Section 2.1: What is Culture?

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

***Section 2.1: What is Culture? is a DRAFT Version ***

As our world becomes more interconnected, it is essential to understand cultural differences. Cultures shape our values, beliefs, and behaviors. Understanding cultural differences can help us avoid misunderstandings and conflicts, as well as foster mutual respect and appreciation.

A great example of how cultural differences can impact everyday behaviors is commuting. Whether you are commuting in Cairo, Dublin, Mumbai, or San Francisco, you will encounter some similarities but also significant differences in the way people behave. For instance, while waiting for a bus or train, people in most places will stand in line or wait patiently. But in Cairo, buses often do not come to a full stop, and passengers must run and jump onto the bus. In Dublin, bus riders signal to the driver to stop by extending an arm. And in Mumbai, commuters must squeeze into overcrowded trains amid a lot of pushing and shoving on the platforms. Such behaviors might be considered rude or inappropriate in other cultures, but in these specific cultural contexts, they are the norm.

This subchapter will explore cultural differences in more depth, focusing on cultural universals, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism. Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. They are fundamental to human survival, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter, or shared human experiences, such as birth and death or illness and healing (Murdock, 1949). Examples of cultural universals include family structures, funeral rites, weddings, and celebrations of births. However, each culture may view these ceremonies quite differently. For instance, while most cultures have some form of funeral ritual, the way people mourn and honor the dead can differ dramatically.

Ethnocentrism is the belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others (Sumner, 1906). Ethnocentrism can lead to misunderstandings, disdain, or dislike for other cultures and can cause conflicts. People who travel to societies to “help” their people because they see them as uneducated or backward—essentially inferior—are guilty of cultural imperialism. Europe’s colonial expansion began in the sixteenth century, was often accompanied by severe cultural imperialism. Europeans often viewed the people in the lands they colonized as uncultured savages who were in need of European governance, dress, religion, and other cultural practices.

Cultural relativism is the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture. Practicing cultural relativism requires an open mind and a willingness to consider and even adapt to new values and norms. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies—ones in which women have political rights and control over their own bodies—would question whether the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of cultural tradition. Sociologists attempting to engage in cultural relativism may struggle to reconcile aspects of their own culture with aspects of a culture that they are studying.

In conclusion, understanding cultural differences is vital in our increasingly globalized world. Cultural universals, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism are concepts that can help us navigate different cultural contexts. It is essential to approach cultural differences with an open mind and a willingness to learn and appreciate new values and norms. By doing so, we can avoid misunderstandings and conflicts and foster mutual respect and appreciation for different cultures.

Material Culture and Nonmaterial Culture

Material culture refers to the physical objects, such as tools, technology, and artifacts, that are used by society (Kendall, 2017). These objects can vary across different cultures and can represent different meanings and values. For example, a car may be a symbol of wealth and status in one culture, while in another culture, it may be viewed as a necessary tool for survival. In addition to objects, material culture can also include the built environment, such as houses, bridges, and other infrastructure. Nonmaterial culture, on the other hand, consists of the beliefs, values, norms, and language of a society (Kendall, 2017). These aspects of culture are not physical objects but rather ideas and behaviors that are shared among people. For example, the concept of time and punctuality may be highly valued in some cultures, while in others, a more relaxed attitude towards time may be the norm.

Material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas (Kendall, 2017). For example, a wedding ring is a material object, but it represents the nonmaterial concept of love and commitment. Clothing, hairstyles, and jewelry are also part of material culture, but the appropriateness of wearing certain clothing for specific events reflects nonmaterial culture. Similarly, 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. For example, the use of chopsticks in East Asian cultures is a material aspect of culture that may be unfamiliar to people from Western cultures, where utensils such as forks and knives are more commonly used. Similarly, different cultures may have varying beliefs and values about education, family, and social relationships (Kendall, 2017). Understanding these differences can help individuals navigate new environments and avoid misunderstandings or cultural clashes.

