Non-material culture is all the elements of culture that are not tangible. This term is the opposite of material culture, which describes all of the cultural artifacts that are physical things.
Examples of non-material culture include languages, values, beliefs, ideologies, gender identities, musical styles, pastimes, and so on.
While non-material culture exists in the collective imagination of the cultural group, it can also be turned into material culture through the creation of artifacts, writing of books, and so on, in ways that record and store culture so that it may be preserved into the future.
Non-Material Culture Examples
1. Accents – An accent is very difficult to record in material form. And indeed, until audio recording devices were invented, accents were impossible to record at all. They were merely passed on from generation to generation.
2. Alliances – Some cultures form alliances with other cultures, and groups within cultures form alliances as well. For example, the various cultural groups in Europe have come together to form a political union that is mutually beneficial for all cultural groups within the alliance.
3. Archetypes – Archetypes are typical versions of something within a culture. We usually use the term to describe a typical type of character. For example, in Western culture, the hero archetype in action films is usually a strong, masculine, handsome, and athletic character.
4. Attitudes – Each culture has its own attitudes. For example, Slavic culture is known for being very stoic while British culture is known for having a stiff upper lip. These attitudes don’t exist in material forms, so we can call them non-material elements of culture.
5. Beliefs – Cultural groups tend to cohere around a set of core beliefs such as “an eye for an eye” or, in Western culture, the belief that people should live monogamous lives.
Related Article: 51 Material Culture Examples
6. Body Language – An example of a culture with unique body language is the Italian culture. They’re known to be very expressive with their hands when they speak.
7. Business Etiquette – Cultures develop certain approaches to doing business with one another. In Chinese culture, doing business often involves fine dining and wooing potential clients with gifts. In American culture, tipping for services is highly valued.
8. Castes – Historically, some cultures have divided themselves into caste systems. A famous example of a caste system is the Indian system where there were castes of people considered to be untouchables. People were born into their caste and this determined who they could marry and what jobs they could take.
9. Ceremonies – Different cultures have different types of ceremonies to mark important cultural moments. For example, Christians have Easter and Christmas, while Muslims have Ramadan. Similarly, Americans have the 4th of July to celebrate their nation.
10. Communities – A community isn’t something that exists in material form. It is an idea by which groups of people come together due to common interests such as a common interest in a sport. Many communities are also brought together by geographical proximity to one another.
11. Conventions – An example of a convention within a culture is the convention of shaking hands when greeting someone. In other cultures, like Italy, you might be more likely to kiss someone on two cheeks as that’s a convention they were raised with.
12. Cooking Styles – Each culture tends to create its own cuisines. While cuisine is a material thing, the style by which it is cooked is non-material. For example, some cultures cook over open fires while others use woks.
13. Countercultures – Counter cultures are sub-groups within cultures who rebel against the dominant cultural narratives. An example of a counterculture is hippies who rebelled against capitalism and war in the 1960s and 1970s.
14. Cultural Memories – Some things are only stored in cultural memory and passed down by word of mouth. In dwindling indigenous cultures, for example, a lot of the cultural memories are being lost as elders die. To preserve these cultural memories, people are trying to record them in material culture, such as by writing them down in books.
15. Customs – Customs are behaviors that are considered good form or good etiquette within a culture in order to demonstrate your belongingness to the group and to avoid offending people. An example of a custom is the practice of tipping in a restaurant.
16. Dance – Different cultures have different dance styles. These styles are passed down from generation to generation but also change with each successive generation. They also differ between cultures – for example, Latin Americans dance the tango while Meitis people do a dance called jigging.
17. Dress Codes – A common dress code in the West is to wear a suit to work if you’re in a professional job. But other cultures have their own dress codes. For example, Theravada Buddhist monks exclusively wear saffron robes as a sign of simplicity and rejection of materialism.
18. Etiquette – Etiquette refers to the customary code of polite behavior in a culture. It covers things like how to greet someone, how to eat, and how to behave in public. An example of good etiquette in a library is to not talk loudly on your phone.
19. Family Expectations – In some cultures, it’s common for parents to set high expectations on their children to be lawyers or doctors. In other cultures, this is less common, and parents are more relaxed about what their children will be when they grow up.
20. Festivals – Some cultures have annual festivals such as Diwali (a religious festival) or Oktoberfest (a national festival). These festivals are celebrated with food, music, and dance. They mark an important event in the cultural calendar and are a time for people to come together and celebrate.
21. Folklore and Folk Culture – Folklore are stories and tales told over generations to the extent that they became part of the cultural milieu. They often contain morals that parents want to teach their children. A lot of folklore involves stories that grew and evolved with a culture. Others are stories that may lack a clear origin, which feeds into the mystery. For example, a community may spread stories about a haunted forest outside their village that have been passed down from generation to generation with the purpose of keeping children out of it.
