Ideal culture is a set of values and practices that a culture aims to achieve but are not truly obtained.
It is a theoretical concept that paints a picture of the best version of a particular society.
Ideal culture provides a benchmark against which the actual values and practices of a given society—called “Real culture”—can be judged. In doing so, it helps us direct our efforts in the right direction for improving our actual world.
Examples of ideal culture include the American Dream, cultural homogeneity, perfect equality, and perfect marriages.
Ideal Culture Definition
Max Weber defines ideal culture as:
“an imaginary construct that serves as an ideal for the assessment of actual culture” (1922)
Weber’s definition highlights that ideal culture is only a construct. The actual culture is always different from it, and the construct serves as a benchmark, helping us see the gap between aspiration and achievement.
Another definition comes from Robert K. Merton, who defined ideal culture as:
“a set of cultural goals and the means to achieve them, which, when shared by a large number of persons, define the norms of a culture and the normative structure of a social system” (1957).
Merton sees the concept as a set of cultural goals, and his definition emphasises the shared nature of these goals. He also argues that, because the ideal can never be achieved, it often becomes a source of strain. We will discuss this further in a later section.
Ideal Culture Examples
- The American Dream: The American Dream is a set of ideal values consisting of liberty, equality, prosperity, etc. The term was coined by J.T. Adams in 1931, who said that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone”. This is a belief that, in the US, there are opportunities for everyone to prosper—irrespective of social class, one can work hard and succeed in the capitalist system.
- Perfect Marriages: Marriage is considered the ideal form of union between two people. It is usually backed by religious approval and is seen as the perfect way of raising children. Marriage is thought to be a life-long commitment— “till death us do part”—that is based on love. However, in reality, marriages are often based on pragmatic concerns like money or status, affairs are common, and marriages often end in divorce.
- No Crimes: In an ideal culture, there are few or no crimes, and individuals feel completely safe both inside and outside their homes. As people do not have to worry about their personal or property safety, they can focus more on their work and personal lives, leading to a more efficient and happy society. Indeed, crime rates around the world have been steadily declining but there is still a long way to go.
- Equality: Individuals receive equal treatment and opportunities in an ideal culture, irrespective of race, gender, religion, etc. But in reality, discrimination has not disappeared and there are huge differences in access to resources. In America, racial discrimination, such as police brutality and housing discrimination, continues to exist. Gender discrimination, xenophobia, and several other issues also need to be addressed.
- Secularism: Secularism is the separation of the state from religious institutions, which allows individuals to practice any religion or no religion. Instead of following any religious doctrine, the state governs through reason and treats everyone fairly. In reality, however, the states that call themselves “secular” are far from it: during recent times, the rise of Hindu nationalism and communal tensions in India is a good example.
- Honesty: Ideal culture would have individuals that can trust each other and rely on institutions to function ethically. Everyone is truthful and has integrity, so promises and agreements are always fulfilled. There is little or no corruption in institutions, leading to fair and efficient use of resources. This is far from reality, as dishonesty is pervasive, and there is a lack of transparency & accountability in institutions.
- Democracy: Democracy is based on political equality and participation. People participate in the decision-making through their chosen leaders and hold them accountable. But in reality, not everyone has an equal say in the democratic process, which is unfairly influenced by wealthy people. In many countries, elections are not fair, and citizens can face repercussions for trying to hold the government accountable.
- No Poverty: An ideal culture does have not poverty and everyone lives a dignified life. All individuals have enough to meet their basic needs of housing, food, education, etc., and they can fully participate in socio-economic activities. In reality, poverty continues to be a major problem in the world with approximately 735 million people living below the poverty line (less than 1.90$ per day) in 2019 (World Bank).
- Sustainability: Individuals and institutions protect and preserve natural resources in an ideal culture. In their production of goods and services, they take thoughtful steps to be efficient and sustainable. In reality, however, environmental degradation and climate change are only worsening with time. There is an overconsumption of resources, and most societies value economic growth much more than sustainability.
- Employment Opportunities: In an ideal culture, there are plenty of good jobs and individuals have equal access to opportunities. The economy is well-functioning, and people have well-paying jobs that come with benefits like healthcare. In reality, over 10.7 million people were unemployed in 2020 in the United States (BLS). Moreover, opportunities are not equal as racial minorities tend to have higher unemployment.
Ideal Culture vs Real Culture
While ideal culture pictures the best (imagined) version of a particular society, real culture tells us how that society is in actuality.
The point of having an ideal culture is to set up a standard against which the real values in a society can be judged. For example, one of the common values of an ideal culture is equal employment opportunity.
Most societies aim to allow all individuals to acquire good jobs, without any discrimination based on race, gender, religion, etc.
This is often backed by legal laws such as the Civil Rights Act (1964) in the US. By looking at real culture, that is, the actual data of employment, we can judge how far this is achieved.
In the United States, the unemployment rate for African Americans was 9.9% in 2020, as compared to 6.2% for White individuals. The median weekly income of African American workers is also much lower compared to White workers (BLS)
Similarly, in the United States, women’s earnings were only 82% of men’s earnings in 2020 (NWLC). So, clearly, race discrimination and gender discrimination still exist in America, just like in the rest of the world.
By comparing ideal and real cultures, we can work towards bringing positive social change. For example, the state can create stricter laws to prohibit employment discrimination and can also create policies to give more opportunities to marginalized sections of the population.
Ideal Culture in Merton’s Strain Theory
Strain theory argues that the gap between the ideal culture concept and real culture can often create strain among individuals. This leads to negative outcomes like deviance.
In 1938, Robert K. Merton developed a sociology & criminology theory known as the Strain theory. It states that society pressurizes individuals to acquire the ideal culture even though they rarely have the means to do so.
The goals can become so important for the individuals that the means of achieving them become irrelevant.
So, even committing crimes to attain the ideal culture goal begins to seem like a viable option.
Ideal culture is a theoretical concept that paints the best picture of a particular society, which can serve as a benchmark for improvement.
It is a set of values and practices that a culture values most and hopes to achieve. By comparing ideal culture and real culture as two types of culture in the sociologist’s imagination, we can find out how far we are from our aspirations and subsequently work towards improvements.
However, an excessive emphasis on ideal goals can strain individuals, which can even lead to crimes. Therefore, there is a need to complement goals with actual, tangible means for everyone.
Moreover, those who do not completely align with societal goals should still have the opportunity to live a dignified & fulfilling life.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Employment Situation. BLS. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm
Merton, Robert (1938). “Social Structure and Anomie”. American Sociological Review. 3 (5)
Merton, Robert. (1957). Social theory and social structure. Simon and Schuster.
National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). (2021). The Gender Pay Gap: 2020. NWLC.
Weber, M. (1922). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. The University of California Press.
World Bank. (2020). World Development Indicators 2020. World Bank. https://data.worldbank.org/topic/poverty