Looking at Culture: Symbolism, Adaptation, and Ideology

Creative Commons

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 02.15.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – Culture and Society

1.1 – Culture and Biology

1.1.1 – Overview

Culture relates to nature (our biology and genetics) and nurture (our environment and surroundings that also shape our identities).

Human beings are biological creatures. We are composed of blood and bones and flesh. At the most basic level, our genes express themselves in physical characteristics, affecting bodily aspects such as skin tone and eye color. Yet, human beings are much more than our biology, and this is evident particularly in the way humans generate, and live within, complex cultures.

1.1.2 – Defining Culture

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.

1.1.3 – The History of Culture as a Concept

Guildford Cathedral relief (UK): People began domesticating cattle many years before they developed the genes for lactose tolerance.

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.

1.2 – Culture and Society

1.2.1 – Overview

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.

1.2.2 – Expanding the Definition of 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.

1.2.3 – 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.

Aboriginal culture: Early colonial definitions of culture equated culture and civilization and characterized aboriginal people as uncivilized and uncultured.

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.

High culture: Ballet is traditionally considered a form of “high culture”.

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.

1.3 – Cultural Universals

A cultural universal is an element, pattern, trait, or institution that is common to all human cultures worldwide.

The sociology of culture concerns culture—usually understood as the ensemble of symbolic codes used by a society—as it is manifested in society. The elements of culture include (1) symbols (anything that carries particular meaning recognized by people who share the same culture); (2) language (system of symbols that allows people to communicate with one another); (3) values (culturally-defined standards that serve as broad guidelines for social living; (4) beliefs (specific statements that people hold to be true); and (5) norms (rules and expectations by which a society guides the behavior of its members). While these elements of culture may be seen in various contexts over time and across geography, a cultural universal is an element, pattern, trait, or institution that is common to all human cultures worldwide. Taken together, the whole body of cultural universals is known as the human condition. Among the cultural universals listed by Donald Brown (1991) are abstract speech, figurative speech and metaphors, antonyms and synonyms, and units of time.

First-Cousin Marriage Laws in the U.S.: In states marked dark blue, first-cousin marriage is legal. Light blue signifies that it is legal but has restrictions or exceptions. Pink signifies that it is banned with exceptions; red signifies that it is banned via statute, and dark red signifies that it is a criminal offense.

The concept of a cultural universal has long been discussed in the social sciences. Cultural universals are elements, patterns, traits, or institutions that are common to all human cultures worldwide. There is a tension in cultural anthropology and cultural sociology between the claim that culture is a universal (the fact that all human societies have culture), and that it is also particular (culture takes a tremendous variety of forms around the world). The idea of cultural universals—that specific aspects of culture are common to all human cultures—runs contrary to cultural relativism. Cultural relativism was, in part, a response to Western ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism may take obvious forms, in which one consciously believes that one people’s arts are the most beautiful, values the most virtuous, and beliefs the most truthful. Franz Boas argued that one’s culture may mediate and thus limit one’s perceptions in less obvious ways. He understood “culture” to include not only certain tastes in food, art, and music, or beliefs about religion but instead assumed a much broader notion of culture.

Among the cultural universals listed by Donald Brown, some of these were investigated by Franz Boas. For example, Boas called attention to the idea that language is a means of categorizing experiences, hypothesizing that the existence of different languages suggests that people categorize, and thus experience, language differently. Therefore, although people may perceive visible radiation the same way, in terms of a continuum of color, people who speak different languages slice up this continuum into discrete colors in different ways.

1.4 – 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.

Culture Shock: Enthusiastic welcome offered to the first Indian student to arrive in Dresden, East Germany (1951).

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.

1.5 – Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Ethnocentrism, in contrast to cultural relativism, is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one’s own culture.

Cultural context: Depending on your cultural background, this may or may not look delicious.

Ethnocentrism, a term coined by William Graham Sumner, is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of your own ethnic culture and the belief that that is in fact the “right” way to look at the world. This leads to making incorrect assumptions about others’ behavior based on your own norms, values, and beliefs. For instance, reluctance or aversion to trying another culture’s cuisine is ethnocentric. Social scientists strive to treat cultural differences as neither inferior nor superior. That way, they can understand their research topics within the appropriate cultural context and examine their own biases and assumptions at the same time.

This approach is known as “cultural relativism.” Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual person’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture. A key component of cultural relativism is the concept that nobody, not even researchers, comes from a neutral position. The way to deal with our own assumptions is not to pretend that they don’t exist but rather to acknowledge them, and then use the awareness that we are not neutral to inform our conclusions.

An example of cultural relativism might include slang words from specific languages (and even from particular dialects within a language). For instance, the word “tranquilo” in Spanish translates directly to “calm” in English. However, it can be used in many more ways than just as an adjective (e.g., the seas are calm). Tranquilo can be a command or suggestion encouraging another to calm down. It can also be used to ease tensions in an argument (e.g., everyone relax) or to indicate a degree of self-composure (e.g., I’m calm). There is not a clear English translation of the word, and in order to fully comprehend its many possible uses, a cultural relativist would argue that it would be necessary to fully immerse oneself in cultures where the word is used.

1.6 – 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.

Clothes as Material Culture: Fashion is part of material culture.

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.

Periodicals as Material Culture: Media, such as magazines, are part of material culture.

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.

Computers as Material Culture: Computers are an increasingly common part of everyday life for most people. They constitute an increasingly significant part of our material culture.

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.

1.7 – 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, that 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.

2 – The Symbolic Nature of Culture

2.1 – Introduction

The symbolic systems that people use to capture and communicate their experiences form the basis of shared cultures.

A symbol is any object, typically material, which is meant to represent another (usually abstract) object, even if there is no meaningful relationship. Anthropologists have argued that, through the course of their evolution, human beings evolved a universal human capacity to classify experiences, and encode and communicate them symbolically, such as with written language. Since these symbolic systems were learned and taught, they began to develop independently of biological evolution (in other words, one human being can learn a belief, value, or way of doing something from another, even if they are not biologically related). That this capacity for symbolic thinking and social learning is a product of human evolution confounds older arguments about nature versus nurture.

