Chapter 3. Culture
- Differentiate between culture and society
- Explain material versus nonmaterial culture
- Discuss the concept of cultural universalism as it relates to society
- Compare and contrast ethnocentrism and xenocentrism
- Understand how values and beliefs differ from norms
- Explain the significance of symbols and language to a culture
- Explain the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
- Discuss the role of social control within culture
- Discuss the roles of both high culture and pop culture within society
- Differentiate between subculture and counterculture
- Explain the role of innovation, invention, and discovery in culture
- Understand the role of cultural lag and globalization in cultural change
- Discuss the major theoretical approaches to cultural interpretation
Introduction to Culture
Are there rules for eating at McDonald’s? Generally, we do not think about rules in a fast food restaurant, but if you look around one on a typical weekday, you will see people acting as if they were trained for the role of fast food customer. They stand in line, pick items from the colourful menus, swipe debit cards to pay, and wait to collect trays of food. After a quick meal, customers wad up their paper wrappers and toss them into garbage cans. Customers’ movement through this fast food routine is orderly and predictable, even if no rules are posted and no officials direct the process.
If you want more insight into these unwritten rules, think about what would happen if you behaved according to some other standards. (You would be doing what sociologists call ethnomethodology: deliberately disrupting social norms in order to learn about them.) For example, call ahead for reservations, ask the cashier detailed questions about the food’s ingredients or how it is prepared. Ask to have your meal served to you at your table. Or throw your trash on the ground as you leave. Chances are, you will elicit hostile responses from the restaurant employees and your fellow customers.
People have written entire books analyzing the significance of fast food customs. They examine the extensive, detailed physicality of fast food: the food itself, wrappers, bags, trays, those tiny ketchup packets, the tables and chairs, and even the restaurant building. Everything about a chain restaurant reflects culture, the beliefs and behaviours that a social group shares. Sociological analysis can be applied to every expression of culture, from sporting events to holidays, from education to transportation, from fashion to etiquette.
In everyday conversation, people rarely distinguish between the terms “culture” and “society,” but the terms have slightly different meanings, and the distinction is important to a sociologist. A society describes a group of people who share a common territory and a culture. By “territory,” sociologists refer to a definable region—as small as a neighbourhood (e.g., East Vancouver or “the west side of town”), as large as a country (e.g., Ethiopia, Canada, or Nepal), or somewhere in between (in Canada, this might include someone who identifies with the West Coast, the Prairies, or Atlantic Canada). To clarify, a culture represents the beliefs, practices and artifacts of a group, while society represents the social structures and organization of the people who share those beliefs and practices. Neither society nor culture could exist without the other. In this chapter, we examine the relationship between culture and society in greater detail, paying special attention to the elements and forces that shape culture, including diversity and cultural changes. A final discussion touches on the different theoretical perspectives from which sociologists research culture.
3.1. What Is Culture?
Humans are social creatures. Since the dawn of Homo sapiens nearly 250,000 years ago, people have grouped together into communities in order to survive. Living together, people form common habits and behaviours—from specific methods of childrearing to preferred techniques for obtaining food. In modern-day Paris, many people shop daily at outdoor markets to pick up what they need for their evening meal, buying cheese, meat, and vegetables from different specialty stalls. In the Canada, the majority of people shop once a week at supermarkets, filling large carts to the brim. The Parisian Roland Barthes disdainfully referred to this as “the hasty stocking up” of a “more mechanical civilization” (Barthes 1977).
Almost every human behaviour, from shopping to marriage to expressions of feelings, is learned. In Canada, people tend to view marriage as a choice between two people, based on mutual feelings of love. In other nations and in other times, marriages have been arranged through an intricate process of interviews and negotiations between entire families, or in other cases, through a direct system such as a “mail order bride.” To someone raised in Winnipeg, the marriage customs of a family from Nigeria may seem strange, or even wrong. Conversely, someone from a traditional Kolkata family might be perplexed with the idea of romantic love as the foundation for the lifelong commitment of marriage. In other words, the way in which people view marriage depends largely on what they have been taught.
Behaviour based on learned customs is not a bad thing. Being familiar with unwritten rules helps people feel secure and “normal.” Most people want to live their daily lives confident that their behaviours will not be challenged or disrupted. But even an action as seemingly simple as commuting to work evidences a great deal of cultural propriety.
Take the case of going to work on public transportation. Whether commuting in Dublin, Cairo, Mumbai, or Vancouver, many behaviours will be the same in all locations, but significant differences also arise between cultures. Typically, a passenger would find a marked bus stop or station, wait for the bus or train, pay an agent before or after boarding, and quietly take a seat if one is available. But when boarding a bus in Cairo, passengers might have to run, because buses there often do not come to a full stop to take on patrons. Dublin bus riders would be expected to extend an arm to indicate that they want the bus to stop for them. And when boarding a commuter train in Mumbai, passengers must squeeze into overstuffed cars amid a lot of pushing and shoving on the crowded platforms. That kind of behaviour would be considered the height of rudeness in Canada, but in Mumbai it reflects the daily challenges of getting around on a train system that is taxed to capacity.
In this example of commuting, culture consists of thoughts (expectations about personal space, for example) and tangible things (bus stops, trains, and seating capacity). Material culture refers to the objects or belongings of a group of people. Metro passes and bus tokens are part of material culture, as are automobiles, stores, and the physical structures where people worship. Nonmaterial culture, in contrast, consists of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society. Material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas. A metro pass is a material object, but it represents a form of nonmaterial culture, namely, capitalism, and the acceptance of paying for transportation. Clothing, hairstyles, and jewellery are part of material culture, but the appropriateness of wearing certain clothing for specific events reflects nonmaterial culture. A school building belongs to material culture, but the teaching methods and educational standards are part of education’s nonmaterial culture. These material and nonmaterial aspects of culture can vary subtly from region to region. As people travel farther afield, moving from different regions to entirely different parts of the world, certain material and nonmaterial aspects of culture become dramatically unfamiliar. What happens when we encounter different cultures? As we interact with cultures other than our own, we become more aware of the differences and commonalities between others’ worlds and our own.
Often, a comparison of one culture to another will reveal obvious differences. But all cultures share common elements. Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. One example of a cultural universal is the family unit: every human society recognizes a family structure that regulates sexual reproduction and the care of children. Even so, how that family unit is defined and how it functions vary. In many Asian cultures, for example, family members from all generations commonly live together in one household. In these cultures, young adults will continue to live in the extended household family structure until they marry and join their spouse’s household, or they may remain and raise their nuclear family within the extended family’s homestead. In Canada, by contrast, individuals are expected to leave home and live independently for a period before forming a family unit consisting of parents and their offspring.
Anthropologist George Murdock first recognized the existence of cultural universals while studying systems of kinship around the world. Murdock found that cultural universals often revolve around basic human survival, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter, or around shared human experiences, such as birth and death, or illness and healing. Through his research, Murdock identified other universals including language, the concept of personal names, and, interestingly, jokes. Humor seems to be a universal way to release tensions and create a sense of unity among people (Murdock 1949). Sociologists consider humour necessary to human interaction because it helps individuals navigate otherwise tense situations.
Making Connections: Sociological Research
Is Music a Cultural Universal?
Imagine that you are sitting in a theatre, watching a film. The movie opens with the heroine sitting on a park bench, a grim expression on her face. Cue the music. The first slow and mournful notes are played in a minor key. As the melody continues, the heroine turns her head and sees a man walking toward her. The music slowly gets louder, and the dissonance of the chords sends a prickle of fear running down your spine. You sense that the heroine is in danger.
Now imagine that you are watching the same movie, but with a different soundtrack. As the scene opens, the music is soft and soothing, with a hint of sadness. You see the heroine sitting on the park bench and sense her loneliness. Suddenly, the music swells. The woman looks up and sees a man walking toward her. The music grows fuller, and the pace picks up. You feel your heart rise in your chest. This is a happy moment.
Music has the ability to evoke emotional responses. In television shows, movies, even commercials, music elicits laughter, sadness, or fear. Are these types of musical cues cultural universals?
In 2009, a team of psychologists, led by Thomas Fritz of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, studied people’s reactions to music they’d never heard (Fritz et al. 2009). The research team travelled to Cameroon, Africa, and asked Mafa tribal members to listen to Western music. The tribe, isolated from Western culture, had never been exposed to Western culture and had no context or experience within which to interpret its music. Even so, as the tribal members listened to a Western piano piece, they were able to recognize three basic emotions: happiness, sadness, and fear. Music, it turns out, is a sort of universal language.
Researchers also found that music can foster a sense of wholeness within a group. In fact, scientists who study the evolution of language have concluded that originally language (an established component of group identity) and music were one (Darwin 1871). Additionally, since music is largely nonverbal, the sounds of music can cross societal boundaries more easily than words. Music allows people to make connections where language might be a more difficult barricade. As Fritz and his team found, music and the emotions it conveys can be cultural universals.
Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism
Despite how much humans have in common, cultural differences are far more prevalent than cultural universals. For example, while all cultures have language, analysis of particular language structures and conversational etiquette reveal tremendous differences. In some Middle Eastern cultures, it is common to stand close to others in conversation. North Americans keep more distance, maintaining a large “personal space.” Even something as simple as eating and drinking varies greatly from culture to culture. If your professor comes into an early morning class holding a mug of liquid, what do you assume she is drinking? In the United States, it’s most likely filled with coffee, not Earl Grey tea, a favourite in England, or Yak Butter tea, a staple in Tibet.
The way cuisines vary across cultures fascinates many people. Some travellers, like celebrated food writer Anthony Bourdain, pride themselves on their willingness to try unfamiliar foods, while others return home expressing gratitude for their native culture’s fare. Canadians often express disgust at other cultures’ cuisine, thinking it is gross to eat meat from a dog or guinea pig, for example, while they do not question their own habit of eating cows or pigs. Such attitudes are an example of ethnocentrism, or evaluating and judging another culture based on how it compares to one’s own cultural norms. Ethnocentrism, as sociologist William Graham Sumner (1906) described the term, involves a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others. Almost everyone is a little bit ethnocentric. For example, Canadians tend to say that people from England drive on the “wrong” side of the road, rather than the “other” side. Someone from a country where dogs are considered dirty and unhygienic might find it off-putting to see a dog in a French restaurant.
A high level of appreciation for one’s own culture can be healthy; a shared sense of community pride, for example, connects people in a society. But ethnocentrism can lead to disdain or dislike for other cultures, causing misunderstanding and conflict. People with the best intentions sometimes travel to a society to “help” its people, seeing them as uneducated or backward, essentially inferior. In reality, these travellers are guilty of cultural imperialism—the deliberate imposition of one’s own cultural values on another culture. Europe’s colonial expansion, begun in the 16th century, was often accompanied by a severe cultural imperialism. European colonizers often viewed the people in the lands they colonized as uncultured savages who were in need of European governance, dress, religion, and other cultural practices. On the West Coast of Canada, the aboriginal “potlatch” (gift-giving) ceremony was made illegal in 1885 because it was thought to prevent natives from acquiring the proper industriousness and respect for material goods required by civilization. A more modern example of cultural imperialism may include the work of international aid agencies who introduce modern technological agricultural methods and plant species from developed countries while overlooking indigenous varieties and agricultural approaches that are better suited to the particular region.
Ethnocentrism can be so strong that when confronted with all the differences of a new culture, one may experience disorientation and frustration. In sociology, we call this “culture shock.” A traveller from Chicago might find the nightly silence of rural Montana unsettling, not peaceful. An exchange student from China might be annoyed by the constant interruptions in class as other students ask questions—a practice that is considered rude in China. Perhaps the Chicago traveller was initially captivated with Montana’s quiet beauty and the Chinese student was originally excited to see an American-style classroom firsthand. But as they experience unanticipated differences from their own culture, their excitement gives way to discomfort and doubts about how to behave appropriately in the new situation. Eventually, as people learn more about a culture, they recover from culture shock.
Culture shock may appear because people aren’t always expecting cultural differences. Anthropologist Ken Barger (1971) discovered this when conducting participatory observation in an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic. Originally from Indiana, Barger hesitated when invited to join a local snowshoe race. He knew he’d never hold his own against these experts. Sure enough, he finished last, to his mortification. But the tribal members congratulated him, saying, “You really tried!” In Barger’s own culture, he had learned to value victory. To the Inuit people, winning was enjoyable, but their culture valued survival skills essential to their environment: how hard someone tried could mean the difference between life and death. Over the course of his stay, Barger participated in caribou hunts, learned how to take shelter in winter storms, and sometimes went days with little or no food to share among tribal members. Trying hard and working together, two nonmaterial values, were indeed much more important than winning.
During his time with the Inuit, Barger learned to engage in cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) argued that each culture has an internally consistent pattern of thought and action, which alone could be the basis for judging the merits and morality of the culture’s practices. Cultural relativism requires an open mind and a willingness to consider, and even adapt to, new values and norms. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies—ones in which women have political rights and control over their own bodies—would question whether the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of cultural tradition.
Sociologists attempting to engage in cultural relativism may struggle to reconcile aspects of their own culture with aspects of a culture they are studying. Pride in one’s own culture doesn’t have to lead to imposing its values on others. And an appreciation for another culture shouldn’t preclude individuals from studying it with a critical eye.
Feminist sociology is particularly attuned to the way that most cultures present a male-dominated view of the world as if it were simply the view of the world. Androcentricism is a perspective in which male concerns, male attitudes, and male practices are presented as “normal” or define what is significant and valued in a culture. Women’s experiences, activities, and contributions to society and history are ignored, devalued, or marginalized.
As a result the perspectives, concerns, and interests of only one sex and class are represented as general. Only one sex and class are directly and actively involved in producing, debating, and developing its ideas, in creating its art, in forming its medical and psychological conceptions, in framing its laws, its political principles, its educational values and objectives. Thus a one-sided standpoint comes to be seen as natural, obvious, and general, and a one-sided set of interests preoccupy intellectual and creative work (Smith 1987).
In part this is simply a question of the bias of those who have the power to define cultural values, and in part, it is the result of a process in which women have been actively excluded from the culture-creating process. It is still common, for example, to use the personal pronoun “he” or the word “man” to represent people in general or humanity. Despite the good intentions of many who use these terms, and the grammatical awkwardness of trying to find gender neutral terms to replace “he” or “man,” the overall effect is to establish masculine values and imagery as normal. A “policeman” brings to mind a man who is doing a man’s job, when in fact women have been involved in policing for several decades now. Replacing “he” with “she” in a sentence can often have a jarring effect because it undermines the “naturalness” of the male perspective.
Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World
Overcoming Culture Shock
During her summer vacation, Caitlin flew to Madrid to visit Maria, the exchange student she’d befriended the previous semester. In the airport, she heard rapid, musical Spanish being spoken all around her. Exciting as it was, she felt isolated and disconnected. Maria’s mother kissed Caitlin on both cheeks when she greeted her. Her imposing father kept his distance. Caitlin was half asleep by the time supper was served—at 10 pm! Maria’s family sat at the table for hours, speaking loudly, gesturing, and arguing about politics, a taboo dinner subject in Caitlin’s house. They served wine and toasted their honoured guest. Caitlin had trouble interpreting her hosts’ facial expressions, and didn’t realize she should make the next toast. That night, Caitlin crawled into a strange bed, wishing she hadn’t come. She missed her home and felt overwhelmed by the new customs, language, and surroundings. She’d studied Spanish in school for years—why hadn’t it prepared her for this?
What Caitlin hadn’t realized was that people depend not only on spoken words, but on subtle cues like gestures and facial expressions, to communicate. Cultural norms accompany even the smallest nonverbal signals (DuBois 1951). They help people know when to shake hands, where to sit, how to converse, and even when to laugh. We relate to others through a shared set of cultural norms, and ordinarily, we take them for granted.
For this reason, culture shock is often associated with traveling abroad, although it can happen in one’s own country, state, or even hometown. Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1960) is credited with first coining the term “culture shock.” In his studies, Oberg found that most people found encountering a new culture to be exciting at first. But bit by bit, they became stressed by interacting with people from a different culture who spoke another language and used different regional expressions. There was new food to digest, new daily schedules to follow, and new rules of etiquette to learn. Living with this constant stress can make people feel incompetent and insecure. People react to frustration in a new culture, Oberg found, by initially rejecting it and glorifying one’s own culture. An American visiting Italy might long for a “real” pizza or complain about the unsafe driving habits of Italians compared to people in the United States.
It helps to remember that culture is learned. Everyone is ethnocentric to an extent, and identifying with one’s own country is natural.
Caitlin’s shock was minor compared to that of her friends Dayar and Mahlika, a Turkish couple living in married student housing on campus. And it was nothing like that of her classmate Sanai. Sanai had been forced to flee war-torn Bosnia with her family when she was 15. After two weeks in Spain, Caitlin had developed a bit more compassion and understanding for what those people had gone through. She understood that adjusting to a new culture takes time. It can take weeks or months to recover from culture shock, and years to fully adjust to living in a new culture.
By the end of Caitlin’s trip, she’d made new lifelong friends. She’d stepped out of her comfort zone. She’d learned a lot about Spain, but she’d also discovered a lot about herself and her own culture.
