs and practices.
  • Material culture refers to the objects or belongings of a group of people, such as automobiles, stores, and the physical structures where people worship. Nonmaterial culture, in contrast, consists of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society.
  • In 18th and 19th century Europe, the term “culture” was equated with civilization and considered a unique aspect of Western society. Remnants of that colonial definition of culture can be seen today in the idea of ” high culture “.
  • During the Romantic Era, culture became equated with nationalism and gave rise to the idea of multiple national cultures.
  • Today, social scientists understand culture as a society’s norms, values, and beliefs; as well as its objects and symbols, and the meaning given to those objects and symbols.

Key Terms

  • civilization: An organized culture encompassing many communities, often on the scale of a nation or a people; a stage or system of social, political or technical development.
  • high culture: The artistic entertainment and material artifacts associated with a society’s aristocracy or most learned members, usually requiring significant education to be appreciated or highly skilled labor to be produced.
  • popular culture: The prevailing vernacular culture in any given society, including art, cooking, clothing, entertainment, films, mass media, music, sports, and style
  • nationalism: The idea of supporting one’s country and culture; patriotism.

Culture encompasses human elements beyond biology: for example, our norms and values, the stories we tell, learned or acquired behaviors, religious beliefs, art and fashion, and so on. Culture is what differentiates one group or society from the next.

Different societies have different cultures; however it is important not to confuse the idea of culture with society. A culture represents the beliefs and practices of a group, while society represents the people who share those beliefs and practices. Neither society nor culture could exist without the other.

Defining Culture

Almost every human behavior, from shopping to marriage to expressions of feelings, is learned. Behavior based on learned customs is not necessarily a bad thing – being familiar with unwritten rules helps people feel secure and confident that their behaviors will not be challenged or disrupted. However even the simplest actions – such as commuting to work, ordering food from a restaurant, and greeting someone on the street – evidence a great deal of cultural propriety.

Material culture refers to the objects or belongings of a group of people (such as automobiles, stores, and the physical structures where people worship). Nonmaterial culture, in contrast, consists of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society. Material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas. A metro pass is a material object, but it represents a form of nonmaterial culture (namely capitalism, and the acceptance of paying for transportation). Clothing, hairstyles, and jewelry are part of material culture, but the appropriateness of wearing certain clothing for specific events reflects nonmaterial culture. A school building belongs to material culture, but the teaching methods and educational standards are part of education’s nonmaterial culture.

These material and nonmaterial aspects of culture can vary subtly from region to region. As people travel farther afield, moving from different regions to entirely different parts of the world, certain material and nonmaterial aspects of culture become dramatically unfamiliar. As we interact with cultures other than our own, we become more aware of our own culture – which might otherwise be invisible to us – and to the differences and commonalities between our culture and others.

The History of “Culture”

Some people think of culture in the singular, in the way that it was thought of in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries: as something achieved through evolution and progress. This concept of culture reflected inequalities within European societies and their colonies around the world; in short, it 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 therefore more “cultured” than others.

When people talk about culture in the sense of civilization or refinement, they are really talking about “high culture,” which is different from the sociological concept of culture. High culture refers to elite goods and activities, such as haute cuisine, high fashion or couture, museum-caliber art, and classical music. In common parlance, people may refer to others as being “cultured” if they know about and take part in these activities. Someone who uses 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. Popular (or “pop”) culture, by contrast, is more mainstream and influenced by mass media and the common opinion. Popular culture tends to change as tastes and opinions change over time, whereas high culture generally stays the same throughout the years. For example, Mozart is considered high culture, whereas Britney Spears is considered pop culture; Mozart is likely to still be popular in 100 years, but Britney Spears will likely be forgotten by all but a few.

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Aboriginal culture: Early colonial definitions of culture equated culture and civilization and characterized aboriginal people as uncivilized and uncultured.

This definition of culture only recognizes 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.

