Chapter 3. Culture
- Differentiate between culture and society.
- Distinguish between biological and cultural explanations of human behaviour.
- Compare and contrast cultural universalism, cultural relativism, ethnocentrism, and androcentrism.
- Examine the policy of multiculturalism as a solution to the problem of diversity.
- Understand the basic elements of culture: values, beliefs, and norms.
- Explain the significance of symbols and language to a culture.
- Describe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
- Distinguish material and nonmaterial culture.
3.3. Culture as Innovation: Pop Culture, Subculture, and Global Culture
- Distinguish two modes of culture: innovation and restriction.
- Discuss the distinction between high culture, pop culture, and postmodern culture.
- Differentiate between subculture and counterculture.
- Understand the role of globalization in cultural change and local lived experience.
3.4. Culture as Restriction: Rationalization and Commodification
- Describe culture as a form of restriction on social life.
- Explain the implications of rationalization and consumerism.
3.5. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
- 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 because they are designed to be casual, quick, and convenient. 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 their items from overhead menus before they order, swipe debit cards to pay, and stand to one side to collect trays of food. After a quick meal, customers wad up their paper wrappers and toss them into garbage cans. This is a food system that has become highly rationalized in Max Weber’s terms. 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 a “breaching experiment” in 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; barter over the price of the burgers; 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. Although the rules are not written down, you will have violated deep seated tacit norms that govern behaviour in fast food restaurants.
This example reflects a broader theme in the culture of food and diet. What are the rules that govern what, when, and how we eat? Michael Pollan (b. 1955), for example, contrasts the North American culture of fast food with the intact traditions of eating sit-down, family meals that still dominate in France and other European nations (2006). Despite eating foods that many North Americans think of as unhealthy — butter, wheat, triple-cream cheese, foie gras, wine, etc. — the French, as a whole, remain healthier and thinner than North Americans.
The French eat all sorts of supposedly unhealthy foods, but they do it according to a strict and stable set of rules: They eat small portions and don’t go back for seconds; they don’t snack; they seldom eat alone; and communal meals are long, leisurely affairs. (Pollan, 2006)
Their cultural rules fix and constrain what people consider as food and how people consume food. The national cuisine and eating habits of France are well established, oriented to pleasure and tradition, and as Pollan argues, well integrated into French cultural life as a whole.
In North America, on the other hand, fast food is just the tip of an iceberg with respect to a larger crisis of diet in which increasing levels of obesity and eating disorders are coupled with an increasing profusion of health diets, weight reducing diets, and food fads. While an alarming number of North American meals are eaten in cars (19 percent, according to Pollan), the counter-trend is the obsession with nutritional science. Instead of an orientation to food based on cultural tradition and pleasure, people are oriented to food in terms of its biochemical constituents (calories, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, omega fatty acids, saturated and unsaturated fats, etc.). There are Atkins diets, zone diets, Mediterranean diets, paleolithic diets, vegan diets, gluten free diets, Weight Watchers diets, raw food diets, etc.; an endless proliferation that Pollan attributes to a fundamental anxiety that North Americans have about food and health. While each type of diet claims scientific evidence to support its health and other claims, evidence which is disturbingly contradictory, essentially the choice of diet revolves around the cultural meanings attributed to food and its nutritional components:
that taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten; that one should not simply eat what one enjoys; that the important components of food cannot be seen or tasted, but are discernible only in scientific laboratories; and that experimental science has produced rules of nutrition that will prevent illness and encourage longevity. (Levenstein as cited in Pollan, 2006)
It is important to note that food culture and diet are not infinitely malleable, however. There is an underlying biological reality of nutrition that defines the parameters of dietary choice. In his documentary Super Size Me (2004), Morgan Spurlock conducted a version of the sociological participant observation study by committing himself to eating only McDonald’s food for 30 days. As a result, he gained 24 pounds, increased his cholesterol and fat accumulation in his liver, and experienced mood swings and sexual dysfunction. It is clear that one cannot survive on fast food alone; although many teenagers and university students have been known to try.
Sociologists would argue, therefore, that everything about fast food restaurants, choice of diet, and habits of food consumption reflects culture, the beliefs and behaviours that a social group shares. Diet is a product of culture. It is a product of the different meanings we attribute to food and to the relationship we have with our bodies. The significant point is that while diet is a response to the fundamental conditions of biological life, diet is also a tremendous site of innovation and diversity. Culture in general is a site of two opposing tendencies: one is the way that cultures around the world lay down sets of rules or norms which constrain, restrict, habitualize, and fix forms of life; the other is the way that cultures produce endlessly innovative and diverse solutions to problems like nutrition. Cultures both constrain and continually go beyond constraints.
This raises the distinction between the terms “culture” and “society” and how sociologists conceptualize the relationship between them. In everyday conversation, people rarely distinguish between these terms, but they have slightly different meanings, and the distinction is important to how sociologists examine culture. If culture refers to the beliefs, artifacts, and ways of life that a social group shares, a society is a group that interacts within a common bounded territory or region. To clarify, a culture represents the beliefs, practices, and material artifacts of a group, while a society represents the social structures, processes, and organization of the people who share those beliefs, practices, and material artifacts. Neither society nor culture could exist without the other, but we can separate them analytically.
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 200,000 years ago, people have grouped together into communities in order to survive. Living together, people developed forms of cooperation which created the common habits, behaviours, and ways of life known as culture — from specific methods of childrearing to preferred techniques for obtaining food. Peter Berger (b. 1929) argued that this is the result of a fundamental human predicament (1967). Unlike other animals, humans lack the biological programming to live on their own. They require an extended period of dependency in order to survive in the environment. The creation of culture makes this possible by providing a protective shield against the harsh impositions of nature. Culture provides the ongoing stability that enables human existence. This means, however, that the human environment is not nature per se but culture itself.
Over the history of humanity, this has lead to an incredible diversity in how humans have imagined and lived life on Earth, the sum total of which Wade Davis (b. 1953) has called the ethnosphere. The ethnosphere is the entirety of all cultures’ “ways of thinking, ways of being, and ways of orienting oneself on the Earth” (Davis, 2007). It is our collective cultural heritage as a species. A single culture, as the sphere of meanings shared by a single social group, is the means by which that group makes sense of the world and of each other. But there are many cultures and many ways of making sense of the world. Through a multiplicity of cultural inventions, human societies have adapted to the environmental and biological conditions of human existence in many different ways. What do we learn from this?
Firstly, 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. Being familiar with these written and unwritten rules of culture helps people feel secure and “normal.” Most people want to live their daily lives confident that their behaviours will not be challenged or disrupted. Behaviour based on learned customs is, therefore, not a bad thing, but it does raise the problem of how to respond to cultural differences.
Secondly, culture is innovative. The existence of different cultural practices reveals the way in which societies find different solutions to real life problems. The different forms of marriage are various solutions to a common problem, the problem of organizing families in order to raise children and reproduce the species. The basic problem is shared by the different societies, but the solutions are different. This illustrates the point that culture in general is a means of solving problems. It is a tool composed of the capacity to abstract and conceptualize, to cooperate and coordinate complex collective endeavours, and to modify and construct the world to suit human purposes. It is the repository of creative solutions, techniques, and technologies humans draw on when confronting the basic shared problems of human existence. Culture is, therefore, key to the way humans, as a species, have successfully adapted to the environment. The existence of different cultures refers to the different means by which humans use innovation to free themselves from biological and environmental constraints.
Thirdly, culture is also restraining. Cultures retain their distinctive patterns through time. In global capitalism, although Canadian culture, French culture, Malaysian culture and Kazakhstani culture will share certain features like rationalization and commodification, they also differ in terms of languages, beliefs, dietary practices, and other ways of life. They adapt and respond to capitalism in unique manners according to their specific shared heritages. Local cultural forms have the capacity to restrain the changes produced by globalization. On the other hand, the diversity of local cultures is increasingly limited by the homogenizing pressures of globalization. Economic practices that prove inefficient or uncompetitive in the global market disappear. The meanings of cultural practices and knowledges change as they are turned into commodities for tourist consumption or are patented by pharmaceutical companies. Globalization increasingly restrains cultural forms, practices, and possibilities.