Overall, material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are integral to understanding the complexities of different societies. Through studying these aspects of culture, individuals can gain a deeper appreciation for the diversity of human experience and develop the skills needed to navigate different cultural contexts.

Cultural Universals

Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. According to Murdock (1949), cultural universals often revolve around basic human survival needs, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter, or around shared human experiences, such as birth and death or illness and healing. One of the most prominent examples of a cultural universal is the family unit. Every human society recognizes a family structure that regulates sexual reproduction and the care of children. However, how that family unit is defined and how it functions can vary widely from culture to culture.

In many Asian cultures, for example, family members from all generations commonly live together in one household. In these cultures, young adults continue to live in the extended household family structure until they marry and join their spouse’s household, or they may remain and raise their nuclear family within the extended family’s homestead. In the United States, by contrast, individuals are expected to leave home and live independently for a period before forming a family unit that consists of parents and their offspring. Other cultural universals include customs like funeral rites, weddings, and celebrations of births. However, each culture may view the ceremonies quite differently.

In addition to the family unit, Murdock identified other cultural universals, including language, the concept of personal names, and even jokes. Humor seems to be a universal way to release tensions and create a sense of unity among people (Murdock, 1949). Sociologists consider humor necessary to human interaction because it helps individuals navigate otherwise tense situations. The use of fire, cooking, and music also emerged as cultural universals in a study by Brown (1991).

The recognition of cultural universals provides valuable insight into the ways in which human societies have developed and evolved over time. It highlights the commonalities that bind us together as human beings, as well as the differences that make each culture unique. By studying cultural universals, we gain a deeper appreciation for the richness and diversity of human culture.

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Ethnocentrism is a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than others. Ethnocentric individuals use their own cultural values, norms, and standards to judge other cultures, leading to negative views and misunderstandings of cultures that differ from their own (Sumner, 1906). Ethnocentrism can manifest in many ways, such as claiming “our way is the right way” or promoting negative stereotypes and discriminatory behavior towards other cultures. For instance, European colonizers viewed the people in the lands they colonized as uncivilized savages in need of European governance, dress, religion, and other cultural practices.

On the other hand, cultural relativism is the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture. Cultural relativists attempt to understand and appreciate different cultures, recognizing that there is no one right way of being or doing things. This perspective allows individuals to be open-minded and respectful toward cultural diversity.

While cultural relativism has its benefits, it is not without limitations and challenges. For example, it can be difficult to reconcile aspects of one’s own culture with aspects of a culture that is being studied. Additionally, cultural relativism can be taken too far, leading to the belief that all cultural practices and beliefs are equally valid, regardless of their impact on individuals or society. For instance, while cultural relativism encourages tolerance and acceptance of other cultures, it also presents a challenge when confronted with practices that are harmful or violate human rights, such as female genital mutilation in some cultures.

It is also essential to note that cultural relativism is not the same as moral relativism. Cultural relativism recognizes and respects cultural differences, but it does not mean that all cultural practices or beliefs are morally acceptable. Understanding the concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism is crucial for individuals to appreciate and respect cultural diversity. While ethnocentrism can lead to negative stereotypes and discrimination, cultural relativism can help individuals approach other cultures with an open mind and without judgment. However, it is important to note the limitations and challenges of cultural relativism, such as the difficulty of reconciling different cultural practices and beliefs and confronting practices that violate human rights (Kottak, 2017).

Culture Shock

Culture shock is a phenomenon that occurs when individuals experience feelings of disorientation, confusion, and discomfort in a new cultural environment. It can happen to anyone who travels or moves to a new place and finds themselves surrounded by unfamiliar customs, norms, and values (Oberg, 1960). Culture shock can lead to anxiety, frustration, and even depression as individuals struggle to adapt to their new surroundings.