3.2. Elements of Culture
Values and Beliefs
The first, and perhaps most crucial, elements of culture we will discuss are its values and beliefs. Values are a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society. Values are deeply embedded and critical for transmitting and teaching a culture’s beliefs. Beliefs are the tenets or convictions that people hold to be true. Individuals in a society have specific beliefs, but they also share collective values. To illustrate the difference, North Americans commonly believe that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. Underlying this belief is the value that wealth is good and important.
Values help shape a society by suggesting what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, sought or avoided. Consider the value the culture North Americans place upon youth. Children represent innocence and purity, while a youthful adult appearance signifies sexuality. Shaped by this value, individuals spend millions of dollars each year on cosmetic products and surgeries to look young and beautiful.
Sometimes the values of Canada and the United States are contrasted. Americans are said to have an individualistic culture, meaning people place a high value on individuality and independence. In contrast, Canadian culture is said to be more collectivist, meaning the welfare of the group and group relationships are a primary value. Seymour Martin Lipset used these contrasts of values to explain why the two societies, which have common roots as British colonies, developed such different political institutions and cultures (Lipset 1990).
Living up to a culture’s values can be difficult. It’s easy to value good health, but it’s hard to quit smoking. Marital monogamy is valued, but many spouses engage in infidelity. Cultural diversity and equal opportunities for all people are valued in Canada, yet the country’s highest political offices have been dominated by white men.
Values often suggest how people should behave, but they do not accurately reflect how people do behave. As we saw in Chapter 1, Harriet Martineau’s basic distinction between what people say they believe and what they actually do are often at odds. Values portray an ideal culture, the standards society would like to embrace and live up to. But ideal culture differs from real culture, the way society actually is, based on what occurs and exists. In an ideal culture, there would be no traffic accidents, murders, poverty, or racial tension. But in real culture, police officers, lawmakers, educators, and social workers constantly strive to prevent or repair those accidents, crimes, and injustices. Teenagers are encouraged to value celibacy. However, the number of unplanned pregnancies among teens reveals that not only is the ideal hard to live up to, but that the value alone is not enough to spare teenagers from the potential consequences of having sex.
One way societies strive to put values into action is through rewards, sanctions, and punishments. When people observe the norms of society and uphold its values, they are often rewarded. A boy who helps an elderly woman board a bus may receive a smile and a “thank you.” A business manager who raises profit margins may receive a quarterly bonus. People sanction certain behaviours by giving their support, approval, or permission, or by instilling formal actions of disapproval and non-support. Sanctions are a form of social control, a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms. Sometimes people conform to norms in anticipation or expectation of positive sanctions: good grades, for instance, may mean praise from parents and teachers.
When people go against a society’s values, they are punished. A boy who shoves an elderly woman aside to board the bus first may receive frowns or even a scolding from other passengers. A business manager who drives away customers will likely be fired. Breaking norms and rejecting values can lead to cultural sanctions such as earning a negative label—lazy, no-good bum—or to legal sanctions such as traffic tickets, fines, or imprisonment.
Values are not static; they vary across time and between groups as people evaluate, debate, and change collective societal beliefs. Values also vary from culture to culture. For example, cultures differ in their values about what kinds of physical closeness are appropriate in public. It’s rare to see two male friends or coworkers holding hands in Canada where that behaviour often symbolizes romantic feelings. But in many nations, masculine physical intimacy is considered natural in public. A simple gesture, such as hand-holding, carries great symbolic differences across cultures.
So far, the examples in this chapter have often described how people are expected to behave in certain situations—for example, when buying food or boarding a bus. These examples describe the visible and invisible rules of conduct through which societies are structured, or what sociologists call norms. Norms define how to behave in accordance with what a society has defined as good, right, and important, and most members of the society adhere to them.
Formal norms are established, written rules. They are behaviours worked out and agreed upon in order to suit and serve the most people. Laws are formal norms, but so are employee manuals, college entrance exam requirements, and “no running” signs at swimming pools. Formal norms are the most specific and clearly stated of the various types of norms, and the most strictly enforced. But even formal norms are enforced to varying degrees, reflected in cultural values
For example, money is highly valued in North America, so monetary crimes are punished. It’s against the law to rob a bank, and banks go to great lengths to prevent such crimes. People safeguard valuable possessions and install antitheft devices to protect homes and cars. Until recently, a less strictly enforced social norm was driving while intoxicated. While it is against the law to drive drunk, drinking is for the most part an acceptable social behaviour. Though there have been laws in Canada to punish drunk driving since 1921, there were few systems in place to prevent the crime until quite recently. These examples show a range of enforcement in formal norms.
There are plenty of formal norms, but the list of informal norms—casual behaviours that are generally and widely conformed to—is longer. People learn informal norms by observation, imitation, and general socialization. Some informal norms are taught directly—“Kiss your Aunt Edna” or “Use your napkin”—while others are learned by observation, including observations of the consequences when someone else violates a norm. Children learn quickly that picking your nose is subject to ridicule when they see someone shamed for it by other children. But although informal norms define personal interactions, they extend into other systems as well. Think back to the discussion of fast food restaurants at the beginning of this chapter. In Canada, there are informal norms regarding behaviour at these restaurants. Customers line up to order their food, and leave when they are done. They do not sit down at a table with strangers, sing loudly as they prepare their condiments, or nap in a booth. Most people do not commit even benign breaches of informal norms. Informal norms dictate appropriate behaviours without the need of written rules.
Making Connections: Sociological Research
Sociologist Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011) studied people’s customs in order to find out how tacit and often unconscious societal rules and norms not only influenced behaviour but enabled the social order to exist (Weber 2011). Like the symbolic interactionists, he believed that members of society together create a social order. He noted however, that people often draw on inferred knowledge and unspoken agreements to do so. His resulting book, Studies in Ethnomethodology, published in 1967, discusses the underlying assumptions that people use to create “accounts” or stories that enable them to make sense of the world.
One of his research methods was known as a “breaching experiment.” His breaching experiments tested sociological concepts of social norms and conformity. In a breaching experiment, the researcher purposely breaks a social norm or behaves in a socially awkward manner. The participants are not aware an experiment is in progress. If the breach is successful, however, these “innocent bystanders” will respond in some way. For example, he had his students go into local shops and begin to barter with the sales clerks for fixed price goods. “This says $14.99, but I’ll give you $10 for it.” Often the clerks were shocked or flustered. This breach reveals the unspoken convention in North America that amount given on the price tag is the price. It also breaks a number of other conventions which seek to make commercial transactions as efficient and impersonal as possible. In another example, he had his students respond to the casual greeting, “How are you?” with a detailed and elaborate description of their state of health and well-being. The point of the experiments was not that the experimenter would simply act obnoxiously or weird in public. Rather, the point is to deviate from a specific social norm in a small way, to subtly break some form of social etiquette, and see what happens.
To conduct his ethnomethodology, Garfinkel deliberately imposed strange behaviours on unknowing people. Then he would observe their responses. He suspected that odd behaviours would shatter conventional expectations, but he was not sure how. He set up, for example, a simple game of tic-tac-toe. One player was asked beforehand not to mark Xs and Os in the boxes but on the lines dividing the spaces instead. The other player, in the dark about the study, was flabbergasted and did not know how to continue. The reactions of outrage, anger, puzzlement, or other emotions illustrated the deep level at which unspoken social norms constitute social life.
There are many rules about speaking with strangers in public. It is okay to tell a woman you like her shoes. It is not okay to ask if you can try them on. It is okay to stand in line behind someone at the ATM. It is not okay to look over their shoulder as they make the transaction. It is okay to sit beside someone on a crowded bus. It is weird to sit beside a stranger in a half-empty bus.
For some breaches, the researcher directly engages with innocent bystanders. An experimenter might strike up a conversation in a public bathroom, where it’s common to respect each other’s privacy so fiercely as to ignore other people’s presence. In a grocery store, an experimenter might take a food item out of another person’s grocery cart, saying, “That looks good! I think I’ll try it.” An experimenter might sit down at a table with others in a fast food restaurant, or follow someone around a museum, studying the same paintings. In those cases, the bystanders are pressured to respond, and their discomfort illustrates how much we depend on social norms. These cultural norms play an important role. They let us know how to behave around each other and how to feel comfortable in our community. Breaching experiments uncover and explore the many unwritten social rules we live by.
Norms may be further classified as either mores or folkways. Mores (mor-ays) are norms that embody the moral views and principles of a group. Violating them can have serious consequences. The strongest mores are legally protected with laws or other formal norms. In the United States, for instance, murder is considered immoral, and it is punishable by law (a formal norm). But more often, mores are judged and guarded by public sentiment (an informal norm). People who violate mores are seen as shameful. They can even be shunned or banned from some groups. The mores of the Canadian school system require that a student’s writing be in the student’s own words or use special forms (such as quotation marks and a whole system of citation) for crediting other writers. Writing another person’s words as if they are one’s own has a name—plagiarism. The consequences for violating this norm are severe, and can usually result in expulsion.