22. Folkways (Sociology) – Like folklore, folkways have seeped into a culture through generations. However, folkways are not stories – rather, they are customs. Examples of folkways include sending thankyou letters, asking a father for permission to marry his daughter, and saying “bless you” when someone sneezes.
22. Friendships – Friendships in different cultures can be quite different. In the West, it’s common to have a small group of close friends that you hang out with regularly. But in other cultures, such as Japan, it’s common to have a large group of friends that you only see occasionally.
23. Gender Identities – In some cultures, it’s common for people to have a gender identity that doesn’t match their biological sex. For example, in India there are hijras, which are people who identify as neither male nor female. In fact, there are at least 86 types of gender identity across different cultures. This cross-cultural perspective can help to challenge our perceptions that gender is ‘naturally’ binary across all cultures like it traditionally was in the west.
24. Gender Roles – In some cultures, men and women are expected to do certain tasks within their family or community. For example, historically women were expected to raise the family while men went to work. Today, those roles are changing. Regardless, gender roles in societies are non-material cultural elements.
25. Gestures – In Britain, raising two fingers in a reverse peace sign is considered rude. In the USA, it doesn’t mean much at all. Each culture develops their own gestures with meanings assigned to them which are passed on from one generation to the next.
26. Hobbies – We may use objects during our hobbies (e.g. crochet sticks for knitting), but the hobby itself is usually an idea – knitting, running, sit-ups, playing video games – are all activities, which may or may not involve using material objects.
27. Humor – A culture’s sense of humor is often unique to them. For example, British people are known for their dry wit, whereas American comedy has a longer history of slapstick comics.
28. Ideals – The ideals of a culture aren’t recorded on material artifacts so much as they are passed on through family and friends. Cultural ideals might, for example, be the US ideals of individualism and freedom.
29. Ideologies – Hegemonic ideologies often emerge in different cultures. The ideology of neoliberalism is predominant in the United States, whereas the ideology of communism is prominent in Cuba.
30. Institutions – Institutions aren’t material objects, but organized collections of people who have come together for a common goal. Cultural institutions could include the European Union, NATO, and the old Warsaw Pact.
31. Languages – While we have managed to record language in material form through books and recordings, they primarily exist in non-material ways: we speak our language, and different cultures have their own unique languages. Once the speakers of a language die out, it’s hard to recover it, even if we have written text or recordings of the ways they speak.
32. Laws – Laws may be written into books, but they are primarily ideas rather than objects. For example, the law that you shall not steal is a concept or idea that we have all agreed to abide by.
33. Military Tactics – Military tactics tend to evolve with different cultures and over time. The tactics of the USA military are often closely guarded secrets that are taught to servicemembers so that they might have an advantage on the battlefield against an adversary who lacks the tactical knowledge required.
34. Morals – Morals represent a society’s underlying understanding of what is right and wrong. While we may think of these as universal, they’ve been very different over time. Many cultural touchpoints today reflect differing understandings of morals, such as competing ideas about reproductive rights in the USA.
35. Mores – Mores are, in sociology, norms that have a moral dimension. To take the example above about reproductive rights, if this were turned into a social norm, such as in the Roe vs Wade ruling that all women have the right to control their bodies, the moral has been codified into a moral norm – aka a more – in society. Clearly, as with this example of a more, they are contestible and can change over time.
36. Musical Styles – As with dance styles, different cultures also have their own musical styles. And in fact, even within cultures, there are varying competing styles. An example is country music, which is the dominant style in parts of the American south. If we were to go to more urban areas, the dominant musical style is more likely to be something like hip hop.
37. Norms – Norms, derived from the term ‘normal’, are rules of behavior that are considered normal and acceptable with a culture. They can be anything as simple as greeting someone as they enter a shop or as serious as legal laws around behavior. For more, see out list of examples of social norms.
38. Oral Tradition – Oral tradition is the quintessential example of nonmaterial culture because it is passed on through word of mouth rather than being codified in material objects. Many Indigenous cultures are known for their long history of oral culture. For example, the Australian Aboriginals’ dreaming stories are based on oral culture.
39. Pastimes – Where I live, many Italian men pass their time playing bocce ball in the local park. While the equipment is material culture, the fact they meet there every Thursday at 11am, bring their fold-out chairs, and share stories of their youth, are nonmaterial aspects of their cultural passtime.
40. Political Systems – In the West, our political system of democracy is nonmaterial. It exists as an idea that we are implementing. Others, such as the one-party political system in Cuba, is an example of another political system belonging to another culture.
41. Political Parties – Parties like Democrats, Republicans, Greens, the Labor Party, and so on, are groups of people who have come together over shared political ideals and ideologies. The party exists as an organized group of people, not as a material object.
