Culture, as used in sociology, is the “way of life” of a particular group of people: their values, beliefs, norms, etc.
Think of a typical day in your life. You wake up, get ready, and then leave for school or work. Once the day is over, you probably spend your time with family/friends or pursue your hobbies.
Almost every aspect of this—your means of travel, how you behave among your colleagues, or what kind of recreation you prefer—comes under culture. It is something that we acquire socially and plays a huge role in shaping who we are.
Sociologists have come up with various theories about culture (why it exists, how it functions, etc.), which we will discuss later. But before that, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Sociological Definition of Culture
Edward Tylor defined culture as
“that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” (1871)
Another definition comes from Scott, who sees culture as “all that in human society which is socially rather than biologically transmitted” (2014).
Since the beginning of civilization, humans have lived together in communities and developed common ways of dealing with life (acquiring food, raising children, etc.). These common ways are what make culture.
Culture consists of both intangible and tangible things. The former is known as nonmaterial culture, which includes things like ideas or values of a society. In contrast, material culture has a physical existence, such as a clothing item.
Both nonmaterial and material are linked because physical items often symbolize cultural ideas (Little, 2016). For example, you wear a suit (not a pair of shorts) to a business meeting, which is linked to the workplace values of formality & decorum.
Two of the most important elements of culture are its values & beliefs. Values refer to what a society considers good and just: individuality, for example, is a key value in most Western countries. Beliefs are the convictions that people hold to be true, such as the American belief that hard work can make anybody successful.
Values and beliefs are deeply entrenched in a culture, and going against them can have consequences. These can range from minor cultural sanctions (say being frowned upon) to major legal actions. In contrast, upholding values & beliefs leads to social approval.
Cultural values differ across cultures. The individualism of Western cultures seems solipsistic & arrogant to many Non-Western cultures, who instead value collectivism. Besides such variations, values also evolve with time.
Culture vs Society
The terms “culture” and “society” are often used interchangeably in everyday speech, but they refer to different things.
Society refers to a group of people who live together in a common territory & share a culture. This common territory can be any definable region, say a small neighborhood or a large country.
When we use the term “society”, we are referring to social structures & their organization.
Culture, in contrast, is the “way of life” of a group of people; it consists of values, beliefs, and artifacts.
For example, in the United States, African-Americans have historically been oppressed, and even today, they often do not get equal opportunities. Here, we are talking about social structures, which include race and class.
African-American culture has—such as the literary works of Zora Neale Hurston or the jazz music of Duke Ellington—developed in response to these (unfair) social structures. So, both society & culture are mutually connected; neither can exist without the other.
Features of Cultures
The following are 10 key features of culture that we explore in sociology:
- Symbols: Symbols can be words, gestures, or objects that carry particular meanings recognized by those who share the same culture. For instance, the bald eagle functions as a symbol of freedom and authority in American culture.
- Language: Language is a key aspect of culture, as it is the means of communication that conveys cultural heritage and values. For example, the French language, rich in literature and philosophy, reveals much about French culture’s emphasis on art, intellect, and romance.
- Rituals and Traditions: These are practices or ceremonies that are regularly performed in a culture and bear symbolic meaning. An example of a ritual would be Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil.
- Norms: Norms are behavioral standards and expectations that culture sets. In British culture, for instance, queueing is a significant societal norm, signifying order and fairness. See: cultural norms.
- Values: These are the learned beliefs that guide individual and collective behavior and decisions, such as respect for human rights evident in many democratic societies. See: cultural values.
- Social Structures: Social structures are the arranged relationships and patterned interactions between members of a culture, like the extended family system prevalent in many Latin American cultures.
- Artifacts: Physical objects or architectural structures that represent cultural accomplishments, such as the Pyramids in Egypt representing ancient Egyptian civilization. See: cultural artifacts.
- Rules and Laws: Codified principles that guide societal behavior. For example, the constitution in the U.S. reflects its cultural emphasis on democracy and individual freedom.
- Religion and Spirituality: Beliefs about a higher power, rituals related to this belief, and moral codes derived from these beliefs. Buddhism, for instance, is a significant part of East Asian cultures.
- Food and Diet: Specific to each culture, these are dietary habits and special cuisines, like the Mediterranean diet filled with seafood, olives, and vegetables, reflecting coastal cultures of Greece and Italy.
Types of Culture in Sociology
- National Culture: This represents the shared customs, behaviors, and artifacts that characterize a nation, for instance, the Brazilian culture marked by energetic music and vibrant festivals.
- Subculture: A cultural group existing within larger cultures distinguished by their unique practices and beliefs. For example, The Amish in the United States have a distinct lifestyle centered around simplicity and community.
- Counterculture: This represents groups that reject mainstream norms and values, seeking to challenge the status quo. The Punk movement of the 1970s in the UK, known for its rebellious attitudes and alternative fashion, is a clear example. Countercultures often cause widespread moral panic among the dominant culture in a society.
- Folk Culture: Traditional, community-based customs representing the shared cultural heritage, such as folk music and folklore of Irish culture.
- Pop Culture: Mainstream trends influenced by mass media, fashion, and celebrities, like K-Pop’s influence on global music and fashion trends.
- High Culture: Artifacts and activities considered ‘refined’ or ‘sophisticated’ by elite society, such as opera and ballet in European cultures (Bourdieu, 2010). This is contrasted to low culture, which represents the culture of the working-class.
- Material Culture: Tangible artifacts of human society like architecture, fashion, or food. The medieval castles peppered throughout France offer insight into its material culture. This is of great concern, for example, to archaeologists.
- Non-Material Culture: Intangible aspects of a culture, such as values and norms. The continued emphasis on politeness in British culture is an example of this. This is of great concern, for example, to sociocultural anthropologists.
- Professional Culture: Standards and behaviors specific to a particular profession. The Hippocratic Oath and an emphasis on patient care are integral to medical culture.
- Organizational Culture: Refers to the shared values, beliefs, and behaviors that form the unique social and psychological environment of an organization. Google’s culture of innovation and employee freedom reflects this.
For More, Read: 17 Types of Culture
Theoretical Approaches to Culture in Sociology
Sociologists have come up with various theories of culture, explaining why and how they exist.
Functionalism sees society as a group of elements that function together to maintain a stable whole.
Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology, used an organic analogy to explain this. In a biological creature, all the constituent body parts work together to maintain an organic whole; in the same way, the parts of a society work together to ensure its stability.
Under such a view, culture is something that helps society to exist as a stable entity: cultural norms, for example, guide people’s behavior and ensure that they appropriately. Talcott Parsons said that culture performs “latent pattern maintenance”, meaning that it maintains social patterns of behavior and allows orderly change (Little).
To put it in one sentence, culture ensures that our “way of life” remains stable. Functionalism can provide excellent insights into all cultural expressions, even ones that seem quite irrational. For example, sports in themselves may seem quite “useless”.
What exactly is the point of trying to hit a ball far or kicking one into a net? Functionalists would explain that sports brings people together and creates a collective experience. It provides an outlet for aggressive energies, teaches us the value of teamwork, and of course, makes us physically fit.
Real culture allows a given society to see how far its aspirations lie from its achievements, allowing it to take redressal steps.
2. Conflict Theory
Conflict theory focuses on the power relations that exist in society and believes that culture is entrenched in this power play.
These sociologists emphasize the unequal nature of social structures, and how they are related to factors of class, race, gender, etc. For them, culture is another tool for reinforcing and perpetuating these differences.
A key focus of conflict theory is on critiquing “ideology”, which is seen as a set of ideas that support or conceal the existing power relations in society. For example, as we discussed earlier, one of the key beliefs in the United States is the “American Dream”: anyone can work hard to achieve success.
But this belief hardly takes into account larger social factors (historical oppression, generational wealth, etc.). For a white, middle-class man, it may certainly be possible to work hard and achieve incredible success. But for a poor black woman, the American dream is mostly a myth.
Case Study: Conflict Theory and Culture
Conflict Theorists (and some functionalists) argue that there are two types of culture: ideal and real. The ideal culture is the culture that society strives toward – it’s the standard that maintains a goal of society. This is contrasted to real culture, which sociologist Max Weber says is the real-life manifestation of culture. This includes the elements of oppression and inequalities, which ideal culture does not consider. For example, if ideal culture talks about democracy, real culture points out how politics is biased toward privileged people.
3. Symbolic Interactionism
Symbolic interactionism focuses on face-to-face interactions of individuals and sees culture as an outcome of these.
Such sociologists believe that human interactions are a continuous process of finding meaning from the actions of others and the objects in the environment (Little). All these actions & objects have a “symbolic meaning”.
Culture is how this symbolic meaning is shared and interpreted. Symbolic interactions also believe that our social world is quite dynamic: instead of obsessing over rigid structures, they emphasize how situations and meanings are constantly changing.
For a symbolic interactionist, something as simple as a t-shirt communicates a symbolic meaning. They would argue that clothes do not simply play a “functional” role (protection) but also express something about the wearer.
See Also: Examples of Symbolic Interactionism
Culture includes the values, practices, and artifacts of a group of people; it is our shared “way of life”.
Most human behavior—from what we eat at breakfast to when we go back to sleep—is socially acquired through culture. It gives us a shared sense of “meaning” and guides human behavior, helping to maintain a stable society. However, it is also entrenched in power relations and can both enforce/challenge those relations.
Little, William. (2016). Introduction to Sociology – 1st Canadian Edition. OpenEd.
Murdock, George P. (1949). Social Structure. Macmillan.
Scott, Taylor. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford.
Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art, and custom. J. Murray.