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Soc 101

Culture is the composite of non-material and material aspects and items of a population or community that sets it apart from other populations or communities. While non-material culture includes intangible items, material culture includes tangible items such as clothing. 

For example, an American female student visiting Ghana in Africa is fascinated by the beautiful fabrics and colors of the clothing. She also loves the unique designs of the handmade jewelry. However, she does not know the norms dictating who can wear certain types of clothes and on what occasions. In other words, she does not know the nonmaterial culture that dictates the rules for dress and adornment.

  • Would it be taboo for a female to wear traditional men’s clothing, as is a common practice in the United States?
  • Would there be sanctions if a young female wore garments traditionally reserved for a mature woman?

The American is particularly uncomfortable with some of the laws, rules, and rituals of the country governing interactions between men and women and what appears to be male dominance, with women playing a subservient role. She suffers a culture shock on learning that the ritual of female circumcision is still practiced in some rural communities and it can also result in death, at times. Lastly, she wonders if the practice was a formal norm (dictated by law) for females of a certain age, or was it a folkway passed down from generation to generation.




How has culture been studied

People study culture in a variety of ways. Theologians and philosophers, for example, debate the morals and values of an ideal culture. Art, literature, and film scholars focus on certain aspects of culture novels, films, paintings, plays as expressive, and symbolic activities. Cultural anthropologists often investigate societies outside the United States, traveling around world engaging in empirical fieldwork, while archaeologists study the cultures of the past , digging for  artifacts that document the historicals realities of peoples long dead. 

In contrast, sociologists usually focus on culture closer to home, often in the same societies to which they belong. At the same time, however, sociologists may also engage in the process of “othering” by studying the unusual, extraordinary, or deviant in cultural groups. In so doing, they may fail to consider some aspects of the culture that is right in front of them. This is where the sociology of everyday life offers certain benefits. By studying the mundane as well as the exceptional, we can learn about culture in all of its interesting permutations. We can learn about not only the differences between cultural groups “us” and “them” but also the similarities. 


Definition of Terms

Culture – the entire way of life of a group of people (including both material and symbolic elements) that acts as a lens through which one views the world and that is passed from one generation to the next (page 75)

Ethnocentrism – the principle of using one’s own culture as a means or standard by which to evaluate another group or individual, leading to the view that cultures other than one’s own are abnormal or inferior (page 76)

Cultural Relativism – the principle of understanding other cultures on their own terms, rather than judging or evaluating according to one’s own culture (page 76)

Material culture-  the objects associated with a cultural group, such as tools, machines, utensils, buildings, and artwork; any physical object to which we give social meaning (page 78)

Symbolic Culture – the ideas associated with a cultural group, including ways of thinking (beliefs, values, and assumptions) and ways of behaving (norms, interactions, and communication) (page 79)

Signs – symbols that stand for or convey an idea (page 79)

Gestures – the ways in which people use their bodies to communicate without words; actions that have symbolic meaning (page 80)

Language – a system of communication using vocal sounds, gestures, or written symbols; the basis of symbolic culture and the primary means through which we communicate with one another and perpetuate our culture (page 80)

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – the idea that language structures thought and that ways of looking at the world are embedded in language (page 80)

Values – ideas about what is right or wrong, good or bad, desirable or worthy in a particular group; they express what the group cherishes and honors (page 81)

Norms – rules or guidelines regarding what kinds of behavior are acceptable and appropriate within a particular culture; these typically emanate from the group’s values (page 81)

Laws – types of norms that are formally codified to provide an explicit statement about what is permissible or forbidden, legal or illegal in a given society (page 81)

Folkways – loosely enforced norms involving common customs, practices, or procedures that ensure smooth social interaction and acceptance (page 81)

Mores – norms that carry great moral significance, are closely related to the core values of a cultural group, and often involve severe repercussions for violators (page 83)

Taboo – a norm ingrained so deeply that even thinking about violating it evokes strong feelings of disgust, horror, or revulsion (page 83)

Moral Holiday – a specified time period during which some norm violations are allowed (page 83)

Sanctions – positive or negative reactions to the ways that people follow or disobey norms, including rewards for conformity and punishments for violations (page 83)

Social control – the formal and informal mechanisms used to elicit conformity to values and norms and thus promote social cohesion (page 83)

Multiculturalism – a policy that values diverse racial, ethnic, national, and linguistic backgrounds and so encourages the retention of cultural differences within the larger society (page 85)

Dominant culture – the values, norms, and practices of the group within society that is most powerful (in terms of wealth, prestige, status, influence, etc.) (page 85)

Hegemony – term developed by Antonio Gramsci to describe the cultural aspects of social control, whereby the ideas of the dominant group are accepted by all (page 85)

Subculture- a group within society that is differentiated by its distinctive values, norms, and lifestyle (page 87)

Counterculture – a group within society that openly rejects or actively opposes society’s values and norms (page 87)

Culture wars – clashes within mainstream society over the values and norms that should be upheld (page 88)

Ideal Culture – the norms, values, and patterns of behavior that members of a society believe should be observed in principle (page 88)

Real Culture – the norms, values, and patterns of behavior that actually exist within a society (which may or may not correspond to the society’s ideals) (page 88)

Technology – material artifacts and the knowledge and techniques required to use them (page 90)

Cultural Diffusion – the dissemination of material and symbolic culture (tools and technology, beliefs and behavior) from one group to another (page 90)

Cultural Leveling – the process by which cultures that were once unique and distinct become increasingly similar (page 91)

Cultural Imperialism – the imposition of one culture’s beliefs and practices on another culture through media and consumer products rather than by military force (page 91)


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