These factors shape people’s behaviors, perceptions, decisions, and interactions with others (Calhoun, 2002). We can use these factors to get a better understanding of cultural groups, individual and collective behaviors, and social outcomes within a culture.
Furthermore, it is important for individuals to understand cultural factors within cultures – particularly ones that are not their own – in order to effectively navigate cultural situations, avoid culture shock, and sufficiently acculturate within a cultural group.
Cultural Factors Examples
- Language: In any society, language is the primary medium of communication, and it profoundly shapes our interactions and perceptions. Language carries cultural meanings, customs, and values; it’s intertwined with the society’s history, culture and identity. For instance, in France, where French is the dominant language, it’s used for government, media, education, and daily communications (Delaney, 2015).
- Religion: Religion forms a basis for many cultural values and beliefs. It greatly influences the worldviews, ethical frameworks, and habits of individuals. For example, India boasts cultural diversity through its wide array of religions with Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism originating in the subcontinent, and significant populations practicing Islam and Christianity. Each of these religions has distinct ceremonies, rituals, dietary stipulations, and norms, all of which are intertwined with the country’s broader culture (Nehring & Plummer, 2014).
- Gender Roles: Different societies have diverse understandings and norms surrounding gender. These norms can dictate everything from attire to professional roles to family obligations. For example, in many traditional patriarchal cultures, women have historically been expected to take primary responsibility for raising children and maintaining the household, while men are often tasked with earning income for the family (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006). Note that these traditional roles are increasingly changing across the globe due to efforts toward gender equality.
- Core Values: Core values are the fundamental beliefs of a person, also known as the guiding principles, dictating behavior and action. Core values can help people to know what is right from wrong; they can help companies to determine if they are on the right path and fulfilling their business goals; and they create an unwavering and unchanging guide. For example, in Japanese culture, harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility are seen as the four virtues influencing social behavior and interaction (Korgen & Atkinson, 2020).
- Social Organization: This refers to the various structures, networks, and systems that societies devise for interaction among its members, including family units, educational institutions, political structures, and economic systems. For example, the United States has a democratic government and capitalistic economy, which greatly influence the social structure and ways of life (Ritzer, 2015).
- Cultural Symbols: These are objects, figures, or colors that represent specific aspects of a culture. They hold distinct meanings within each culture and can be seen in rituals, ceremonies, or everyday life. For instance, in Chinese culture, the dragon symbolizes power, strength, and good luck while the color red is associated with energy, happiness, and luck (LeVine, 2017).
- Traditions and Ceremonies: Traditions and ceremonies are practices and rites that are unique to each culture. They can mark significant events or transitions in a person’s life, or commemorate shared historical and cultural experiences. For instance, in Jewish culture, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony marks the coming of age of thirteen-year-old boys (Korgen & Atkinson, 2020).
- Food Culture: Food and the customs surrounding it play a crucial role in culture. What people eat, how they prepare it, when and how they eat are all culturally determined. For instance, the Italian culture places a high emphasis on food. Family dinners are a central aspect with home-cooked meals, including staples like pasta, olive oil, and tomatoes, playing a significant role in the social life of Italians (Delaney, 2015).
- Cultural Norms: These are the unwritten rules and expectations for behavior within a culture. They dictate etiquette, appropriate conduct, and societal expectations for individuals. For example, in many Western cultures, maintaining direct eye contact during a conversation is considered a sign of honesty and trustworthiness. However, in various Asian cultures, direct eye contact can be seen as disrespectful or confrontational (Nehring & Plummer, 2014).
- Educational Values and Systems: Education is considered a cultural factor as it varies significantly among cultures. Some societies emphasize rote learning for basic literacy and numeracy, while others promote critical thinking and creativity. For instance, Finland’s education system is globally revered for its less pressured environment, individualized instruction, and focus on student overall well-being rather than strictly academic achievement (Ritzer, 2015).
- Arts and Cultural Expressions: These refer to how culture is expressed through arts, including music, literature, visual arts, and dance. These forms of cultural expressions often carry a wealth of historical significance and shared communal values. An excellent representative of this would be Flamenco in Spain. Flamenco is more than just a dance form to Spaniards; it’s a passionate and vivid expression of life drawing on a range of influences from Romani, Castilian, Islamic, and Sephardic traditions, serving as a testament to Spain’s rich cultural history (LeVine, 2017).
- Fashion and Aesthetics: The Clothing styles, aesthetics, and standards of beauty vary from culture to culture. In South Korea, a high value is placed on appearance, resulting in the booming fashion and skincare industries influenced by the rise of K-pop and Korean dramas. Koreans’ preferences for a youthful, trendy, and sophisticated style and a clean, smooth, and bright skin appearance reflect cultural aesthetics that emphasise meticulous self-presentation and maintainance (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006).
- Material Culture: This includes physical objects, resources, and spaces that people use to define their culture. These tangible aspects of culture such as architecture, art, technology, and traditional clothing, reflect societal beliefs, values, and identity. For example, the pyramids of Egypt, as grand burial sites of ancient Pharaohs, represent the Egyptians’ robust beliefs in the afterlife and their respect for their rulers (Calhoun, 2002).
- Folklore: Folklore refers to the tales, legends, and customs passed down from generation to generation within a culture. It serves as a reflection of societal values, fears, hopes, and collective experiences of a people. An illustration of this is the rich repository of Native American folktales that convey moral lessons, historical narratives and deeply rooted spiritual beliefs of various tribes (LeVine, 2017).
- Attitudes toward Individualism: This pertains to the degree to which personal needs, rights, and independence are emphasized over that of a group or community. In cultures like the United States, individualism is seen as an essential value, with emphasis placed on personal freedom, self-reliance, and individual achievement (Ritzer, 2015). Conversely, in collectivist societies such as Japan, greater significance is given to harmony, group cohesion, and societal roles over individual needs or desires (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006).
