What is Culture?

  • Culture is generally regarded as a complex collection of values,  beliefs, behaviours, and material objects shared by a group and passed on from one generation to the next
  • There is nothing good or bad about culture – it just is what it is

Origins of Culture and Its Defining Features

  • No one can really determine when culture began, for two primary reasons. First, very little material evidence survives from thousands of years ago. Second, much of culture is nonmaterial and so cannot be preserved for future consideration
  • Sociologists suggest that culture has five defining features:
  • Culture is learned
  • Culture is shared
  • Culture is transmitted
  • Culture is cumulative
  • Culture is human
  • These five defining features of culture are important in understanding both the complexity of culture and how groups maintain their uniqueness over time
  • Culture can be divided into two major segments: material culture, which includes tangible artifacts, physical objects, and items found in society; and non-material culture, which includes a society’s intangible and abstract components, such as values and norms

Values, Norms, Folkways, Mores, Laws, and Sanctions

  • Values are beliefs about ideal goals and behaviours that serve as standards for social life
    EX: Canadians viewed government-sponsored health care as on of the most important defining features of their society
  • Norms are culturally defined rules that outline appropriate behaviours
    EX: A Canadian norm is our belief that it is rude to speak while your mouth is full
  • Folkways are informal norms that suggest customary ways of behaving
    EX: walking on the left side of a busy sidewalk
  • Mores are norms that carry a strong sense of social importance and necessity
    EX: extramarital affairs
  • Laws are a type of norm that is formally defined and enacted in legislation
    EX: In Canada, it is illegal to steal your neighbour’s lawnmower or to cheat on your taxes
  • The sanction is a penalty for norm violation or a reward for norm adherence
    EX: Getting an A on a test is a reward because you studied and answered all the questions, getting an F on a test is a penalty because you never studied and only answered 5 of the 25 questions

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

  • Ethnocentrism – a tendency to view one’s own culture as superior to all others
  • Cultural relativism – an appreciation that all cultures have intrinsic worth and should be evaluated and understood on their own terms
  • Cultural shock – a feeling of disorientation, alienation, depression, and loneliness experienced when entering a culture very different from one’s own
  • Oberg listed a four-stage model to understand a person’s progression through feelings culture shock:
    • Honeymoon
    • Crisis
    • Recovery
    • Adjustment
  • Oberg’s research demonstrates that although people need time to adjust to new cultural standards, they will adjust

Language and Culture

  • All human beings communicate through symbols – a symbol is something that stands for or represents something else
  • A language is a shared symbol system of rules and meanings that governs the production and interpretation of speech

Language Extinction

  • When language is lost, the culture to which it belonged loses one of its most important survival mechanisms
  • Languages die out when dominant language groups are adopted by young people whose parents speak a traditional language
  • In central Siberia, the language of the Tofa people is spoken by only 30 individuals, and all of them are elderly
  • According to K. David Harrison approximately 7000 languages exist in the world today and fully half of these are in danger of extinction within the next 100 years
  • Harrison suggests that there are at least three reasons why we should be concerned about losing languages
  • As a human collective, each time we lose a language we lose knowledge, because each language serves as a vast source of information about the past and about how we adapted to our environments
  • When a language dies, so do its related cultural myths, folk songs, legends, poetry, and belief systems
  • The demise of the world’s languages hinders our exploration of the mysteries of the human mind

Does Language Define Thought?

  • Two early researchers who investigated the potential for language to influence how we interpret our world were Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf
  • Their approach, commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, suggests that language does in fact determine thought – a position referred to as linguistic determinism

Non-Verbal Communication

  • Body language
  • Proximity
  • Haptics – uses personal contact (touching) to convey meaning
  • Oculesics – uses eye contact to convey meaning
  • Chronemics – uses the time to convey meaning
  • Olfactics – uses smell to convey meaning
  • Vocalists – uses voice to convey meaning
  • Sound systems – (mmm, er, ah)
  • Adornment – uses accessories (types of clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, tattoos) to convey meaning
  • Locomotion – using movement (walking, running, staggering, limping) to convey meaning

Cultural Diversity

Subcultures: Maintaining Uniqueness

  • Subculture – a group within a population whose values, norms, folkways, or mores set them apart from the mainstream culture

Countercultures: Challenging Conformity

  • Counterculture – a type of subculture that strongly opposed the widely held cultural patterns of the larger population
  • Hippies from the 1960s challenged the dominant definitions

Defining Features of Canadian Culture

Canadian Values

  • Seven core Canadian values
  • Belief in equality and fairness in a democratic society
  • Belief in consultation and dialogue
  • Importance of accommodation and tolerance
  • Support for diversity
  • Compassion and generosity
  • Attachment to Canada’s natural beauty
  • Our world image: Commitment to freedom, peace, and non-violent change

Global Value Changes, 1981 to 2006

  • Christian Welzel – variance can be summarized in two dimensions: secular-rational and self-expression
  • Secular-rational values vary along a continuum from strong to weak; low-importance on religion, low levels of national pride, low levels of respect for authority figures, promote personal independence and be accepting of divorce
  • Self-expression values also vary along a continuum; support individual autonomy and political participation, be accepting of homosexuality, and promote a strong sense of self-direction and the expression of trust in others

Cultural Change

  • Cultures are always changing to address new social and technological challenges
  • Discovery occurs when something previously unrecognized or understood is found to have social or cultural applications
  • Invention/innovation occurs when existing cultural items are manipulation or modified
  • Diffusion occurs when cultural items or practices are transmitted from one group to another

Sociological Approaches to Culture and Culture Change


  • Functionalism approaches the value of culture from the premise that, since every society must meet basic needs, culture can best be understood as playing a role in helping to meet those needs
  • Yet within this diversity are common features that all known societies are believed to share, referred to as cultural universals
  • Functionalists argue that unique cultural traditions and customs develop and persist because they are adaptive and improve a people’s chance of survival
  • Cultural adaptation is the process by which environmental pressures are addressed through changes in practices, traditions, and behaviors as a way of maintaining stability and equilibrium

Conflict Theory

  • Conflict theories assert that those who hold power define and perpetuate a culture’s ideology, and create a value system that defines social inequality as just and proper
  • Conflict theorists would certainly approach the slavery example we used above from a very different perspective: Slavery was allowed to exist because it benefited rich white people
  • Conflict theories view the link between money and success as an expression of the ruling elite’s power and influence
  • According to Karl Marx, the dominant culture eventually becomes part of the value system of an oppressed group

Symbolic Interactionism

  • One of the most famous symbolic interactionists, Herbert Blumer, suggested that people do not respond directly to the world around them, but instead to the meanings they collectively apply to it
  • Investigates how culture is actively created and recreated through social- interaction
  • Thus as people go about their everyday lives, they create and modify culture as they engage in the negotiation of reality based on shared meaning grounded in cultural symbols
author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment