CULTURE AND IDENTITY This essay will aim to critically analyse and evaluate the contribution of modern and post modern perspectives to a sociological understanding of culture and identity. This will be achieved by analysing similarities and differences between three contrasting sociological theories and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses. Studies will be included as the debate is developed further and their contributions will also be explained. Culture is defined simply as the way of life of a group of people. This relates to how they live their lives, the patterns of social organisation and the ‘norms’ they are expected to follow.
Culture varies between societies and across time. It is an extremely important part of everyday life and is the focal point in the study of sociology. Therefore, sociologists are interested in how culture is patterned, maintained and why it is the way it is. American Anthropologist, Ralph Linton states that, ‘The culture of a society is the way of life of its members, the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from generation to generation’ (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008, p. 2). There are various other ways in which to define culture, with many more complex definitions.
However, the above definitions provide a useful starting point from which to explore. Although culture may be shared within a society, there is often more than one culture which results in smaller ‘subcultures’. Different types of culture have been identified by sociologists. These include high culture, low culture, folk culture, mass culture, popular culture, subculture and global culture. Further analysis of these concepts has led Sociologists to examine to what extent culture constrains the individual and to question if humans are puppets of culture or if they have free will (Livesey, 2008).
Identity is different from culture, although they are inextricably linked. While culture focuses on how humans behave as a group, identity relates to how we think of ourselves as people, how we think about others, and what other people think about us (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008). Culture often establishes our sense of identity. However, sociologically, they are seen as two separate concepts. Culture is representative of society as a whole and is macro in origin, whereas identity represents the smaller, micro aspects of us as individuals.
As with culture, identity can be linked to the socialisation process that occurs from birth. Sources of identity include nationality, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and social class. Although identity is individual, it also relates to the social and cultural groups people become part of and identify with. Therefore, social and cultural identity may become a key aspect of the individuals’ personal identity. A person’s social identity may also conflict with their personal identity. For example someone perceived by others as a heterosexual male, may see himself as homosexual.
In contemporary sociology, the concept of identity allows humans to be seen as taking an active role in their lives within the cultural constraints of the society they live in. Early, sociologists, such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Auguste Comte and Max Weber were interested primarily in social class identities. Their initial interest in social change came as a result of industrialisation. In addition, this era, known as Modernity was characterised by the enlightenment of the 18th century and the progression of scientific rationalism.
Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim agreed that culture and identity are shaped by the structure of society. They also believed that society was developing progressively. For Marx, towards a communist utopia, while for Durkheim, society was moving towards organic solidarity (Haralambos & Holborn 2008, p. 666-667). Their competing perspectives will be explored further. Karl Marx did not believe that culture and identity were innate or as a result of nature. He believed that the social structure of society shaped humans identity, primarily through socialisation.
For Marx, culture was an ideology of the ruling class, who use their unequal, economic power to achieve and maintain order. He proposed that individual identity should be exchanged for group identity to overthrow the oppressive structure of capitalism. However, this could only happen when the working class became fully aware of the nature of their oppression and developed what he termed as a class consciousness. This would allow the movement from a class ‘in itself’, to a class ‘for itself’. Marx saw this realisation as crucial in the development of a class identity which would ensure solidarity of the masses.
The true reality and problems of society would then be revealed as the false consciousness of the past was exposed (Haralambos & Holborn 2008, p. 669). According to Marx, this ruling class ideology of culture is socialised among the members of society in various ways such as through religion and education to ensure social cohesion and maintain order. Marx famously referred to religion as ‘the opium of the masses’ and argued that it justified the oppression of capitalism (Haralambos & Holborn 2008, p. 399). He viewed education as a way for the ruling class to legitimise their wealth and maintain their power.
For the working class, education only serves to produce labour for the future. This is achieved by conditioning the future workforce to be docile, motivated, obedient and hard working. Bowles and Gintis (1976) support this argument in their study of the relationship between capitalism and education. They refer to how the structure of social relationships in education relate to those at work and propose that the syllabus and exams taken by pupils are not as important to capitalist society as the ‘Hidden Curriculum’ is.
The organisation of education as a whole, and specific forms of teaching and learning are essential in capitalist societies and they conclude that they provide subliminal conditioning to ensure an obedient, subservient workforce in the future. This is an extension of earlier socialisation and shapes the identities of individuals further as their role within school life is conditioned in preparation for the labour market (Haralambos & Holborn 2008, p. 688). The study also aims to show how different social groups are taught different values which also contribute to the shaping of identities (Sweeney et al 2003, p. 03). In a study of 237 pupils conducted in a New York school, Bowles and Gintis concluded that teachers were giving higher grades based on what could be termed personality and not necessarily academic ability. Those pupils who were punctual, obedient and dependable etc received higher grades than pupils who displayed independence or aggressiveness. They also propose that education operates on a form of hierarchy where the pupils are under the control of the teachers, subjects learned etc.