Full List of Cultural Factors
- Material culture
- Non-material culture
- Clothing and dress codes
- Cuisine and foodways
- Arts, crafts, and craftmanship
- Influential philosophies
- Influential literature
- Moral values
- Folktales and folk culture
- Family structures
- Marriage customs
- Social inequalities and tolerance for inequality
- Social institutions such as courts and schools
- Formal laws
- Informal social mores
- Death rituals
- Birth ceremonies
- Gender roles
- Rites of passage
- Social hierarchies
- Patriarchal and matriarchal belief systems
- Cultural taboos
- Attitudes toward elders
- Educational values
- Historical narratives
- Founding mythologies
- National symbols and symbology
- Proverbs and moral tales
- Social etiquette and niceties
- Time perception
- Communication styles (e.g. low context culture vs high context culture)
- Holiday traditions
- Attitudes towards work
- Attitudes towards punctuality
- Gift-giving customs
- Local customs
- Superstitions and spirituality
- Levels of tolerance of dissent
- Traditional games
- Children’s upbringing and children’s culture
- Political views and the culture’s overton window
- Aesthetic and beauty standards
- Architectural styles and traditions
- Forms of celebration
- Cultural capital
- Ethical beliefs
- Body language norms
- Social conventions
- Conflict resolution methods
- Attitudes toward authority
- Attitudes toward conformism vs individualism
- Attitudes toward nature
- Standards for decision-making processes
- Modes of thinking
- Problem-solving approaches
- Attitudes toward mental health
- Attitudes toward physical health
- Attitudes toward traditional medicine
- Concept of self
- Concept of community
- Attitudes toward wealth
- Attitudes toward poverty
- Economic practices
- Concept of time (past, present, future)
- Norms around social gatherings
- Forms of greeting (e.g. kissing cheek)
- Traditional sports and sporting attitudes
- Attitudes toward comeptitiveness
- Sacred places
- Sacred texts
- Group affiliations (tribal, clan, etc.)
- Social obligations
- Respect protocols
- Concept of honor
- Concept of shame
- Rituals and ceremonies
- Sacred animals
- Use of color in ceremonies
- Agricultural practices
- Trade customs
- Traditional housing
- Human rights perspectives
- Attitudes toward other cultures
- Urban vs. rural values
- Attitudes toward technology
- Traditional calendars
- Attitudes toward age
- Attitudes toward disabilities
- Attitudes toward outsiders
- Traditional beverages
- Community leadership structure
- Status symbols
- Traditional jewelry
- Tattoos and body art
- Forms of entertainment
- Attitudes toward relationships
- Perceptions of destiny/fate
- Environmental stewardship practices
Cultural vs Social Factors
Cultural factors pertain to the beliefs, values, and practices that a group of people share. This can encompass aspects such as language, religion, customs, and traditions. These elements get passed down from generation to generation and contribute to defining a society.
On the other hand, social factors are elements that affect an individual’s way of living and opportunities within society. These can be aspects such as family size, education, economic status, or the neighborhood one lives in.
Cultural factors and social factors interact closely. Culture shapes social structures and norms, which in turn influence how individuals interact with one another and with society at large (Calhoun, 2002). In particular, the cultural values of the dominant culture in a multicultural society tend to also dominate social norms.
It stands, then, that cultural factors form a subcategory within social factors.
For example, attitudes toward education vary from one culture to another (a cultural factor), and this in turn can affect the level of academic achievement or the value placed upon it in various societies (a social factor) (LeVine, 2017).
Table Summary of Differences:
|Cultural Factors||Social Factors|
|Definition||Elements influencing the beliefs, values, norms, and behaviors within a society or region.||Aspects related to society’s structure, relationships, and organization.|
|Examples||1. Language: French in France|
2. Religion: Buddhism in Thailand
3. Art: Renaissance art in Italy
|1. Family structures: Nuclear families in the West|
2. Class system: Upper, middle, and lower classes
3. Social networks: Connections made via schools or workplaces
|Impact on Individual||Shapes personal identity, values, and worldview||Dictates one’s place, roles, and interactions within society|
|Change over Time||Changes can be slow, deeply rooted in history and tradition||Can change relatively rapidly with shifts in societal organization|
|Influencing Factors||Historical events, geographical location, ancestors||Economic conditions, technological advancements, political shifts|
|Interactions with Other Cultures||Can lead to cultural exchange, assimilation, or conflict||Can lead to shifts in societal norms, practices, or hierarchies|
Cultural factors are learned, not innate. They represent shared values and norms within a society (Calhoun, 2002). They can shape personal behaviors and societal structures. Depending on what is valued or deemed as acceptable in a society, the norms and customs guide individuals’ beliefs and attitudes. For instance, in some societies, deference to the elderly or to those in positions of authority is highly valued (LeVine, 2017).
They can have an influence at both micro and macro levels. They shape not just our day-to-day social interactions, but also the broader structures and institutions in our societies (Ritzer, 2015). They evolve over time and vary across cultures and societies (Delaney 2015).
Calhoun, C. (2002). Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Delaney, T. (2015). Connecting sociology to our lives: An introduction to sociology. London: Routledge.
Giddens, A., & Griffiths, S. (2006). Sociology. London: Polity.
Korgen, K. & Atkinson, M. (2020) Sociology in Action. New York: Sage.
LeVine, R. A. (2017). International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences: Second Edition. New York: Elsevier.
Nehring, D., & Plummer, K. (2014). Sociology: An introductory textbook and reader. London: Routledge.
Ritzer, G. (2015). Essentials of sociology. New York: Sage Publications.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]