Culture vs Society: Similarities, Differences, Examples

Key Points:

  • Culture: Culture refers to shared norms, values, symbols, traditions and artifacts among a group of people (Meek, 1988).
  • Society: A society is a group of individuals who socially interact with each other. While these two concepts often interact, they have important differences from each other (Billington et al., 1991).

Members of a society usually have a common, shared culture and have social ties to the same territory. Meanwhile, a culture is not always confined within a single territory.

In contrast with cultures, which consist of customs, traditions, norms, values, symbols, and artifacts, societies feature a population that is organized around political and economic power.

While both cultures and societies can share elements such as a language, religion or faith, societies mostly refer to the populations while culture refers to the values and traditions that populations hold.

A society can include multiple cultures at the same time: Contemporary migration and human movements lead to increased mobility of cultures. As a result, some societies living in immigrant-receiving countries are described as multicultural, referring to the coexistence of multiple cultures within the same society.

An example of a multicultural society is the Canadian society, where different cultures of various immigrant communities are present alongside with Indigenous, British, and French cultures (Cumming, 2020).

Summary: Culture vs Society

Features of CultureFeatures of Society
People who share customs and traditionsA population / A large group of individuals governed by the same social-political powers
Governed by norms (mores and folkways)Governed by laws
A way to organize people with shared valuesA way to organize people with disparate values
Commonly has shared artifacts created by the culture (artworks, architecture)Oriented around political power and political institutions

Definition of Culture

A culture is composed of people with shared norms, values, symbols, traditions and artifacts (Meek, 1988).

Cultures have both material and non-material components (Vecco, 2010):

  • Material cultural elements include artifacts such as art, cuisine, architectural works, language, and institutions.
  • Non-material aspects of a culture, on the other hand, include values, norms, faith and religion (Cumming, 2020).

While material cultural elements usually have a physical presence, non-material elements are abstract and transferred to the next generations through oral history or socialization  (Vecco, 2010).

It is important to remember that cultures are not fixed and stable. Despite usually protecting their main characteristics, cultures are subjected to changes over time due to social, political, religious, and historical reasons.

Due to power inequalities and colonialism, some cultures influenced others more strongly, a phenomenon which is defined as cultural imperialism, cultural erasure, and in extreme cases, cultural genocide (Cumming, 2020).

Examples of Culture

In many instances, cultures are associated with an ethnicity, folk group, nationality, or religious group. Below are some examples.

1. French Culture

French culture refers to the common norms, values, traditions, symbols, and artifacts of people of French ethnicity. Architectural works such as the Eiffel Tower, or parts of the cuisine such as the croissant or baguette are well known examples of French cultural elements.

2. Jewish Culture

Another example is the Jewish culture, which is associated both with Judaism, Jewish ethnicity, and Israeli nationality. The Star of David is one of the main symbols which represent the Jewish culture.

Unlike French culture which is dominant in territories with a significant French population (e.g. France, Quebec) or former French colonies (e.g. Senegal), the Jewish culture is present across the globe through communities of various sizes who practice Judaism or have Jewish ancestry.

3. Organizational Culture

Another example is the concept of organizational culture, which refers to norms and values shared by individuals who work under the same organization (Keyton, 2010).

4. Subculture

Subcultures and countercultures are cultural groups that fit within and emerge from a dominant culture.

A subculture is a group of people who fit within a culture, but develop their own unique niche ideas, values, customs, traditions, and hobbies. They still are part of the main culture, but have chosen to develop the culture in a new way.

An example of a subculture is punks. Punks in England, for example, are unequivocally part of English culture (their accents, behaviors, eating practices are still emergent out of English culture). However, they are also unique in their musical tastes and dress codes.

Countercultures emerge out of a culture but reject the culture. They’re often a threat to the main culture. For example, hippies emerged out of 1960s American culture but rejected a core premise: capitalism. They position themselves as against and even a threat to the main culture, and therefore are more than a subculture – they’re a counterculture

Go Deeper: Culture Examples

Definition of Society

A society can be defined as a population, consisting of individuals who socially interact with each other through a network of social organizations and institutions.

Members of a society often live under the same political power and economic power systems, such as the same modern nation-state, or tribal hierarchy.