Their argument is developed further as they claim that as pupils move from one subject to the next throughout the day it doesn’t allow them time to focus on one subject in any depth. This relates to how the workforce is fragmented, with individual workers carrying out specific tasks. This ensures that workers never get a proper insight into the entire production process, which makes it difficult for them to set up production of their own in competition with their employer (Bowles & Gintis, 2001).
Although this study aims to highlight the inequalities in a system that is supposed to be equally accessible to all, it has been criticised for assuming that the working class are passive and do not take an active role in their education or working environment. Bowles and Gintis clearly highlight how educational establishments socialise individuals and contribute to shaping identity. However, the study ignores the fact that there are many sub cultures within groups of pupils who form their own identities.
Paul Willis has similar views which are discussed in his book, ‘Learning to Labour’ (1977) and provides insight into the nature of sub cultures, social class and gender within the education system. In contrast to Bowles and Gintis, he suggests that people may have some understanding of their treatment at school and try to resist. He conducted a study with twelve boys who were considered to be opposed to the structure of education and authority in school and observed that these boys formed a ‘sub culture’ characterised by their opposition to this.
The boys recognised that there were no equal opportunities in a capitalist society and felt that they would never have the same chances of success as middle class children. Therefore, loyalty to their group was far more important than commitment to school. There were many aspects to this study that support the idea that no matter how hard you work to achieve good grades, individual effort will do little to assist in achieving decent career prospects for the working class. As a result, the alienation of male working class could be related to working class culture where the pupils actively participate in their own failure.
Although ‘Learning to Labour’ provided more insight into the inequalities in education for working class, it has been criticised for using a small sample which may not be representative of society as a whole and ignores the existence of variety of sub cultures within the school environment. However, Willis’ study has been influential and provided a basis for further research into culture within education. On the whole, Marxism provides awareness of the conflicting interests between working and ruling classes.
However, it has been criticised for being economically deterministic and ignores the fact that humans can exercise their free will. It also seems to place more importance on groups rather than individuals. Marxism ignores the uniqueness of the individual and their ability to form varying identities based on their different experiences. Like Marx, Emile Durkheim believed we could find an objective truth about reality. He proposed that culture and identity are structural and are a result of a human need to classify and distinguish between things.
He argued that post industrialisation had led to a division of labour which in turn led to people developing the use of classification systems further. Through studying more primitive societies, Durkheim concluded that individuals had a sense of solidarity based on their similarities, known as ‘Organic Solidarity’. However, in industrialised societies, this solidarity is lost as hierarchy takes over. The division of labour that arises from this, does, however, ensure solidarity within groups as they become reliant on each other.
This concept is known as ‘Mechanical Solidarity’ (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008). For Durkheim, although individual identity existed, and was based on position in the division of labour, collective consciousness and a common culture developed because of this dependence on each other which maintains social order. Durkheim said a state of ‘anomie’ or ‘normlessness’ occurs if cultural norms and values break down. Therefore, cultural constraints are positive as they allow humans to live and think naturally about the world around them.
Durkheim agreed with philosopher, Thomas Hobbes that individuals are selfish and greedy by nature and argued that culture and socialisation made it possible for humans to develop a collective social consciousness, with collective morals and values. Durkheim proposed that religion plays an extremely important role in social cohesion. He argues that society divides the world into what is ‘sacred’ and what is ‘profane. He developed this argument further by using an Aborigine religion which he called Totemism as an example.
Here, he suggests that the totem is sacred because it is symbolically representative of the group, and by worshipping the totem, people are essentially worshipping the group, or society. For Durkheim, religion is not about individual belief; it is about collective rituals, ceremonies and worship, bringing people together and defining the group. He argues that religion gives emotional comfort, social solidarity, guidelines for everyday life and support for the status quo and develops his theory of the sacred and the profane further. The sacred can be viewed as the symbols and ceremonies, with the profane being present in everyday life.
In this respect Durkheim viewed the sacred as society and the profane as the individual. For Durkheim, religion is the celebration of society, where people share a common belief. Societies do not have an empirical existence. Therefore, people need to be encouraged to feel that they belong to something. Religion is a way of doing this as a system of common values is created, encouraging social cohesion and integration. This reinforces collective identity and provides a sense of belonging. It also shows that identities may be shaped socially through the cultural norms of society (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008).
Religious institutions create and maintain a sense of order and continuity in society, with their main function being to provide individuals with a set of meanings or values to help them make sense of the world. Durkheim’s ideas can be said to be influential. They explain the socialisation process and how culture can create order. However, his ideas about religion and its place in society are based on studies conducted on a small number of groups, which do not necessarily reflect the ideas of larger, modern societies, where there are many different religions and subcultures.
