***Section 2.2: Elements of Culture is a DRAFT Version ***
Culture is a complex social construct that is shaped by a variety of elements, including values and beliefs. According to Andersen and Taylor (2019), values are standards that societies use to distinguish between what is good and just. Values are deeply ingrained in cultures and are critical for transmitting beliefs from one generation to the next. Beliefs, on the other hand, are tenets or convictions that people hold to be true (Andersen & Taylor, 2019). While individuals in a society have specific beliefs, they also share collective values. For example, Americans commonly believe in the American Dream, which is the idea that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. This belief is rooted in the American value that wealth is good and important.
Values are an important element of culture that help shape a society by influencing what is considered good or bad, beautiful or ugly, and desirable or undesirable. For instance, the United States places a high value on youth, where children represent innocence and purity, and a youthful appearance signifies sexuality. Consequently, individuals spend millions of dollars each year on cosmetic products and surgeries to maintain a youthful and beautiful appearance (Andersen & Taylor, 2019). Additionally, the United States has an individualistic culture, meaning that people place a high value on individuality and independence. In contrast, many other cultures are collectivist, meaning that the welfare of the group and group relationships are primary values (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010).
Living up to a culture’s values can be difficult. While it is easy to value good health, it is hard to quit smoking. Similarly, marital monogamy is valued, but many spouses engage in infidelity. Furthermore, cultural diversity and equal opportunities for all people are valued in the United States, yet the country’s highest political offices have been dominated by white men (Andersen & Taylor, 2019).
Values often suggest how people should behave, but they do not always reflect how people actually behave. Ideal culture refers to the standards that society would like to embrace and live up to, whereas real culture describes the way society actually is based on what occurs and exists (Andersen & Taylor, 2019). For instance, in an ideal culture, there would be no traffic accidents, murders, poverty, or racial tension. However, in real culture, police officers, lawmakers, educators, and social workers constantly strive to prevent or repair those accidents, crimes, and injustices. American teenagers are encouraged to value celibacy, but the number of unplanned pregnancies among teens reveals that not only is the ideal hard to live up to, but the value alone is not enough to spare teenagers the potential consequences of having sex (Andersen & Taylor, 2019).
One way societies attempt to put values into action is through rewards, sanctions, and punishments. When people observe the norms of society and uphold its values, they are often rewarded. For example, a boy who helps an elderly woman board a bus may receive a smile and a “thank you.” Similarly, a business manager who raises profit margins may receive a quarterly bonus. People sanction certain behaviors by giving their support, approval, or permission or by instilling formal actions of disapproval and nonsupport. Sanctions are a form of social control, a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms. Sometimes people conform to norms in anticipation or expectation of positive sanctions, such as receiving good grades and praise from parents and teachers. Utilizing social control approaches is a cost-effective way to push most people to conform to societal rules, regardless of whether authority figures (such as law enforcement) are present (Andersen & Taylor, 2019).
When people go against society’s values, they are punished. For instance, in the United States, there is a strong emphasis on individualism and independence as cultural values, while in many other cultures, collectivism, and group welfare are prioritized (Hofstede, 1980). These cultural values have significant implications for the behaviors and attitudes of individuals in different societies.
Living up to cultural values can be challenging as it often requires individuals to navigate between their personal desires and the societal norms that are expected of them. While society may place a high value on certain ideals, the reality is that individuals often struggle to fully adhere to these values. For example, while the ideal of monogamous marriage is widely valued, infidelity remains a common occurrence in many societies (Mark, Janssen, & Milhausen, 2011). Similarly, while the value of equal opportunities for all is a central tenet of American culture, the country has seen a long history of inequality and political leadership dominated by white men (Bobo & Fox, 2003).
Moreover, cultural values often represent an ideal culture that people aspire to live up to, but they do not always reflect the reality of how people behave. Ideal culture is the set of values, beliefs, and norms that society would like to uphold, while real culture is the way that society actually functions (Williams & Eberhardt, 2008). For example, in an ideal culture, there would be no traffic accidents, poverty, murders, or racial tension. However, in the real culture, society must work constantly to prevent or address these problems through the actions of police officers, lawmakers, educators, and social workers.
