The Symbolic Nature of Culture

The Symbolic Nature of Culture

The symbolic systems that people use to capture and communicate their experiences form the basis of shared cultures.

Learning Objectives

Relate the idea that culture is symbolically coded to arguments about the dynamism of cultures

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A symbol is any object, typically material, which is meant to represent another (usually abstract), even if there is no meaningful relationship.
  • Culture is based on a shared set of symbols and meanings. Symbolic culture enables human communication and must be taught.
  • Symbolic culture is more malleable and adaptable than biological evolution.
  • The belief that culture is symbolically coded and can be taught from one person to another means that cultures, although bounded, can change.
  • According to sociologists, symbols make up one of the 5 key elements of culture; the other key elements are language, values, beliefs, and norms.

Key Terms

  • symbol: Any object, typically material, which is meant to represent another (usually abstract), even if there is no meaningful relationship.
  • Max Weber: (1864–1920) A German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist who profoundly influenced social theory, social research, and the discipline of sociology itself.

A symbol is any object, typically material, which is meant to represent another (usually abstract) object, even if there is no meaningful relationship. Anthropologists have argued that, through the course of their evolution, human beings evolved a universal human capacity to classify experiences, and encode and communicate them symbolically, such as with written language. 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.

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The Polish Alphabets: Cultures are shared systems of symbols and meanings. Alphabets are one example of a symbolic element of culture.

This view of culture argues that people living apart from one another develop unique cultures. Elements of different cultures, however, can easily spread from one group of people to another. The belief that culture is symbolically coded and can, therefore, be taught from one person to another, means that cultures, although bounded, can change. 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; culture 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. These meanings took concrete form in a variety of artifacts such as myths and rituals, tools, the design of housing, and the planning of villages. 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 that require different methodologies to study.

The sociology of culture concerns culture as it is manifested in society: the ways of thinking, the ways of acting, and the material objects that together shape a people’s way of life. According to Max Weber, symbols are important aspects of culture: people use symbols to express their spirituality and the spiritual side of real events, and ideal interests are derived from symbols. According to sociologists, symbols make up one of the five key elements of culture, the others being language, values, beliefs, and norms.

The Origins of Language

The origin of language is a widely discussed and controversial topic due to very limited empirical evidence.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast continuity-based theories and discontinuity-based theories about the origin of language

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • There is no consensus on the ultimate origin or age of human language.
  • Continuity-based theories stress that language is so complex that it must have evolved from earlier pre-linguistic systems among pre-humans.
  • Discontinuity-based theories stress that language is a unique human trait that appeared fairly suddenly in the transition from pre-hominids to early man.

Key Terms

  • language: A form of communication using words either spoken or gestured with the hands and structured with grammar, often with a writing system.
  • symbolic: Referring to something with an implicit meaning.
  • prehistory: The history of human culture prior to written records.

The origin of language in the human species is a widely discussed topic. There is no consensus on ultimate origin or age. Empirical evidence is limited, and many scholars continue to regard the whole topic as unsuitable for serious study.

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Language in daily life: The origin of language in the human species is a widely discussed topic.

Theories about the origin of language can be divided according to their basic assumptions. Some theories are based on the idea that language is so complex that one cannot imagine it simply appearing from nothing in its final form, but that it must have evolved from earlier pre-linguistic systems among our pre-human ancestors. These theories can be called continuity-based theories.

The opposite viewpoint is that language is such a unique human trait that it cannot be compared to anything found among non-humans and that it must therefore have appeared fairly suddenly in the transition from pre-hominids to early man. These theories can be defined as discontinuity-based.

Similarly, some theories see language mostly as an innate faculty that is largely genetically encoded, while others see it as a system that is largely cultural—that is, learned through social interaction. Currently the only prominent proponent of a discontinuity theory of human language origins is Noam Chomsky.

Continuity-based theories are currently held by a majority of scholars, but they vary in how they envision this development. Those who see language as being mostly innate, such as Steven Pinker, hold the precedents to be animal cognition, whereas those who see language as a socially learned tool of communication, such as Michael Tomasello, see it as having developed from animal communication, either primate gestural or vocal communication. Other continuity-based models see language as having developed from music.

Because the emergence of language is located in the early prehistory of man, the relevant developments have left no direct historical traces and no comparable processes can be observed today. Theories that stress continuity often look at animals to see if, for example, primates display any traits that can be seen as analogous to what pre-human language must have been like. Alternatively early human fossils can be inspected to look for traces of physical adaptation to language use or for traces of pre-linguistic forms of symbolic behaviour.

