***Section 2.3: Variant Cultures is a DRAFT version ***
As we observe the diverse societies across the globe, it becomes apparent that cultural differences exist between them. For instance, a young woman from a rural Kenyan community may have a vastly different worldview compared to an elderly man living in Mumbai, one of the world’s most populous cities. These differences can be attributed to the elements of variant cultures, including cultural norms, values, beliefs, and traditions that each society holds.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the idea of variant cultures is a broad idea, and cultural differences are not limited to those between societies. They can also exist within cultures themselves. Different regions, subcultures, and even individuals within a culture may have unique customs and behaviors that set them apart from others in their own society.
These cultural differences have significant implications for intercultural communication and understanding. Sociologists have explored the ways in which cultural differences shape our perceptions of the world, our interactions with others, and our behaviors. By recognizing and understanding these differences, we can develop greater empathy and appreciation for others’ perspectives.
Cultural differences are prevalent both between societies and within them. They reflect several aspects of the idea of variant cultures, including the unique norms, values, beliefs, and traditions that each culture holds. Acknowledging these differences is essential for developing cross-cultural competence and creating a more inclusive and understanding society.
High Culture and Popular Culture
As members of society, we are constantly exposed to different types of cultural experiences and attitudes. Some forms of entertainment, such as opera or horse racing, are often seen as high-brow or sophisticated, while others, such as hip-hop music or NASCAR, are considered low-brow or less refined. These categorizations are not arbitrary but instead reflect different patterns of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in different segments of society.
Sociologists use the term “high culture” to refer to cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in the highest class segments of society (Lamont & Molnár, 2002). High culture is often associated with intellectualism, political power, and prestige. In America, high culture is a variant culture commonly associated with wealth, and events considered high culture can be expensive and formal, such as attending a ballet or a live symphony performance. The patterns of high culture are typically restricted to a small, elite segment of society.
In contrast, “popular culture” refers to the cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in mainstream society (Storey, 2006). Popular culture encompasses a wide range of cultural forms, such as sports, television, music, and movies, and it is often expressed and spread via commercial media such as radio, television, movies, the music industry, publishers, and corporate-run websites. Unlike high culture, popular culture is known and accessible to most people. For example, many of us might have watched the Super Bowl or the season finale of a popular TV show or listened to a Top 40 radio station.
However, it’s important to note that the labels of high culture and popular culture can vary over time and place. What may have been considered high culture in the past may be seen as a popular culture today, and vice versa. For example, Shakespeare’s plays were considered popular culture during his time, but they are now part of our society’s high culture. In the future, our descendants may associate contemporary cultural phenomena, such as the television series Breaking Bad, with the cultural elite.
In summary, high culture and popular culture refer to different patterns of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in different segments of society. While high culture is often associated with intellectualism, political power, and prestige, popular culture is more accessible to the general public and is expressed through a variety of commercial media. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these labels can shift over time and place, and what may be considered high culture today may become part of popular culture tomorrow.
Subculture and Counterculture
Subcultures are smaller cultural groups that are variant cultures within a larger culture. According to Giddens (2018), members of subcultures share a specific identity within a smaller group while being part of the larger society. Subcultures are diverse and can be formed based on different factors. Ethnic and racial groups, for instance, share the language, food, and customs of their heritage, while others are united by shared experiences. Biker culture revolves around a dedication to motorcycles (Bourdieu, 1998). Some subcultures are formed by members who possess traits or preferences that differ from the majority of a society’s population. For instance, the body modification community embraces aesthetic additions to the human body, such as tattoos, piercings, and certain forms of plastic surgery (Eco, 1979).
Subcultures are not necessarily exclusive and can coexist within a larger culture. Adolescents often form subcultures to develop a shared youth identity (Merton, 1957). Alcoholics Anonymous is a variant culture that offers support to those suffering from alcoholism (Becker, 1963). However, even as members of a subculture band together, they still identify with and participate in the larger society.
In sociology, subcultures are distinct from countercultures, which reject some of the larger culture’s norms and values (Hannerz, 1992). Countercultures actively defy larger societies by developing their own set of rules and norms to live by, sometimes even creating communities that operate outside of greater society. Cults are also considered counterculture groups that exist outside the mainstream culture and sometimes engage in controversial and illegal activities. For instance, the sect “Yearning for Zion” in Eldorado, Texas, existed outside the mainstream and the limelight until its leader was accused of statutory rape and underage marriage (Hassan, 1990).