One way that societies attempt to promote adherence to cultural values is through rewards and sanctions. Individuals who uphold the norms and values of society may receive rewards such as praise, bonuses, or other forms of recognition (Kohn, 1993). Conversely, individuals who go against these norms may receive sanctions, including disapproval, negative labels, or legal punishments such as fines or imprisonment (Chambliss, 2011). These social control mechanisms help to encourage conformity to cultural norms, even in the absence of authority figures such as law enforcement.
In conclusion, cultural values are deeply ingrained standards that dictate what is considered good and just in a given society. They help to shape individuals’ attitudes and behaviors and are transmitted through socialization and cultural institutions. Although cultural values are often aspirational ideals, they have real-world implications for the actions and attitudes of individuals within a society. Understanding cultural values is essential for achieving intercultural competence and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of life.
A critical element of culture, the informal norms that govern everyday behavior in different cultures are often learned through observation and socialization. Some informal norms are taught directly, while others are learned by observing the consequences when someone else violates a norm. These informal norms are referred to as folkways and mores. Mores are norms that embody the moral views and principles of a group. Violating mores can have serious consequences, and the strongest mores are legally protected by laws or other formal norms. In contrast, folkways direct appropriate behavior in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture without any moral underpinnings.
For example, in the United States, informal norms govern behavior at fast-food restaurants. Customers line up to order their food and leave when they are done. They don’t sit down at a table with strangers, sing loudly as they prepare their condiments, or nap in a booth. Most people don’t commit even benign breaches of informal norms, which dictate appropriate behaviors without the need for written rules.
Folkways are norms that govern people’s everyday behavior and routines. They are the small manners learned by observation and imitation, but they are by no means trivial. For instance, folkways govern how we greet one another, how we dress for different events, and how we interact with strangers. These norms help people negotiate their daily lives within a given culture. Folkways might be small, but they are powerful. They are the unwritten rules that define what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in a given society.
In conclusion, norms are the rules of conduct through which societies are structured. They define how to behave in accordance with what society has defined as good, right, and important. Norms can be formal or informal, and they may be further classified as either mores or folkways. Mores embody the moral views and principles of a group, and violating them can have serious consequences. Folkways direct appropriate behavior in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture without any moral underpinnings. Understanding and conforming to these norms is essential for successfully navigating the social world.
Symbols and Language
Humans always seek to understand the world around them, consciously and subconsciously. An important element of culture, symbols, including gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words, are used to convey meaning and help people understand their surroundings. They play an important role in how societies are structured and create a shared understanding among their members. Symbols can be functional, such as traffic signs, or they can have symbolic value, like a police officer’s uniform, which represents authority and law enforcement (Sullivan 2019).
Symbols are often taken for granted, and people may not think about them until they are used unconventionally. For example, the sight of a stop sign on the door of a corporation makes a political statement, as does a camouflage military jacket worn in an anti-war protest. Similarly, the destruction of symbols can also be symbolic, such as when effigies of public figures are burned to demonstrate anger at certain leaders (Sullivan 2019).
Language is another important symbol that humans use to communicate and transmit culture. Some languages use a system of symbols for written communication, while others rely only on spoken communication and nonverbal actions. Language is constantly evolving and changing, adapting to new ideas and technology. For example, words like “e-mail” and “Internet” have become common words, while twenty years ago, they were considered nonsense (Sullivan 2019).
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, proposed by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf in the 1920s, suggests that language shapes thought and that any interpretation of reality is based on a society’s language. They argued that every language has words or expressions specific to that language and that people experience their world through their language, understanding their world through the culture embedded in their language (Swoyer 2003). For example, in the United States, the number thirteen is associated with bad luck, while in Japan, the number four is considered unlucky, as it sounds like the Japanese word for “death.”