Language

Language may refer either to the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such.

Learning Objectives

Compare the different ways in which language can be studied

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The word ” language ” has at least two basic meanings: language as a general concept, and “a language” (a specific linguistic system, e.g. “French”), a distinction first made by Ferdinand de Saussure.
  • Languages, understood as the particular set of speech norms of a particular community, are also a part of the larger culture of the community that speak them.
  • Humans use language as a way of signalling identity with one cultural group and difference from others.
  • The organic definition of language sees language primarily as the mental faculty that allows humans to undertake linguistic behavior–to learn languages and produce and understand utterances.
  • The structuralist view of language sees language as a formal system of signs governed by grammatical rules of combination to communicate meaning.
  • The functional theory of language sees language as a system of communication that enables humans to cooperate.
  • Humans use language as a way of signalling identity with one cultural group and difference from others.
  • The organic definition of language sees language primarily as the mental faculty that allows humans to undertake linguistic behaviour: to learn languages and produce and understand utterances. These kinds of definitions are often applied by studies of language within a cognitive science framework and in neurolinguistics.
  • The structuralist view of language sees language as a formal system of signs governed by grammatical rules of combination to communicate meaning. This definition stresses the fact that human languages can be described as closed structural systems consisting of rules that relate particular signs to particular meanings.
  • The functional theory of language sees language as a system of communication that enables humans to cooperate. This definition stresses the social functions of language and the fact that humans use it to express themselves and to manipulate objects in their environment.

Key Terms

  • semiotics: The study of signs and symbols, especially as means of language or communication.
  • linguistics: The scientific study of language.

Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication. The scientific study of language in any of its senses is called linguistics.

The word language has at least two basic meanings: language as a general concept, and a specific linguistic system (e.g. French). Ferdinand de Saussure first explicitly formulated the distinction, using the French word langage for language as a concept, and langue as the specific instance of language.

One definition sees language primarily as the mental faculty that allows humans to undertake linguistic behaviour–to learn languages and produce and understand utterances. These kinds of definitions are often applied by studies of language within a cognitive science framework and in neurolinguistics.

Another definition sees language as a formal system of signs governed by grammatical rules of combination to communicate meaning. This definition stresses the fact that human languages can be described as closed structural systems consisting of rules that relate particular signs to particular meanings.

Yet another definition sees language as a system of communication that enables humans to cooperate. This definition stresses the social functions of language and the fact that humans use it to express themselves and to manipulate objects in their environment.

When described as a system of symbolic communication, language is traditionally seen as consisting of three parts: signs, meanings, and a code connecting signs with their meanings. The study of how signs and meanings are combined, used, and interpreted is called semiotics.

Languages, understood as the particular set of speech norms of a particular community, are also a part of the larger culture of the community that speaks them. Humans use language as a way of signalling identity with one cultural group and difference from others. Human languages are usually referred to as natural languages, and the science of studying them falls under the purview of linguistics. Human language is unique in comparison to other forms of communication, such as those used by animals, because it allows humans to produce an infinite set of utterances from a finite set of elements.

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A Bilingual Sign: Members of a culture usually share a common language. Here, a bilingual sign in Wales tells both English and Welsh speakers that smoking is prohibited.

Language and Perception

Various theories assume that language is not simply a representational tool; rather it fundamentally shapes our perception.

Learning Objectives

Explain the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualize their world (i.e., world view), or otherwise influences their cognitive processes.
  • A main point of debate in the discussion of linguistic relativity is the strength of correlation between language and thought. The strongest form of correlation is linguistic determinism, which holds that language entirely determines an individual’s range of possible cognitive processes.
  • The hypothesis of linguistic determinism is now generally agreed to be false, although many researchers still study weaker forms of correlation, often producing positive empirical evidence for a correlation.
  • The crucial question is whether human psychological faculties are mostly universal and innate, or whether they are mostly a result of learning, and, therefore, subject to cultural and social processes that vary between places and times.

Key Terms

  • Perception: (cognition) That which is detected by the five senses; not necessarily understood (imagine looking through fog, trying to understand if you see a small dog or a cat); also that which is detected within consciousness as a thought, intuition, deduction, etc.
  • relativity: The state of being relative to something else.