There is a dynamic within culture of innovation and restriction. The cultural fabric of shared meanings and orientations that allows individuals to make sense of the world and their place within it can either change with contact with other cultures or with changes in the socioeconomic formation, allowing people to reinvision and reinvent themselves, or it can remain rigid and restrict change. Many contemporary issues to do with identity and belonging, from multiculturalism and hybrid identities to religious fundamentalism, can be understood within this dynamic of innovation and restriction. Similarly, the effects of social change on ways of life, from the new modes of electronic communication to failures to respond to climate change, involve a tension between innovation and restriction.
Making Connections: Sociological Concepts
“Yes, but what does it mean?”
The premise we will be exploring in this chapter is that the human world, unlike the natural world, cannot be understood unless its meaningfulness is taken into account. Human experience is essentially meaningful, and culture is the source of the meanings that humans share. What are the consequences of this emphasis on the meaningfulness of human experience? What elements of social life become visible if we focus on the social processes whereby meanings are produced and circulated?
Culture is the term used to describe this dimension of meaningful collective existence. Culture refers to the shared symbols that people create to solve real-life problems. What this perspective entails is that human experience is essentially meaningful or cultural. Human social life is necessarily conducted through the meanings humans attribute to things, actions, others, and themselves. In a sense, people do not live in direct, immediate contact with the world and each other; instead, they live only indirectly through the medium of the shared meanings provided by culture. This mediated experience is the experience of culture. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, humans live in an “openness” granted by language and by their ability to respond to the meaningfulness of things in a way that other living beings do not. The sociology of culture is, therefore, concerned with the study of how things and actions assume meanings, how these meanings orient human behaviour, and how social life is organized around and through meaning.
What is the “meaning of meaning” in social life, therefore? Max Weber notes that it is possible to imagine situations in which human experience appears direct and unmediated; for example, someone taps your knee and your leg jerks forward, or you are riding your bike and get hit by a car (1968, pp. 94–96). In these situations, experience seems purely physical, unmediated. Yet when we assimilate these experiences into our lives, we do so by making them meaningful events. By tapping your knee, the doctor is looking for signs that indicate the functioning of your nervous system. She or he is literally reading the reactions as symbolic events and assigning them meaning within the context of an elaborate cultural map of meaning: the modern biomedical understanding of the body. It is quite possible that if you were flying through the air after being hit by a car, you would not be thinking or attributing meaning to the event. You would be simply a physical projectile. But afterwards, when you reconstruct the story for your friends, the police, or the insurance company, the event would become part of your life through this narration of what happened.
Equally important to note here is that the meaning of these events changes depending on the cultural context. A doctor of traditional Chinese medicine would read the knee reflex differently than a graduate of the UBC medical program. The story and meaning of the car accident changes if it is told to a friend as opposed to a policeman or an insurance adjuster.
The problem of meaning in sociological analysis, then, is to determine how events or things acquire meaning (e.g., through the reading of symptoms or the telling of stories); how the true or right meanings are determined (e.g., through biomedically-based diagnoses or juridical procedures of determining responsibility); how meaning works in the organization of social life (e.g., through the medicalized relation to our bodies or the norms of traffic circulation); and how humans gain the capacity to interpret and share meanings in the first place (e.g., through the process of socialization into medical, legal, insurance, and traffic systems). Sociological research into culture studies all of these problems of meaning.
Culture and Biology
The central argument put forward in this chapter is that human social life is essentially meaningful and, therefore, has to be understood first through an analysis of the cultural practices and institutions that produce meaning. Nevertheless, a fascination in contemporary culture persists for finding biological or genetic explanations for complex human behaviours that would seem to contradict the emphasis on culture.
In one study, Swiss researchers had a group of women smell unwashed T-shirts worn by different men. The researchers argued that sexual attraction had a biochemical basis in the histo-compatibility signature that the women detected in the male pheromones left behind on the T-shirts. Women were attracted to the T-shirts of the men whose immune systems differed from their own (Wedekind et al., 1995). In another study, Dean Hamer (b. 1951) and his colleagues discovered that some homosexual men possessed the same region of DNA on their X chromosome, which led them to argue that homosexuality was determined genetically by a “gay gene” (Hamer et al., 1993). Another study found that the corpus callosum, the region of nerve fibres that connect the left and right brain hemispheres, was larger in women’s brains than in men’s (De Lacoste-Utamsing & Holloway, 1982). Therefore, women were thought to be able to use both sides of their brains simultaneously when processing visuo-spatial information, whereas men used only their left hemisphere. This finding was said to account for gender differences that ranged from women’s supposedly greater emotional intuition to men’s supposedly greater abilities in math, science, and parallel parking. In each of these three cases, the authors reduced a complex cultural behaviour — sexual attraction, homosexuality, cognitive ability — to a simple biological determination.
In each of these studies, the scientists’ claims were quite narrow and restricted in comparison to the conclusions drawn from them in the popular media. Nevertheless, they follow a logic of explanation known as biological determinism, which argues that the forms of human society and human behaviour are determined by biological mechanisms like genetics, instinctual behaviours, or evolutionary advantages. Within sociology, this type of framework underlies the paradigm of sociobiology, which provides biological explanations for the evolution of human behaviour and social organization.
Sociobiological propositions are constructed in three steps (Lewontin, 1991). First they identify an aspect of human behaviour which appears to be universal, common to all people in all times and places. In all cultures the laws of sexual attraction — who is attracted to whom — are mysterious, for example. Second, they assume that this universal trait must be coded in the DNA of the species. There is a gene for detecting histo-compatibility that leads instinctively to mate selection. Third, they make an argument for why this behaviour or characteristic increases the chances of survival for individuals and, therefore, creates reproductive advantage. Mating with partners whose immune systems complement your own leads to healthier offspring who survive to reproduce your genes. The implication of the sociobiological analysis is that these traits and behaviours are fixed or “hard wired” into the biological structure of the species and are, therefore, very difficult to change. People will continue to be attracted to people who are not “right” for them in all the ways we would deem culturally appropriate — psychologically, emotionally, socially compatible, etc. — because they are biologically compatible.
Despite the popularity of this sort of reason, it is misguided from a sociological perspective for a number of reasons. For example, Konrad Lorenz’s (1903-1989) arguments that human males have an innate biological aggressive tendency to fight for scarce resources and protect territories were very popular in the 1960s (1966). The dilemma he posed was that males’ innate tendency towards aggression as a response to external threats might be a useful trait on an evolutionary scale, but in a contemporary society that includes the development of weapons of mass destruction, it is a threat to human survival. Another implication of his argument was that if aggression is instinctual, then the idea that individuals, militant groups, or states could be held responsible for acts of violence or war loses its validity. (Note here that Lorenz’s basic claim about aggression runs counter to the stronger argument that, if anything, the tendency toward co-operation has been central to the survival of human social life from its origins to the present).
However, a central problem of sociobiology as a type of sociological explanation is that while human biology does not vary greatly throughout history or between cultures, the forms of human association do vary extensively. It is difficult to account for the variability of social phenomena by using a universal biological mechanism to explain them. Even something like the aggressive tendency in males, which on the surface has an intuitive appeal, does not account for the multitude of different forms and practices of aggression, let alone the different social circumstances in which aggression is manifested or provoked. It does not account for why some men are aggressive sometimes and not at other times, or why some men are not aggressive at all. It does not account for women’s aggression and the forms in which this typically manifests. If testosterone is the key mechanism of male aggression, it does not account for the fact that both men and women generate testosterone in more or less equal quantities. Nor does it explain the universal tendencies of all societies to develop sanctions and norms to curtail violence. To suggest that aggression is an innate biological characteristic means that it does not vary greatly throughout history, nor between cultures, and is impervious to the social rules that restrict it in all societies. Ultimately, this means that there is no point in trying change it despite the evidence that aggression in individuals and societies can be changed.
