Real culture refers to the actual values, beliefs, practices, and norms that exist in a society at any given time. In sociology, it is juxtaposed to the concept of ideal culture, which refers to an aspiration (or ‘idealization’) of a culture rather than reality.
The term ‘real culture’ helps sociologists to refer to a realistic picture of a society’s culture at a particular moment.
By contrast, ideal culture, which is the best-imagined version of a society, or something that they aspire to achieve. Culture, both in its real and ideal versions, is influenced by factors such as history and socioeconomic conditions.
Studying real culture allows us to understand what a particular society is actually like rather than what it says about itself or aspires to be. Real culture can then be compared with the ideal culture to see how far a society’s aspirations lie from its achievements.
Real Culture Definition
Real culture refers to culture as it is rather than what it aspires to be. The famous American anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined culture as:
“A historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” (1973).
Geertz’s definition suggests that culture is a system of symbols and meanings—customs, language, art, etc.—that is transmitted from one generation to the next. It is through this system that we develop our “attitude toward life”.
So, culture is essentially a way of life: it shapes how we think and act while also giving us a sense of identity. It includes both tangible (clothing, jewelry, architecture, etc.) and intangible things (beliefs, rituals, norms, etc.).
Go Deeper: What is Culture in Sociology?
Real Culture Examples
Below are examples of real culture, where the nuances and imperfections of culture are evident:
- Sustained Poverty: Most societies aim to provide everyone with enough resources & opportunities to live a dignified life, but poverty is still far from eradicated. In the United States, for example, the poverty rate was 10.5% in 2020, with 34 million people living in poverty. Globally, the rate is 9.2%, with 734 million people living on less than $1.90 per day, the majority of whom live in Africa and South Asia.
- Failure of the American Dream: In the United States, people are getting disillusioned with the idea of the American Dream. The ideals of liberty, equality, and social mobility haven’t been actualized in America, where inequalities and racial discrimination continue to exist. In 2020, a poll found that only 54% of people found the American Dream attainable, 28% thought otherwise, and 9% rejected the idea altogether.
- Ongoing violence: All societies aspire to maintain peace, but instances of violence continue to happen in every society around the world. This includes domestic and public violence issues.
- Environmental degradation: Environmental degradation has become the most critical issue in today’s world, despite societies claiming to promote sustainability. The global average temperature of the world has increased by about 1.1°C (2.0°F) since the 19th century and is expected to rise further (IPCC). This has led to rising sea levels, numerous heat waves, and heavier precipitation. Loss of biodiversity and air pollution are two other significant concerns.
- Racial discrimination: Although equality is considered a foundational value of most societies, racial discrimination continues to exist. “All men are created equal”, says the United States Declaration of Independence, although the statement never applied to African Americans who were first enslaved, then segregated, and now suffer from other forms of discrimination. Disparities in education, employment, and housing continue, and recently, there’ve been a lot of police brutality cases against people of color.
- Intolerance: Despite the interconnected nature of our world, most societies suffer from intolerance. It is an unwillingness to respect the values and practices of those who are different from us, whether in race, religion, etc. LGBTQ Individuals face bullying and hate crimes, with many societies having discriminatory laws against them. Xenophobia is another pressing issue, especially in today’s globalized world.
- Lack of freedom of expression: Freedom of expression is considered a fundamental human right, but attempts to silence voices continue. The Charlie Hebdo incident (2015) is an apt example when two gunmen attacked the newspaper’s office over what they felt was an offensive depiction of Prophet Mohammad. Government censorships, such as India banning the recent BBC documentary on Narendra Modi, are also common.
- Lack of transparency & accountability: Most institutions claiming to be transparent and accountable are not so in reality. Governments often do not disclose information about their workings, which leads to corruption. Moreover, when an institution (like the police) is not held responsible for its actions, it abuses power. Similarly, the media also needs to be accountable; otherwise, it spreads misinformation.
- Gender inequality: Unequal gender treatment continues to be a pervasive issue in our world. The gender pay gap exists in every country, and there is a very small representation of women in business leadership (only 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs). Women also have limited access to opportunities, especially in developing countries. Finally, violence against women, inside and outside homes, has still not been eradicated.
- Uncritical attitudes: While most societies take pride in being guided by reason, it is rarely true in its entirety. For example, in the era of social media, misinformation and conspiracy theories circulate on a daily basis.
Ideal Culture vs Real Culture
By comparing the actual values of real culture with those of ideal culture, we can take thoughtful steps toward improving our society.
The concept of real culture and ideal culture was introduced by the German sociologist Max Weber (1922). According to him, ideal culture is what a society aspires to be, while real culture is what it actually is.
Real culture includes the values & practices that actually exist in society. These are usually not the same as the ideals and can include negative elements like prejudices or inequalities.
We can then compare the results against our ideal culture.
Such a comparison would help us improve our world in meaningful ways, taking us closer to our ideals. Weber’s concepts emphasize the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of culture that is made out of an interplay between ideas and reality.
Why Sociologists Study Real Culture
By studying real culture through quantifiable measures, we gain an objective understanding of society.
Real culture, as we have been discussing, consists of values and practices that actually exist in a particular society. Ideal culture, on the other hand, is what society aspires to be. The latter, being aspirational, is sometimes not very concrete.
The former, however, can be measured in quantifiable terms, and it allows us to take concrete steps to address the associated problems. In our discussions earlier, we talked about the gender pay gap: in the United States, women make 82 cents for every dollar men make.
So, with the help of such data, policymakers can take steps to eradicate such discrimination. They can also look at the intersection of various features, like race and gender, to create policies that target such marginalized groups.
Quantifiable data also helps us move away from generalized assumptions. For example, everybody believes that America is the richest country—indeed, its GDP is the highest in the world—but a more thorough study would tell us that 34 million Americans still live in poverty.
So, by taking into account these specific measures of real culture, we can gain a fuller understanding of a particular culture.
Real culture tells us the real values and practices of a society—it paints a picture of the society as it is.
It is often studied along with ideal culture, which is an idealized version of society; what the society aspires to become. A comparison of the two allows us to understand how far a society’s aspiration lies from its achievement.
Subsequently, it helps us take thoughtful steps to close the gap between the ideal and the real.
Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. Basic Books.
Gramlich, John (2022). “What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S.” Pew Research.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2019). Summary for Policymakers.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. National Statistics. https://ncadv.org/statistics Weber, M. (1922/1947). The theory of social and economic organization. Free Press.