Unlike mores, folkways are norms without any moral underpinnings. Folkways direct appropriate behaviour in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture. Folkways indicate whether to shake hands or kiss on the cheek when greeting another person. They specify whether to wear a tie and blazer or a T-shirt and sandals to an event. In Canada, women can smile and say hello to men on the street. In Egypt, it’s not acceptable. In Northern Europe, it is fine for people to go into a sauna or hot tub naked. Typically in North America, it is not. An opinion poll that asked Canadian women what they felt would end a relationship after a first date showed that women in British Columbia were “pickier” than women in the rest of the country (Times Colonist 2014). First date “deal breakers” included poor hygiene (82 percent), being distracted by a mobile device (74 percent), talking about sexual history and being rude to waiters (72 percent), and eating with their mouths open (60 percent). All of these examples illustrate breaking informal rules, which are not serious enough to be called mores, but are serious enough to terminate a relationship before it has begun.
Many folkways are actions we take for granted. People need to act without thinking to get seamlessly through daily routines; they can’t stop and analyze every action (Sumner 1906). People who experience culture shock may find that it subsides as they learn the new culture’s folkways and are able to move through their daily routines more smoothly Folkways might be small manners, learned by observation and imitated, but they are by no means trivial. Like mores and laws, these norms help people negotiate their daily life within a given culture.
Symbols and Language
Humans, consciously and subconsciously, are always striving to make sense of their surrounding world. Symbols—such as gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words—help people understand the world. Symbols provide clues to understanding experiences. They convey recognizable meanings that are shared by societies.
The world is filled with symbols. Sports uniforms, company logos, and traffic signs are symbols. In some cultures, a gold ring is a symbol of marriage. Some symbols are highly functional; stop signs, for instance, provide useful instruction. As physical objects, they belong to material culture, but because they function as symbols, they also convey nonmaterial cultural meanings. Some symbols are only valuable in what they represent. Trophies, blue ribbons, or gold medals, for example, serve no other purpose other than to represent accomplishments. But many objects have both material and nonmaterial symbolic value.
A police officer’s badge and uniform are symbols of authority and law enforcement. The sight of an officer in uniform or a squad car triggers reassurance in some citizens, and annoyance, fear, or anger in others.
It’s easy to take symbols for granted. Few people challenge or even think about stick figure signs on the doors of public bathrooms. But those figures are more than just symbols that tell men and women which bathrooms to use. They also uphold the value, in North America, that public restrooms should be gender exclusive. Even though stalls are relatively private, it is still relatively uncommon for places to offer unisex bathrooms.
Symbols often get noticed when they are used out of context. Used unconventionally, symbols convey strong messages. A stop sign on the door of a corporation makes a political statement, as does a camouflage military jacket worn in an antiwar protest. Together, the semaphore signals for “N” and “D” represent nuclear disarmament—and form the well-known peace sign (Westcott 2008). Internet “memes”—images that spread from person to person through reposting—often adopt the tactics of “detournement” or misappropriation used by the French Situationists of the 1950s and 1960s. The Situationists sought to subvert media and political messages by altering them slightly—“detouring” or hijacking them—in order to defamiliarize familiar messages, signs, and symbols. An ordinary image of a cat combined with the grammatically challenged caption “I Can Has Cheezburger?” spawned an internet phenomenon (LOL Cats) because of the funny, nonsensical nature of its non-sequitur message. An image of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a folksy sweater holding a cute cat, altered to show him holding an oily duck instead, is a detournement with a more political message.
Even the destruction of symbols is symbolic. Effigies representing public figures are beaten to demonstrate anger at certain leaders. In 1989, crowds tore down the Berlin Wall, a decades-old symbol of the division between East and West Germany, communism, and capitalism.
While different cultures have varying systems of symbols, there is one that is common to all: language. Language is a symbolic system through which people communicate and through which culture is transmitted. Some languages contain a system of symbols used for written communication, while others rely only on spoken communication and nonverbal actions.
Societies often share a single language, and many languages contain the same basic elements. An alphabet is a written system made of symbolic shapes that refer to spoken sound. Taken together, these symbols convey specific meanings. The English alphabet uses a combination of 26 letters to create words; these 26 letters make up over 600,000 recognized English words (OED Online 2011).
Rules for speaking and writing vary even within cultures, most notably by region. Do you refer to a can of carbonated liquid as a “soda,” “pop,” or “soft drink”? Is a household entertainment room a “family room,” “rec room,” or “den”? When leaving a restaurant, do you ask your server for the “cheque,” the “ticket,” “l’addition,” or the “bill”?
Language is constantly evolving as societies create new ideas. In this age of technology, people have adapted almost instantly to new nouns such as “email” and “internet,” and verbs such as “downloading,” “texting,” and “blogging.” Twenty years ago, the general public would have considered these nonsense words.
Even while it constantly evolves, language continues to shape our reality. This insight was established in the 1920s by two linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. They believed that reality is culturally determined, and that any interpretation of reality is based on a society’s language. To prove this point, the sociologists argued that every language has words or expressions specific to that language. In Canada, for example, the number 13 is associated with bad luck. In Japan, however, the number four is considered unlucky, since it is pronounced similarly to the Japanese word for “death.”
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is based on the idea that people experience their world through their language, and that they therefore understand their world through the culture embedded in their language. The hypothesis, which has also been called linguistic relativity, states that language shapes thought (Swoyer 2003). Studies have shown, for instance, that unless people have access to the word “ambivalent,” they do not recognize an experience of uncertainty due to conflicting positive and negative feelings about one issue. Essentially, the hypothesis argues, if a person cannot describe the experience, the person is not having the experience.
In addition to using language, people communicate without words. Nonverbal communication is symbolic, and, as in the case of language, much of it is learned through one’s culture. Some gestures are nearly universal: smiles often represent joy and crying often represents sadness. Other nonverbal symbols vary across cultural contexts in their meaning. A thumbs-up, for example, indicates positive reinforcement in Canada, whereas in Russia and Australia, it is an offensive curse (Passero 2002). Other gestures vary in meaning depending on the situation and the person. A wave of the hand can mean many things, depending on how it is done and for whom. It may mean “hello,” “goodbye,” “no thank you,” or “I’m royalty.” Winks convey a variety of messages, including “We have a secret,” “I’m only kidding,” or “I’m attracted to you.” From a distance, a person can understand the emotional gist of two people in conversation just by watching their body language and facial expressions. Furrowed brows and folded arms indicate a serious topic, possibly an argument. Smiles, with heads lifted and arms open, suggest a lighthearted, friendly chat.
Making Connections: Social Policy & Debate
Is Canada Bilingual?
In the 1960s it became clear that the federal government needed to develop a bilingual language policy to integrate French Canadians into the national identity and prevent their further alienation. The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1965) recommended establishing official bilingualism within the federal government. As a result, the Official Languages Act became law in 1969 and established both English and French as the official languages of the federal government and federal institutions such as the courts. The Trudeau governments of the late 1960s and early 1970s had an even broader ambition to make Canada itself bilingual. Not only would Canadians be able to access government services in either French or English, no matter where they were in the country, but also French or English education. The entire country would be home for both French or English speakers (McRoberts 1997).
However, in the 1971 census, 67 percent of Canadians spoke English most often at home, while only 26 percent spoke French at home and most of these were in Quebec. Approximately 13 percent of Canadians could maintain a conversation in both languages (Statistics Canada 2007). Outside Quebec, the highest proportion of French spoken at home was 31.4 percent in New Brunswick. The next highest were Ontario at 4.6 percent and Manitoba at 4 percent. In British Columbia, only 0.5 percent of the population spoke French at home. French speakers had widely settled Canada, but French speaking outside Quebec had lost ground since Confederation because of the higher rates of anglophone immigrants, the assimilation of francophones, and the lack of French-speaking institutions outside Quebec (McRoberts 1997). It seemed even in 1971 that the ideal of creating a bilingual nation was unlikely and unrealistic.
What has happened to the concept of bilingualism over the last 40 years? According to the 2011 census, 58 percent of the Canadian population spoke English at home, while only 18.2 percent spoke French at home. Proportionately the number of both English and French speakers has actually decreased since the introduction of the Official Languages Act in 1969. On the other hand, the number of people who can maintain a conversation in both official languages has increased to 17.5 percent from 13 percent (Statistics Canada 2007). However, the most significant linguistic change in Canada has not been French-English bilingualism, but the growth in the use of languages other than French and English. In a sense, what has happened is that the shifting cultural composition of Canada has rendered the goal of a bilingual nation anachronistic.