The main consideration to make here is not that biology has no impact on human behaviour, but that the biological explanation is limited with respect to what it can explain about complex cultural behaviours and practices. For example, research has shown that newborns and fetuses as young as 26 weeks have a simple smile: “the face relaxes while the sides of the mouth stretch outward and up” (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). This observation about a seemingly straightforward biological behaviour suggests that smiling is inborn, a muscular reflex based on neurological connections. However, the smile of the newborn is not used to convey emotions. It occurs spontaneously during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Only when the baby matures and begins to interact with their environment and caretakers does the smile begin to represent a response to external stimuli. By age one, the baby’s smile conveys a variety of meanings, depending on the social context, including flirting and mischief. Moreover, from the age of 6 months to 2 years, the smile itself changes physically: Different muscle groups are used, and different facial expressions are blended with it (surprise, anger, excitement). The smile becomes more complex and individualized. The point here, as Anne Fausto-Sterling points out, is that “the child uses smiling as part of a complex system of communication” (2000). Not only is the meaning of the smile defined in interaction with the social context, but the physiological components of smiling (the nerves, muscles, and stimuli) also are modified and “socialized” according to culture.
Therefore, social scientists see explanations of human behaviour based on biological determinants as extremely limited in scope and value. The physiological “human package” — bipedalism, omnivorous diet, language ability, brain size, capacity for empathy, lack of an estrous cycle (Naiman, 2012) — is more or less constant across cultures; whereas, the range of cultural behaviours and beliefs is extremely broad. These sometimes radical differences between cultures have to be accounted for instead by their distinct processes of socialization through which individuals learn how to participate in their societies. From this point of view, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) put it:
We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions. The differences between individuals who are members of different cultures, like the differences between individuals within a culture, are almost entirely to be laid to differences in conditioning, especially during early childhood, and the form of this conditioning is culturally determined (1935).
Aside from the explanatory problems of biological determinism, it is important to bear in mind the social consequences of biological determinism, as these ideas have been used to support rigid cultural ideas concerning race, gender, disabilities, etc. that have their legacy in slavery, racism, gender inequality, eugenics programs, and the sterilization of “the unfit.” Eugenics, meaning “well born” in ancient Greek, was a social movement that sought to improve the human “stock” through selective breeding and sterilization. Its founder, Francis Galton (1822-1911) defined eugenics in 1883 as “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally” (Galton as cited in McLaren, 1990). In Canada, eugenics boards were established by the governments of Alberta and British Columbia to enable the sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” Based on a rigid cultural concept of what a proper human was, and grounded in the biological determinist framework of evolutionary science, 4,725 individuals were proposed for sterilization in Alberta and 2,822 of them were sterilized between 1928 and 1971. The racial component of the program is evident in the fact that while First Nations and Métis peoples made up only 2.5% of the population of Alberta, they accounted for 25% of the sterilizations. Several hundred individuals were also sterilized in British Columbia between 1933 and 1979 (McLaren, 1990).
The interesting question that these biological explanations of complex human behaviour raise is: Why are they so popular? What is it about our culture that makes the biological explanation of behaviours or experiences like sexual attraction, which we know from personal experience to be extremely complicated and nuanced, so appealing? As micro-biological technologies like genetic engineering and neuro-pharmaceuticals advance, the very real prospect of altering the human body at a fundamental level to produce culturally desirable qualities (health, ability, intelligence, beauty, etc.) becomes possible, and, therefore, these questions become more urgent.
Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World
The Pop Gene
The concept of the gene and the idea of genetic engineering have entered into popular consciousness in a number of strange and interesting ways, which speak to our enduring fascination with biological explanations of human behaviour. Some sociologists have begun to speak of a new eugenics movement in reference to the way the mapping and testing of the genome makes it possible, as a matter of consumer choice, to manipulate the genes of a foetus or an egg to eliminate what are considered birth “defects” or to produce what are considered desired qualities in a child. If the old eugenics movement promoted selective breeding and forced sterilization in order to improve the biological qualities and, in particular, the racial qualities of whole populations, the new eugenics is focused on calculations of individual risk or individual self-improvement and self-realization. In the new eugenics, individuals choose to act upon the genetic information provided by doctors, geneticists, and counsellors to make decisions for their children or themselves (Rose, 2007).
This movement is based both on the commercial aspirations of biotechnology companies and the logic of a new biological determinism or geneticism, which suggests that the qualities of human life are caused by genes (Rose, 2007). The concept of the gene is a relatively recent addition to the way in which people begin to think about themselves in relationship to their bodies. The German historians Barbara Duden and Silja Samerski argue that the gene has become a kind of primordial reference point for the fundamental questions people ask about themselves (2007): Where do I come from; who am I; and what will happen to me in the future? The gene has shifted from its specific place within the parameters of medical science to become a source of popular understanding and speculation: a “pop gene.” Most tellingly, the gene has become a Trojan horse through which “risk consciousness” is implanted in people’s bodies. The popularization of the idea of the gene entails the development of a new relationship to the human body, health, and the genetic predispositions to health risks as we age.
In 2013, the movie star Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy, not because she had breast cancer but because doctors estimated she had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer due to a mutation in the BRCA1 gene (Jolie, 2013). On the basis of what might happen to her based on probabilities of risk from genetic models she decided to take drastic measures to avoid the breast cancer that her mother died of. Her very public stance on her surgery was to raise public awareness of the genetic risks of cancers that run in families and to normalize a medical procedure that many would be hesitant to take. At the same time she further implanted a notion of the gene as a site of invisible risk in peoples lives, encouraging more people to think about themselves in terms of their hidden dispositions to genetically programmed diseases.
Many misconceptions exist in popular culture about what a gene actually is or what it can do. Some of these misconceptions are funny — Duden and Samerski cite a hairdresser they interviewed as saying that her nail biting habit was part of the nature she was born with — but some of them have serious consequences that can lead to the impossible decisions some individuals, including couples who are having a child, are forced to make. Informed decision making in genetic counselling often works with statistical probabilities of “defects” based on population data (e.g., “With your family history, you have a 1 in 10 chance of having a child with the genetic mutation for Down’s syndrome”), but what does this mean to a particular individual? The actual causal mechanism for that particular individual is unknown (i.e., it is unlikely that they will actually have 10 children, one of whom might have Down’s syndrome); therefore, what does this probability figure mean to someone who is pregnant? In this sense, the gene defines a set of cultural parameters by which people in the age of genetics make sense of themselves in relationship to their bodies. Like biological determinism in general, the gene introduces a kind of fatalism into the understanding of human life and human possibility.
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 (1897-1985) 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. Humour 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 hero sitting on a park bench with 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 hero 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 she 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 hero 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, and 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 reveals 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 Canada, 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 might 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 (1840-1910) described the term, involves a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others (1906). 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 Aboriginal peoples 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 Toronto might find the nightly silence of rural Alberta 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 Toronto traveller was initially captivated with Alberta’s quiet beauty, and the Chinese student was originally excited to see an Canadian-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 are not always expecting cultural differences. Anthropologist Ken Barger discovered this when conducting participatory observation in an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic (1971). 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. The logic of cultural relativism is at the basis of contemporary policies of multiculturalism. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies, such as Canada — societies in which women have political rights and control over their own bodies — would question whether the widespread practice of female genital circumcision in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of a 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 does not have to lead to imposing its values on others. Nor does an appreciation for another culture preclude individuals from studying it with a critical eye. In the case of female genital circumcision, a universal right to life and liberty of the person conflicts with the neutral stance of cultural relativism. It is not necessarily ethnocentric to be critical of practices that violate universal standards of human dignity that are contained in the cultural codes of all cultures, (while not necessarily followed in practice). Not every practice can be regarded as culturally relative. Cultural traditions are not immune from power imbalances and liberation movements that seek to correct them.