42. Propaganda – Propaganda is usually a series of stories that reinforce a particular ideological narrative. While the stories may be placed onto posters and into news bulletins, the narrative that underpins the propaganda exists as a nonmaterial element of the culture.
43. Punishments – Different cultures have different ideas about what makes an appropriate punishment. For example, some cultures allow parents to smack children while others don’t. Ideas about appropriate punishments exist in the cultural imagination, not in material form.
44. Religion – Religion is an idea that is shared by a group of likeminded people about how the world began, whether there is a god, and what form that god takes. Religious artifacts are material representations of the nonmaterial concept of religion.
45. Responsibilities – In different cultures, different people have different responsibilities. For example, one culture may believe it is the man’s responsibility to earn all the money and the woman’s responsibility to raise children. In another culture, it may be believed that the man and woman share responsibilities across all domains.
46. Rituals – Examples of cultural rituals include things like coming of age rituals, baptism, funerals, and weddings. All cultures have different types of rituals that mark important events in the life cycle.
47. Rules – Rules exist as agreed-upon standards of behavior. Sometimes, we codify them, such as in a classroom rules list, while other times it’s generally agreed that you should wear a shirt into a bar or clean up after yourself at a buffet.
48. The Scientific Method – Scientific Method is a systematic way of learning about the world around us and acquiring new knowledge. This method exists as an idea that emerged in Western culture during the Enlightenment.
49. Services – We general separate businesses into ‘goods’ and ‘services’ businesses. While a goods business provides material things, services provide nonmaterial things such as time spent working on a project or help with data entry.
50. Signs Of Respect – In Western culture, we might shake hands when we meet someone new as a sign of respect. In other cultures, people might bow or kiss each other on the cheek. These are nonphysical ideas about how to behave.
51. Slang – Like languages and accents, slang is another way we can differentiate between cultures. Slang in Australian culture includes phrases like ‘no worries’ and ‘mate’, while American slang includes phrases like ‘dude’ and ‘cool’.
52. Social Stratification – Social classes are divisions in society based on economic status. In some cultures, there is a very clear delineation between the social classes, while in others there is more of a continuum of social stratification. We refer to this as ‘social mobility’.
53. Social Expectations – Social expectations are the expectations that society as a whole place upon people within the society. For example, in middle-class USA, it may be a special expectation that a high school graduate will go to college. In the past, it was a social expectation that women get married shortly after they leave school.
54. Social Roles – Social roles are the things that we are expected to do in our society. For example, a woman’s social role might be to cook and clean, while a man’s social role might be to work and provide for the family. These roles can be different in different cultures.
55. Social Statuses – Social statuses are the different positions that people occupy in society. For example, a doctor has a higher social status than a janitor. Social statuses are usually based on things like education, occupation, and income, and are non-material.
56. Sports – Different cultures have different sports that are popular. For example, cricket is popular in England while baseball is popular in America. The tools such as bats and balls are the material elements, while the rules are the nonmaterial elements.
57. Stereotypes – A stereotype is a belief that all members of a group are the same. An example of a cultural stereotype about Americans is that they are all obese and lazy. Stereotypes are often based on ignorance or prejudice, but nevertheless, are nonmaterial features of a cultural imagination.
58. Subcultures – A subculture is a group of people within a larger culture that has its own distinct set of beliefs, values, and behaviors. An example of a subculture is the ‘goth’ subculture, which is a group of people who dress in all black and listen to dark music.
59. Superstitions – A superstition is a belief that something has magical powers. For example, some people believe that if you walk under a ladder, you will have bad luck. Superstitions are non-material ideas about the world that are not based on science or reason.
60. Taboos – A taboo is a social rule that says you cannot do something because it is considered to be offensive or strange. An example of a cultural taboo in America is talking about politics at the dinner table.
61. Teaching Styles – Teaching styles are also nonmaterial elements of culture. In the United States, the predominant teaching style has come to be social constructivism whereas in some Asian countries it is didactic and rote learning.
62. Traditions – A tradition is a custom or practice that is passed down from generation to generation. An example of a tradition is the tradition of giving someone a gift on their birthday.
63. Values – Values are the beliefs that a culture holds about what is important. For example, in American culture, we often cite ‘family values‘ as our core values, meaning we tend to prioritize our family over everything else.
Culture is made up of both material and nonmaterial elements, making material and non-material cultures as two distinct types of culture. The material elements are the things that we can see and touch, while the nonmaterial elements are the ideas, beliefs, and values that make up a culture. Both of these elements are important in understanding a culture and its people.
Some typical examples of nonmaterial culture include stereotypes, values, beliefs, social roles, and social status. These are things that exist in the cultural imagination rather than in objects. However, to some extent, nonmaterial culture can be codified into artifacts and it also clearly influences how material culture is produced and consumed.
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]