Various theories assume that language fundamentally shapes our perception. One example is the principle of linguistic relativity. This principle holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualize his or her world (worldview) or otherwise influences their cognitive processes. Popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined as having two versions:

  1. The strong version states that language determines thought and emotions/feelings, and linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories
  2. The weak version argues that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior.

The concept of linguistic relativity describes different formulations of the principle that cognitive processes, such as thought, emotion/feelings and experience, may be influenced by the categories and patterns of the language a person speaks. Empirical research into the question has been associated mainly with the names of Benjamin Lee Whorf, who wrote on the topic in the 1930s, and his mentor Edward Sapir, who did not himself write extensively on the topic.

A main point of debate in the discussion of linguistic relativity is the strength of correlation between language and thought and emotion/feelings. The strongest form of correlation is linguistic determinism, which holds that language entirely determines the range of possible cognitive processes of an individual. The hypothesis of linguistic determinism is now generally agreed to be false, though many researchers are still studying weaker forms of correlation, often producing positive empirical evidence for a correlation.

On Language and Perception: Cognition and Communication Research Centre film describing recent research on the mapping between language and perception, and whether the language one speaks affects how one thinks.

The centrality of the question of the relation between thought or emotions/feelings and language has brought attention to the issue of linguistic relativity, not only from linguists and psychologists, but also from anthropologists, philosophers, literary theorists, and political scientists. For example, can people experience or feel something they have no word to explain it with?

The crucial question is whether human psychological faculties are mostly universal and innate, or whether they are mostly a result of learning, and, therefore, subject to cultural and social processes that vary between places and times. The Universalist view holds that all humans share the same set of basic faculties, and that variability due to cultural differences is negligible. This position often sees the human mind as mostly a biological construction, so that all humans sharing the same neurological configuration can be expected to have similar or identical basic cognitive patterns.

The contrary position can be described in several ways. The constructivist view holds that human faculties and concepts are largely influenced by socially constructed and learned categories that are not subject to many biological restrictions. The idealist view holds that the human mental capacities are generally unrestricted by their biological-material basis. The essentialist view holds that there may be essential differences in the ways the different individuals or groups experience and conceptualize the world. The relativist position, which basically refers to a kind of Cultural relativism, sees different cultural groups as having different conceptual schemes that are not necessarily compatible or commensurable, nor more or less in accord with the external reality.

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Edward Sapir: Empirical research into the question of linguistic relativity has been associated mainly with the names of Benjamin Lee Whorf, who wrote on the topic in the 1930s, and his mentor Edward Sapir, who did not himself write extensively on the topic.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that language shapes the way we see the world.

Symbols and Nature

Language is a symbolic system of communication based on a complex system of rules relating spoken, signed, or written symbols.

Learning Objectives

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Human language is thought to be fundamentally different from and of much higher complexity than that of other species as it is based on a complex system of rules that result in an indefinite number of possible utterances from a finite number of elements.
  • Written languages use visual symbols to represent the sounds of the spoken languages, but they still require syntactic rules that govern the production of meaning from sequences of words.
  • Human language differs from communication used by animals because the symbols and grammatical rules of any particular language are largely arbitrary, so that the system can only be acquired through social interaction.
  • The study of how signs and meanings are combined, used, and interpreted is called semiotics.
  • Signs can be composed of sounds, gestures, letters, or symbols, depending on whether the language is spoken, signed, or written.
  • Language is traditionally seen as consisting of three parts: signs, meanings, and a code connecting signs with their meanings.

Key Terms

  • semiotics: The study of signs and symbols, especially as means of language or communication.
  • human language: Human language is typically used for communication, and may be spoken, signed, or written.
  • written language: A written language is the representation of a language by means of a writing system.

Language is traditionally thought to consist of three parts: signs, meanings, and a code connecting signs with their meanings. Semiotics is the study of how signs and meanings are combined, used, and interpreted. Signs can consist of sounds, gestures, letters, or symbols, depending on whether the language is spoken, signed, or written.

Language as a whole, therefore, is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication. A single language is any specific example of such a system. Language is based on complex rules relating spoken, signed, or written symbols to their meanings. What results is an indefinite number of possible innovative utterances from a finite number of elements.

Human language is thought to be fundamentally different from and of much higher complexity than the communication systems of other species (). Human language differs from communication used by animals () because the symbols and grammatical rules of any particular language are largely arbitrary, meaning that the system can only be acquired through social interaction. ()

Can Parrots Really Talk?: Parrots mimic the sounds of human language, but have they really learned the symbolic system?