The Polish Alphabets: Cultures are shared systems of symbols and meanings. Alphabets are one example of a symbolic element of culture.

This view of culture argues that people living apart from one another develop unique cultures. Elements of different cultures, however, can easily spread from one group of people to another. The belief that culture is symbolically coded and can, therefore, be taught from one person to another, means that cultures, although bounded, can change. Culture is dynamic and can be taught and learned, making it a potentially rapid form of adaptation to changes in physical conditions. Anthropologists view culture as not only a product of biological evolution, but as a supplement to it; culture can be seen as the main means of human adaptation to the natural world.

This view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, which varies from place to place, led anthropologists to conceive of different cultures as defined by distinct patterns (or structures) of enduring (although arbitrary) conventional sets of meaning. These meanings took concrete form in a variety of artifacts such as myths and rituals, tools, the design of housing, and the planning of villages. Anthropologists 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 that require different methodologies to study.

The sociology of culture concerns culture as it is manifested in society: the ways of thinking, the ways of acting, and the material objects that together shape a people’s way of life. According to Max Weber, symbols are important aspects of culture: people use symbols to express their spirituality and the spiritual side of real events, and ideal interests are derived from symbols. According to sociologists, symbols make up one of the five key elements of culture, the others being language, values, beliefs, and norms.

2.2 – The Origins of Language

The origin of language is a widely discussed and controversial topic due to very limited empirical evidence.

The origin of language in the human species is a widely discussed topic. There is no consensus on ultimate origin or age. Empirical evidence is limited, and many scholars continue to regard the whole topic as unsuitable for serious study.

Language in daily life: The origin of language in the human species is a widely discussed topic.

Theories about the origin of language can be divided according to their basic assumptions. Some theories are based on the idea that language is so complex that one cannot imagine it simply appearing from nothing in its final form, but that it must have evolved from earlier pre-linguistic systems among our pre-human ancestors. These theories can be called continuity-based theories.

The opposite viewpoint is that language is such a unique human trait that it cannot be compared to anything found among non-humans and that it must therefore have appeared fairly suddenly in the transition from pre-hominids to early man. These theories can be defined as discontinuity-based.

Similarly, some theories see language mostly as an innate faculty that is largely genetically encoded, while others see it as a system that is largely cultural—that is, learned through social interaction. Currently the only prominent proponent of a discontinuity theory of human language origins is Noam Chomsky.

Continuity-based theories are currently held by a majority of scholars, but they vary in how they envision this development. Those who see language as being mostly innate, such as Steven Pinker, hold the precedents to be animal cognition, whereas those who see language as a socially learned tool of communication, such as Michael Tomasello, see it as having developed from animal communication, either primate gestural or vocal communication. Other continuity-based models see language as having developed from music.

Because the emergence of language is located in the early prehistory of man, the relevant developments have left no direct historical traces and no comparable processes can be observed today. Theories that stress continuity often look at animals to see if, for example, primates display any traits that can be seen as analogous to what pre-human language must have been like. Alternatively early human fossils can be inspected to look for traces of physical adaptation to language use or for traces of pre-linguistic forms of symbolic behaviour.

2.3 – Language

Language may refer either to the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such.

Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication. The scientific study of language in any of its senses is called linguistics.

The word language has at least two basic meanings: language as a general concept, and a specific linguistic system (e.g. French). Ferdinand de Saussure first explicitly formulated the distinction, using the French word langage for language as a concept, and langue as the specific instance of language.

One definition sees language primarily as the mental faculty that allows humans to undertake linguistic behaviour–to learn languages and produce and understand utterances. These kinds of definitions are often applied by studies of language within a cognitive science framework and in neurolinguistics.

Another definition sees language as a formal system of signs governed by grammatical rules of combination to communicate meaning. This definition stresses the fact that human languages can be described as closed structural systems consisting of rules that relate particular signs to particular meanings.

A Bilingual Sign: Members of a culture usually share a common language. Here, a bilingual sign in Wales tells both English and Welsh speakers that smoking is prohibited.

Yet another definition sees language as a system of communication that enables humans to cooperate. This definition stresses the social functions of language and the fact that humans use it to express themselves and to manipulate objects in their environment.

When described as a system of symbolic communication, language is traditionally seen as consisting of three parts: signs, meanings, and a code connecting signs with their meanings. The study of how signs and meanings are combined, used, and interpreted is called semiotics.

Languages, understood as the particular set of speech norms of a particular community, are also a part of the larger culture of the community that speaks them. Humans use language as a way of signalling identity with one cultural group and difference from others. Human languages are usually referred to as natural languages, and the science of studying them falls under the purview of linguistics. Human language is unique in comparison to other forms of communication, such as those used by animals, because it allows humans to produce an infinite set of utterances from a finite set of elements.

2.4 – Language and Perception

Various theories assume that language is not simply a representational tool; rather it fundamentally shapes our perception.

Various theories assume that language fundamentally shapes our perception. One example is the principle of linguistic relativity. This principle holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualize his or her world (worldview) or otherwise influences their cognitive processes. Popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined as having two versions:

  1. The strong version states that language determines thought and emotions/feelings, and linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories
  2. The weak version argues that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior.

On Language and Perception: Cognition and Communication Research Centre film describing recent research on the mapping between language and perception, and whether the language one speaks affects how one thinks.

The concept of linguistic relativity describes different formulations of the principle that cognitive processes, such as thought, emotion/feelings and experience, may be influenced by the categories and patterns of the language a person speaks. Empirical research into the question has been associated mainly with the names of Benjamin Lee Whorf, who wrote on the topic in the 1930s, and his mentor Edward Sapir, who did not himself write extensively on the topic.

