Cultural Variation: Definition and 15 Examples

a diverse crowd of people

Culture can be understood as the differences in social norms, values, beliefs, and customs of different societies. These change from one society to another and even within subcultural groups. It is these differences that result in ‘cultural variation.’

A good clear scholarly definition of cultural variation comes from Boyd & Richerson (2005, p. 53) who state:

“We define cultural variation as differences among individuals that exist because they have aquired different behavior as a result of some form of social learning.”

Cultural variation, therefore, is the diversity in social behavior, interaction, language, and social expectations from society to society.

It can also occur within one major society as certain social groups may have unique values and practices but all feeding off of the broader culture. This concept will be explored further in the next paragraphs.

Why There is Cultural Variation?

Cultural variation is a direct consequence of the different ways in which societies adapt, interact and develop in their respective environments. It is an apt caption of human diversity.

To understand cultural variation better, one needs to start by looking at the basic family unit and its interaction with the next family unit.

Each family comprises of two or more individuals with different characteristics and behaviors but despite the individual differences in traits and characteristics, families and societies share common values and social practices which can then be identified as “culture.”

These social practices and values vary from community to community as explained in the definition. This results in different cultural practices.

We might compare cultural variation to cultural universals – morals and values shared by all cultures – are defined as similarities between human traits and attributes across cultures (Norenzayan and Heine 2005).

Subcultural Variation

Subcultures can be found within major cultures. Thus, there can be cultural variations within one major culture and cultural variations among major subcultures within a culture.

There can be differences and similarities starting at the most basic level of a social group. Indeed, families who are neighbors and raised in the same town may have different cultural affiliations.

This explains why, for instance, one village in a Southern African country like Zimbabwe can have unique cultural characteristics but still belong to the broader group otherwise known as ‘Zimbabwean culture.’

Likewise, Zimbabwe as a country may have a unique cultural identity but will still fall under the umbrella of ‘African culture’ because of the common cultural identity that exists among Southern African countries. 

Cultural Variation Examples

  • Language: Language is central to cultural identity and sense of self. Generally, but not always, cultures cohere around a common language.
  • Customs: Cultural customs can include leaving a tip after buying a coffee or shaking hands when greeting someone.
  • Taboos: While there are universal taboos, there are also different taboos in different cultures – for example, Europe tends to be more liberal about nudity than America.
  • Gender Norms: While gender norms may seem natural, we notice some significant differences in expectations of women when we look at it from a cross-cultural perspective.
  • Religion: Religion shapes cultures. For example, Christmas is central to American culture, which stems from Christianity.
  • History: A culture’s history shapes their sense of self, their pride, and their sense of their culture’s role in the world.
  • Race and Ethnicity: Many cultures cohere around ethnic identities; although increasingly, cultures are becoming multiethnic and multiracial.
  • Tastes: Differences in tastes of different cultures can be seen by differing national dishes (Mexican spice vs Thai spice, for example) and musical preferences.
  • Mannerisms: We can see that Italians have more expressive mannerisms than the stoic Russians.
  • Family Structure: While Western families live in nuclear family units, we can see cultures like Aboriginal Australians who often live in multigenerational homes.
  • Pastimes: While Europeans love soccer, the Americans love baseball and American football.
  • Economic systems: While advanced Western nations embrace capitalism, we can see some indigenous cultures with economic systems that rely on barter and community social capital.
  • Celebrations: As you travel the world, you may get the opportunity to participate in diverse celebrations such as Diwali, Christmas, Chinese New Year, and so on.
  • Social Orientations: We can look at collectivism and individualism as key differences in social orientation. Whereas the USA is seen as having a culture of rugged individualism, many indigenous cultures cohere around collectivism.
  • Age and Generation: Subcultural variations are often connected to age. Different generations have their own well-known subcultures, such as Hippies in the 60s and Emos in the early 2000s.

Five Key Variations in Cultural Identity

1. Language

Language is perhaps the most basic distinguishing feature of culture. Cultural norms and practices are often communicated and interpreted through language.

This means language, in its various forms, reflects and expresses cultural variation.

Tone, pronunciations and dialects are important aspects of language which all have cultural connotations. For instance, using a loud tone when speaking to an elderly person might be considered disrespectful and therefore culturally inappropriate in the African culture.