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A Barking Dog: Animal sounds, like a dog’s bark, may serve basic communication functions, but they lack the symbolic elements of human language.

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A Sentence Diagram: Human language’s grammatical structure makes it unique.

Written language is the representation of a language by means of a writing system. Written language exists only as a complement to a specific spoken language. Written languages use visual symbols to represent the sounds of the spoken languages, but they still require syntactic rules that govern the production of meaning from sequences of words.

A sign language is a language which, instead of acoustically conveying sound patterns, uses manual communication and body language to convey meaning. This can involve simultaneously combining hand shapes; orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body; and facial expressions to fluidly express a speaker’s thoughts. Sign languages, like spoken languages, organize elementary units into meaningful semantic units.

Gestures

A gesture is a form of non-verbal communication in which visible bodily actions communicate particular messages.

Learning Objectives

Explain the role of gestures in the communication process

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Gestures allow individuals to communicate a variety of feelings and thoughts, from contempt and hostility to approval and affection, often together with body language in addition to spoken words.
  • The most familiar categories of gestures are the so-called emblems or quotable gestures. These are conventional, culture -specific gestures that can be used as replacement for words, such as the handwave used in the U.S. for “hello” and “goodbye”.
  • Another broad category of gestures comprises those gestures used spontaneously when we speak. These gestures are closely coordinated with speech.
  • Gestural languages such as American Sign Language and its regional siblings operate as complete natural languages that are gestural in modality.
  • Gesturing is probably universal; there have been no reports of communities that do not gesture. Gestures are a crucial part of everyday conversation such as chatting, describing a route, or negotiating prices on a market.

Key Terms

  • gesture: A motion of the limbs or body, especially one made to emphasize speech.
  • quotable gestures: Quotable gestures are conventional, culture-specific gestures that can be used as replacement for words.
  • gestural languages: A gestural language is a language which, instead of acoustically conveyed sound patterns, uses manual communication and body language to convey meaning. This can involve simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to fluidly express a speaker’s thoughts.

A gesture is a form of non-verbal communication in which visible bodily actions communicate particular messages, either in place of speech or together and in parallel with spoken words. Gestures include movement of the hands, face, or other parts of the body. Gestures differ from physical non-verbal communication that does not communicate specific messages, such as purely expressive displays, proxemics, or displays of joint attention. Gestures allow individuals to communicate a variety of feelings and thoughts, from contempt and hostility to approval and affection, often together with body language in addition to spoken words.

The most familiar categories of gestures are the so-called emblems or quotable gestures. These are conventional, culture-specific gestures that can be used as replacement for words, such as the handwave used in the U.S. for “hello” and “goodbye. ” Another broad category of gestures comprises those gestures used spontaneously when we speak. These gestures are closely coordinated with speech. Gestural languages such as American Sign Language and its regional siblings operate as complete natural languages that are gestural.

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Gestural Language: American Sign Language, or ASL, is a gestural language. This is how to sign the letters A-S-L.

Many animals, including humans, use gestures to initiate a mating ritual. This may include elaborate dances and other movements. Gestures play a major role in many aspects of human life. Gesturing is probably universal; there have been no reports of communities that do not gesture. Gestures are a crucial part of everyday conversation such as chatting, describing a route, or negotiating prices on a market; they are ubiquitous. Gestures have been documented in the arts such as in Greek vase paintings, Indian Miniatures, and European paintings.

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Hand Gestures: Military air marshallers use hand and body gestures to direct flight operations aboard aircraft carriers.

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Pointing: Pointing at another person with an extended finger is considered rude in many cultures.

Values

Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members, which identify what should be judged as good or evil.

Learning Objectives

Contrast values and norms

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The values of a society can often be identified by noting which people receive honor or respect.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Values clarification is helping people clarify what their lives are for and what is worth working for.
  • Cognitive moral education is based on the belief that students should learn to value things like democracy and justice as their moral reasoning develops.

Key Terms

  • norm: A rule that is enforced by members of a community.
  • culture: The beliefs, values, behavior, and material objects that constitute a people’s way of life.
  • subculture: A portion of a culture distinguished from the larger society around it by its customs or other features.

Values can be defined as broad preferences concerning appropriate courses of action or outcomes. Values reflect a person’s sense of right and wrong, or what “ought” to be. Some examples of values are the concepts of “equal rights for all,” “excellence deserves admiration,” and “people should be treated with respect and dignity. ” Values tend to influence attitudes and behavior.

Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members. Different cultures reflect different values. Noting which people receive honor or respect can provide clues to the values of a society. In the US, for example, some professional athletes are honored (in the form of monetary payment) more than college professors.

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 reflects the value of patriotism. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral; in certain cultures, this reflects the values of respect for and support of friends and family. Different cultures reflect different values.

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 to which they belong. If a group member expresses a value that is in serious conflict with the group’s norms, the group’s authority may encourage conformity or stigmatize the non-conforming behavior of its members.

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Punk: Punk social groups are often considered marginal and are excluded from certain mainstream social spaces.

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Declaration of Independence: Independence and freedom are fundamental values in the U.S.

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Punks as non-conformists: Members of the punk movement refused to conform to some of the normative values prevalent in Western culture.

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The Liberty Bell: Many consider liberty to be a fundamental American value.

Norms

Social norms are the explicit or implicit rules specifying what behaviors are acceptable within a society or group.

Learning Objectives

Explain the origin, reinforcement, and significance of social norms in a society or group

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Norms can be defined as the shared ways of thinking, feeling, desiring, deciding, and acting which are observable in regularly repeated behaviours and are adopted because they are assumed to solve problems.
  • Social norms are neither static nor universal; they change with respect to time and vary with respect to culture, social classes, and social groups.
  • Social norms can be enforced formally (e.g., through sanctions ) or informally (e.g., through body language and non-verbal communication cues).
  • One form of norm adoption is the formal method, where norms are written down and formally adopted. However, social norms are more likely to be informal and emerge gradually (e.g., not wearing socks with sandals).

Key Terms

  • social classes: Social class (or simply “class”) is a set of concepts in the social sciences and political theory centered on models of social stratification in which people are grouped into a set of hierarchical social categories.
  • social group: A collection of humans or animals that share certain characteristics, interact with one another, accept expectations and obligations as members of the group, and share a common identity.
  • social norms: Social norms are described by sociologists as being laws that govern society’s behaviors.

Social norms are the explicit or implicit rules specifying acceptable behaviors within a society or group. They define the expected or acceptable behavior in particular circumstances. Social norms can also be defined as the shared ways of thinking, feeling, desiring, deciding, and acting which are observable in regularly repeated behaviors and are adopted because they are assumed to solve problems.

Social norms are neither static nor universal; they change with respect to time and vary with respect to culture, social classes, and social groups. What is deemed acceptable dress, speech, or behavior in one social group may not be acceptable in another.

Deference to social norms maintains one’s acceptance and popularity within a particular group. Social norms can be enforced formally (e.g., through sanctions) or informally (e.g., through body language and non-verbal communication cues). By ignoring or breaking social norms, one risks facing formal sanctions or quiet disapproval, finding oneself unpopular with or ostracized from a group.

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Formal Sanctions: Norms may be enforced through informal sanctions, such as derision, or formal sanctions, such as arrest.

As social beings, individuals learn when and where it is appropriate to say certain things, use certain words, discuss certain topics, or wear certain clothes, and when it is not. Groups may adopt norms in two different ways. One form of norm adoption is the formal method, where norms are written down and formally adopted (e.g., laws, legislation, club rules). Social norms are much more likely to be informal and to emerge gradually (e.g., not wearing socks with sandals).

Social Norms of Personal Space: Students demonstrate social norms of personal space by violating the norms. This type of experiment is called a breaching experiment.

Groups internalize norms by accepting them as reasonable and proper standards for behavior within the group. That said, while it is more likely that a new individual entering a group will adopt the group’s norms, values, and perspectives, newcomers to a group can also change a group’s norms.

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Same-Sex Marriage and Social Norms: In most Western countries, norms have prohibited same-sex marriage, but those norms are now changing.

Sanctions

As opposed to forms of internal control, like norms and values, sociologists consider sanctions a form of external control.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between methods of formal and informal social control

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Sanctions can either be positive ( rewards ) or negative (punishment).
  • Sanctions can arise from either formal or informal control.
  • With informal sanctions, ridicule or ostracism can realign a straying individual towards norms. Informal sanctions may include shame, ridicule, sarcasm, criticism, and disapproval.
  • Groups, organizations, and societies of various kinds can promulgate rules that act as formal sanctions to reward or punish behavior. For example, government and organizations use law enforcement mechanisms and other formal sanctions such as fines and imprisonment.
  • To maintain control and regulate their subjects, authoritarian organizations and governments use severe sanctions such as censorship, expulsion, and limits on political freedom.