A main point of debate in the discussion of linguistic relativity is the strength of correlation between language and thought and emotion/feelings. The strongest form of correlation is linguistic determinism, which holds that language entirely determines the range of possible cognitive processes of an individual. The hypothesis of linguistic determinism is now generally agreed to be false, though many researchers are still studying weaker forms of correlation, often producing positive empirical evidence for a correlation.

Edward Sapir: Empirical research into the question of linguistic relativity has been associated mainly with the names of Benjamin Lee Whorf, who wrote on the topic in the 1930s, and his mentor Edward Sapir, who did not himself write extensively on the topic.

The centrality of the question of the relation between thought or emotions/feelings and language has brought attention to the issue of linguistic relativity, not only from linguists and psychologists, but also from anthropologists, philosophers, literary theorists, and political scientists. For example, can people experience or feel something they have no word to explain it with?

The crucial question is whether human psychological faculties are mostly universal and innate, or whether they are mostly a result of learning, and, therefore, subject to cultural and social processes that vary between places and times. The Universalist view holds that all humans share the same set of basic faculties, and that variability due to cultural differences is negligible. This position often sees the human mind as mostly a biological construction, so that all humans sharing the same neurological configuration can be expected to have similar or identical basic cognitive patterns.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that language shapes the way we see the world.

The contrary position can be described in several ways. The constructivist view holds that human faculties and concepts are largely influenced by socially constructed and learned categories that are not subject to many biological restrictions. The idealist view holds that the human mental capacities are generally unrestricted by their biological-material basis. The essentialist view holds that there may be essential differences in the ways the different individuals or groups experience and conceptualize the world. The relativist position, which basically refers to a kind of Cultural relativism, sees different cultural groups as having different conceptual schemes that are not necessarily compatible or commensurable, nor more or less in accord with the external reality.

2.5 – Symbols and Nature

Language is a symbolic system of communication based on a complex system of rules relating spoken, signed, or written symbols.

Language is traditionally thought to consist of three parts: signs, meanings, and a code connecting signs with their meanings. Semiotics is the study of how signs and meanings are combined, used, and interpreted. Signs can consist of sounds, gestures, letters, or symbols, depending on whether the language is spoken, signed, or written.

Can Parrots Really Talk?: Parrots mimic the sounds of human language, but have they really learned the symbolic system?

Language as a whole, therefore, is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication. A single language is any specific example of such a system. Language is based on complex rules relating spoken, signed, or written symbols to their meanings. What results is an indefinite number of possible innovative utterances from a finite number of elements.

A Barking Dog: Animal sounds, like a dog’s bark, may serve basic communication functions, but they lack the symbolic elements of human language.

Human language is thought to be fundamentally different from and of much higher complexity than the communication systems of other species (). Human language differs from communication used by animals () because the symbols and grammatical rules of any particular language are largely arbitrary, meaning that the system can only be acquired through social interaction.

A Sentence Diagram: Human language’s grammatical structure makes it unique.

Written language is the representation of a language by means of a writing system. Written language exists only as a complement to a specific spoken language. Written languages use visual symbols to represent the sounds of the spoken languages, but they still require syntactic rules that govern the production of meaning from sequences of words.

A sign language is a language which, instead of acoustically conveying sound patterns, uses manual communication and body language to convey meaning. This can involve simultaneously combining hand shapes; orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body; and facial expressions to fluidly express a speaker’s thoughts. Sign languages, like spoken languages, organize elementary units into meaningful semantic units.

2.6 – Gestures

A gesture is a form of non-verbal communication in which visible bodily actions communicate particular messages.

Gestural Language: American Sign Language, or ASL, is a gestural language. This is how to sign the letters A-S-L.

A gesture is a form of non-verbal communication in which visible bodily actions communicate particular messages, either in place of speech or together and in parallel with spoken words. Gestures include movement of the hands, face, or other parts of the body. Gestures differ from physical non-verbal communication that does not communicate specific messages, such as purely expressive displays, proxemics, or displays of joint attention. Gestures allow individuals to communicate a variety of feelings and thoughts, from contempt and hostility to approval and affection, often together with body language in addition to spoken words.

The most familiar categories of gestures are the so-called emblems or quotable gestures. These are conventional, culture-specific gestures that can be used as replacement for words, such as the handwave used in the U.S. for “hello” and “goodbye. ” Another broad category of gestures comprises those gestures used spontaneously when we speak. These gestures are closely coordinated with speech. Gestural languages such as American Sign Language and its regional siblings operate as complete natural languages that are gestural.


[LEFT]: Hand Gestures: Military air marshallers use hand and body gestures to direct flight operations aboard aircraft carriers.
[RIGHT]: Pointing: Pointing at another person with an extended finger is considered rude in many cultures.

Many animals, including humans, use gestures to initiate a mating ritual. This may include elaborate dances and other movements. Gestures play a major role in many aspects of human life. Gesturing is probably universal; there have been no reports of communities that do not gesture. Gestures are a crucial part of everyday conversation such as chatting, describing a route, or negotiating prices on a market; they are ubiquitous. Gestures have been documented in the arts such as in Greek vase paintings, Indian Miniatures, and European paintings.

2.7 – Values

Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members, which identify what should be judged as good or evil.

Punk: Punk social groups are often considered marginal and are excluded from certain mainstream social spaces.

Values can be defined as broad preferences concerning appropriate courses of action or outcomes. Values reflect a person’s sense of right and wrong, or what “ought” to be. Some examples of values are the concepts of “equal rights for all,” “excellence deserves admiration,” and “people should be treated with respect and dignity. ” Values tend to influence attitudes and behavior.

Declaration of Independence: Independence and freedom are fundamental values in the U.S.

Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members. Different cultures reflect different values. Noting which people receive honor or respect can provide clues to the values of a society. In the US, for example, some professional athletes are honored (in the form of monetary payment) more than college professors.

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 reflects the value of patriotism. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral; in certain cultures, this reflects the values of respect for and support of friends and family. Different cultures reflect different values.

The Liberty Bell: Many consider liberty to be a fundamental American value.

2.8 – Norms

Social norms are the explicit or implicit rules specifying what behaviors are acceptable within a society or group.

