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5: Culture as Thought and Action

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    Suggested Focus

    The following task will help you gain a better grasp of some commonly mentioned elements of culture. Define the following terms. For each term provide the information indicated.

    1. Belief: basic definition – three types – characteristics of each type – unique examples from your own experience
    2. Value: basic definition – examples from the reading – unique examples from your own experience
    3. Norm: basic definition – two types – definition of each type – difference between each type – example of each from text – unique example of each
    4. Custom: basic definition – several characteristics
    5. Tradition: basic definition – several characteristics – difference between custom and tradition
    6. Ritual: basic definition – six genres of ritual – unique example from your own experience of each genre

    Non-material aspects of culture

    Social scientists have long distinguished material from non-material culture despite the fact that they are closely intertwined. Material culture consists of tangible objects that people create: tools, toys, buildings, furniture, images, and even print and digital media—a seemingly endless list of items. As we saw in Chapter 3, material culture can tell us a lot about the activities of people as remote in time as the Upper Paleolithic (and earlier). In fact, material culture is almost all we have to inform us about human culture in the deep past before the existence of written records. While material culture provides clues about the lives of the people who create and use it, material culture alone is silent about many other details, for much of human culture is non-material.

    Non-material culture includes such things as: beliefs, values, norms, customs, traditions, and rituals, to give just a few examples. In this chapter, we will discuss these typical categories of thought and action often associated with the concept of culture.


    A belief is a propositional attitude, a settled way of thinking. Since a proposition is a statement, beliefs when expressed (at least in English) generally take the form of declarative sentences. As Schwitzgebel (2015) has pointed out, the vast majority of our beliefs are actually quite mundane. We rarely bother to express them at all, and we certainly never question them. Here are a couple of examples of some pretty mundane beliefs:

    • All people have heads.
    • The hand on the end of my arm is my hand (not someone else’s).

    Mundane beliefs are, for the most part, universally shared by all normally functioning people. Of course, not all beliefs are universally shared. Some beliefs are purely personal. Mary may believe, with good reason, that eggs give her indigestion. George may believe, without very good evidence, that the best way to guarantee rain is to wash his car. Personal beliefs may be well founded or not so well founded. At any rate, mundane beliefs and purely personal beliefs are of no particular cross-cultural interest.

    Of greater interest for students of culture are the beliefs (and systems of beliefs) that are widely shared among members of particular communities of people. While mundane beliefs may be universally shared across most cultures, culturally shared beliefs tend to have boundaries. The members of one group may consider their own, shared cultural beliefs as self-evidently true, while members of other groups might consider the same beliefs as questionable, if not strange and arbitrary. Culturally relevant beliefs govern every conceivable aspect of social life: religious, political, economic, and domestic to mention only a few. (This categorization of beliefs is casual at best; it is not meant to exhaust all the possible ways the word belief is used in everyday English.)


    Cultural values are closely associated with both the beliefs and norms of a cultural community. Values can be defined as the abstract concepts or standards that represent the ideals of a group. They point to what the group most regards as right, good, beautiful, desirable, etc. Values are often identified in discourse by means of words or phrases, e.g., “freedom,” “equality,” “filial piety,” “respect for elders.” Values, though, go hand in hand with beliefs. Think of a value, when articulated, as a short hand way of referring to a belief. But of course, a value is hardly a value unless it is acted upon. In other words, we generally think of a value as a guide to conduct.

    What purpose do values serve? – we might want to ask. For one thing, shared cultural values may help promote group cohesion. They encourage group members to behave in ways that the group considers appropriate, proper, honorable, praiseworthy, and the like. As is true also with beliefs and norms though, not everyone necessarily adheres to the widely shared values of a culture to the same degree, and sometimes not at all. In fact, some cultural values may even be in conflict with other values.

    Cross-cultural comparisons of values using questionnaires have been particularly popular with social scientists for well over a half-century. Later in our explorations, we will examine several different frameworks that social scientists have proposed for studying differences in values across cultures.


    Norms are the expectations or rules, formal or informal, about how one should behave in a particular social situation. Sociologists since the time of William Graham Sumner (1906) have generally distinguished two different types of norms: folkways and mores. Folkways are a loose collection of usual or customary ways in which the members of a particular cultural community behave. Examples include: how people greet one another, how they dress, what they eat, how they prepare it, and how they eat it, how they handle inter-personal conflict, etc. Mores (pronounced “more-rays”) are stricter than folkways. They are the standards of moral conduct and ethical behavior that the people in a cultural community expect of one another. They include such things as rules against killing, rules about who can or cannot have sex with whom, and so on.