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 read writing that uses the personal pronoun “he” or the word “man” to represent people in general or humanity. 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.
Making Connections: Social Policy and Debate
Multiculturalism in Canada
One prominent aspect of contemporary Canadian cultural identity is the idea of multiculturalism. Canada was the first officially declared multicultural society in which, as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared in 1971, no culture would take precedence over any other. Multiculturalism refers to both the fact of the existence of a diversity of cultures within one territory and to a way of conceptualizing and managing cultural diversity. As a policy, multiculturalism seeks to both promote and recognize cultural differences while addressing the inevitability of cultural tensions. In the 1988 Multiculturalism Act, the federal government officially acknowledged its role “in bringing about equal access and participation for all Canadians in the economic, social, cultural, and political life of the nation” (Government of Canada, as cited in Angelini & Broderick, 2012).
However, the focus on multiculturalism and culture per se has not always been so central to Canadian public discourse. Multiculturalism represents a relatively recent cultural development. Prior to the end of World War II, Canadian authorities used the concept of biological race to differentiate the various types of immigrants and Aboriginal peoples in Canada. This focus on biology led to corresponding fears about the quality of immigrant “stock” and the problems of how to manage the mixture of races. In this context, three different models for how to manage diversity were in contention: (1) the American “melting pot” paradigm in which the mingling of races was thought to be able to produce a super race with the best qualities of all races intermingled, (2) strict exclusion or deportation of races seen to be “unsuited” to Canadian social and environmental conditions, or (3) the Canadian “mosaic” that advocated for the separation and compartmentalization of races (Day, 2000).
After World War II, the category of race was replaced by culture and ethnicity in the public discourse, but the mosaic model was retained. Culture came to be understood in terms of the new anthropological definitions of culture as a deep-seated emotional-psychological phenomenon. In this conceptualization, to be deprived of culture through coercive assimilation would be a type of cultural genocide. As a result, alternatives to cultural assimilation into the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture were debated, and the Canadian mosaic model for managing a diverse population was redefined as multiculturalism. Based on a new appreciation of culture, and with increased immigration from non-European countries, Canadian identity was re-imagined in the 1960s and 1970s as a happy cohabitation of cultures, each of which was encouraged to maintain their cultural distinctiveness. So while the cultural identity of Canadians is diverse, the cultural paradigm in which their coexistence is conceptualized — multiculturalism — has come to be equated with Canadian cultural identity.
However, these developments have not alleviated the problems of cultural difference with which sociologists are concerned. Multicultural policy has sparked numerous, remarkably contentious issues ranging from whether Sikh RCMP officers can wear turbans to whether Mormon sects can have legal polygamous marriages. In 2014, the Parti Québécois in Quebec proposed a controversial Charter of Quebec Values that would, to reinforce the neutrality of the state, ban public employees from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols and headgear. This position represented a unique Quebec-based concept of multiculturalism known as interculturalism. Whereas multiculturalism begins with the premise that there is no dominant culture in Canada, interculturalism begins with the premise that in Quebec francophone culture is dominant but also precarious in the North American context. It cannot risk further fragmentation. Therefore the intercultural model of managing diversity is to recognize and respect the diversity of immigrants who seek to integrate into Quebec society but also to make clear to immigrants that they must recognize and respect Quebec’s common or “fundamental” values.
Critics of multiculturalism identify four related problems:
- Multiculturalism only superficially accepts the equality of all cultures while continuing to limit and prohibit actual equality, participation, and cultural expression. One key element of this criticism is that there are only two official languages in Canada — English and French — which limits the full participation of non-anglophone/francophone groups.
- Multiculturalism obliges minority individuals to assume the limited cultural identities of their ethnic group of origin, which leads to stereotyping minority groups, ghettoization, and feeling isolated from the national culture.
- Multiculturalism causes fragmentation and disunity in Canadian society. Minorities do not integrate into existing Canadian society but demand that Canadians adopt or accommodate their way of life, even when they espouse controversial values, laws, and customs (like polygamy or sharia law).
- Multiculturalism is based on recognizing group rights which undermines constitutional protections of individual rights.
On the other hand, proponents of multiculturalism like Will Kymlicka describe the Canadian experience with multiculturalism as a success story. Kymlicka argues that the evidence shows:
“Immigrants in Canada are more likely to become citizens, to vote and to run for office, and to be elected to office than immigrants in other Western democracies, in part because voters in Canada do not discriminate against such candidates. Compared to their counterparts in other Western democracies, the children of immigrants have better educational outcomes, and while immigrants in all Western societies suffer from an “ethnic penalty” in translating their skills into jobs, the size of this ethnic penalty is lowest in Canada. Compared to residents of other Western democracies, Canadians are more likely to say that immigration is beneficial and less likely to have prejudiced views of Muslims. And whereas ethnic diversity has been shown to erode levels of trust and social capital in other countries, there appears to be a “Canadian exceptionalism” in this regard.”(2012)
3.2. Elements of Culture
Values and Beliefs
The first two elements of culture we will discuss, and perhaps the most crucial, are values and beliefs. Values are a culture’s standard for discerning desirable states in society (what is true, good, just, or beautiful). 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 desirable.
Values help shape a society by suggesting what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, and what should be sought or avoided. Consider the value that North American culture places upon youth. Children represent innocence and purity, while a youthful adult appearance signifies sexuality. Shaped by this value, North Americans 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 primary values. As we will see below, 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 2, the classical sociologist Harriet Martineau made a basic distinction between what people say they believe and what they actually do, which 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 is 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. As opposed to values and beliefs which identify desirable states and convictions about how things are, a norm is a generally accepted way of doing things. 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 because their violation invokes some degree of sanction. They define the rules that govern behaviour.
Formal norms are established, written rules. They are behaviours worked out and agreed upon in order to suit and serve most people. Laws are formal norms, but so are employee manuals, college entrance exam requirements, and no running 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 is against the law to rob a bank, and banks go to great lengths to prevent such crimes. People safeguard valuable possessions and install anti-theft 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. 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 (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 the 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, but they are not necessarily rational. Why should we not talk to someone in a public bathroom, or haggle over the price of a good in a store? Breaching experiments uncover and explore the many unwritten social rules we live by. They indicate the degree to which the world we live in is fragile, arbitrary and ritualistic; socially structured by deep, silent, tacit agreements with others of which we are frequently only dimly aware.
Folkways, Mores, and Taboos
Norms may be further classified as mores, folkways, or taboos. Mores (pronounced mor–ays) are norms that embody the moral views and principles of a group. They are based on social requirements. Violating them can have serious consequences. The strongest mores are legally protected with laws or other formal norms. In Canada, for instance, murder is considered immoral, and it is punishable by law (a formal norm). 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 else the student should use special stylistic forms such as quotation marks and a system of citation, like MLA (Modern Language Association) style, for crediting the words to 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 even result in expulsion.
Unlike mores, folkways are norms without any moral underpinnings. They are based on social preferences. 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 a 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 is not acceptable. In northern Europe, it is fine for people to go into a sauna or hot tub naked. Often 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 one’s mouth 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. Folkways might be small manners, but they are by no means trivial.
Taboos refer to actions which are strongly forbidden by deeply held sacred or moral beliefs. They are the strongest and most deeply held norms. Their transgression evokes revulsion and severe punishment. In its original use taboo referred to being “consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean, or cursed” (Cook & King, 1784). There was a clear supernatural context for the prohibition; the act offended the gods or ancestors, and evoked their retribution. In secular contexts, taboos refer to powerful moral prohibitions that protect what are regarded as inviolable bonds between people. Incest, pedophilia, and patricide or matricide are taboos.
Many mores, folkways, and taboos are taken for granted in everyday life. People need to act without thinking to get seamlessly through daily routines; we can not stop and analyze every action (Sumner, 1906). The different levels of norm enable the “ongoing concerting and coordinating of individuals’ activities” as Dorothy Smith put it (1999). These different levels of norm help people negotiate their daily life within a given culture and as such their study is crucial for understanding the distinctions between different cultures.