He also overlooks the fact that religion can be a source of conflict or social change. Durkheim also ignores the possibility of human creativity and the individual’s role in creating their own culture and identity. He can also be criticised for treating society as more important than the individual. It is proposed that the postmodern era comes after modernity. The focus of society is shifted away from production and is based on the consumption of culture, identity, economy, lifestyles etc.
Postmodern theorists reject scientific methodology and have adopted qualitative methodologies such as interviews, discourse analysis and naturalistic observations. They aim to find meaning and appreciation instead of the blanket explanations of the past. Postmodernists reject the hopes and dreams of Enlightenment thinkers and disagree with the Grand Metanarratives of the classical theorists. For postmodernists, there are no absolute truths and they see knowledge as another commodity and a source of power. They claim that there are too many choices available which all claim to be true.
Religion, politics, and science for example all claim to give insight to the truth. However, they cannot all be true. People can no longer be pigeon holed as society is so dynamic and chaotic. Postmodernist theorists argue that identity cannot be defined by one factor and believe that humans take control of, and manipulate their own identities. Ultimately, individuals choose their own lifestyle. This results in a plurality of identities. The idea of the change in consumption is developed further by the French postmodernist Jean Baudillard. He proposes that the purchases of commodities are now consumed as signs or symbols.
The physical nature of the object and its intended purpose no longer matters as people are more concerned with how the object represents them in their culture. This is evident in today’s society, especially in relation to sportswear. For example, the Nike symbol on trainers or a tracksuit says more about the image people wish to portray than the physical activity the items are intended for The postmodern idea of individuals changing their own identities is supported by Zygmunt Bauman. He agrees that identities were clear and fixed during the age of modernity.
However, in postmodernity, Bauman argues that every aspect of society is subject to change, with the workforce in particular lacking direction in their attempt to maintain flexibility. Therefore, identities are constantly being altered to adapt to these changes in circumstances. The shift in identity from the modern to postmodern eras is described by Bauman as the change ‘from Pilgrim to Tourist’. During modernity, identity could be compared to a pilgrimage with the person knowing exactly what their goals etc are and what is required to reach them. However, in postmodern times, individual’s identities are compared with the ‘tourist’.
People are now able to try out a number of identities to see if they ‘fit’ before assuming them. The rapid change in society also makes it impossible to maintain long term stability (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008). The Frankfurt School of Sociology was founded in 1923 and proposed the idea that mass culture was moving towards a mass society. Theorists form this school such as Adorno and Marcuse supported modern theorist, Karl Marx’s perspective of culture and identity. They both argued that the working class were subjected to low mass culture in accordance with Capitalist ideology.
Adorno argued that the mass media and its commercial development has led to mass culture which was based on one level of intellect and prevented critical thought. For Marcuse, the working class were conditioned to have needs that were manufactured by Capitalism and proposed the notion that ‘bread and circuses’ were used to keep working class in their place. Although postmodernism rejects the ideas put forward by classical sociologists, contemporary sociology has been heavily influenced by their contrasting perspectives which can be seen as the starting point from which postmodern thinking has developed.
Many sociologists favour one theory over another, and prefer either the modern or post modern approaches. However, there are also many theorists, such as Harriet Bradley, who suggests that moving between different perspectives is the most objective way to gain a wider understanding of society and the wider world. For Bradley, modern and postmodern theories of culture, identity and social change cannot accurately analyse these topics on their own. She argues that if all sociological perspectives were brought together, a fuller understanding would be gained.
Bradley agrees that people’s identities are still social and ultimately based in factors such as inequality of class, gender and ethnicity. She also agrees with the postmodern idea that identities are becoming fragmented as a result of the unequal division of wealth, making the gap between rich and poor wider. She proposes that there is increased polarisation, in particular between ethnic groups. This is evident with the growing emergence of fascist groups like the BNP who consistently try to push racism through a political agenda (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008).
The topic of Culture and Identity is extremely complex in nature. The classical sociological perspectives have provided important contributions in terms of their explanations and theories which have provided a starting point for extensive research. Postmodern theorists acknowledge social change in contemporary society and have also offered explanations for the effects this has on individual and group identities within the cultural constraints of society It cannot be denied that while some see the ideas of modern sociologists as outdated, they have been influential to our understanding of society.
Although postmodernists reject the classical ideas, they do not offer solutions and have been accused of having a political agenda as well as a sociological one. The choices offered to the individual are superficial, such as fashion or music, with economic choices still resting in the hands of the middle classes. Therefore, although the contrasting approaches provide persuasive arguments, I have to agree with theorists such as Harriet Bradley in concluding that a merger of both modern and postmodern perspectives is the only way to uncover a wider understanding of these phenomena.
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