Today it would be more accurate to speak of Canada as a multilingual nation. One-fifth of Canadians speak a language other than French or English at home; 11.5 percent report speaking English and a language other than French, and 1.3 percent report speaking French and a language other than English. In Toronto, 32.2 percent of the population speak a language other than French and English at home; 8.8 percent of whom speak Cantonese, 8 percent Punjabi, 7 percent an unspecified dialect of Chinese, 5.9 percent Urdu, and 5.7 percent Tamil. In Greater Vancouver, 31 percent of the population speak a language other than French and English at home; 17.7 percent of whom speak Punjabi, followed by Cantonese (16.0 percent), unspecified Chinese (12.2 percent), Mandarin (11.8 percent), and Philippine Tagalog (6.7 percent).
Today, the government of Canada still conducts its business in both official languages. French and English are the dominant languages in the workplace and school. Labels on products are required to be in both French and English. But increasingly a lot of product information is available in in multiple languages. In Vancouver and Toronto, and to a lesser extent Montreal, linguistic diversity has become increasingly prevalent. French and English are still the central languages of convergence and integration for immigrant communities who speak other languages—only 1.8 percent of the population were unable to conduct a conversation in either English or French in 2011—but increasingly Canada is linguistically diverse rather than bilingual.
3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
It may seem obvious that there are a multitude of cultural differences between societies in the world. After all, we can easily see that people vary from one society to the next. It is natural that a young woman from rural Kenya would have a very different view of the world from an elderly man in Mumbai—one of the most populated cities in the world. Additionally, each culture has its own internal variations. Sometimes the differences between cultures are not nearly as large as the differences inside cultures however.
High Culture and Popular Culture
Do you prefer listening to opera or hip hop music? Do you like watching horse jumping or NASCAR? Do you read books of poetry or celebrity magazines? In each pair, one type of entertainment is considered high-brow and the other low-brow. Sociologists use the term high culture to describe the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in the highest class segments of a society. People often associate high culture with intellectualism, aesthetic taste, political power, and prestige. In North America, high culture also tends to be associated with wealth. Events considered high culture can be expensive and formal—attending a ballet, seeing a play, or listening to a live symphony performance.
The term popular culture refers to the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in mainstream society. Popular culture events might include a parade, a baseball game, or a rock concert. Rock and pop music—“pop” short for “popular”—are part of popular culture. In modern times, popular culture is often expressed and spread via commercial media such as radio, television, movies, the music industry, publishers, and corporate-run websites. Unlike high culture, popular culture is known and accessible to most people. You can share a discussion of favourite hockey teams with a new coworker, or comment on American Idol when making small talk in line at the grocery store. But if you tried to launch into a deep discussion on the classical Greek play Antigone, few members of Canadian society today would be familiar with it.
Although high culture may be viewed as superior to popular culture, the labels of “high culture” and “popular culture” vary over time and place. Shakespearean plays, considered pop culture when they were written, are now among our society’s high culture. In the current second “Golden Age of Television,” (the first Golden Age was in the 1950s and 1960s), television programming has gone from typical low-brow situation comedies, soap operas, and crime dramas to the development of “high-quality” series with increasingly sophisticated characters, narratives, and themes (e.g., The Sopranos, True Blood, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones).
Contemporary culture is frequently referred to as a “postmodern culture.” In the era of modern culture, or modernity, the distinction between high culture and popular culture framed the experience of culture in more or less a clear way. The high culture of modernity was often experimental and avant-garde, seeking new and original forms in literature, art, and music to express the elusive, transient, underlying experiences of the modern human condition. It appealed to a limited-but-sophisticated audience. Popular culture was simply the culture of “the people,” immediately accessible and easily digestible, either in the guise of folk traditions or commercialized mass culture. In postmodern culture this distinction begins to break down and it becomes more common to find various sorts of “mash ups” of high and low: serious literature combined with zombie themes, pop music constructed from samples of original “hooks” and melodies, symphony orchestras performing the soundtracks of cartoons, architecture that borrows and blends historical styles, etc. Rock and roll music is the subject of many high-brow histories and academic analyses, just as the common objects of popular culture are transformed and re-presented as high art (e.g., Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans and Marilyn Munro pictures). The dominant sensibility of postmodern popular culture is both playful and ironic, as if the blending and mixing of cultural references (in the television show The Simpsons, for example) is one big “in” joke.
Subculture and Counterculture
A subculture is just as it sounds—a smaller cultural group within a larger culture; people of a subculture are part of the larger culture, but also share a specific identity within a smaller group.
Thousands of subcultures exist within Canada. Ethnic groups share the language, food, and customs of their heritage. Other subcultures are united by shared experiences. Biker culture revolves around a dedication to motorcycles. Some subcultures are formed by members who possess traits or preferences that differ from the majority of a society’s population. Alcoholics Anonymous offers support to those suffering from alcoholism. The body modification community embraces aesthetic additions to the human body, such as tattoos, piercings, and certain forms of plastic surgery. The post-Second World War period was characterized by a series of “spectacular” youth cultures: Teddy boys, beatniks, mods, hippies, skinheads, Rastas, punks, new wavers, ravers, hip-hoppers, and hipsters. But even as members of a subculture band together, they still identify with and participate in the larger society.
Sociologists distinguish subcultures from countercultures, which are a type of subculture that rejects some of the larger culture’s norms and values. In contrast to subcultures, which operate relatively smoothly within the larger society, countercultures might actively defy larger society by developing their own set of rules and norms to live by, sometimes even creating communities that operate outside of greater society.
Cults, a word derived from culture, are also considered counterculture groups. They are usually informal, transient religious groups or movements that deviate from orthodox beliefs and often, but not always, involve allegiance to a charismatic leader. The group Yearning for Zion (YFZ) in Eldorado, Texas, existed outside the mainstream, and the limelight, until its leader was accused of statutory rape and underage marriage. The sect’s formal norms clashed too severely to be tolerated by U.S. law, and in 2008, authorities raided the compound, removing more than 200 women and children from the property.
Making Connections: Careers in Sociology
The Evolution of American Hipster Subculture
Skinny jeans, chunky glasses, ironic moustaches, and T-shirts with vintage logos—the hipster is a recognizable figure in contemporary North American culture. Predominantly based in metropolitan areas, hipsters seek to define themselves by a rejection of mainstream norms and fashion styles. As a subculture, hipsters spurn many values and beliefs of North American society, tending to prefer a bohemian lifestyle over one defined by the accumulation of power and wealth.
When did hipster subculture begin? While commonly viewed as a recent trend among middle-class youth, the history of the group stretches back to the early decades of the 1900s. In the 1940s, black American jazz music was on the rise in the United States. Musicians were known as “hepcats” and had a smooth, relaxed style that contrasted with more conservative and mainstream expressions of cultural taste. Norman Mailer, in his essay, “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” defined those who were “hep” or “hip” as largely white youth living by a jazz-inspired code of resistance, while those who were “square” lived according to society’s rules and conventions.
As hipster attitudes spread and young people were increasingly drawn to alternative music and fashion, attitudes and language derived from the culture of jazz were adopted. Unlike the vernacular of the day, hipster slang was purposefully ambiguous. When hipsters said, “It’s cool, man,” they meant not that everything was good, but that it was the way it was.
By the 1950s, the influence of jazz was winding down and many traits of hepcat culture were becoming mainstream. A new subculture was on the rise. The “Beat Generation,” a title coined by Quebecois-American writer Jack Kerouac, was defined as an age that was nonconformist and anti-materialistic. Prominent in this movement were writers and poets who listened to jazz and embraced radical politics. They bummed around, hitchhiked the country, sought experience, and lived marginally.
College students, questioning the relevance and vitality of the American dream in the face of post-war skepticism, clutched copies of Kerouac’s On the Road, dressed in berets, black turtlenecks, and black-rimmed glasses. Women wore black leotards and grew their hair long. Herb Caen, a San Francisco journalist, used the suffix from Sputnik 1, the Russian satellite that orbited Earth in 1957, to dub the movement’s followers as “beatniks.”
As the Beat Generation faded, a new, related movement began. It too focused on breaking social boundaries, but also advocated freedom of expression, philosophy, and love. It took its name from the generations before; in fact, some theorists claim that the beats themselves coined the term to describe their children. Over time, the “little hipsters” of the 1970s became known simply as “hippies.”
Contemporary expressions of the hipster rose out of the hippie movement in the same way that hippies evolved from the beats and beats from hepcats. Although today’s hipster may not seem to have much in common with the jazz-inspired youth of the 1940s, an apparent emphasis on nonconformity persists. The sociologist Mark Greif set about investigating the hipster subculture of the United States and found that much of what tied the group together was not a specific set of fashion or music choices, nor a specific point of contention with the mainstream. What has emerged rather is a culture of consumer capitalism that seeks authenticity in and of itself.
In his New York Times article, “The Hipster in the Mirror” (2010), Greif wrote, “All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world.” And what tends to be cool is an ironic pastiche of borrowed styles or tastes that signify other identities or histories.