Language is also the mode through which cultural education is passed from one generation to the other. Language and its culture are essentially inseparable.

For example, it is almost inevitable that when one masters a certain foreign language, their behavior too starts to lean towards or copy some of the cultural nuances and etiquette from which that language emanates. This is because language is contained within culture.

2. Religion

Religious beliefs are an inextricable part of a society’s culture. Religion has been defined by renowned sociologist, Emile Durkheim as “…a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden…”

In short, religion gives meaning to culture by providing the answers to basic questions on how a society understands and experiences the world. In cultural terms, these sets of beliefs dictate how a society behaves and relates with the surrounding environment.

The differences in religious beliefs and, consequently, culture, explains why, for instance, a Muslim has a different worldview from a Hindu. Their cultures, informed by their religions, demand different behaviors and practices hence the cultural variations.

Religion can be such a powerful cultural variable that in most cases it is almost impossible to distinguish between religion and culture. Islam religion, for instance, is so intricately tied to the Arabic culture and language such that the difference between the two is faint.

3. Gender roles

Another aspect that distinguishes cultures is that of gender roles and responsibilities. Gender role can be defined as those certain behaviors considered appropriate per the dictates of the societal norms.

These roles are acquired through cultural convention and practice. Different cultures exhibit different characteristics in terms of gender expectations.

Eomen have traditionally had unique roles and behaviors that are in line with the expectations of their culture. Likewise, men have their own culturally entrenched roles, practices and expectations that influence their social behavior.

These different gender roles are taught to girls and boys from a very early age. As they grow, their personalities begin to reflect these gender roles, a concept known as “gender socialization.”

This again explains why women and men in one culture may behave differently from the next culture.

However, these gender roles and expectations have often been criticized for inequality, especially against women. Feminist scholars and sociologists argue that some cultures perpetuate the existing occupational gender biases against women.

4. History and geographical location

Just as the surrounding environment influences the social way of life in a community through adaptation, so do the historical experiences.

A group of people may carve their sociocultural framework as a direct result of their historical experiences and opportunities.

The physical environment also influences the culture of a society by determining how they adapt and adopt survival skills. These will eventually be reflected in their social life.

Because histories and geographies of societies are not the same, their cultures also tend to be different. The contact with and exposure to other cultures and different geographical circumstances may have significant impacts on a society’s social strata.

For instance, nations that underwent colonization suffered a major cultural shift. In many cases, the colonies ended up adopting the colonial masters’ cultures.

This resulted in some hybrid or mixed cultures sprouting up.

5. Race and ethnicity

The race and ethnic group in which one is born play a major role in determining their cultural identity. Race is defined as the physical biological characteristics of a group of people, and these include color of skin or hair.

According to Williams (1997), ethnicity is used to categorize people based on cultural characteristics such as shared language, ancestry, religious traditions, dietary preferences, and history.

Therefore, the words ‘race, culture and ethnicity’ are often used in the same context as it is almost impossible to speak of one without the other.  As such, different races or ethnic groups are identified by their unique cultural practices.

Conclusion

The foregoing presentation has defined the concept of cultural variation by first attempting to define culture. An attempt was then made to explain how and why culture varies from one society to another.

The presentation also managed to distinguish between what is referred to as ‘intracultural’ variation and ‘intercultural’ variation where the former refers to cultural variations within  the same society while the latter describes cultural differences from one society to another.

Finally, examples of different aspects of culture including language, religion race and ethnicity were discussed in a bid to demonstrate how they influence the cultural diversity that is evident in different societies.

References

Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (2005). The origin and evolution of cultures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chang, Y. P., & Algoe, S. B. (2020). On thanksgiving: Cultural variation in gratitude demonstrations and perceptions between the United States and Taiwan. Emotion20(7), 1185.

Norenzayan, A., & Heine, S. J. (2005). Psychological Universals: What Are They and How Can We Know? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 763-781.

Youssef, H., & Christodoulou, I. (2018). Exploring cultural heterogeneity: the effect of intra-cultural variation on executives’ latitude of actions in 18 countries. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management18(2).

Archebold T Marufu (MA, Philosophy)
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Archie Marufu has an MA in Philosophy where he completed a thesis in Public health ethics. He has a strong research proficiency in sociology, philosophy, business ethics, and environmental ethics.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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