Counterculture is a type of variant culture that rejects the norms and values of the larger culture. Countercultures might actively defy larger society by developing their own set of rules and norms to live by, sometimes even creating communities that operate outside of greater society. Counterculture groups are often formed in response to a perceived injustice or inequality in the larger society. The hippie movement of the 1960s, for example, rejected the dominant cultural norms of materialism and consumerism and embraced communal living, environmentalism, and anti-war activism (Roszak, 1969). The punk subculture that emerged in the 1970s was a response to the political and economic instability of the time, with members embracing DIY ethics, anti-establishment views, and non-conformist fashion and music (Hebdige, 1979).
Counterculture groups often face conflict with the larger society, as their rejection of cultural norms can be perceived as a threat to the status quo. Some counterculture groups, such as the eco-anarchist movement, may engage in illegal activities in pursuit of their goals, such as vandalism or sabotage (Pezzullo, 2015). However, not all countercultures are oppositional to the larger society. For example, the feminist movement, which emerged in the 1960s, aimed to challenge gender inequalities within society but did not reject the larger society’s norms and values (Echols, 1989).
The study of countercultures provides insights into the social and cultural dynamics of society. By examining the beliefs, values, and practices of counterculture groups, sociologists can better understand the ways in which cultural norms and values are created and challenged. Additionally, the study of these variant cultures highlights the ways in which cultural change occurs, as counterculture groups can influence the larger society’s values and norms over time.
The Interplay between Culture and Power
Culture plays a pivotal role in shaping society and human behavior. It encompasses a range of shared beliefs, values, and practices that are transmitted from generation to generation. While culture is often seen as a reflection of society, it is also a source of power and domination. The dominant culture, which represents the values and norms of the most powerful groups in society, can marginalize and exclude other cultural groups.
Sociologists have long recognized the interplay between culture and power. Cultural power refers to the ability of dominant cultural groups to impose their values, norms, and beliefs on other cultural groups (Hall, 1997). This power operates in subtle and overt ways, influencing the ways in which people see themselves, others, and the world around them. Through cultural power, dominant groups can shape public discourse, influence policymaking, and marginalize those who do not conform to their values and norms.
The concept of cultural resistance emerged in response to dominant cultural power. Cultural resistance refers to the ways in which individuals and groups challenge and contest dominant cultural norms and values (Bhabha, 1994). Resistance can take many forms, including artistic expression, social movements, and everyday acts of non-conformity. Through cultural resistance, marginalized groups can assert their identity and challenge the status quo.
Cultural resistance is not a monolithic concept. It takes many forms and operates in different ways, depending on the cultural context. Those offering resistance can form a variant culture. Some forms of cultural resistance are overt and confrontational, such as protests or acts of civil disobedience. Others are more subtle and take place in everyday life, such as the use of slang or the adoption of alternative styles of dress.
One of the most powerful forms of cultural resistance is hybridity. Hybridity refers to the blending of different cultural practices and traditions to create something new and unique (Bhabha, 1994). Hybrid cultures challenge the notion of cultural purity and offer a way for marginalized groups to assert their identity while also embracing diversity. Hybrid cultures can be found in music, literature, art, and everyday life, and they offer a way for individuals and groups to assert their agency in the face of dominant cultural power.
The study of culture and power has significant implications for understanding social inequality and social change. By examining the ways in which cultural power operates, sociologists can better understand the mechanisms of social control and marginalization. Additionally, the study of cultural resistance highlights the ways in which marginalized groups can challenge the status quo and assert their identity. The concept of hybridity offers a way to celebrate diversity and challenge the notion of cultural purity.
However, the relationship between culture and power is complex and multifaceted. Cultural power is not static but is subject to change and contestation. Similarly, cultural resistance and hybridity are not always successful in challenging dominant cultural norms. The interplay between culture and power is dynamic and requires ongoing examination.
Culture is not only a reflection of society but also a source of power and domination. The dominant culture can marginalize and exclude other cultural groups, shaping public discourse and influencing policymaking. However, cultural resistance and hybridity offer a way for marginalized groups to challenge the status quo and assert their identity. The study of culture and power has significant implications for understanding social inequality and social change and requires ongoing examination to capture its dynamic nature.
Culture with Other Social Categories
Culture is one of the social categories that intersect with other dimensions of social inequality, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality. The intersectionality of culture with these social categories plays a crucial role in shaping individuals’ experiences, identities, and opportunities. Sociologists have analyzed the interplay between cultural differences and other forms of social inequality to understand how they intersect and affect people’s lives (Collins, 1990).