Although we still see remnants of this idea of high culture today, it has largely fallen out of practice. Its decline began during the Romantic Era, when scholars in Germany – especially those concerned with nationalism – developed the more inclusive notion of culture as a distinct worldview. Although more inclusive, this approach to culture still allowed for distinctions between so-called “civilized” and “primitive” cultures. By the late 19th century, anthropologists changed the concept of culture to include a wider variety of societies, ultimately resulting in the concept of culture adopted by social scientists today: 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; it distinguishes among different cultures, but does not rank them. 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 have culture. High culture simply refers to the objects, symbols, norms, values, and beliefs of a particular group of people; popular culture does the same.

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High culture: Ballet is traditionally considered a form of “high culture”.

Cultural Universals

A cultural universal is an element, pattern, trait, or institution that is common to all human cultures worldwide.

Learning Objectives

Discuss cultural universals in terms of the various elements of culture, such as norms and beliefs

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Cultural universals are elements, patterns, traits, or institutions that are common to all human cultures worldwide.
  • There is a tension in cultural anthropology and cultural sociology between the claim that culture is a universal and that it is also particular. The idea of cultural universals runs contrary in some ways to cultural relativism which was, in part, a response to Western ethnocentrism.
  • Ethnocentrism may take obvious forms. For example, the belief that one people’s culture is the most beautiful and true. Franz Boas understood “culture” to include not only certain tastes in food, art, and music, or beliefs about religion but instead assumed a much broader notion of culture.
  • Among the cultural universals listed by Donald Brown (1991) are abstract speech, figurative speech and metaphors, antonyms and synonyms, and units of time.
  • Among the cultural universals listed by Brown, some were investigated by Franz Boas. For example, Boas saw language as a means of categorizing experiences. Thus, although people may perceive visible radiation similarly, people who speak different languages slice up the continuum in different ways.
  • Since Franz Boas, two debates have dominated cultural anthropology.

Key Terms

  • culture: The beliefs, values, behavior, and material objects that constitute a people’s way of life.
  • particular: A specific case; an individual thing as opposed to a whole class.
  • universal: Common to all society; worldwide.

The sociology of culture concerns culture—usually understood as the ensemble of symbolic codes used by a society—as it is manifested in society. The elements of culture include (1) symbols (anything that carries particular meaning recognized by people who share the same culture); (2) language (system of symbols that allows people to communicate with one another); (3) values (culturally-defined standards that serve as broad guidelines for social living; (4) beliefs (specific statements that people hold to be true); and (5) norms (rules and expectations by which a society guides the behavior of its members). While these elements of culture may be seen in various contexts over time and across geography, a cultural universal is an element, pattern, trait, or institution that is common to all human cultures worldwide. Taken together, the whole body of cultural universals is known as the human condition. Among the cultural universals listed by Donald Brown (1991) are abstract speech, figurative speech and metaphors, antonyms and synonyms, and units of time.

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First-Cousin Marriage Laws in the U.S.: In states marked dark blue, first-cousin marriage is legal. Light blue signifies that it is legal but has restrictions or exceptions. Pink signifies that it is banned with exceptions; red signifies that it is banned via statute, and dark red signifies that it is a criminal offense.

The concept of a cultural universal has long been discussed in the social sciences. Cultural universals are elements, patterns, traits, or institutions that are common to all human cultures worldwide. There is a tension in cultural anthropology and cultural sociology between the claim that culture is a universal (the fact that all human societies have culture), and that it is also particular (culture takes a tremendous variety of forms around the world). The idea of cultural universals—that specific aspects of culture are common to all human cultures—runs contrary to cultural relativism. Cultural relativism was, in part, a response to Western ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism may take obvious forms, in which one consciously believes that one people’s arts are the most beautiful, values the most virtuous, and beliefs the most truthful. Franz Boas argued that one’s culture may mediate and thus limit one’s perceptions in less obvious ways. He understood “culture” to include not only certain tastes in food, art, and music, or beliefs about religion but instead assumed a much broader notion of culture.

Among the cultural universals listed by Donald Brown, some of these were investigated by Franz Boas. For example, Boas called attention to the idea that language is a means of categorizing experiences, hypothesizing that the existence of different languages suggests that people categorize, and thus experience, language differently. Therefore, although people may perceive visible radiation the same way, in terms of a continuum of color, people who speak different languages slice up this continuum into discrete colors in different ways.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life in a new country.

Learning Objectives

Discuss culture shock in terms of its four phases – honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country.
  • Culture shock can be described as consisting of at least one of four distinct phases: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and mastery.
  • During the honeymoon phase, the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light.
  • After some time (usually around three months, depending on the individual), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety. This is the mark of the negotiation phase.
  • In the adjustment phase, one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines.
  • Lastly, in the mastery stage, assignees are able to participate fully and comfortably in the host culture.
  • In the Adjustment phase, one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines.
  • One knows what to expect in most situations and the host country no longer feels all that new.
  • Lastly, in the Mastery stage, assignees are able to participate fully and comfortably in the host culture.

Key Terms

  • biculturalism: The state or quality of being bicultural.

Culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, or to a move between social environments. One of the most common causes of culture shock involves individuals in a foreign country. There is no true way to entirely prevent culture shock, as individuals in any society are personally affected by cultural contrasts differently.

Culture shock can be described as consisting of at least one of four distinct phases: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and mastery. During the honeymoon phase, the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light. During the first few weeks, most people are fascinated by the new culture. They associate with nationals who speak their language, and who are polite to the foreigners. This period is full of observations and new discoveries. Like most honeymoon periods, this stage eventually ends.

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Culture Shock: Enthusiastic welcome offered to the first Indian student to arrive in Dresden, East Germany (1951).

After some time (usually around three months, depending on the individual), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety. This is the mark of the negotiation phase. Excitement may eventually give way to unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger as one continues to experience unfavorable events that may be perceived as strange and offensive to one’s cultural attitude. Still, the most important change in the period is communication. People adjusting to a new culture often feel lonely and homesick because they are not yet used to the new environment and meet people with whom they are not familiar every day.

Again, after some time, one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines, marking the adjustment phase. One knows what to expect in most situations and the host country no longer feels all that new. One becomes concerned with basic living again and things become more normal. One starts to develop problem-solving skills for dealing with the culture and begins to accept the culture’s ways with a positive attitude. The culture begins to make sense and negative reactions and responses to the culture are reduced.

In the mastery stage, assignees are able to participate fully and comfortably in the host culture. Mastery does not mean total conversion. People often keep many traits from their earlier culture, such as accents and languages. It is often referred to as the biculturalism stage.

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Ethnocentrism, in contrast to cultural relativism, is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one’s own culture.

Learning Objectives

Examine the concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism in relation to your own and other cultures in society

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Ethnocentrism often entails the belief that one’s own race or ethnic group is the most important 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, behavior, customs, and religion.
  • 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.
  • Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual person’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture.

Key Terms

  • ethnocentrism: The tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one’s own culture.
  • cultural relativism: Cultural relativism is a principle that was established as axiomatic in anthropological research by Franz Boas in the first few decades of the twentieth century, and later popularized by his students. Boas first articulated the idea in 1887: “…civilization is not something absolute, but… is relative, and… our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes. “

Ethnocentrism, a term coined by William Graham Sumner, is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of your own ethnic culture and the belief that that is in fact the “right” way to look at the world. This leads to making incorrect assumptions about others’ behavior based on your own norms, values, and beliefs. For instance, reluctance or aversion to trying another culture’s cuisine is ethnocentric. Social scientists strive to treat cultural differences as neither inferior nor superior. That way, they can understand their research topics within the appropriate cultural context and examine their own biases and assumptions at the same time.