Formal Sanctions: Norms may be enforced through informal sanctions, such as derision, or formal sanctions, such as arrest.

Social norms are the explicit or implicit rules specifying acceptable behaviors within a society or group. They define the expected or acceptable behavior in particular circumstances. Social norms can also be defined as the shared ways of thinking, feeling, desiring, deciding, and acting which are observable in regularly repeated behaviors and are adopted because they are assumed to solve problems.

Social norms are neither static nor universal; they change with respect to time and vary with respect to culture, social classes, and social groups. What is deemed acceptable dress, speech, or behavior in one social group may not be acceptable in another.

Social Norms of Personal Space: Students demonstrate social norms of personal space by violating the norms. This type of experiment is called a breaching experiment.

Deference to social norms maintains one’s acceptance and popularity within a particular group. Social norms can be enforced formally (e.g., through sanctions) or informally (e.g., through body language and non-verbal communication cues). By ignoring or breaking social norms, one risks facing formal sanctions or quiet disapproval, finding oneself unpopular with or ostracized from a group.

As social beings, individuals learn when and where it is appropriate to say certain things, use certain words, discuss certain topics, or wear certain clothes, and when it is not. Groups may adopt norms in two different ways. One form of norm adoption is the formal method, where norms are written down and formally adopted (e.g., laws, legislation, club rules). Social norms are much more likely to be informal and to emerge gradually (e.g., not wearing socks with sandals).

Same-Sex Marriage and Social Norms: In most Western countries, norms have prohibited same-sex marriage, but those norms are now changing.

Groups internalize norms by accepting them as reasonable and proper standards for behavior within the group. That said, while it is more likely that a new individual entering a group will adopt the group’s norms, values, and perspectives, newcomers to a group can also change a group’s norms.

2.9 – Sanctions

2.9.1 – Overview

As opposed to forms of internal control, like norms and values, sociologists consider sanctions a form of external control.

Formal and Informal Sanctions: Societies use formal and informal sanctions to enforce norms.

Sanctions are mechanisms of social control. As opposed to forms of internal control, like cultural norms and values, sociologists consider sanctions a form of external control. Sanctions can either be positive (rewards) or negative (punishment), and can arise from either formal or informal control.

2.9.2 – Informal Social Control and Deviance

A Prison Cell Block: Incarceration is a type of formal sanction.

The social values present in individuals are products of informal social control. This type of control emerges from society, but is rarely stated explicitly to individuals. Instead, it is expressed and transmitted indirectly, through customs, norms and mores. Whether consciously or not, individuals are socialized. With informal sanctions, ridicule or ostracism can cause a straying individual to realign behavior toward group norms. Informal sanctions may include shame, ridicule, sarcasm, criticism, and disapproval. In extreme cases, sanctions may include social discrimination and exclusion. If a young boy is caught skipping school, and his peers ostracize him for his deviant behavior, they are exercising an informal sanction on him. Informal sanctions can check deviant behavior of individuals or groups, either through internalization, or through disincentivizing the deviant behavior.

Shame: Shame can be used as a type of informal sanction.

As with formal controls, informal controls reward or punish acceptable or unacceptable behavior, otherwise known as deviance. Informal controls are varied and differ from individual to individual, group to group, and society to society. To maintain control and regulate their subjects, groups, organizations, and societies of various kinds can promulgate rules that act as formal sanctions to reward or punish behavior. For example, in order to regulate behavior, government and organizations use law enforcement mechanisms and other formal sanctions such as fines and imprisonment. Authoritarian organizations and governments may rely on more directly aggressive sanctions. These actions might include censorship, expulsion, restrictions on political freedom, or violence. Typically, these more extreme sanctions emerge in situations where the public disapproves of either the government or organization in question.

2.10 – Folkways and Mores

Folkways and mores are informal norms that dictate behavior; however, the violation of mores carries heavier consequences.

Societal norms, or rules that are enforced by members of a community, can exist as both formal and informal rules of behavior. Informal norms can be divided into two distinct groups: folkways and mores. Folkways are informal rules and norms that, while not offensive to violate, are expected to be followed. Mores (pronounced more-rays) are also informal rules that are not written, but, when violated, result in severe punishments and social sanction upon the individuals, such as social and religious exclusions,.

William Graham Sumner, an early U.S. sociologist, recognized that some norms are more important to our lives than others. Sumner coined the term mores to refer to norms that are widely observed and have great moral significance. Mores are often seen as taboos; for example, most societies hold the more that adults not engage in sexual relations with children. Mores emphasize morality through right and wrong, and come with heavy consequences if violated.

William Graham Sumner, 1840-1910: William Graham Sumner coined the terms “folkways” and “mores. “

Sumner also coined the term folkway to refer to norms for more routine or casual interaction. This includes ideas about appropriate greetings and proper dress in different situations. In comparison to the morality of mores, folkways dictate what could be considered either polite or rude behavior. Their violation does not invite any punishment or sanctions, but may come with reprimands or warnings.

An example to distinguish the two: a man who does not wear a tie to a formal dinner party may raise eyebrows for violating folkways; were he to arrive wearing only a tie, he would violate cultural mores and invite a more serious response.

3 – Culture and Adaptation

3.1 – The Origins of Culture

Culture is a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of human phenomena that cannot be attributed to genetic inheritance.

Nomads: Anthropologists rejected the idea that culture was unique to Western society and adopted a new definition of culture that applied to all societies, literate and non-literate, settled and nomadic.

Culture (Latin: cultura, lit. “cultivation”) is a modern concept based on a term first used in classical antiquity by the Roman orator, Cicero: “cultura animi. ” The term “culture” appeared first in its current sense in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, to connote a process of cultivation or improvement, as in agriculture or horticulture. In the 19th century, the term developed to refer first to the betterment or refinement of the individual, especially through education, and then to the fulfillment of national aspirations or ideals. In the mid-19thcentury, some scientists used the term “culture” to refer to a universal human capacity.