Young people are often drawn to oppose mainstream conventions. Much as the hepcats of jazz era opposed common culture with carefully crafted appearances of coolness and relaxation, modern hipsters reject mainstream values with a purposeful apathy. Ironic, cool to the point of non-caring, and intellectual, hipsters continue to embody a subculture, while simultaneously impacting mainstream culture.
As the hipster example illustrates, culture is always evolving. Moreover, new things are added to material culture every day, and they affect nonmaterial culture as well. Cultures change when something new (say, railroads or smartphones) opens up new ways of living and when new ideas enter a culture (say, as a result of travel or globalization).
Innovation: Discovery and Invention
An innovation refers to an object or concept’s initial appearance in society—it’s innovative because it is markedly new. There are two ways to come across an innovative object or idea: discover it or invent it. Discoveries make known previously unknown but existing aspects of reality. In 1610, when Galileo looked through his telescope and discovered Saturn, the planet was already there, but until then, no one had known about it. When Christopher Columbus encountered America, the land was, of course, already well known to its inhabitants. However, Columbus’s discovery was new knowledge for Europeans, and it opened the way to changes in European culture, as well as to the cultures of the discovered lands. For example, new foods such as potatoes and tomatoes transformed the European diet, and horses brought from Europe changed hunting practices of Native American tribes of the Great Plains.
Inventions result when something new is formed from existing objects or concepts—when things are put together in an entirely new manner. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, electric appliances were invented at an astonishing pace. Cars, airplanes, vacuum cleaners, lamps, radios, telephones, and televisions were all new inventions. Inventions may shape a culture when people use them in place of older ways of carrying out activities and relating to others, or as a way to carry out new kinds of activities. Their adoption reflects (and may shape) cultural values, and their use may require new norms for new situations.
Consider the introduction of modern communication technology such as mobile phones and smartphones. As more and more people began carrying these devices, phone conversations no longer were restricted to homes, offices, and phone booths. People on trains, in restaurants, and in other public places became annoyed by listening to one-sided conversations. Norms were needed for cell phone use. Some people pushed for the idea that those who are out in the world should pay attention to their companions and surroundings. However, technology enabled a workaround: texting, which enables quiet communication, and has surpassed phoning as the chief way to meet today’s highly valued ability to stay in touch anywhere, everywhere.
When the pace of innovation increases, it can lead to generation gaps. Technological gadgets that catch on quickly with one generation are sometimes dismissed by a skeptical older generation. A culture’s objects and ideas can cause not just generational but cultural gaps. Material culture tends to diffuse more quickly than nonmaterial culture; technology can spread through society in a matter of months, but it can take generations for the ideas and beliefs of society to change. Sociologist William F. Ogburn coined the term culture lag to refer to this time that elapses between when a new item of material culture is introduced and when it becomes an accepted part of nonmaterial culture (Ogburn 1957).
Culture lag can also cause tangible problems. The industrial economy of North America was built on the assumption that the resources available to exploit and the ability for the environment to sustain industrial activity were unlimited. The concept of sustainable development did not enter into the public imagination until environmental movement of the 1960s and the Limits to Growth report of the Club of Rome in 1972. Today it seems easier to imagine global catastrophe as a result of climate change than it does to implement regulatory changes needed to stem carbon emissions or find alternatives to fossil fuels. There is a lag in conceptualizing solutions to technological problems. Exhausted groundwater supplies, increased air pollution, and climate change are all symptoms of culture lag. Although people are becoming aware of the consequences of overusing resources and of neglecting the integrity of the ecosystems that sustain life, the means to support changes takes time to achieve.
Diffusion and Globalization
The integration of world markets and technological advances of the last decades have allowed for greater exchange between cultures through the processes of globalization and diffusion. Beginning in the 1970s, Western governments began to deregulate social services while granting greater liberties to private businesses. As a result of this process of neo-liberalization, world markets became dominated by unregulated, international flows of capital investment and new multinational networks of corporations. A global economy emerged to replace nationally based economies. We have since come to refer to this integration of international trade and finance markets as “globalization.” Increased communications and air travel have further opened doors for international business relations, facilitating the flow not only of goods but of information and people as well (Scheuerman 2010). Today, many Canadian companies set up offices in other nations where the costs of resources and labour are cheaper. When a person in Canada calls to get information about banking, insurance, or computer services, the person taking that call may be working in India or Indonesia.
Alongside the process of globalization is diffusion, or, the spread of material and nonmaterial culture. While globalization refers to the integration of markets, diffusion relates a similar process to the integration of international cultures. Middle-class North Americans can fly overseas and return with a new appreciation of Thai noodles or Italian gelato. Access to television and the internet has brought the lifestyles and values portrayed in Hollywood sitcoms into homes around the globe. Twitter feeds from public demonstrations in one nation have encouraged political protesters in other countries. When this kind of diffusion occurs, material objects and ideas from one culture are introduced into another.
Hybridity in cultures is one of the consequences of the increased global flows of capital, people, culture, and entertainment. Hybrid cultures refer to new forms of culture that arise from cross-cultural exchange, especially in the aftermath of the colonial era. On one hand, there are blendings of different cultural elements that had at one time been distinct and locally based: fusion cuisines, mixed martial arts, and New Age shamanism. On the other hand, there are processes of indigenization and appropriation in which local cultures adopt and redefine foreign cultural forms. The classic examples are the cargo cults of Melanesia in which isolated indigenous peoples “re-purposed” Western goods (cargo) within their own ritualistic practices in order to make sense of Westerners’ material wealth. Other examples include Arjun Appadurai’s discussion of how the colonial Victorian game of cricket has been taken over and absorbed as a national passion into the culture of the Indian subcontinent (Appadurai 1996). Similarly, Chinese “duplitecture” reconstructs famous European and North American buildings, or in the case of Hallstatt, Austria, entire villages, in Chinese housing developments (Bosker 2013). As cultural diasporas, or emigrant communities, begin to introduce their cultural traditions to new homelands and absorb the cultural traditions they find there, opportunities for new and unpredictable forms of hybrid culture emerge
3.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
Music, fashion, technology, and values—all are products of culture. But what do they mean? How do sociologists perceive and interpret culture based on these material and nonmaterial items? Let’s finish our analysis of culture by reviewing them in the context of three theoretical perspectives: functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.
Functionalists view society as a system in which all parts work—or function—together to create society as a whole. In this way, societies need culture to exist. Cultural norms function to support the fluid operation of society, and cultural values guide people in making choices. Talcott Parsons referred to the function of culture as “latent pattern maintenance” meaning that the cultural practices that reproduce and circulate symbolic meanings and codes serve the function of maintaining social patterns of behaviour and facilitating orderly pattern change. Culture functions to ensure that the “meaning of life” remains stable.
By focusing on the function that culture plays in maintaining the stable equilibrium of society as a whole, functionalism can often provide interesting insights into cultural activities that seem irrational and bizarre on the surface. Bronislaw Malinowski (1925) described the way that the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea used magic at each stage of preparation in fishing. From a rationalized, calculative point of view, magic ritual has nothing to do with the ability to catch fish. Fishing is a practical activity. However, as Malinowski pointed out, fishing for the Trobriand Islanders was also a risky and uncertain activity. It was dangerous, weather was unpredictable, the whereabouts of fish variable. Magic provided the fishers with a sense of control over their environment and a sense of confidence that enabled them to venture out into the dangerous waters day after day. Whether magic “worked” or not, it performed an important and rational function in the economic life of the Islanders. It provided a stable pattern of meaning that empowered the fishers to bring back an essential food resource.
Functionalists argue that cultural practices play a similar role in modern societies. The game of hockey for example, in which highly skilled men and women chase a disk of rubber around a frozen sheet of ice risking injury and expending energy for nonproductive purposes, is on the surface of it, an irrational and crazy activity. Yet millions of people watch hockey, millions of dollars are spent on it, millions of people’s identities are defined by their fandom, and millions of people’s collective sense of self-worth can hang on the fortunes and failures of their favourite hockey teams. Hockey is both, practically speaking, useless and yet clearly a highly valued activity. Why? As Durkheim argued with respect to religious rituals and totems, when people come together and focus their attention on a common object—in this case, a disk of rubber— thoughts and feelings pass back and forth between them until they take on a supra-individual force, detached from individuals themselves. A pre-rational collective consciousness emerges that provides the basis for group solidarity or a moral sense of group togetherness. Hockey functions as a site of collective convergence in a society that otherwise threatens to dissolve into incoherence as people’s everyday lives diverge in pursuit of individual self-interests.
In addition, many people point to the latent functions of hockey in that it provides an outlet for energies that might otherwise be directed to negative activities; it provides the basis for the cultivation of the self in the pursuit of excellence; it provides important lessons on the value of team play; and it provides an exercise activity that contributes to the health of the population. As many Canadians know, it is often easier to get a good physical workout when you are chasing a puck or a hockey ball than it is to convince yourself to go out into the cold to go for a jog or to do another repetition down at the gym.