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 — are tangible marks that stand in for or represent something else. Symbols provide clues to understanding the underlying experiences, statuses, states, and ideas they express. They convey recognizable meanings that are shared by societies. In the words of George Herbert Mead:
Our symbols are universal. You cannot say anything that is absolutely particular, anything you say that has any meaning at all is universal. (Mind, Self and Society, 1934)
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 purpose other than to represent accomplishments. 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 a police officer in uniform or in a police car triggers reassurance in some citizens but annoyance, fear, or anger in others.
It’s easy to take symbols for granted. Few people challenge or even think about the signs on the doors of public restrooms, but the figures on the signs are more than just symbols that tell men and women which restroom 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 somewhat uncommon to encounter 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 the internet phenomenon lolcats because of the funny, nonsensical nature of its non sequitur message. An image of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a folksy sweater holding a cute cat was altered to show him holding an oily duck instead; this is a detournement with a 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, or between communism and capitalism.
While different cultures have varying systems of symbols, there is one that is common to all: the use of 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 sounds. 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 (Oxford English Dictionary, 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 download, text, and blog. 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 the world through the culture embedded in their language. The hypothesis, which has also been called linguistic relativity, states that we initially develop language to express concepts that emerge from our experience of the world, but afterwards language comes back to shape our experience of the world (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. If a person cannot describe the experience, the person cannot have the experience.
Similarly, in Wade Davis’ (2007) discussion about the ethnosphere — the sum total of “ways of thinking, ways of being, and ways of orienting oneself on the earth” — that we began the chapter with, each language is understood to be more than just a set of symbols and linguistic rules. Each language is an archive of a culture’s unique cosmology, wisdom, ecological knowledge, rituals, beliefs and norms. Each contributes its unique solution to the question of what it means to be human to the ethnosphere. The compilers of Ethnologue estimate that currently 7,105 languages are used in the world (Lewis et al., 2013). This would suggest that there are at least 7,105 distinct cultural contexts through which humans interpret and experience the world. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would suggest that their worlds differ to the degree that their languages differ. However Davis notes that today half of the world’s languages are no longer being passed down to children. When languages die out or fail to be passed on to subsequent generations, whole ways of knowing and being in the world die out with them and the ethnosphere is diminished.
Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World
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. Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s 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 receive 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 province with the highest proportion of people who spoke French at home was New Brunswick at 31.4 percent. 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 speak Cantonese, 8 percent speak Punjabi, 7 percent speak an unspecified dialect of Chinese, 5.9 percent speak Urdu, and 5.7 percent speak 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 16.0 percent who speak Cantonese, 12.2 percent who speak an unspecified dialect of Chinese, 11.8 percent who speak Mandarin, and 6.7 percent who speak Philippine Tagalog.
Today, the government of Canada still conducts business in both official languages. French and English are the dominant languages in the workplace and schools. Labels on products are required to be in both French and English. But increasingly a lot of product information is also made available 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 in the two official languages.
Material and Nonmaterial Culture
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 in Canada, a passenger finds a marked bus stop or station, waits for the bus or train, pays an agent before or after boarding, and quietly takes 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 are expected to extend an arm to indicate that they want the bus to stop for them. 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, the different cultural responses are seen as various solutions to a common problem, the problem of public transportation. The problem is shared, but the solutions are different. Cultural solutions consist of two components: thoughts or perceptual orientations (expectations about personal space, for example) and tangible things (bus stops, trains, and seating capacity). Culture includes both material and non-material elements. Material culture refers to the artifacts, technologies, and products 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 knowledge and beliefs, forms of communication, and norms of behaviour of a society. Both material and nonmaterial components of culture are variables within the cultural “package” social groups use to adapt themselves or respond to the tasks of life.
It is important to point out here that material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas. A bus or transit 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. We notice this 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.
3.3. Culture as Innovation: Pop Culture, Subculture, Global Culture
In the introduction of this chapter we noted that culture is the source of the shared meanings through which we interpret and orient ourselves to the world. While cultural practices are in some respects always a response to biological givens or to the structure of the socioeconomic formation, they are not determined by these factors. Culture is innovative; it expresses the human imagination in its capacity to go beyond what is given, to solve problems, to produce innovations — new objects, ideas, or ways of being introduced to culture for the first time. At the same time, we are born into cultures that pre-exist us and shape us: Languages, ways of thinking, ways of doing things, and artifacts we do not invent but inherit; they are ready made forms of life that we fit ourselves into. Culture can, therefore, also be restrictive, imposing forms of life, beliefs, and practices on people, and limiting the possibilities of what we can think and do. As Marx said, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (1852).
In the next two sections of this chapter we will examine aspects of culture which are innovative–high culture and popular culture, subculture, and global culture — and aspects of culture which are restrictive — rationalization and consumerism.
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 magazines about celebrities? In each pair, one type of entertainment is considered high brow and the other low brow. Sociologists use the term high culture to describe a form of cultural experience characterized by formal complexity, eternal values, or intrinsic authenticity such as is provided by the Greek classics, Beethoven’s symphonies, Sergei Diaghilev’s ballets, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. People often associate high culture with intellectualism, aesthetic taste, elitism, wealth, and prestige. Pierre Bourdieu (1984) argues high culture is not only a symbol of distinction, but a means of maintaining status and power distinctions through the transfer of cultural capital: the knowledge, skills, tastes, mannerisms, speaking style, posture, material possessions, credentials, etc. that a person acquires from their family background. Events considered high culture can be expensive and formal — attending a ballet, seeing a play, or listening to a live symphony performance — and the people who are in a position to appreciate these events, despite the difficulty, are often those who have enjoyed the benefits of an enriched and exclusive cultural background.
The term popular culture refers to the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in mainstream society: cultural experiences well liked by “the people.” Popular culture events might include a parade, a baseball game, or a rock concert. Rock and pop music — “pop” is 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 the TV show House of Cards when making small talk in the check-out 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” (2000s to the present, 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 popular 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 19th– and 20th-century 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. The other side of high culture was the tradition of conserving and passing down the highest and most refined expressions of human cultural possibility: the eternal values and noble sensibilities contained in the “great works” of culture. High culture also had a civilizing mission to preserve and pass down. In both forms, high culture appealed to a limited but sophisticated audience. Popular culture, on the other hand, was simply the culture of the people; it was immediately accessible and easily digestible, either in the form of folk traditions or commercialized mass culture.
In postmodern culture — the form of culture that came after modern 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 recycled samples of original hooks and melodies; symphony orchestras performing the soundtracks of cartoons; architecture that playfully borrows and blends historical styles; etc. Rock music is the subject of many high brow histories and academic analyses, just as the common objects of popular culture are transformed and represented as high art (e.g., Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans or the classic film noir movies of the 1940s and 1950s). The dominant sensibility of postmodern popular culture is both playful and ironic, as if the blending and mixing of cultural references, like in the television show The Simpsons, is one big in-joke. Postmodern culture has been referred to as a “culture of quotations” (Jameson, 1985) in the sense that instead of searching for new, authentic forms as in avant-garde modernism, it recycles and remixes (i.e. quotes) elements of previous cultural production.
At a more serious level, postmodern culture is seen to challenge modern culture in a number of key ways. The postmodern eclectic mix of elements from different times and places challenges the modernist concepts of authentic expression and progress; the idea that cultural creations can and should seek new and innovative ways to express the deep meanings of life. The playfulness and irony of postmodern culture seem to undermine the core values of modernity, especially the idea that cultural critique or innovations in architecture, art, and literature, etc. have an important role in, not just entertaining people, but improving the quality of social life. In postmodernity, nothing is to be taken very seriously, even ourselves. Moreover, in postmodernity everyone with access to a computer and some editing software is seen to be a cultural producer; everyone has an important voice and access to knowledge is simply a matter of crowd-sourcing. The modernist myth of the great creator or genius is rejected in favour of a plurality of voices.