An example of this experienced by a traveler is when a Westerner visits Japan and finds themselves overwhelmed by the complexity of the language and customs. They may experience frustration when they try to communicate with locals and misunderstand cultural norms such as bowing or removing shoes before entering a house. Similarly, an anthropologist studying a remote tribe in the Amazon rainforest may experience it when they encounter a completely different way of life that challenges their own preconceptions and assumptions about human behavior.

Cultural relativism is crucial in overcoming culture shock because it encourages individuals to approach new cultures with an open mind and without judgment. By recognizing that different cultures have their own unique customs, norms, and values, individuals can learn to appreciate and respect cultural diversity. Rather than comparing their own culture to the new one, they can try to understand it on its own terms. This perspective can help individuals overcome the feelings of disorientation and confusion that often accompany culture shock.

Xenocentrism

Xenocentrism is the opposite of ethnocentrism, where individuals view foreign cultures as superior to their own. It is a belief that foreign ideas, products, or ways of life are better than one’s own culture. Xenocentric individuals may reject their own culture in favor of another, or they may try to adopt foreign customs and practices without critically evaluating their own cultural values and beliefs (Ritzer, 2018).

An example of xenocentrism is when individuals in non-Western countries view Western goods and practices as superior and more modern than their own cultural products. For instance, in many developing countries, Western brands and products are associated with wealth and status, and individuals may be more likely to purchase them over locally-made goods. Additionally, some individuals may adopt Western practices such as dressing in Western clothing, speaking English, or consuming Western media in an attempt to appear more modern or cosmopolitan.

When studying different cultures, it is important to maintain a critical perspective and avoid both ethnocentrism and xenocentrism. While it is important to appreciate and learn from different cultures, it is also important to critically evaluate one’s own cultural values and beliefs. Researchers must be aware of their own biases and assumptions when studying other cultures, and they must be careful not to impose their own cultural values on the cultures they study (Wimmer & Dominick, 2014). Additionally, they must be aware of the potential for xenocentrism and the tendency to view foreign cultures as inherently superior.

Summary

Cultural differences are important to understand in our increasingly interconnected world. Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies, such as family structures, funeral rites, weddings, and celebrations of births. Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to others, while cultural relativism is the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture. Cultural relativism encourages individuals to be open-minded and respectful toward cultural diversity. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible, as aspects of a culture may conflict with one’s own values and beliefs.

Material culture refers to the physical objects that are used by society, while nonmaterial culture consists of the beliefs, values, norms, and language of a society. Material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas. Understanding material and nonmaterial aspects of culture is integral to understanding the complexities of different societies. Cultural shock is a phenomenon that occurs when individuals experience feelings of disorientation, confusion, and discomfort in a new cultural environment. Xenocentrism is the opposite of ethnocentrism, where individuals view foreign cultures as superior to their own. When studying different cultures, it is important to maintain a critical perspective and avoid both ethnocentrism and xenocentrism.

Word Count:  2540

Key Terms

critical perspective, cultural differences, cultural imperialism, cultural relativism, cultural universals, culture, ethnocentrism, family structure, fire, funeral rites, humor, language, material culture, music, nonmaterial culture, personal names, weddings, xenocentrism

References and Further Reading 

Eriksen, T. H. (2015). Small places, large issues: An introduction to social and cultural anthropology. Pluto Press.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Sage.

Kendall, D. (2018). Sociology in our times. Cengage Learning.

Kottak, C. P. (2017). Mirror for humanity: A concise introduction to cultural anthropology (10th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.

Macionis, J. J. (2019). Society: The basics. Pearson.

Murdock, G. P. (1945). The common denominator of cultures. In R. Linton (Ed.), The science of man in the world crisis (pp. 123-142). Columbia University Press.

Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social structure. The Free Press.

Schaefer, R. T. (2018). Sociology: A brief introduction. McGraw-Hill Education.

Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Ginn.

Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Ginn and Company.

Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism and collectivism. Westview Press.


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File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  05/12/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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