In the 20th century, “culture” emerged as a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of human phenomena that cannot be attributed to genetic inheritance. Specifically, the term “culture” in American anthropology had two meanings: (1) the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and (2) the distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world acted creatively and classified or represented their experiences. Distinctions are currently made between the physical artifacts created by a society, its so-called material culture and everything else, including the intangibles such as language, customs, etc. that are the main referent of the term “culture.”

The origin of language, understood as the human capacity of complex symbolic communication, and the origin of complex culture are often thought to stem from the same evolutionary process in early man. Evolutionary anthropologist Robin I. Dunbar has proposed that language evolved as early humans began to live in large communities that required the use of complex communication to maintain social coherence. Language and culture then both emerged as a means of using symbols to construct social identity and maintain coherence within a social group too large to rely exclusively on pre-human ways of building community (for example, grooming).

However, languages, now understood as the particular set of speech norms of a particular community, are also a part of the larger culture of the community that speak them. Humans use language as a way of signalling identity with one cultural group and difference from others. Even among speakers of one language, several different ways of using the language exist, and each is used to signal affiliation with particular subgroups within a larger culture.

3.2 – Mechanisms of Cultural Change

The belief that culture can be passed from one person to another means that cultures, although bounded, can change.

Fundamentally, although bounded, cultures can change. Cultures are internally affected by both forces encouraging change and forces resisting change. These forces are related to social structures and natural events, and are involved in the perpetuation of cultural ideas and practices within current structures, which are themselves subject to change. Resistance can come from habit, religion, and the integration and interdependence of cultural traits. For example, men and women have complementary roles in many cultures. One sex might desire changes that affect the other, as happened in the second half of the 20th century in western cultures (see, for example, the women’s movement), while the other sex may be resistant to that change (possibly in order to maintain a power imbalance in their favor).

Biology versus Culture: These two avatars illustrate the basic concept of culture. One is simply a reflection of his biology; he is human. The other is a reflection of his biology and his culture: he is human and belongs to a cultural group or sub-culture.

Cultural change can have many causes, including the environment, technological inventions, and contact with other cultures. Cultures are externally affected via contact between societies, which may also produce—or inhibit—social shifts and changes in cultural practices. War or competition over resources may impact technological development or social dynamics. Additionally, cultural ideas may transfer from one society to another, through diffusion or acculturation.

Discovery and invention are mechanisms of social and cultural change. Discovery refers to the finding of new knowledge within an existing realm. Generally, it relates to discovering new understanding of a particular behavior or ritual. Invention is the creation of a new device or process. New discoveries often lead to new inventions by people.

The Change of Symbolic Meaning Over Time: The symbol of the ankh has its roots in Egyptian religious practice, but the symbol diffused over time and was adopted by other groups, including pagans, as a religious symbol.

In diffusion, the form of something (though not necessarily its meaning) moves from one culture to another. For example, hamburgers, mundane in the United States, seemed exotic when introduced into China. “Stimulus diffusion” (the sharing of ideas) refers to an element of one culture leading to an invention or propagation in another.

Acculturation has different meanings, but in this context it refers to replacement of the traits of one culture with those of another, such has happened to certain Native American tribes and to many indigenous peoples across the globe during the process of colonization. Related processes on an individual level include assimilation (adoption of a different culture by an individual) and transculturation.

3.3 – Cultural Lag

The term “cultural lag” refers to the fact that culture takes time to catch up with technological innovations, resulting in social problems.

Human Embryonic Stem Cells: As example of cultural lag is human embryonic stem cells. We have the necessary technology to turn stem cells into neurons but have not yet developed ethical guidelines and cultural consensus on this practice.

The term cultural lag refers to the notion that culture takes time to catch up with technological innovations, and that social problems and conflicts are caused by this lag. Cultural lag is not only a concept, as it also relates to a theory and explanation in sociology. Cultural lag helps to identify and explain social problems and to predict future problems.

The term was coined by the sociologist William F. Ogburn in his 1922 work “Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature. ” According to Ogburn, cultural lag is a common societal phenomenon due to the tendency of material culture to evolve and change rapidly while non-material culture tends to resist change and remain fixed for a far longer period of time. His theory of cultural lag suggests that a period of maladjustment occurs when the non-material culture is struggling to adapt to new material conditions.

Due to the opposing nature of these two aspects of culture, adaptation of new technology becomes rather difficult. As explained by James W. Woodward, when material conditions change, changes are felt in the non-material culture as well. But these changes in the non-material culture do not match exactly with the change in the material culture. This delay is the cultural lag.

Cultural lag creates problems for a society in different ways. Cultural lag is seen as a critical ethical issue because failure to develop broad social consensus on appropriate uses of modern technology may lead to breakdowns in social solidarity and the rise of social conflict. The issue of cultural lag tends to permeate any discussion in which the implementation of some new technology can become controversial for society at large.

3.4 – Animals and Culture

3.4.1 – Overview

Animal culture refers to cultural learning in non-human animals through socially transmitted behaviors.

Animal culture refers to cultural learning in non-human animals through socially transmitted behaviors. The question of the existence of culture in non-human societies has been a contentious subject for decades due to the inexistence of a concise definition for culture. However, many scientists agree on culture being defined as a process, rather than an end product. This process, most agree, involves the social transmission of a novel behavior, both among peers and between generations. This behavior is shared by a group of animals, but not necessarily between separate groups of the same species.

3.4.2 – Tools and Learned Activities

Animal Culture: A chimpanzee mother and baby.

One of the first signs of culture in early humans was the use of tools. Chimpanzees have been observed using tools such as rocks and sticks to obtain better access to food. There are other learned activities that have been exhibited by animals as well. Some examples of these activities that have been shown by varied animals are opening oysters, swimming, washing food, and unsealing tin lids. The acquisition and sharing of behaviors correlates directly to the existence of memes, which are defined as “units of cultural transmission” by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. It especially reinforces the natural selection component. These learned actions are mechanisms for making life easier, and therefore longer.