For example, individuals living under the French nation-state rule, and being subject to the French legal, political, and economic authorities can be referred to as the French society.

But notably, there are people in French society (within the political jurisdiction of France) who don’t fit into French culture, such as immigrants who have not assimilated.

In addition, societies at times share the same political or social territory, such as France as a political territory or Europe as a social territory, referring not only to the continent but also to the shared culture.

While multiple cultures can often coexist in a single society, each society usually has a dominant, mainstream culture.

For example, while tens of different cultures exist in the United States, American society is mostly subject to Anglo-American Protestant norms, rules and values (Kaufmann, 1999).

Societies can also be formed around a non-political group, such as if you join an ‘Architectural society’ for architects, who come together to discuss architecture, but are not associated with a nation-state and its laws.

Examples of Society

The term society is often used to specify a population who comes from a particular culture or heritage, or who shares the same value system (Billington et al., 1991).

1. French Society

In many cases, a society is defined according to its economic or political power system. For example, France is a society that holds many different cultural groups, but are all governed by shared norms.

Of course, within France, we have people of a wide range of cultures. Nevertheless, they share a healthcare system, education system, and democracy, which holds them together as a social group.

2. Agricultural Societies

Most nations and regions have agricultural societies. These are societies that may have regular meetings to discuss how to progress agricultural practices or set basic rules of how to go about farming within a region.

This is not a culture, however, because it’s not oriented around customs and traditions. Anyone who wants to become a farmer may enter the society. The glue holding this society together is not cultural but social – a shared way of making money.

Read Next: Types of Societies

Similarities between Culture and Society

Some features of culture and society heavily overlap. Indeed, any time that we talk about the presence of a society, we can also talk about the presence of a culture.

This is because each society requires social interactions between individuals, and cultures are created and reproduced through these social interactions.

Most societies have a dominant, mainstream culture which is the source of its norms, values, and traditions, as well as its common language and dominant faith or religion (if any).

In addition, both the concept of society and culture are associated with ethnicities, nationalities, territories or religious groups.

Examples include French culture and French society, or the Western culture and the Western society.

Similarly, both cultures and societies often have their own gender roles, kinship organizations, shared norms, values, and traditions.

Often, societies and cultures appear to be synonymous is because cultures influence societies, and the dominant culture may impose its values upon the whole society.

Both cultures and societies are dynamic concepts. In other words, they constantly change and evolve throughout history.

Conclusion

Cultures refers to shared norms, values, customs and traditions, symbols, and artifacts between a group of people (Meek, 1988). Society refers to a population which has continuous social interactions, who share the same territory and a dominant culture.

Therefore, culture and society are two different concepts, as the former refers to a set of norms and values while a society refers to a population or a large social group.

However, many features of cultures and societies overlap. These include the ways that both are affected by social institutions (such as faith or religion).

Also, culture is often present when there is a society, since both heavily rely on the functions of social interactions.

Finally, despite often having historical main elements, both cultures and societies are dynamic concepts that are subject to change and evolution.

References

Billington, R., Strawbridge, S., Greensides, L., & Fitzsimons, A. (1991). Culture and society: Sociology of culture. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Cumming, S. (2020). Sociology Unlocked. Oxford University Press.

Kaufmann, E. (1999). American exceptionalism reconsidered: Anglo-Saxon ethnogenesis in the “universal” nation, 1776–1850. Journal of American Studies, 33(3), 437-457.

Keyton, J. (2010). Communication and organizational culture: A key to understanding work experiences. Sage Publications.

Meek, V. L. (1988). Organizational culture: Origins and weaknesses. Organization studies, 9(4), 453-473.

Vecco, M. (2010). A definition of cultural heritage: From the tangible to the intangible. Journal of cultural heritage, 11(3), 321-324.

Sanam Vaghefi (PhD Candidate)
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Sanam Vaghefi (BSc, MA) is a Sociologist, educator and PhD Candidate. She has several years of experience at the University of Victoria as a teaching assistant and instructor. Her research on sociology of migration and mental health has won essay awards from the Canadian Sociological Association and the IRCC. Currently, she is am focused on supporting students online under her academic coaching and tutoring business Lingua Academic Coaching OU.

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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