What do sociologists mean by culture?
There are many different definitions of culture that exist - What do sociologists mean by culture? introduction. To give an idea of how many, when researched, 200 different definitions were found by Kroeber and Kluckholn (1952) (Taylor, 1997). This is probably due to the complicated nature of the word, due to the fact that it is applied to so many different topics and processes. Williams believes that culture is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (Williams, in Jenks 1993:1). In everyday conversation culture is normally thought of as being things like art, language, philosophy, journalism, advertising or fashion.
However, sociologists normally use broader definitions which I will expand on later in this essay. Also, in this essay I will look at the function of culture in society, and how it helps us to understand the differences between human and animal societies. How sociologists define culture Definitions of culture used by sociologists normally include the same things used in everyday definitions of culture, but also includes the notion that because every aspect of life is influenced by society, it is therefore also influenced by culture.
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This is because culture couldn’t exist without society, and society couldn’t exist without culture, and the reason they can’t exist without each other is that members of society are in certain social relationships according to the culture they’re in (Giddens, 1997). However, sociologists tend to focus on the mental rather than the physical aspects of culture. This is because human beings have a tendency to make and accumulate many physical objects such as furniture, books, and clothes.
However, producing these objects is only made possible by the interaction of individuals teaching each other how to make these things; therefore “the essential thing, then, is the meaningful interaction between different individuals” (Davis, 1948:6) as without this mental contact none of these physical objects would exist. A very large part of culture in society consists of values, norms, beliefs, customs and symbols.
Giddens (1997) believes values are what are seen as being worthwhile and desirable within society. Things such as trust, honesty, monogamy and caring for human life are seen as being an important and essential part of the majority of western society. Giddens (1997) also says that norms are expectations of what others in a particular society will do. They are seen as rules of behaviour reflecting the values of the particular culture, for example, in England we wouldn’t eat cats or dogs, and Jews wouldn’t eat pork.
Customs are traditional norms that happen on a regular basis, normally involving events such as anniversaries, or social events such as Christmas when it is customary to have a tree and receive presents in the majority of Western society (normally in Christian families). Another example is when at a funeral in Britain it is customary to mourn and wear black, to wear a pink suit would be seen as breaking social norms and the individual would probably be seen as being deviant (Moore, Chapman and Aiken, 2001).
Religious beliefs are a very important part of culture as some religions have a very large influence on how individuals belonging to that religion live their lives. For example, a member of a certain religion may be required to prey 5 times a day or fast at certain times of the year. Symbols are “social objects used to represent whatever people agree they should represent” (Taylor, 1997:190). Symbolic interactionists regard words, pictures, physical objects and actions as being symbolic.
Everyone in a culture interprets the same symbols in the same way, this is taught to us in socialisation (I will elaborate on this later in the essay) (Taylor, 1997). Within a country there may be only one culture, for example, hunter gathering societies in the past, or with regard to modern societies, Japan. These are known as monocultural societies, meaning that the country only has one common culture. There are also countries like Britain and America which have now become multicultural, meaning they contain more than one culture.
This may be because it is a multiethnic country containing many people of many different ethnic backgrounds. This has come about in England due to slavery, migration, war and globalisation. This results in many different cultures in one country (Giddens, 1997). Subcultures are often known as cultures that exist within cultures. They may share aspects of the culture that they are in, for example, a language or eating certain foods, but they have certain features that may not be socially accepted by the main culture i. e. dress.
There are many different kinds of subcultures varying from ethnic groups, to football supporters. One person could be a member of one or a hundred different subcultures (Giddens, 1997). The functions of culture in society Culture is learnt and taught to us in socialization, the learning of culture. There are two types of socialization, primary, which occurs in the family in the first few years of life, and secondary which occurs after primary socialization.
This is when broader norms and values are learnt, and it occurs through social institutions such as school, peers the media, etc. Taylor, 1997). Socialisation teaches social skills, accepted norms, values and social roles which allow the individual to function, communicate and cooperate successfully in society (Giddens, 1997). Taylor, (1997) says the function of norms in society is to act as a set of guidelines showing us how to conform to the rules of the society. They also allow us to understand other people’s reactions to something that we might do, and effectively “understand and predict the behaviour of others” (Taylor et al. , 1997:9).
Functionalists believe that norms provide consensus in society, and that they are shared ideas that often change, for example homosexuality was once a psychological disorder, but is now widely accepted. However, a criticism of the functionalist’s ideas is that they can be too positive, and don’t acknowledge that conflict may occur in the same culture with the same norms. Functionalists also believe that the function of values in society is to provide shared norms and this is necessary for social solidarity, and without this society would be in conflict and chaos (Taylor, 1997).