For example, the intersection of culture and race has significant implications for people’s experiences of discrimination and prejudice. Members of racial and ethnic minorities often face cultural stereotypes and stigmatization, which can affect their access to opportunities and resources. The cultural differences between racial and ethnic groups can also lead to conflicts and tensions, particularly when cultural differences are used to justify discriminatory practices (Bonilla-Silva, 2001).
Similarly, the intersection of culture and class can have significant consequences for people’s opportunities and experiences. Working-class individuals may face cultural barriers to social mobility, such as the lack of exposure to high culture or the inability to conform to middle-class cultural norms. The dominant culture, which reflects the values and practices of the most powerful groups in society, can also marginalize and exclude lower-class cultural groups (Bourdieu, 1984).
The intersection of culture with gender and sexuality also shapes people’s experiences and identities. For instance, gender norms and cultural expectations about masculinity and femininity can reinforce gender inequalities, leading to discrimination and oppression of individuals who do not conform to traditional gender roles (Connell, 1987). The intersection of culture with sexuality also affects the experiences of individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ and face discrimination and marginalization due to cultural norms and values that privilege heterosexuality (Foucault, 1978).
Sociologists have used intersectionality theory to understand how cultural differences intersect with other social categories and how these intersections shape people’s experiences and identities (Crenshaw, 1989). Intersectionality recognizes that people have multiple identities and that these identities interact with each other to shape experiences of privilege and oppression. Understanding the intersectionality of culture with other social categories is crucial for addressing social inequalities and promoting social justice.
In conclusion, the intersectionality of culture with other social categories plays a critical role in shaping people’s experiences, identities, and opportunities. Sociologists have examined the interplay between cultural differences and other forms of social inequality to understand how they intersect and affect individuals’ lives. Understanding the intersectionality of culture with other social categories is essential for addressing social inequalities and promoting social justice.
Cultural differences exist both between and within societies, shaped by varying norms, values, beliefs, and traditions. Such differences have significant implications for intercultural communication and understanding. Recognizing and understanding them can foster empathy and appreciation for others’ perspectives, thus creating a more inclusive and understanding society.
High culture refers to cultural experiences and attitudes associated with the highest class segments of society, associated with intellectualism, political power, and prestige. Popular culture refers to the cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in mainstream society and is often expressed and spread via commercial media such as sports, television, music, and movies. However, labels can vary over time and place, and what may be considered high culture or popular culture can change.
Subcultures are smaller cultural groups within a larger culture that can be formed based on different factors such as ethnicity, shared experiences, and preferences. In contrast, countercultures reject the norms and values of the larger culture and sometimes develop their own set of rules and norms. Counterculture groups often face conflict with the larger society but can also influence cultural change. The study of subcultures and countercultures provides insights into the social and cultural dynamics of a society and how cultural change occurs.
Culture is not only a reflection of society but also a source of power and domination. Dominant culture can marginalize and exclude other cultural groups, shaping public discourse and policymaking. The concept of cultural resistance emerged as a response to this dominant cultural power. Resistance can take various forms and operates in different ways, and one of the most potent forms of cultural resistance is hybridity. The study of culture and power has significant implications for understanding social inequality and social change, and its dynamic nature requires ongoing examination.
The intersection of culture with other social categories, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality, plays a significant role in shaping people’s experiences and identities. Sociologists have analyzed how variant cultures intersect with other forms of social inequality, leading to discrimination, oppression, and marginalization of certain groups. Understanding the intersectionality of culture with other social categories is crucial for promoting social justice and addressing social inequalities.
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Cultural differences, high culture, popular culture, subcultures, countercultures, cultural resistance, hybridity, culture and power, intersectionality
References and Further Reading
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Denny, K., & Zeedyk, S. (2019). Subcultures. In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood Studies. SAGE Publications Inc. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781483392271.n601
Echols, A. (1989). Daring to be bad: Radical feminism in America, 1967-1975. Univ of Minnesota Press.
Gans, H. J. (1979). Symbolic ethnicity: The future of ethnic groups and cultures in America. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2(1), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.1979.9993242
Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. Sage.
Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. Routledge.
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oszak, T. (1969). The making of a counter culture: Reflections on the technocratic society and its youthful opposition. Anchor Books.
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