3.4.3 – History of Animal Culture

Though the idea of culture in animals has only been around for just over half of a century, scientists have been noting social behaviors of animals for centuries. Aristotle was the first to provide evidence of social learning in the bird songs. Charles Darwin first attempted to find the existence of imitation in animals when trying to prove his theory that the human mind had evolved from that of lower beings. Darwin was also the first to suggest what became known as ‘social learning’ in explaining the transmission of an adaptive behavior pattern throughout a population of honey bees.

Much cultural anthropological research has been done on non-human primates, due to their close evolutionary proximity to humans. In non-primate animals, research tends to be limited, so the evidence for culture is lacking. The subject has become more popular recently, prompting more research in the field.

4 – Culture Worlds

4.1 – Subcultures

4.1.2 – Overview

A subculture is a culture shared and actively participated in by a minority of people within a broader culture.

In sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies, a subculture is a group of people with a culture that differentiates themselves from the larger culture to which they belong. A culture often contains numerous subcultures, which incorporate large parts of the broader cultures of which they are part; in specifics they may differ radically. Subcultures bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by societal standards and allow them to develop a sense of identity.

4.1.3 – Subcultures and Symbolism

Trekkies: The hand gesture meaning ‘live long and prosper’ has spread beyond the subculture of Star Trek fans and is often recognized in mainstream culture.

The study of subcultures often consists of the study of symbolism attached to clothing, music, and other visible affectations by members of subcultures. Additionally, sociologists study the ways in which these symbols are interpreted by members of the dominant culture. Some subcultures achieve such a status that they acquire a name. Members of a subculture often signal their membership through a distinctive and symbolic use of style, which includes fashions, mannerisms, and argot. Examples of subcultures could include bikers, military personnel, and Star Trek fans.

4.1.4 – Identifying Subcultures

It may be difficult to identify certain subcultures because their style—particularly clothing and music—may be adopted by mass culture for commercial purposes. Businesses often seek to capitalize on the subversive allure of subcultures in search of “cool,” which remains valuable in selling of any product. This process of cultural appropriation may often result in the death or evolution of the subculture, as its members adopt new styles that appear alien to mainstream society.

In 2007, Ken Gelder proposed six key ways in which subcultures can be identified:

  1. Through their often negative relations to work (as ‘idle’, ‘parasitic’, at play or at leisure, etc.)
  2. Through their negative or ambivalent relation to class (since subcultures are not ‘class-conscious’ and don’t conform to traditional class definitions)
  3. Through their association with territory (the ‘street’, the ‘hood’, the club, etc.), rather than property
  4. Through their movement out of the home and into non-domestic forms of belonging (i.e. social groups other than the family)
  5. Through their stylistic ties to excess and exaggeration (with some exceptions)
  6. Through their refusal of the banalities of ordinary life

4.2 – Countercultures

Counterculture is a term describing the values and norms of a cultural group that run counter to those of the social mainstream of the day.

“Counterculture” is a sociological term that refers to a cultural group or subculture whose values and norms of behavior run counter to those of the region’s social mainstream; it can be considered the cultural equivalent of political opposition.

In the United States, the counterculture of the 1960s became identified with the rejection of conventional social norms of the 1950s. Counterculture youth rejected the cultural standards of their parents, especially with respect to racial segregation and initial widespread support for the Vietnam War.

As the 1960s progressed, widespread tensions developed in American society that tended to flow along generational lines regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, sexual mores, women’s rights, traditional modes of authority, and a materialistic interpretation of the American Dream. Hippies became the largest countercultural group in the United States. The counterculture also had access to a media eager to present their concerns to a wider public. Demonstrations for social justice created far-reaching changes affecting many aspects of society.

Hippies at an Anti-Vietnam Demonstration, 1967: A female demonstrator offers a flower to military police on guard at the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam demonstration.

The counterculture in the United States lasted from roughly 1964 to 1973 — coinciding with America’s involvement in Vietnam — and reached its peak in 1967, the “Summer of Love. ” The movement divided the country: to some Americans, these attributes reflected American ideals of free speech, equality, world peace, and the pursuit of happiness; to others, the same attributes reflected a self-indulgent, pointlessly rebellious, unpatriotic, and destructive assault on America’s traditional moral order.

The counterculture collapsed circa 1973, and many have attributed its collapse to two major reasons: First, the most popular of its political goals — civil rights, civil liberties, gender equality, environmentalism, and the end of the Vietnam War — were accomplished. Second, a decline of idealism and hedonism occurred as many notable counterculture figures died, the rest settled into mainstream society and started their own families, and the “magic economy” of the 1960s gave way to the stagflation of the 1970s.

5 – Culture and the Dominant Ideology in the U.S.

5.1 – An Overview of U.S. Values

Despite certain consistent values (e.g. individualism, egalitarianism, freedom, democracy), American culture has a variety of expressions.’

The Statue of Liberty: The Statue of Liberty symbolizes freedom, a fundamental American value.

Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members. The values of a society can often be identified by noting that which people receive, honor or respect.

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 either good or evil. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it reflects the value of patriotism. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral; in certain cultures, they reflect the values of respect and support for friends and family.

Declaration of Independence: Many fundamental American values are derived from the Declaration of Independence.

Different cultures reflect different values. American culture includes both conservative and liberal elements, such as scientific and religious competitiveness, political structures, risk taking and free expression, materialist and moral elements. Aside from certain consistent ideological principles (e.g. individualism, egalitarianism and faith in freedom and democracy ), American culture’s geographical scale and demographic diversity has spawned a variety of expressions. The flexibility of U.S. culture and its highly symbolic nature lead some researchers to categorize American culture as a mythic identity, while others recognize it as American exceptionalism.

Traditional values as “family values”?: “Family values” is arguably a modern politicized subset of traditional values.

Since the late 1970’s, the terms “traditional values” and”family values” have become synonymous in the U.S., and imply a congruence with mainstream Christianity. However, the term “family values” is arguably a modern politicized subset of traditional values, which is a larger concept, anthropologically speaking. Although It is also not necessarily a political idea, it has become associated with both the particular correlation between Evangelicalism and politics (as embodied by American politicians such as Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle and George W. Bush), as well as the broader Christianity movement (as exemplified by Pat Robertson).