In addition to language, people communicate through nonverbal communication, which is also symbolic. Nonverbal communication includes body language, facial expressions, and gestures. Some gestures are nearly universal like smiles representing joy and crying representing sadness. Other nonverbal symbols vary across cultures, such as the thumbs-up gesture, which represents positive reinforcement in the United States but is considered an offensive curse in Russia and Australia (Passero, 2002). Body language and facial expressions convey important information about emotions and intent, allowing people to understand the emotional gist of a conversation without hearing any words.
In conclusion, symbols, including language and nonverbal communication, play an important role in how humans understand and interact with their surroundings and are thus critical elements of culture. Symbols help create a shared understanding among members of a society and allow for the transmission of culture. As language and culture evolve, so do symbols and their meanings. Understanding symbols and their meanings, in addition to other elements of culture, is essential for effective communication and cultural competence.
Culture is shaped by values and beliefs, which are deeply ingrained in societies and critical for transmitting beliefs from one generation to the next. This important element of culture influences what is considered good or bad, beautiful or ugly, and desirable or undesirable. Ideal culture refers to the standards that society would like to embrace and live up to, whereas real culture describes the way society actually functions. Living up to cultural values can be difficult, and societies use rewards, sanctions, and punishments to promote adherence to these values. Understanding cultural values is essential for achieving intercultural competence and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of life.
Norms are the rules of conduct that shape society, and they can be formal or informal. Informal norms, called folkways, are an element of culture that governs everyday behavior and are learned through observation and socialization. Mores, on the other hand, are an element of culture that embody moral views and principles, and violating them can have serious consequences. Folkways direct appropriate behavior in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture without any moral underpinnings. Understanding and conforming to these norms is essential for navigating the social world.
Symbols, such as gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words, play an essential role in how societies are structured and create a shared understanding among their members. They help people understand their surroundings and convey meaning. Symbols can be functional or have symbolic value; language and nonverbal communication are also symbolic. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that language shapes thought, and nonverbal communication, including body language and facial expressions, conveys important information about emotions and intent. Understanding symbols and their meanings is crucial for effective communication and cultural competence.
Word Count: 2,402
Culture, values, beliefs, norms, folkways, mores, formal norms, informal norms, rewards, sanctions, symbols, language, nonverbal communication, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
References and Further Reading
Bobo, L. D., & Fox, C. (2003). Race, racism, and discrimination: Bridging problems, methods, and theory in social psychological research. Social Psychology Quarterly, 66(4), 319–332. https://doi.org/10.2307/1519832
Chambliss, W. J. (2011). Corrections: A sociological perspective (3rd ed.). Sage Publications.
Henslin, J. M. (2021). Essentials of sociology: A down-to-earth approach (14th ed.). Pearson.
Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Sage Publications.
Kohn, M. L. (1993). Reward systems and ideology in organizations: An overview of issues and a research agenda. In M. S. Mizruchi & M. Schwartz (Eds.), Intercorporate relations: The structural analysis of business (pp. 181–201). Cambridge University Press.
Mark, K. P., Janssen, E., & Milhausen, R. R. (2011). Infidelity in heterosexual couples: demographic, interpersonal, and personality-related predictors of extradyadic sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(5), 971–982. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-011-9766-z
Barnes, R. A. (2015). Language, culture, and society: An introduction to linguistic anthropology. Routledge.
Benjamin, L. T. (2014). A brief history of modern psychology. John Wiley & Sons.
Oxford English Dictionary Online. (2011). Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/
Passero, K. (2002). The thumbs-up gesture: Its meaning and history. Emme Interactive.
Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Ginn and Company.
Swoyer, C. (2003). The linguistic relativity hypothesis. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2003 ed.). Stanford University.
Westcott, C. (2008). Peace sign: The true story behind one of the most recognizable symbols in the world. Sterling.
Modification History File Created: 05/07/2023 Last Modified: 05/12/2023
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