Jean Francois Lyotard (1984) defined postmodern culture as “incredulity towards metanarratives” meaning that postmoderns no longer really believe in the big (i.e., meta) stories and social projects of modernity. Postmoderns are skeptical of the claims that scientific knowledge leads to progress, that political change creates human emancipation, that Truth sets us free. Some argue that the outcome of this erosion of authority and decline in consensus around core values is a thorough relativism of values in which no standard exists to judge one thing more significant than another. Everyone will make up their own little stories, each as valid as the next, as we see when creationists seek to debunk the “myths” of evolutionary theory, for example. Others argue that the outcome leads to a necessary critique of the unexamined assumptions of power and authority in modern culture–the rhetoric of “family values” or “scientific progress” lampooned in The Simpsons, for example. Instead of the privileged truths of elites and authorities, postmodernity witnesses the emergence of a plurality of different voices that had been relegated to the margins. Culture moves away from homogeneous sameness to heterogeneous diversity.
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. For example, 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. But even as members of a subculture band together around a distinct identity, they still identify with and participate in the larger society.
Sociologists distinguish subcultures from countercultures, which are a type of subculture that explicitly reject 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. The post-World War II period was characterized by a series of “spectacular” youth cultures — teddy boys, beatniks, mods, hippies, bikers, skinheads, rastas, punks, new wavers, ravers, hip-hoppers, and hipsters — who in various ways sought to reject the values of their parents’ generation. The hippies, for example, were a subculture that became a counterculture, blending protest against the Vietnam War, technocracy and consumer culture with a back to the land movement, non-Western forms of spirituality, and the practice of voluntary simplicity. Counterculture, in this example, refers to the cultural forms of life taken by a political and social protest movement.
Cults, a word derived from cultus or the “care” owed to the observance of spiritual rituals, are also considered countercultural groups. They are usually informal, transient religious groups or movements that deviate from orthodox beliefs and often, but not always, involve an intense emotional commitment to the group and allegiance to a charismatic leader. In pluralistic societies like Canada, they represent quasi-legitimate forms of social experimentation with alternate forms of religious practice, community, sexuality and gender relations, proselytizing, economic organization, healing and therapy. However, sometimes their challenge to conventional laws and norms is regarded as going too far by the dominant society. For example, 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.
The degree to which countercultures reject the larger culture’s norms and values is questionable, however. In the analysis of spectacular, British working class youth subcultures like the teddy boys, mods, and skinheads, Phil Cohen (1972) noted that the style and the focal concerns of the groups could be seen as a “compromise solution between two contradictory needs: the need to create and express autonomy and difference from parents…and the need to maintain parental identifications” (as cited in Hebdige, 1979). In the 1960s and 70s, for example, skinheads shaved their heads, listened to ska music from Jamaica, participated in racist chants at soccer games, and wore highly polished Doctor Marten boots in a manner that deliberately alienated their parents while expressing their own alienation as working class youth with few job prospects in deindustrialized England. At the same time, noted Cohen, their subcultural outfit was more or less a “caricature of the model worker” their parents aspired to and their attitude simply exaggerated the proletarian, puritanical, and chauvinist traits of their parents’ generation. On one hand the invention of skinhead culture was an innovative cultural creation; on the other hand it just exaggerated the already existing contradictions of the skinheads’ class situation and that of their parents.
Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World
The Evolution of North American Hipster Subculture
Skinny jeans, chunky glasses, ironic moustaches, retro-style single speed bicycles 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. At the same time they evince a concern that borders on a fetish with the pedigree of the music, styles, and objects that identify their focal concerns.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 (1923 – 2007), in his essay The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster (1957), defined those who were “hep” or “hip” as largely white youth living by a black 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, another variation on the subculture was on the rise. The beat generation, a title coined by Quebecois-American writer Jack Kerouac (1922 – 1969), was defined as a generation that was nonconformist and anti-materialistic. Prominent in this movement were writers and poets who listened to jazz, studied Eastern religions, experimented with different states of experience, and embraced radical politics of personal liberation. They bummed around, hitchhiked the country, sought experience, and lived marginally. Even in the early stages of the development of the subculture there was a difference between the emphasis in beat and hipster styles:
. . . the hipster was . . . [a] typical lower-class dandy, dressed up like a pimp, affecting a very cool, cerebral tone – to distinguish him from the gross, impulsive types that surrounded him in the ghetto – and aspiring to the finer things in life, like very good “tea”, the finest of sounds – jazz or Afro-Cuban . . . [whereas] . . . the Beat was originally some earnest middle-class college boy like Kerouac, who was stifled by the cities and the culture he had inherited and who wanted to cut out for distant and exotic places, where he could live like the “people”, write, smoke and meditate (Goldman as cited in Hebdige, 1979)
While the beat was focused on inner experience, the hipster was focused on the external style.
By the end of the 1950s, the influence of jazz was winding down and many traits of hepcat culture were becoming mainstream. 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. The subculture became visible and was covered in Life magazine, Esquire, Playboy, and other mainstream media. Herb Caen (1916 – 1997), 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.” They were subsequently lampooned as lazy layabouts in television shows like The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959 – 1963) or dangerous, drug-abusing delinquents in movies like High School Confidential (1958).
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 1960s and 70s became known simply as hippies. Others note that hippie was a derogatory label invented by the mainstream press to discredit and stereotype the movement and its non-materialist aspirations.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, or the long-haired back to the land movement of the 1960s, an 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 an appropriation of consumer capitalism that seeks authenticity in and of itself.In his New York Times article “The Hipster in the Mirror” 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” (2010). What tends to be cool is an ironic pastiche of borrowed styles or tastes that signify other identities or histories: alternative music (sometimes very obscure), used vintage clothing, organic and artisanal foods and products, single gear bikes, and countercultural values and lifestyles.Young people are often drawn to oppose mainstream conventions. Much as the hepcats of the 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.
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 neoliberalization, 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, which is the spread of material and nonmaterial culture. While globalization refers to the integration of markets, diffusion relates a similar process to the integration of global 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.
The increasing flows of global migration and movement also facilitate the diffusion of cultural ideas and artifacts as people from around the world spread out into global diasporas: The dispersions of a people from their original homeland. As Arjun Appadurai (1996) suggests, “More people than ever before seem to imagine routinely the possibility that they or their children will live and work in places other than where they were born: this is the wellspring of the increased rates of migration at every level of social, national, and global life.” This likelihood of movement, whether actual or imagined, changes the cultural coordinates of how people see themselves in the world.
All migrants, refugees, temporary foreign workers, or travellers bring their beliefs, attitudes, languages, cuisines, music, religious practices, and other elements of local ways of life with them when they move, and they encounter new ones in the places where they arrive. What would appear to be different in the contemporary era of global migration is the way in which electronic media make it possible for migrants and travellers to keep in touch daily with not only friends and family, but also favourite TV shows, current events, sports, music, and other elements of culture from home. In the same way, electronic media give migrants access to the culture of their new homes just as they allow local residents to imagine future homes elsewhere in the world. In the era of globalization, the experience of culture is increasingly disembedded from location. The ways people imagine themselves and define their individual attachments, interests, and aspirations criss-cross and intertwine the divisions between cultures formerly established by the territorial boundaries of societies.
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 (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.
Making Connections: Big Picture
Is There a Canadian Identity?
The recent purchase of the Canadian coffee and donut chain Tim Hortons by 3G Capital, the American-Brazilian consortium that owns Burger King, raised questions about Canadian identity that never seem far from the surface in discussions of Canadian culture. For example, an article by Joe Friesen in The Globe and Mail (2014) emphasized the potential loss to Canadian culture by the sale to foreign owners of a successful Canadian-owned business that is also a kind of Canadian institution. Tim Hortons’s self-promotion has always emphasized its Canadianness: from its original ownership partner, Tim Horton (1930 – 1974), who was a Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman, to being a kind of “anti-Starbucks,” the place where “ordinary Canadians” go. Friesen’s article reads a number of Canadian characteristics into the brand image of Tim Hortons. For example, the personality of Tim Horton himself is equated with Canadianness of the chain: “He wasn’t a flashy player, but he was strong and reliable, traits in keeping with Canadian narratives of solidity and self-effacement” (Friesen).