Values are the basis of norms, and their function in society is to distinguish between right and wrong, and provide moral guidelines (Taylor, 1997). Giddens (1997) believes subcultures have a very important function within society as they allow social change, creativity, freedom, expression of hopes and opinions that otherwise may not have been socially permitted. Taylor (1997) says that religion allows societies to explain things that they previously couldn’t. This is illustrated by the Azande tribe (studied by Edward Evans-Pritchard, 1937) where unfortunate inexplicable incidents such as illness were blamed on witch craft.
This created a sense of social solidarity as everyone had the same explanation for the same thing. Berger and Luckmann criticise this saying that because there are so many religions in modern industrialised societies they contradict themselves, this makes there explanations appear weak, and therefore can’t really be used (Taylor, 1997). Symbols also have a very important function in society as they can be anything from pictures to words and actions. They can mean and represent many things.
This means people in the same culture can understand what other people mean when they do or say something, for example, language is made up of many different words which are symbols and all mean the same thing to people of the same culture, and because of the shared understanding of what they mean, people can understand themselves and each other when they speak. If symbols didn’t have a shared meaning then they would be worthless (Taylor, 1997). How culture helps understand differences between human and animal societies.
Davis (1948) believes humans have always seen their society as being different to the society of other animals. Some believe that this is because we are more intelligent, we alone have language, or that we alone are social, however, these are seen by many as superficial explanations, and there is evidence that all mammals are social in some way. This is because society has a survival value, more members and specialization in society means more food, protection and chances of reproduction. “The emergence of society may be viewed as one of the great steps in evolution” (Davis, 1948:27).
Human and animal society was originally the same thing, a bio-social society; meaning the patterns of society are hereditarily determined, and any variation is biological. However, human society has the addition of culture, so it is not only bio-social it’s also socio-cultural, meaning culture determines the patterns of society, and any variation within society is cultural. Humans have evolved from a lower form of animal species to what we are today; this indicates that human society has also evolved from animal society (Davis, 1948).
All mammals that aren’t human meet their requirements to survive, such as nourishment, protection, reproduction through mechanisms which have been inherited . i. e. , the tiger having stripes to camouflage itself from its prey is hereditarily determined. Whereas humans meet many of their requirements through cultural mechanisms such as farming. Giddens (1993) believes that the biological needs of humans can be over ridden through things such as celibacy or fasting, both of which often take place due to religion which is cultural.
However animals can’t over ride their biological needs because they do not have the element of culture in their societies. Davis believes culture “adds an extra dimension to existence, and makes human what would otherwise be merely animal” (Davis, 1948:1). Within human society knowledge that has been learnt in the past can be passed from one person to another by word of mouth, or by writing. This is because the shared symbols involved in language and writing allows members of that society to understand each other and communicate. This information could be anything from how to play a piano to how to survive in a desert.
This means that no matter what environment you are in, if you have been provided with the information by a book or a parent, or by another means, it is likely that you will be able to survive. Because humans have the ability to learn information from different places they are able to adapt themselves mentally rather than physically. Giddens (1993) believes that mammals have an increased capacity for learning from experience in comparison with other animals and humans are the best at this. Because of this animals have to adapt themselves physically, eventually forming a new species.
So simply because animal society doesn’t have the cultural functions of being able to write, learn, read or speak in a sophisticated way they have to form new species to survive different environmental conditions. (Davis, 1948) Conclusion Cultures vary greatly between different countries, different societies and even within themselves forming subcultures. Due to its complex nature the word culture is hard to define, however, it is commonly accepted that it consists of socially accepted norms, values, beliefs, customs and symbols. These are all learnt through a process known as socialization that lasts for the whole length of a person’s life.
All of these aspects of society play a very important role in its functioning as without these cooperation and communication would be almost impossible between members of a society. Culture also helps us to understand the differences between human and animal societies. This is because culture gives human society a uniqueness that other animals don’t have, and because of culture human and animal societies have evolved differently. Animals can’t learn from experience in the same way as humans, and therefore have to evolve physically rather than mentally to survive changes in their environment.
Animals can’t over-come their biological needs like humans can as they have no cultural motivations such as religion. Humans have sophisticated communication methods such as talking which allows us to pass on information of experiences through writing or word of mouth, and the reason that humans have this is because they can recognise the symbols involved in writing and talking, and can communicate with other members of society because these symbols have the same meaning for everyone in the particular culture. Culture affects all parts of life, and without it human society couldn’t exist in the way that it does today.