This approach is known as “cultural relativism.” Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual person’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture. A key component of cultural relativism is the concept that nobody, not even researchers, comes from a neutral position. The way to deal with our own assumptions is not to pretend that they don’t exist but rather to acknowledge them, and then use the awareness that we are not neutral to inform our conclusions.

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.

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Cultural context: Depending on your cultural background, this may or may not look delicious.

Material Culture

In the social sciences, material culture is a term that refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations.

Learning Objectives

Give examples of material culture and how it can help sociologist understand a particular society

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Studying a culture ‘s relationship to materiality is a lens through which social and cultural attitudes can be discussed. People’s relationship to and perception of objects are socially and culturally dependent.
  • A view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, varying from place to place, led anthropologists to conceive of different cultures as having distinct patterns of enduring conventional sets of meaning.
  • Anthropologists 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 and 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.

Key Terms

  • material culture: In the social sciences, material culture is a term, developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, that refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations.
  • Symbolic culture: Symbolic culture is a concept used by archaeologists, social anthropologists and sociologists to designate the cultural realm constructed and inhabited uniquely by Homo sapiens.

In the social sciences, material culture refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations. Material culture consists in physical objects that humans make. These objects inevitably reflect the historical, geographic, and social conditions of their origin. For instance, the clothes that you are wearing might tell researchers of the future about the fashions of today.

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Clothes as Material Culture: Fashion is part of material culture.

People’s relationship to and perception of objects are socially and culturally dependent. Accordingly, social and cultural attitudes can be discussed through the lens of a culture’s relationship to materiality.

Material culture is also a term used by historians, sometimes termed “material history,” which refers to the study of ancient objects and artifacts in order to understand how a particular culture was organized and functioned over time.

This view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, varying from place to place, led anthropologists to view different cultures as having distinct patterns of enduring conventional sets of meaning. 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 and 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.

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Periodicals as Material Culture: Media, such as magazines, are part of material culture.

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Computers as Material Culture: Computers are an increasingly common part of everyday life for most people. They constitute an increasingly significant part of our material culture.

Nonmaterial Culture

Non-material culture includes the behaviors, ideas, norms, values, and beliefs that contribute to a society’s overall culture.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the different ways norms, values and beliefs interact to form non-material culture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In contrast to material culture, non-material culture does not include physical objects or artifacts.
  • It includes things that have no existence in the physical world but exist entirely in the symbolic realm.
  • Examples are concepts such as good and evil, mythical inventions such as gods and underworlds, and social constructs such as promises and football games.
  • The concept of symbolic culture draws from semiotics and emphasizes the way in which distinctively human culture is mediated through signs and concepts.
  • The symbolic aspect of distinctively human culture has been emphasized in anthropology by Emile Durkheim, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, and many others.
  • Semiotics emphasises the way in which distinctively human culture is mediated through signs and concepts.

Key Terms

  • social construct: Social constructs are generally understood to be the by-products of countless human choices rather than laws resulting from divine will or nature.

Culture as a general concept consists of both material and non-material culture. Material culture is a term developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations. In contrast, non-material culture does not include physical objects or artifacts. Examples include any ideas, beliefs, values, or norms that shape a society.

When sociologists talk about norms, they are talking about what’s considered normal, appropriate, or ordinary for a particular group of people. Social norms are group-held beliefs about how members should behave in a given context. Sociologists describe norms as laws that govern society’s behaviors. Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms. Norms are rules for behavior in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as good or evil. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it exhibits patriotism, which is a value. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral. In certain cultures they reflect the values of respect and support of friends and family. Different cultures honor different values. Finally, beliefs are the way people think the universe operates. Beliefs can be religious or secular, and they can refer to any aspect of life. For instance, many people in the U.S. believe that hard work is the key to success.

Members take part in a culture even if each member’s personal values do not entirely agree with some of the normative values sanctioned in the culture. This reflects an individual’s ability to synthesize and extract aspects valuable to them from the multiple subcultures they belong to.

Norms, values, and beliefs are all deeply interconnected. Together, they provide a way to understand culture.