5.2 – Value Clusters

5.2.1 – Overview

People from different backgrounds tend to have different value systems, which cluster together into a more or less consistent system.

People from different backgrounds tend to have different sets of values, or value systems. Certain values may cluster together into a more or less consistent system. A communal or cultural value system is held by and applied to a community, group, or society. Some communal value systems are reflected in legal codes and laws.

5.2.2 – World Values Survey

World Values Survey: The World Values Survey is administered to people around the world. Their responses are aggregated and can be used to reveal regional value clusters, like those displayed in this map.

Some sociologists are interested in better defining and measuring value clusters in different countries. To do so, they have developed what is called the World Values Survey, a survey of questions given to people around the world and used to identify different clusters of values in different regions. Over the years, the World Values Survey has demonstrated that people’s beliefs play a key role in defining life in different countries—defining anything from a nation’s economic development to the emergence of democratic institutions to the rise of gender equality.

5.2.3 – Trends

In general, the World Values Survey has revealed two major axes along which values cluster: (1) a continuum from traditional to secular values and (2) a continuum from survival to self-expression. Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority, and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook. Secular values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values, and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable. Industrialization tends to bring a shift from traditional values to secular ones.

With the rise of the knowledge society, cultural change moves in a new direction. The transition from industrial society to knowledge society is linked to a shift from survival values to self-expression values. In knowledge societies, such as the United States, an increasing share of the population has grown up taking survival for granted. Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance. Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection; tolerance of foreigners, gays, and lesbians; gender equality; and participation in decision-making as it relates to economic and political life.

5.3 – Value Contradictions

Although various values often reinforce one another, these clusters of values may also include values that contradict one another.

Personal value contradictions: Individuals may have inconsistent personal values. For example, Donald Trump claims to be pro-life and also an avid supporter of the death penalty.

Although value clusters generally work together so that various values reinforce one another, at times, these clusters of values may also include values that contradict one another. Value contradictions can arise between individual and communal value systems. That is, as a member of a society, group, or community, an individual can hold both a personal value system and a communal value system at the same time. In this case, the two value systems (one personal and one communal) are externally consistent provided they bear no contradictions or situational exceptions between them.

Protestors clash with police at the 1999 WTO summit in Seattle: People whose personal values conflict with communal values may try to change communal values through protest.

Value contradictions can also arise within individual or communal value systems. A value system is internally consistent (value consistency) when its values do not contradict each other and its exceptions are abstract enough to be used in all situations and consistently applied. Conversely, a value system by itself is internally inconsistent if its values contradict each other and its exceptions are highly situational and inconsistently applied. A value contradiction could be based on a difference in how people rank the value of things, or on fundamental value conflict. For example, although sharing a set of common values, such as hockey is better than baseball or ice cream is better than fruit, two different parties might not rank those values equally. Also, two parties might disagree as to whether certain actions are right or wrong, both in theory and in practice, and find themselves in an ideological or physical conflict.

Life of George Washington–The farmer: This picture, by French artist Régnier, shows George Washington standing among African American field workers. The practice of slavery represents a value contradiction between wealth and liberty.

Conflicts are often a result of differing value systems. An example conflict would be a value system based on individualism pitted against a value system based on collectivism. A rational value system organized to resolve the conflict between two such value systems might take this form: Individuals may act freely unless their actions harm others or interfere with others’ freedom or with functions of society that individuals need, provided those functions do not themselves interfere with these proscribed individual rights and were agreed to by a majority of the individuals.

5.4 – Emerging Values

Values tend to change over time, and the dominant values in a country might shift as that country undergoes economic and social change.

Values tend to change over time. The dominant values in a country may shift as that country undergoes economic and social change. Often, such value change can be observed in generational differences. For example, most young adults today share similar values. They are sometimes referred to as Generation Y or Milliennials. This generation was born in the 1980s and 1990s, and raised in a much more technologically advanced environment.

Millennials (Generation Y): This generation was born in the 1980s and 1990s, a time of major technological advancement.

Milliennials tend to have different values than the previous generation. Some common, notable tendencies are:

  • wanting to “make a difference” or have purpose
  • wanting to balance work with the rest of life
  • excessive seeking of fun and variety
  • questioning authority or refusal to respond to authority without “good reason”
  • unlimited ambition coupled with overly demanding, confrontational personality
  • lack of commitment in the face of unmet expectations
  • extreme sense of loyalty to family, friends, and self

By contrast, their parents or grandparents tend to belong to the Baby Boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964. Baby Boomers did not grow up with the same technologies as today’s youth. Instead, they came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, and their values were often formed in support of or reaction to the political and social issues of the time. Whereas the generation before the Baby Boom was concerned with economic and physical security, Boomers tend to have what are referred to as post-materialist values.

Civil Rights Movement: The right to assembly protects citizens’ rights to gather together to peacefully protest. This right was frequently exercised during the Civil Rights Movement (depicted here).

Post-materialist values emphasize non-material values like freedom and the ability to express oneself. The rising prosperity of the post-WWII years fostered these values by liberating people from the overriding concern for material security. Sociologists explain the rise of post-materialist values in two ways. First, they argue that individuals pursue various goals in order of basic necessity. While people may universally aspire to freedom and autonomy, the most pressing material needs like hunger, thirst, and physical security have to be satisfied first, since they are immediately linked with survival. These materialistic goals will have priority over post-materialist goals like belonging, esteem, and aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction. Once satisfaction has been achieved from these material survival needs, focus will gradually shift to the nonmaterial.