Symbolic interactionism is a sociological perspective that is most concerned with the face-to-face interactions between members of society. Interactionists see culture as being created and maintained by the ways people interact and how individuals interpret each other’s actions. Proponents of this theory conceptualize human interactions as a continuous process of deriving meaning from both objects in the environment and the actions of others. This is where the term “symbolic” comes into play. Every object and action has a symbolic meaning, and language serves as a means for people to represent and communicate their interpretations of these meanings to others. Those who believe in symbolic interactionism perceive culture as highly dynamic and fluid, as it is dependent on how meaning is interpreted and how individuals interact when conveying these meanings.
A symbolic interactionist approach to fashion for example would emphasize that fashion is a language that we use to interpret who others are and communicate who we are. Clothing fashions in particular represent an extremely intricate language of interpersonal communication, as anyone who has gone shopping with a friend for clothes is well aware. What are the variables involved in the question, “Does this look good on me?” Clothes are never simply “functional,” because even the most functional and practical Mountain Equipment Co-op style clothing makes a statement about the wearer. Georg Simmel (1904) noted that, while extremely transitory, the establishment of fashions always has to contend with two seemingly contradictory tendencies—the desire of individuals to fit in and conform to what is fashionable and the desire of individuals to stand out as individuals. Being fashionable involves a highly nuanced negotiation between these two poles.
Critical sociologists view social structure as inherently unequal, based on power differentials related to issues like class, gender, race, and age. For a critical sociologist, culture is seen as reinforcing and perpetuating those inequalities and differences in power. Unlike the functionalists who examine culture in terms of the general interests it supports, or symbolic interactionists who emphasize how people come to mutual understandings through cultural practices and interactions, critical sociologists examine how inequalities and power relationships are maintained by a culture’s value system.
Some norms, formal and informal, are practised at the expense of others. After Confederation in 1867, women were not allowed to vote in federal elections in Canada until 1919 and it was not until 1940 that they could vote in provincial elections in Quebec. (Women had been able to vote, as property owners, prior to Confederation.) It was not until 1947 and 1948 that Canadians of Japanese, Chinese, and South Asian origins were permitted to vote. Native Canadians, who had been able to vote in some regions up until 1898, had their rights revoked and were not permitted to vote federally again until 1960. In each case of discrimination, it was dominant cultural attitudes toward the subordinate groups that served as the rationale for refusing them the franchise. For example, in 1898 the member of Parliament for Saint John argued that “Indians knew no more of politics ‘than a child two years old’” (Elections Canada 2014). Because of prevailing paternalistic and racist attitudes, it was argued that aboriginal people would somehow be more susceptible to manipulation by politicians than other Canadians.
A key focus of cultural analysis in critical sociology is the critique of ideology. An ideology is a set of ideas that serve to support, justify or conceal existing power relationships in society. Classical liberalism for example is a set of ideas that emphasize the freedom of the individual to pursue his or her own self-interest without the interference of others, or of the state, unless the individual impinges on the right of others to do the same. The idea espoused by Enlightenment thinkers, utilitarians, and other early advocates of liberal thought was that the aggregate of freely made decisions would lead to the best and most rational outcomes—“the greatest good for the greatest number”—whether in democratic politics or in the operation of supply and demand in markets. Liberalism is also the source of the mythical notion of the “self-made man,” the individual who through determination, intelligence, and good decision making rises up from poverty and becomes a millionaire. As in all ideology, there is a kernel of truth in liberalism. However, to the degree that liberalism supports not only personal freedoms but also the property rights of corporations, it is clear that it is an ideology that perpetuates the power of capital. By focusing on the individual—individual rights, individual self-interest, individual responsibility—liberalism also makes it difficult to see that power structures are not the product of individual initiative but of historical, structural inequalities based on class, gender, race, and colonization. In the liberal culture of capitalism, we continue to strive on an individual basis toward the promise of success, which perpetuates the belief that the wealthy deserve their privileges.
We began this chapter by asking what culture is. Culture comprises all the practices, beliefs, and behaviours of a society. Because culture is learned, it includes how people think and express themselves. While we may like to consider ourselves individuals, we must acknowledge the impact of culture; we inherit thought language that shapes our perceptions and patterned behaviour, including about issues of family and friends, and faith and politics.
To an extent, culture is a social comfort. After all, sharing a similar culture with others is precisely what defines societies. Nations would not exist if people did not coexist culturally. There could be no societies if people did not share heritage and language, and civilization would cease to function if people did not agree to similar values and systems of social control. Culture is preserved through transmission from one generation to the next, but it also evolves through processes of innovation, discovery, and cultural diffusion. We may be restricted by the confines of our own culture, but as humans we have the ability to question values and make conscious decisions. No better evidence of this freedom exists than the amount of cultural diversity within our own society and around the world. The more we study another culture, the better we become at understanding our own.
beliefs tenets or convictions that people hold to be true
countercultures groups that reject and oppose society’s widely accepted cultural patterns
cultural imperialism the deliberate imposition of one’s own cultural values on another culture
cultural relativism the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards, and not in comparison to another culture
cultural universals patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies
culture shared beliefs, values, and practices
culture lag the gap of time between the introduction of material culture and nonmaterial culture’s acceptance of it
culture shock an experience of personal disorientation when confronted with an unfamiliar way of life
diffusion the spread of material and nonmaterial culture from one culture to another
discoveries things and ideas found from what already exists
ethnocentrism to evaluate another culture according to the standards of one’s own culture
folkways norms that direct appropriate behaviour in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture
formal norms established, written rules
globalization the integration of international trade and finance markets
high culture the cultural patterns of a society’s elite
ideal culture consists of the standards a society would like to embrace and live up to
informal norms casual behaviours that are generally and widely conformed to
innovations new objects or ideas introduced to culture for the first time
inventions a combination of pieces of existing reality into new forms
language a symbolic system of communication
material culture the objects or belongings of a group of people
mores the moral views and principles of a group
nonmaterial culture the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society
norms the visible and invisible rules of conduct through which societies are structured
popular culture mainstream, widespread patterns among a society’s population
real culture the way society really is based on what actually occurs and exists
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis the idea that people understand the world based on their form of language
sanctions a way to authorize or formally disapprove of certain behaviours
social control a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms
society people who live in a definable community and who share a culture
subcultures groups that share a specific identification, apart from a society’s majority, even as the members exist within a larger society
symbols gestures or objects that have meanings associated with them that are recognized by people who share a culture
values a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society
3.1. What Is Culture?
Though “society” and “culture” are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings. A society is a group of people sharing a community and culture. Culture generally describes the shared behaviours and beliefs of these people, and includes material and nonmaterial elements. Our experience of cultural difference is influenced by our ethnocentrism and androcentrism.
3.2. Elements of Culture
A culture consists of many elements, such as the values and beliefs of its society. Culture is also governed by norms, including laws, mores, and folkways. The symbols and language of a society are key to developing and conveying culture.
3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
Sociologists recognize high culture and popular culture within societies. Societies also comprise many subcultures—smaller groups that share an identity. Countercultures reject mainstream values and create their own cultural rules and norms. Through invention or discovery, cultures evolve via new ideas and new ways of thinking. In many modern cultures, the cornerstone of innovation is technology, the rapid growth of which can lead to cultural lag. Technology is also responsible for the spread of both material and nonmaterial culture that contributes to globalization.
3.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
There are three major theoretical approaches toward the interpretation of culture. A functionalist perspective acknowledges that there are many parts of culture that work together as a system to fulfill society’s needs. Functionalists view culture as a reflection of society’s values. An interactionist is primarily interested in culture as experienced in the daily interactions between individuals and the symbols that make up a culture. Critical sociologists see culture as inherently unequal, based on factors like gender, class, race, and age. Various cultural and sociological occurrences can be explained by these theories; however, there is no one “right” view through which to understand culture.
3.1. What Is Culture?
1. The terms _________________ and ______________ are often used interchangeably, but have nuances that differentiate them.
- imperialism and relativism
- culture and society
- society and ethnocentrism
- ethnocentrism and xenocentrism
2. The American flag is a material object that denotes the United States of America; however, there are certain connotations that many associate with the flag, like bravery and freedom. In this example, what are bravery and freedom?
- material culture
- nonmaterial culture
3. The belief that one’s culture is inferior to another culture is called?
4. Rodney and Elise are American students studying abroad in Italy. When they are introduced to their host families, the families kiss them on both cheeks. When Rodney’s host brother introduces himself and kisses Rodney on both cheeks, Rodney pulls back in surprise. Where he is from, unless they are romantically involved, men do not kiss one another. This is an example of:
- culture shock
5. Most cultures have been found to identify laughter as a sign of humour, joy, or pleasure. Likewise, most cultures recognize music in some form. Music and laughter are examples of:
3.2. Elements of Culture
6. A nation’s flag is:
- a symbol
- a value
- a culture
- a folkway
7. The existence of social norms, both formal and informal, is one of the main things that inform ___________, otherwise known as a way to encourage social conformity.
- social control
8. The biggest difference between mores and folkways is that:
- mores are primarily linked to morality, whereas folkways are primarily linked to being commonplace within a culture
- mores are absolute, whereas folkways are temporary
- mores refer to material culture, whereas folkways refer to nonmaterial culture
- mores refer to nonmaterial culture, whereas folkways refer to material culture
9. The notion that people cannot feel or experience something that they do not have a word for can be explained by:
- ethnographic imagery
10. Cultural sanctions can also be viewed as ways that society:
- establishes leaders
- determines language
- regulates behaviour
- determines laws
3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
11. An example of high culture is ___________, whereas an example of popular culture would be ____________.
- Dostoevsky style in film; American Idol winners
- medical marijuana; film noir
- country music; pop music
- political theory; sociological theory
12. The Ku Klux Klan is an example of what part of culture?
13. Modern-day hipsters are an example of:
- high culture
14. Your 83-year-old grandmother has been using a computer for some time now. As a way to keep in touch, you frequently send emails of a few lines to let her know about your day. She calls after every email to respond point by point, but she has never emailed a response back. This can be viewed as an example of:
- cultural lag
15. Some jobs today advertise in multinational markets and permit telecommuting in lieu of working from a primary location. This broadening of the job market and the way that jobs are performed can be attributed to:
- cultural lag
16. The major difference between invention and discovery is:
- invention is based on technology, whereas discovery is usually based on culture
- discovery involves finding something that already exists, but invention puts things together in a new way
- invention refers to material culture, whereas discovery can be material or theoretic, like laws of physics
- invention is typically used to refer to international objects, whereas discovery refers to that which is local to one’s culture
17. That McDonald’s is found in almost every country around the world is an example of:
- culture lag
3.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
18. A sociologist conducts research into the ways that Hispanic American students are historically underprivileged in the American education system. What theoretical approach is the sociologist using?
- symbolic interactionism
- conflict theory
19. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 grew to be an international movement. Supporters believe that the economic disparity between the highest economic class and the mid to lower economic classes is growing at an exponentially alarming rate. A sociologist who studies that movement by examining the interactions between members at Occupy camps would most likely use what theoretical approach?
- symbolic interactionism
- conflict theory
20. What theoretical perspective views society as having a system of interdependent inherently connected parts?
- conflict theory
21. The “American Dream”—the notion that anybody can be successful and rich if they work hard enough—is most commonly associated with which sociological theory?
- conflict theory
- Examine the difference between material and nonmaterial culture in your world. Identify ten objects that are part of your regular cultural experience. For each, then identify what aspects of nonmaterial culture (values and beliefs) that these objects represent. What has this exercise revealed to you about your culture?
- Do you feel that feelings of ethnocentricity or xenocentricity are more prevalent in U.S. culture? Why do you believe this? What issues or events might inform this?
- What do you think of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Do you agree or disagree with it? Cite examples or research to support your point of view.
- How do you think your culture would exist if there were no such thing as a social “norm”? Do you think chaos would ensue or relative peace could be kept? Explain.
- Identify several examples of popular culture and describe how they inform larger culture. How prevalent is the effect of these examples in your everyday life?
- Consider some of the specific issues or concerns of your generation. Are any ideas countercultural? What subcultures have emerged from your generation? How have the issues of your generation expressed themselves culturally? How has your generation made its mark on society’s collective culture?
- What are some examples of cultural lag that are present in your life? Do you think technology affects culture positively or negatively? Explain.
- Consider a current social trend that you have witnessed, perhaps situated around family, education, transportation, or finances. For example, many veterans of the Armed Forces, after completing tours of duty in the Middle East, are returning to college rather than entering jobs as veterans as previous generations did. Choose a sociological approach—functionalism, conflict theory, or symbolic interactionism—to describe, explain, and analyze the social issue you choose. Afterwards, determine why you chose the approach you did. Does it suit your own way of thinking? Or did it offer the best method to illuminate the social issue?
3.1. What Is Culture?
In January 2011, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America presented evidence indicating that the hormone oxytocin could regulate and manage instances of ethnocentrism. Read the full article here: http://openstaxcollege.org/l/oxytocin
3.2. Elements of Culture
The science-fiction novel, Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delaney was based upon the principles of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Read an excerpt from the novel here: http://openstaxcollege.org/l/Babel-17
3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
The Beats were a counterculture that birthed an entire movement of art, music, and literature—much of which is still highly regarded and studied today. The man responsible for naming the generation was Jack Kerouac; however, the man responsible for introducing the world to that generation was John Clellon Holmes, a writer often lumped in with the group. In 1952 he penned an article for the New York Times Magazine titled “This Is the Beat Generation.” Read that article and learn more about Clellon Holmes and the Beats: http://openstaxcollege.org/l/The-Beats
Popular culture meets counterculture as Oprah Winfrey interacts with members of the Yearning for Zion cult. Read about it here: http://openstaxcollege.org/l/Oprah
Barthes, Roland. 1977. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Pp. 32-51 in Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang.
Darwin, Charles R. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.
DuBois, Cora. 1951. “Culture Shock.” Presentation to Panel Discussion at the First Midwest Regional Meeting of the Institute of International Education.” November 28. Also presented to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 3, 1954.
Fritz, Thomas, Sebastian Jentschke, Nathalie Gosselin, et al. 2009. “Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music.” Current Biology 19(7).
Murdock, George P. 1949. Social Structure. New York: Macmillan.
Oberg, Kalervo. 1960. “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments.” Practical Anthropology 7:177–182.
Smith, Dorothy. 1987. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Sumner, William G. 1906. Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Ginn and Co.
3.2. Elements of Culture
Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1990. Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall.
McRoberts, Kenneth. 1997. Misconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity. Toronto: Oxford University Press .
OED Online. 2011. Oxford University Press. Retrieved May 5, 2011 (http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/260911).
Passero, Kathy. 2002. “Global Travel Expert Roger Axtell Explains Why.” Biography July:70–73,97–98.
Statistics Canada 2007. Languages in Canada: 2001 Census. Catalogue no. 96-326-XIE. Retrieved April 10, 2014, from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/96-326-x/96-326-x2001001-eng.pdf
Sumner, William G. 1906. Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Ginn and Co.
Swoyer, Chris. 2003. “The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E. N. Zalta, Winter. Retrieved May 5, 2011 (http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2003/entries/relativism/supplement2.html).
Times Colonist (Victoria, B.C.). 2014. “Poll: B.C. Women pickier than most in Canada on romance.” February 16:A2.
Weber, Bruce. 2011. “Harold Garfinkel, a Common-Sense Sociologist, Dies at 93.” The New York Times, May 3. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/us/04garfinkel.html?_r=2).
Westcott, Kathryn. 2008. “World’s Best-Known Protest Symbol Turns 50.” BBC News, March 20. Retrieved January 3, 2012 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7292252.stm).
3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Bosker, Bianca. Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Greif, Mark. 2010. “The Hipster in the Mirror.” New York Times, November 12. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/books/review/Greif-t.html?pagewanted=1).
Ogburn, William F. 1957. “Cultural Lag as Theory.” Sociology & Social Research 41(3):167–174.
Rogers, Everett M. 1962. Diffusion of Innovations. Glencoe: Free Press.
Scheuerman, William. 2010. “Globalization.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E. N. Zalta, Summer. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/globalization/).
3.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
Elections Canada. 2014. “A History of the Vote in Canada.” Elections Canada Resource Centre. Retrieved February 19, 2014 (http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=his&document=index&lang=e).
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1954 (1925). Magic, Science and Religion. NY: Doubleday.
Simmel, Georg. 1971 . “Fashion.” Pp. 294–323 in On Individuality and Social Forms, edited by Donald Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Solutions to Section Quiz
1. B | 2. D | 3. C | 4. A | 5. D | 6. A | 7. C | 8. A | 9. B | 10. C | 11. A | 12. A | 13. C | 14. A | 15. D | 16. B | 17. B | 18. C | 19. A | 20. B | 21. C
Figure 3.3. Ruth Benedict (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ruth_Benedict.jpg) is in the public domain (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Public_domain#Material_in_the_public_domain)
Figure 3.7. Multilingual City by Michael Gil (http://www.flickr.com/photos/13907834@N00/4414065031) used under CC-BY 2.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)
Figure 3.13. Canadian nurses voting 1917 by William Rider-Rider (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canadian_nurses_voting_1917.jpg) is in public domain