Key Terms

  • social control: any control, either formal or informal, that is exerted by a group, especially by one’s peers
  • sanction: a penalty, or some coercive measure, intended to ensure compliance; especially one adopted by several nations, or by an international body
  • Informal sanctions: These are the reactions of individuals and groups that bring about conformity to norms and laws. These can include peer and community pressure, bystander intervention in a crime, and collective responses such as citizen patrol groups.

Sanctions

Sanctions are mechanisms of social control. As opposed to forms of internal control, like cultural norms and values, sociologists consider sanctions a form of external control. Sanctions can either be positive (rewards) or negative (punishment), and can arise from either formal or informal control.

Formal and Informal Sanctions: Societies use formal and informal sanctions to enforce norms.

Informal Social Control and Deviance

The social values present in individuals are products of informal social control. This type of control emerges from society, but is rarely stated explicitly to individuals. Instead, it is expressed and transmitted indirectly, through customs, norms and mores. Whether consciously or not, individuals are socialized. With informal sanctions, ridicule or ostracism can cause a straying individual to realign behavior toward group norms. Informal sanctions may include shame, ridicule, sarcasm, criticism, and disapproval. In extreme cases, sanctions may include social discrimination and exclusion. If a young boy is caught skipping school, and his peers ostracize him for his deviant behavior, they are exercising an informal sanction on him. Informal sanctions can check deviant behavior of individuals or groups, either through internalization, or through disincentivizing the deviant behavior.

As with formal controls, informal controls reward or punish acceptable or unacceptable behavior, otherwise known as deviance. Informal controls are varied and differ from individual to individual, group to group, and society to society. To maintain control and regulate their subjects, groups, organizations, and societies of various kinds can promulgate rules that act as formal sanctions to reward or punish behavior. For example, in order to regulate behavior, government and organizations use law enforcement mechanisms and other formal sanctions such as fines and imprisonment. Authoritarian organizations and governments may rely on more directly aggressive sanctions. These actions might include censorship, expulsion, restrictions on political freedom, or violence. Typically, these more extreme sanctions emerge in situations where the public disapproves of either the government or organization in question.

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A Prison Cell Block: Incarceration is a type of formal sanction.

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Shame: Shame can be used as a type of informal sanction.

Folkways and Mores

Folkways and mores are informal norms that dictate behavior; however, the violation of mores carries heavier consequences.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between folkways and mores

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Societal norms, or rules that are enforced by members of a community, can exist as both formal and informal rules of behavior. Informal norms can be divided into two distinct groups: folkways and mores.
  • Both “mores” and “folkways” are terms coined by the American sociologist William Graham Sumner.
  • Mores distinguish the difference between right and wrong, while folkways draw a line between right and rude. While folkways may raise an eyebrow if violated, mores dictate morality and come with heavy consequences.

Key Terms

  • mores: A set of moral norms or customs derived from generally accepted practices. Mores derive from the established practices of a society rather than its written laws.
  • William Graham Sumner: An American academic with numerous books and essays on American history, economic history, political theory, sociology, and anthropology.
  • folkway: A custom or belief common to members of a society or culture.

Societal norms, or rules that are enforced by members of a community, can exist as both formal and informal rules of behavior. Informal norms can be divided into two distinct groups: folkways and mores. Folkways are informal rules and norms that, while not offensive to violate, are expected to be followed. Mores (pronounced more-rays) are also informal rules that are not written, but, when violated, result in severe punishments and social sanction upon the individuals, such as social and religious exclusions,.

William Graham Sumner, an early U.S. sociologist, recognized that some norms are more important to our lives than others. Sumner coined the term mores to refer to norms that are widely observed and have great moral significance. Mores are often seen as taboos; for example, most societies hold the more that adults not engage in sexual relations with children. Mores emphasize morality through right and wrong, and come with heavy consequences if violated.

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William Graham Sumner, 1840-1910: William Graham Sumner coined the terms “folkways” and “mores. “

Sumner also coined the term folkway to refer to norms for more routine or casual interaction. This includes ideas about appropriate greetings and proper dress in different situations. In comparison to the morality of mores, folkways dictate what could be considered either polite or rude behavior. Their violation does not invite any punishment or sanctions, but may come with reprimands or warnings.

An example to distinguish the two: a man who does not wear a tie to a formal dinner party may raise eyebrows for violating folkways; were he to arrive wearing only a tie, he would violate cultural mores and invite a more serious response.