Sociology understands culture as the languages, customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge, and collective identities and memories developed by members of all social groups that make their social environments meaningful. Sociologists study cultural meaning by exploring individual and group communication; meaningfulness is expressed in social narratives, ideologies, practices, tastes, values, and norms as well as in collective representations and social classifications.

Sociology also studies the production, diffusion, reception, evaluation, and application of cultural meaning across institutions, organizations, and groups, including how cultures differentiate racial, ethnic, and class groups, and the role of culture in producing inequalities and group boundaries.

Culture is a term used by social scientists, like anthropologists and sociologists, to encompass all the facets of human experience that extend beyond our physical fact. Culture refers to the way we understand ourselves both as individuals and as members of society, and includes stories, religion, media, rituals, and even language itself.

It is critical to understand that the term culture does not describe a singular, fixed entity. Instead, it is a useful heuristic, or way of thinking, that can be very productive in understanding behavior. As a student of the social sciences, you should think of the word culture as a conceptual tool rather than as a uniform, static definition. Culture necessarily changes, and is changed by, a variety of interactions, with individuals, media, and technology, just to name a few.

Culture is primarily an anthropological term. The field of anthropology emerged around the same time as Social Darwinism, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Social Darwinism was the belief that the closer a cultural group was to the normative, Western, European standards of behavior and appearance, the more evolved that group was. As a theory of the world, it was essentially a racist concept that persists in certain forms up to this day. If you have ever heard someone reference people of African descent as being from, or close to, the jungle, or the wilderness, you’ve encountered a type of coded language that is a modern incarnation of Social Darwinist thought.

During the late 19th and early 20th century time period, the positivist school also emerged in sociological thought. One of the key figures in this school, Cesare Lombroso, studied the physical characteristics of prisoners, because he believed that he could find a biological basis for crime. Lombroso coined the term atavism to suggest that some individuals were throwbacks to a more bestial point in evolutionary history. Lombroso used this concept to claim that certain individuals were more weak-willed, and more prone to criminal activity, than their supposedly more evolved counterparts.

In accordance with the hegemonic beliefs of the time, anthropologists first theorized culture as something that evolves in the same way biological organisms evolve. Just like biological evolution, cultural evolution was thought to be an adaptive system that produced unique results depending on location and historical moment. However, unlike biological evolution, culture can be intentionally taught and thus spread from one group of people to another.

Initially, anthropologists believed that culture was a product of biological evolution, and that cultural evolution depended exclusively on physical conditions. Today’s anthropologists no longer believe it is this simple. Neither culture nor biology is solely responsible for the other. They interact in very complex ways, which biological anthropologists will be studying for years to come.


Culture and Society

Culture is what differentiates one group or society from the next; different societies have different cultures.

Culture encompasses human elements beyond biology: for example, our norms and values, the stories we tell, learned or acquired behaviors, religious beliefs, art and fashion, and so on. Culture is what differentiates one group or society from the next.

Different societies have different cultures; however it is important not to confuse the idea of culture with society. A culture represents the beliefs and practices of a group, while society represents the people who share those beliefs and practices. Neither society nor culture could exist without the other.



Defining Culture

Almost every human behavior, from shopping to marriage to expressions of feelings, is learned. Behavior based on learned customs is not necessarily a bad thing – being familiar with unwritten rules helps people feel secure and confident that their behaviors will not be challenged or disrupted. However even the simplest actions – such as commuting to work, ordering food from a restaurant, and greeting someone on the street – evidence a great deal of cultural propriety.

Material culture refers to the objects or belongings of a group of people (such as automobiles, stores, and the physical structures where people worship). Nonmaterial culture, in contrast, consists of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society. Material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas. A metro pass is a material object, but it represents a form of nonmaterial culture (namely capitalism, and the acceptance of paying for transportation). Clothing, hairstyles, and jewelry 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. As we interact with cultures other than our own, we become more aware of our own culture – which might otherwise be invisible to us – and to the differences and commonalities between our culture and others.

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