How do we understand Canadian culture and Canadian identity in this example? Earlier in the chapter, we described culture as a product of the socioeconomic formation. Therefore, if we ask the question of whether a specific Canadian culture or Canadian identity exists, we would begin by listing a set of distinctive Canadian cultural characteristics and then attempt to explain their distinctiveness in terms of the way the Canadian socioeconomic formation developed.
Seymour Martin Lipset (1990) famously described several characteristics that distinguished Canadians from Americans:
- Canadians are less self-reliant and more dependent on state programs than Americans to provide for everyday needs of citizens.
- Canadians are more “elitist” than Americans in the sense that they are more respectful and deferential towards authorities.
- Canadians are less individualistic and more collectivistic than Americans, especially in instances where personal liberties conflict with the collective good.
- Overall, Canadians are more conservative than Americans, and less likely to embrace a belief in progress or a forward looking, liberal outlook on political or economic issues.
Lipset’s explanation for these differences is that while both Canada and the United States retain elements from their British colonial experiences, like their language and legal systems, their founding historical events were opposites: the United States was created through violent revolution against British rule (1775-1783); whereas, Canada’s origins were counter revolutionary. Canada was settled in part by United Empire Loyalists who fled America to remain loyal to Britain, and it did not become an independent nation state until it was created by an act of the British Parliament (the British North America Act of 1867). (Note: The idea that Canada — with its influential socialist tradition responsible for Canada’s universal health care, welfare and employment insurance, strong union movement, culture of collective responsibility, etc. — is more conservative than the United States may strike the reader as strange. Lipset’s assessment is based on uniquely American cultural definitions of conservatism and liberalism.) While Lipset’s analysis is disputed, especially by those who do not see American and Canadian cultural differences as being so great (Baer et al., 1990), the logic of his analysis is to see the cultural difference between the nations as a variable dependent on their different socioeconomic formations.
In this analysis, the national characteristics that Friesen argues are embodied by Tim Hortons — modesty, unpretentiousness, politeness, respect, etc. — would be seen as qualities that emerged as a result of a uniquely Canadian historical socioeconomic development. However, how well do they actually represent Canadian culture? As we saw earlier in the chapter, one prominent aspect of contemporary Canadian cultural identity is the idea of multiculturalism. The impact of globalization on Canada has been increased cultural diversity (see Chapter 11). The 2011 census noted that visible minorities made up 19.1 percent of the Canadian population, or almost one out of every five Canadians. In Toronto and Vancouver almost half the population are visible minorities. In a certain way, the existence of diverse cultures in Canada undermines the notion that a unified Canadian culture exists. Canada would appear to be a fragmented nation of hyphenated identities — British-Canadians, French-Canadians, Chinese-Canadians, South Asian-Canadians, Caribbean-Canadians, Aboriginal-Canadians, etc. — each with its unique cultural traditions, languages, and viewpoints. In what way are we still able to speak about a Canadian identity except insofar as it is defined by multiculturalism; essentially many identities?
3.4. Culture as Restriction: Rationalization and Commodification
In the previous section we examined culture in its innovative guise. Culture in this guise is the site of “all thoughts, dreams, ideas, beliefs, myths, intuitions, and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness” as Wade Davis put it (2002). Culture is what enables humans to go beyond the “given” of their biological and social reality. The innovations of high culture in expanding the range of human sensibility and the inventiveness of pop culture, subculture, and globally hybrid culture in creating and diffusing new cultural forms attests to the innovative side of culture. However, culture can also be examined in its restrictive guise, as source of restriction on human possibilities. Two contemporary modes of culture as restriction can be seen in the processes of rationalization and consumerism.
Max Weber’s analysis of modern society centres on the concept of rationalization. Arguably, the primary focus of Weber’s entire sociological oeuvre was to determine how and why Western civilization and capitalism developed where and when they did. Why was the West the West? Why did the Western world modernize and develop modern science, industry, military, and democracy first when, for centuries, Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East were technically, scientifically, and culturally more advanced than the West?
Weber argued that the modern forms of society developed in the West because of the process of rationalization: the general tendency of modern institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of instrumental reason — choosing the most efficient means to achieve defined goals — and the overcoming of “magical” thinking (which in Chapter 1 we referred to as the “disenchantment of the world”). In modernity, everything is subject to the cold and rational gaze of the scientist, the technician, the bureaucrat, and the business person. “There are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play… rather… one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted” (Weber, 1919). As the impediments toward rationalization were removed, organizations and institutions were restructured on the principle of maximum efficiency and specialization, while older traditional (inefficient) types of organization were gradually eliminated. Weber’s question was, what are the consequences of rationality for everyday life, for the social order, and for the spiritual fate of humanity?
Through rationalization, all of the institutional structures of modern society are reorganized on the principles of efficiency, calculability, and predictability, which are the bases of the “technical and economic conditions of machine production” that Weber refers to in passages from The Protestant Ethic (1904). As rationalization transforms the institutional and organizational life of modernity, other forms of social organization are eliminated and other purposes of life—spiritual, moral, emotional, traditional, etc.—become irrelevant. Life becomes irrevocably narrower in its focus, and other values are lost. Our attitude towards our own lives becomes oriented to maximizing our own efficiency and eliminating non-productive pursuits and downtime. This is the key to the metaphor of the iron cage by which Weber evokes the new powers of production and organizational effectiveness, the increasingly narrow specialization of tasks and the loss of the Enlightenment ideals of a well-rounded individual and a “full and beautiful humanity.” Having forgotten its spiritual or other purposes of life, humanity succumbed to an order “now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production” (Weber, 1904). The modern subject in the iron cage is essentially a narrow specialist or bureaucrat, “only a single cog in an ever-moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march” (Weber, 1922).
One of the consequences of the rationalization of everyday life is stress. In 2010, 27 percent of working adults in Canada described their day-to-day lives as highly stressful (Crompton, 2011). Twenty-three percent of all Canadians aged 15 and older reported that most days were highly stressful in 2013 (Statistics Canada, 2014). In the case of stress, rationalization is a double-edged sword in that it allows people to get more things done per unit of time more efficiently in order to “save time,” but ironically efficiency–as a means to an end–tends to replace other goals in life and becomes an end in itself. The focus on efficiency means that people regard time as a kind of limited resource in which to achieve a maximum number of activities. The irrationality in rationalization is: Saving time for what? Are we able to take time for activities (including sleep) which replenish us or enrich us? Even the notions of “taking time” or “spending quality time” with someone uses the metaphor of time as a kind of expenditure in which we use up a limited resource. Stress is in many respects a product of our modern “rational” relationship to time. As we can see in the table below, for a significant number of people, there is simply not enough time in the day to accomplish what we set out to do.
|Perceptions of time||Age group|
|15 and over||15 to 24||25 to 34||35 to 44||45 to 54||55 to 64||65 to 74||75 and over|
|Do you plan to slow down in the coming year?||19%||13%||16%||21%||22%||23%||16%||20%|
|Do you consider yourself a workaholic?||25%||22%||29%||31%||28%||23%||18%||14%|
|When you need more time, do you tend to cut back on your sleep?||46%||63%||60%||59%||45%||31%||20%||15%|
|At the end of the day, do you often feel that you have not accomplished what you had set out to do?||41%||34%||46%||48%||46%||40%||29%||35%|
|Do you worry that you don’t spend enough time with your family or friends?||36%||34%||47%||53%||41%||27%||14%||10%|
|Do you feel that you’re constantly under stress trying to accomplish more than you can handle?||34%||35%||41%||47%||40%||27%||15%||10%|
|Do you feel trapped in a daily routine?||34%||33%||41%||46%||40%||28%||15%||15%|
|Do you feel that you just don’t have time for fun any more?||29%||20%||36%||43%||38%||23%||11%||11%|
|Do you often feel under stress when you don’t have enough time?||54%||65%||66%||69%||59%||41%||22%||16%|
|Would you like to spend more time alone?||22%||19%||30%||35%||24%||15%||9%||7%|
|Note: The percentages represent the proportion of persons who answered “yes” to the questions on perceptions of time.
Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2010 (Statistics Canada, 2011).
The Commodity, Commodification, and Consumerism as a Way of Life
The commodity is simply an object, service, or a “good” that has been produced for sale on the market. Commodification is the process through which objects, services, or goods are increasingly turned into commodities, so they become defined more in terms of their marketability and profitability than by their intrinsic characteristics. Prior to the invention of the commodity market, economic life revolved around bartering or producing for immediate consumption. Real objects like wool or food were exchanged for other real objects or were produced for immediate consumption according to need. The commodity introduces a strange factor into this equation because in the marketplace objects are exchanged for money. They are produced in order to be sold in the market. Their value is determined not just in regard to their unique qualities, their purpose, or their ability to satisfy a need (i.e., their “use value”), but also their monetary value or “exchange value” (i.e., their price). When we ask what something is worth, we are usually referring to its price.
This monetization of value is strange in the first place because the medium of money allows for incomparable, concrete things or use values to be quantified and compared. Twenty dollars will get you a chicken, a novel, or a hammer; these fundamentally different things all become equivalent. It is strange in the second place because the use of money to define the value of commodities makes the commodity appear to stand alone, as if its value was independent of the labour that produced it or the needs it was designed to satisfy. We see the object and imagine the qualities it will endow us with: a style, a fashionability, a personality type, or a tribal affiliation (e.g., PC people vs. Mac people). We do not recognize the labour and the social relationships of work that produced it, nor the social relationship that tie us to its producers when we purchase it. Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) called this phenomenon commodity fetishism (1867).
With the increased importance of maintaining high levels of commodity turn over and consumption that emerged with the system of late capitalism, commodity fetishism plays a powerful role in producing ever new wants and desires. Consumerism becomes a way of life. Consumerism refers to the way in which we define ourselves in terms of the commodities we purchase. To the degree that our identities become defined by the pattern of our consumer preferences, the commodity no longer exists to serve our needs but to define our needs. As Barbara Kruger put it, the motto of consumer culture is not “I think therefore I am” but “I shop therefore I am.” Thinking is precisely what consumerism entices us not to do, except in so far as we calculate the prices of things.
3.5. 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 material and nonmaterial items 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 (1902 – 1979) 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 (1884 – 1942) described the way that the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea used magic at each stage of preparation for fishing (1925). 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 fishermen 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 fishermen to risk their lives 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 the 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 jogging in the cold 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 for clothes with a friend is well aware. What variables are 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 (1858-1918) 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 (1904). Being fashionable involves a highly nuanced negotiation between these two poles.
Critical sociologists view social structure as inherently unequal and based on power differentials related to issues like class, gender, race, and age. For a critical sociologist, culture is not a unified tradition that is experienced the same way by all people in a society. The female genital mutilation practiced by several social groups in Africa and Asia is a cultural practice that is rooted in gender inequality. It is an example of a cultural practice that reinforces and perpetuates inequalities and differences in power. Unlike the functionalists, who examine culture in terms of its function in social cohesion, 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 practiced at the expense of others. Following 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 property owners had been able to vote prior to Confederation.) It was not until 1947 and 1948 that Canadians of Japanese, Chinese, and South Asian origins were permitted to vote. Aboriginal 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 the dominant culture’s 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.
Culture as Source of Innovation and Constraint
Culture in general is a site of two opposing tendencies: One is the way that cultures around the world lay down sets of rules or norms which constrain, restrict, habitualize and fix forms of life; the other is the way that cultures produce endlessly innovative and diverse solutions to problems like nutrition. Cultures both constrain and continually go beyond constraints.
We began this chapter by asking what is culture. 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 unique individuals, we must acknowledge the impact of culture; we inherit thought and language that shapes our perceptions and patterns our behaviour, including about issues of family and friends, and faith and politics. In this sense culture defines the normative patterns that constrain us to live according to the given rules. On the other hand, the incredible variety of ways of thinking, ways of being, and ways of orienting oneself on the Earth, which Wade Davis calls the ethnosphere, attests to the endlessly innovative responses to the human condition that culture affords. Human possibilities are not determined by society or biology. Culture also reflects the imaginative capacity of human beings to go beyond what is given.
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 also 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.
androcentricism: 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.
beliefs: Tenets or convictions that people hold to be true.
commodity: An object, service, or good that has been produced for sale on the market.
commodity fetishism: Regarding commodities as objects with inherent qualities independent of the labour that produced them or the needs they were designed to satisfy.
commodification: The process through which objects, services, or goods are turned into commodities.
consumerism: The tendency to define ourselves in terms of the commodities we purchase.
counterculture: A group that rejects and opposes 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.
detournement: The conscious subversion of messages, signs, and symbols by altering them slightly.
diaspora: The dispersion of a people from their original homeland.
diffusion: The spread of material and nonmaterial culture from one culture to another.
discoveries: Things and ideas found from what already exists.
ethnocentrism: Evaluating another culture according to the standards of one’s own culture.
folkways: Norms based on social preferences that direct appropriate behaviour in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture.
formal norms: Established, written rules.
geneticism: A form of biological determinism that suggests the qualities of human life are caused by genes.
globalization: The integration of international trade and finance markets.
high culture: Forms of cultural experience characterized by formal complexity, eternal values, or intrinsic authenticity.
hybridity: New forms of culture that arose from cross-cultural exchange in the aftermath of the colonial era.
ideal culture: The standards a society would like to embrace and live up to.
informal norms: Casual behaviours that are generally and widely conformed to.
innovation: New objects or ideas introduced to a culture for the first time.
invention: Combining pieces of existing reality into new forms.
iron cage: Max Weber’s metaphor for the modern condition of life circumscribed by the demand for maximum efficiency.
language: A symbolic system of communication.
material culture: The objects or belongings of a group of people.
mores: Norms based on social requirements which are based on 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.
postmodern culture: The form of culture that comes after modern culture characterized by the playful mixture of forms and “incredulity towards metanarratives”.
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: The structure of a social group of people who interact within a definable territory and who share a culture.
socioeconomic formation: The concrete set of social structures that form around a specific mode of production or economic system.
subculture: A group that shares a specific identity apart from a society’s majority, even as the members exist within a larger society.
symbol: Gestures or objects that have meanings associated with them that are recognized by people who share a culture.
taboos: Strong prohibitions based on deeply held sacred or moral beliefs.
values: A culture’s standard for discerning desirable states in society (what is true, good, just, or beautiful).
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.
3.5. 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
3.5. 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.
3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
- 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.
3.5. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
- 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. [PDF]: 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 Babel-17: 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.: http://openstaxcollege.org/l/Oprah
3.1. What Is Culture?
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3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
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3.4. Culture as Restriction: Rationalization and Commodification
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3.5 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
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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, [Return to Quiz]
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
Figure 3.25 Long description: A young woman leans against an old-style blue bike. She wears bright clothes, large glasses, knee high socks and an owl backpack.” [Return to Figure 3.25]
Figure 3.27 Long description: Betty the Beatnik with a collection of fashion choices including black, long sleeve shirts and turtlenecks, black pants, and long black dresses. [Return to Figure 3.27]
Figure 3.32 Long description: One man in an ill-fitting suit holds a sign ductaped together that says, “cobble, together, assorted software, to do music, movies and websites.’; The other man is dressed casually and holds a simple sign that says, “I come with iLife.” [Return to Figure 3.32]