Second, sociologists suggest that people’s basic values are largely fixed when they reach adulthood, and change relatively little thereafter. For example, those who experience economic scarcity in childhood may as adults place a high value on meeting economic needs (such as valuing economic growth above protecting the environment) and on safety needs (such as supporting more authoritarian styles of leadership or exhibiting strong feelings of national pride—e.g., maintaining a strong army or willingness to sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of law and order). On the other hand, those who mainly experienced sustained material affluence during youth might give high priority to values such as individual improvement, personal freedom, citizen input in government decisions, the ideal of a society based on humanism, and maintaining a clean and healthy environment. Because values are set when people are young, value change can be slow. The values we see emerging today may depend on material conditions nearly a generation ago.

5.5 – Culture Wars

In American usage, “culture war” refers to the claim that there is a conflict between those conservative and liberal values.

A culture war is a struggle between two sets of conflicting cultural values. This can be framed to describe west versus east, rural versus urban, or traditional values versus progressive secularism. The concept of a culture war has been in use in English since at least its adoption as a calque (loan translation) to refer to the German “Kulturkampf.”

Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci presented in the 1920s a theory of cultural hegemony. He stated that a culturally diverse society can be dominated by one class who has a monopoly over the mass media and popular culture, and Gramsci argued for a culture war in which anti-capitalist elements seek to gain a dominant voice in the mass media, education, and other mass institutions.

As an American phenomenon, it originated in the 1920s when urban and rural American values came into clear conflict. In American usage, the term culture war is used to claim that there is a conflict between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal. In the 1980s, the culture war in America was characterized by the conservative climate during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Members of the religious right often criticized academics and artists, and their works, in a struggle against what they considered indecent, subversive, and blasphemous. They often accused their political opponents of undermining tradition, Western civilization and family values.

Culture Wars: So-called red state/blue state maps have become popular for showing election results. Some suggest that the red state/blue state divide maps the battle lines in the culture wars.

The expression was introduced again by the 1991 publication of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America by James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. Hunter described what he saw as a dramatic realignment and polarization that had transformed American politics and culture. He argued that on an increasing number of “hot-button” defining issues, such as abortion, gun politics, separation of church and state, privacy, recreational drug use, homosexuality, and censorship issues, there existed two definable polarities. Furthermore, not only were there a number of divisive issues, but society had divided along essentially the same lines on these issues, so as to constitute two warring groups, defined primarily not by religion, ethnicity, social class, or even political affiliation, but rather by ideological world views.

5.6 – Values of Binders

Cultures hold values that are largely shared by their members, thereby binding members together.

Values and value systems are guidelines that determine what is important in a society. They can be defined as broad preferences concerning appropriate courses of action or outcomes. Values reflect a person’s sense of right and wrong, or what “ought” to be. “Equal rights for all,” “Excellence deserves admiration,” and “People should be treated with respect and dignity” are representative of values. Types of values include ethical/moral value, doctrinal/ideological (religious, political, etc.) values, social values, and aesthetic values.

Values tend to influence attitudes and behavior. For example, if you value equal rights for all and you work for an organization that treats some employees markedly better than others, this may cause internal conflict. A value system is a set of consistent personal and cultural values used for the purpose of ethical or ideological integrity. While a personal value system is held by and applied to one individual only, a communal or cultural value system is held by and applied to a community/group/society. Some communal value systems are reflected in the form of legal codes or law. As a member of a society, group, or community, an individual can hold both a personal value system and a communal value system at the same time. In this case, the two value systems (one personal and one communal) are externally consistent provided they bear no contradictions or situational exceptions between them.

Blinders: Values can act as blinders if people fail to recognize the diversity of values held across people and cultures, and assume their own society’s values are universal truths.

Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members, thereby binding members together. 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 to which they belong. Values vary across individuals and cultures, and change over time; in many ways, they are aligned with belief and belief systems. Noting which people receive honor or respect can often identify the values of a society. In the US, for example, professional athletes at the top levels in some sports are honored (in the form of monetary payment) more than college professors. Surveys show that voters in the United States would be reluctant to elect an atheist as a president, suggesting that belief in God is a value.

Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms. Normsare rules for behavior in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as right or wrong. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it reflects the value of patriotism. 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. If a group member expresses a value that is in serious conflict with the group’s norms, the group’s authority may carry out various ways of encouraging conformity or stigmatizing the non-conforming behavior of its members. For example, transgender individuals hold the value of freedom to identify and express their gender as they choose; however this value is not shared by much of society, and discriminatory laws and practices prevent this freedom.

Values can act as blinders if people take their own personal values (or their society’s values) as universal truths and fail to recognize the diversity of values held across people and societies. They may believe their values determine the only way to understand and act in the world, when, in fact, different people and different societies may have widely divergent values.

5.7 – Ideal vs. Real Culture

Any given culture contains a set of values that determine what is important to the society; these values can be idealized or realized.

Any given culture contains a set of values and value systems that determine what is important to the society as a whole. When we talk about American values, we often have in mind a set of ideal values. Ideal values are absolute; they bear no exceptions. These values can be codified as a strict set of proscriptions on behavior, and those who hold to their idealized value system and claim no exceptions are often referred to as absolutists.

An example of an ideal value is the idea of marriage and monogamy based on romantic love. In reality, many marriages are based on things other than romantic love (such as money, convenience, or social expectation), and many end in divorce. While monogamous marriages based on romantic love certainly do exist, such marriages are not universal, despite our value ideals.

The Ideal Marriage?: In ideal culture, marriage is forever, but in real culture, many marriages end in divorce.

Few things in life exist without exception. Along with every value system comes exceptions to those values. Abstract exceptions serve to reinforce the ranking of values; their definitions are generalized enough to be relevant to any and all situations. Situational exceptions, on the other hand, are ad hoc and pertain only to specific situations. With these exceptions, real values emerge. A realized value system, as opposed to an ideal value system, contains exceptions to resolve the contradictions between ideal values and practical realities in everyday circumstances.

Whereas we might refer to ideal values when listing American values (or even our own values), the values that we uphold in daily life tend to be real values. The difference between these two types of systems can be seen when people state that they hold one value system, yet in practice deviate from it, thus holding a different value system. For example, a religion lists an absolute set of values, while the practice of that religion may include exceptions.

Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless Sociology under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.