The History of “Culture”

Some people think of culture in the singular, in the way that it was thought of in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries: as something achieved through evolution and progress. This concept of culture reflected inequalities within European societies and their colonies around the world; in short, it equates culture with civilization and contrasts both with nature or non-civilization. According to this understanding of culture, some countries are more “civilized” than others, and some people are therefore more “cultured” than others.

When people talk about culture in the sense of civilization or refinement, they are really talking about “high culture,” which is different from the sociological concept of culture. High culture refers to elite goods and activities, such as haute cuisine, high fashion or couture, museum-caliber art, and classical music. In common parlance, people may refer to others as being “cultured” if they know about and take part in these activities. Someone who uses culture in this sense might argue that classical music is more refined than music by working-class people, such as jazz or the indigenous music traditions of aboriginal peoples. Popular (or “pop”) culture, by contrast, is more mainstream and influenced by mass media and the common opinion. Popular culture tends to change as tastes and opinions change over time, whereas high culture generally stays the same throughout the years. For example, Mozart is considered high culture, whereas Britney Spears is considered pop culture; Mozart is likely to still be popular in 100 years, but Britney Spears will likely be forgotten by all but a few.

This definition of culture only recognizes a single standard of refinement to which all groups are held accountable. Thus, people who differ from those who believe themselves to be “cultured” in this sense are not usually understood as having a different culture; they are understood as being uncultured.

Although we still see remnants of this idea of high culture today, it has largely fallen out of practice. Its decline began during the Romantic Era, when scholars in Germany – especially those concerned with nationalism – developed the more inclusive notion of culture as a distinct worldview. Although more inclusive, this approach to culture still allowed for distinctions between so-called “civilized” and “primitive” cultures. By the late 19th century, anthropologists changed the concept of culture to include a wider variety of societies, ultimately resulting in the concept of culture adopted by social scientists today: objects and symbols, the meaning given to those objects and symbols, and the norms, values, and beliefs that pervade social life.

This new perspective has also removed the evaluative element of the concept of culture; it distinguishes among different cultures, but does not rank them. For instance, the high culture of elites is now contrasted with popular or pop culture. In this sense, high culture no longer refers to the idea of being “cultured,” as all people have culture. High culture simply refers to the objects, symbols, norms, values, and beliefs of a particular group of people; popular culture does the same.


Culture Shock

Culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life in a new country.

Culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, or to a move between social environments. One of the most common causes of culture shock involves individuals in a foreign country. There is no true way to entirely prevent culture shock, as individuals in any society are personally affected by cultural contrasts differently.

Culture shock can be described as consisting of at least one of four distinct phases: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and mastery. During the honeymoon phase, the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light. During the first few weeks, most people are fascinated by the new culture. They associate with nationals who speak their language, and who are polite to the foreigners. This period is full of observations and new discoveries. Like most honeymoon periods, this stage eventually ends.



After some time (usually around three months, depending on the individual), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety. This is the mark of the negotiation phase. Excitement may eventually give way to unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger as one continues to experience unfavorable events that may be perceived as strange and offensive to one’s cultural attitude. Still, the most important change in the period is communication. People adjusting to a new culture often feel lonely and homesick because they are not yet used to the new environment and meet people with whom they are not familiar every day.

Again, after some time, one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines, marking the adjustment phase. One knows what to expect in most situations and the host country no longer feels all that new. One becomes concerned with basic living again and things become more normal. One starts to develop problem-solving skills for dealing with the culture and begins to accept the culture’s ways with a positive attitude. The culture begins to make sense and negative reactions and responses to the culture are reduced.

In the mastery stage, assignees are able to participate fully and comfortably in the host culture. Mastery does not mean total conversion. People often keep many traits from their earlier culture, such as accents and languages. It is often referred to as the biculturalism stage.


Material Culture

In the social sciences, material culture is a term that refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations.

In the social sciences, material culture refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations. Material culture consists in physical objects that humans make. These objects inevitably reflect the historical, geographic, and social conditions of their origin. For instance, the clothes that you are wearing might tell researchers of the future about the fashions of today.

People’s relationship to and perception of objects are socially and culturally dependent. Accordingly, social and cultural attitudes can be discussed through the lens of a culture’s relationship to materiality.

Material culture is also a term used by historians, sometimes termed “material history,” which refers to the study of ancient objects and artifacts in order to understand how a particular culture was organized and functioned over time.

This view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, varying from place to place, led anthropologists to view different cultures as having distinct patterns of enduring conventional sets of meaning. Anthropologists thus distinguish between material culture and symbolic culture, not only because each reflects different kinds of human activity, but also because they constitute different kinds of data and require different methodologies to study.

This view of culture, which came to dominate anthropology between World War I and World War II, implied that each culture was bounded and had to be understood as a whole, on its own terms. The result is a belief in cultural relativism, which suggests that there are no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ cultures, just different cultures.


Nonmaterial Culture

Non-material culture includes the behaviors, ideas, norms, values, and beliefs that contribute to a society’s overall culture.

Culture as a general concept consists of both material and non-material culture. Material culture is a term developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations. In contrast, non-material culture does not include physical objects or artifacts. Examples include any ideas, beliefs, values, or norms that shape a society.

When sociologists talk about norms, they are talking about what’s considered normal, appropriate, or ordinary for a particular group of people. Social norms are group-held beliefs about how members should behave in a given context. Sociologists describe norms as laws that govern society’s behaviors. Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms. Norms are rules for behavior in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as good or evil. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it exhibits patriotism, which is a value. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral. In certain cultures they reflect the values of respect and support of friends and family. Different cultures honor different values. Finally, beliefs are the way people think the universe operates. Beliefs can be religious or secular, and they can refer to any aspect of life. For instance, many people in the U.S. believe that hard work is the key to success.

 Members take part in a culture even if each member’s personal values do not entirely agree with some of the normative values sanctioned in the culture. This reflects an individual’s ability to synthesize and extract aspects valuable to them from the multiple subcultures they belong to.

Norms, values, and beliefs are all deeply interconnected. Together, they provide a way to understand culture.

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