    The mores of a society are enforced in various ways. The most important mores are upheld by means of laws, which are explicitly stated rules. People who violate laws may have to pay a penalty, for example, going to jail, or paying a monetary fine. Other mores may not be strictly against the law but are nevertheless strongly endorsed by a society. Such mores may be upheld mainly by means of social sanctions, which are ways of communicating disapproval or putting pressure on people who violate a community’s mores. For example, people who violate mores for which there are no formal laws may find that the people of a community make life uncomfortable for them. The community may publically condemn the person (“shaming”) or avoid interacting with the person (“shunning”).

    One way to look at the difference between folkways and mores is to say that folkways reflect what a cultural community regards as appropriate or inappropriate, polite or rude. Mores, however, reflect what a community considers as morally or ethically right or wrong.

    Customs and Traditions

    Customs and traditions are two more terms often employed in discussing culture. A custom is a widely accepted way of doing something, specific to a particular society, place or time, and that has developed through repetition over a long period of time. So defined, it is hard to see how customs differ from folkways as discussed above. I am not sure they do. Whether a practice is called a folkway or custom might revolve around whether the practice is being discussed by a sociologist or a social historian.

    But what is a tradition? David Gross (1992: 8) defines tradition as “a set of practices, a constellation of beliefs, or mode of thinking that exists in the present, but was inherited from the past.” Gross further elaborates, writing that a tradition “can be a set of observances, a collection of doctrines or teachings, a particular type of behavior, a way of thinking about the world or oneself, a way of regarding others or interpreting reality.”

    Gross (1992: 12) acknowledges that customs and traditions have much in common and that therefore the differences between them are easily blurred. He insists, however, that from the perspective of society as a whole, customs are less important than traditions. Compared with traditions, Gross claims, customs involve “mostly superficial modes of behavior” that “are not as heavily invested with value.” For example, says Gross, long standing forms of greeting, like bowing in Japan, or shaking hands in the U.S. are “relatively insignificant social habits,” better characterized as customs than as traditions. Still, Gross admits, “the boundary separating custom from tradition is not always easy to discern.”

    To call any practice a tradition, however, is often taken to imply that the practice is not just of great value but also ancient, something that has been passed down through many generations unchanged. Scholarly studies of tradition, however, contradict this widely held assumption. Although some traditions may have ancient roots, rarely, if ever, does any practice remain fixed for all time. Times change, and traditions disappear or are significantly transformed.

    Even more startling, traditions are often invented and passed off as ancient, when in fact they are fully modern. As Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) have argued, the invention of tradition is a hallmark of that “recent historical innovation, the ‘nation,’ with its associated phenomena: nationalism, the nation-state, national symbols, histories and the rest.” Although today’s nation-states are modern inventions, they “generally claim to be the opposite … namely rooted in the remotest antiquity,” representing human communities that are entirely ‘natural’ (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983: 13-14).


    Ritual refers primarily to categories of action. Rites and ceremonies are other words commonly used to identify particular forms of ritual. Like the word “culture,” the word “ritual” has such a broad range of uses in everyday English that it might be hard to decide what counts as ritual and what does not. When I have asked American students to identify rituals, they often give examples such as:

    • gathering to watch fireworks on the 4th of July
    • throwing tailgate parties outside the stadium before football games
    • “trick or treating” on Halloween
    • gathering around the TV on Thanksgiving to watch parades and football
    • enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, including turkey and other dishes typical of the occasion

    I have always thought examples like these involve an overly loose use of the word ritual. To me the above examples are customs; I don’t think I would call them traditions. Not that there must always be clear boundaries between such concepts. Nevertheless, I have always thought of rituals as involving actions performed in very structured ways, often having some religious or spiritual significance, or perhaps a social or civic purpose.

    In studying ritual, one soon learns that there is little agreement among scholars about how exactly to define ritual. Some scholars take a broad approach. They might find no problem with the examples given above. Other scholars may be more likely to agree with me that using the term too broadly turns almost every collective routine into ritual. For instance, some scholars go so far as to regard the conventional handshake as a form of ritual. This seems to me a step too far.

    It is true, when we define ritual more narrowly, as I would like to do, many of us living in modern secular societies may find it hard to identify examples of rituals. Indeed, formal ritual activity seems to have become less important in modern societies than it was in more traditional societies. While the lives of people in traditional societies are often filled with ritual obligations, those of us living in modern secular societies tend to observe just a few rites to mark major life transitions such as birth, marriage, and death (Bell, 2009). We moderns tend to think of rituals as special activities, separate from our daily routines.

    How can we make sense of this unruly concept? In her book, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, Bell suggests a distinction between ritual and ritual-like activities.

    Ritual-like activities are activities that have some characteristics of ritual, such as formality, appeal to tradition, disciplined invariance, rule-governance, and performance. For instance, says Bell, there is a formality to routines of greeting and parting that make them ritual-like even if we do not consider them full-fledged rituals. The same can be said of table manners. On the other hand, the American celebration of Thanksgiving is a good example of an activity that is ritual-like in its appeal to tradition. Thanksgiving is often thought of as a kind of re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving although, as Bell (2009: 145) points out, stories about the origin of Thanksgiving may be more myth than historical fact. But let’s move quickly on to ritual proper.

    Since ritual practices vary so widely, scholars have often taken a genre approach in studying them, grouping them into categories according to shared characteristics. Some scholars have kept the number of categories very small. For instance, cultural anthropologist Victor Turner divided all rituals into one of two basic genres: life-crisis rituals and affliction rituals. On the other hand, Ronald Grimes, a professor of religious studies, proposed a system of sixteen different categories. However, a system that may be more convenient for our purposes is the one proposed by religious studies scholar Catherine Bell (2009). Her list of ritual genres offers a compromise between simplicity and completeness. Bell suggests that rituals can be grouped into six basic genres: 1) rites of passage, 2) calendrical and commemorative rites, 3) rites of exchange and communion, 4) rites of affliction, 5) rites of feasting, fasting, and festivals, and 6) political rites.

    Rites of passage (or life-cycle rites) are ceremonies that call attention to major events in the social life of individuals. These include rites associated with birth, the transition from childhood to adulthood, marriage, and death. Rites of passage can also mark initiation into religious communities, for example, baptism in Christian communities. Clubs, fraternities, and secret societies often put new initiates through ritual ordeals before accepting them into the new community.

    In some societies, rites of passage may be short and simple while in others they may be lengthy and complex. In the U.S. and many other industrialized countries, rites of passage are often less highly organized and less elaborate except perhaps in some subcultures or small communities. On the other hand, in agricultural villages in China, says Bell (2009: 96), birth rituals are often still observed in all their traditional complexity. When a young woman marries, she is brought to live with the husband’s family. She may be considered an outsider of little importance until she bears a son to carry on the family name. Her mother-in-law may engage in rituals involving presentation of offerings to special maternal deities. Pregnancy and childbirth are also surrounded by a seemingly endless series of ritual observances.

    Calendrical rites are another important category of ritual. Bell (2009: 103) distinguishes two types: seasonal and commemorative. Seasonal celebrations are associated with cycles of planting and harvesting among agriculturalists, while among pastoralists, the focus is on grazing and moving the herd. Sowing seeds in many different societies is commonly accompanied by offerings to ancestors or deities. Harvesting often involves the giving of the first yield to the gods or the ancestors, as well as communal feasting accompanied by music, dance, and a relaxing of social restraint. Commemorative celebrations usually revolve around remembrance or re-enactment of important historical events (even though the supposed date of an event may not be known for sure). The events commemorated are often events that play a role in a particular religious tradition or celebrate aspects of national heritage. The rite of Holy Communion in the Catholic Church, for instance, is performed in remembrance of the Last Supper.

    Then there are rites of exchange and communion. These involve the making of offerings to a god or gods, sometimes with the expectation of getting something in return, like a good harvest. Offerings may also be made to praise or please or appease a god or deity. In some cultures, the offering consisted of the sacrifice of an animal (e.g., the ancient Hebrews), and some cultures have even practiced human sacrifice (e.g., the Aztecs). Rituals of affliction, on the other hand, are actions taken to diagnose and deal with the unseen causes of misfortune or to alleviate physical or mental illnesses. Many pre-modern cultures believe such problems are caused by things like evil spirits, spirits of the dead, magic or witchcraft. Rituals of affliction often involve not just the afflicted but entire communities and have as their objective the idea of purification or exorcism.

    Another ritual genre is that of feasting, fasting, and festivals. These usually place less overt emphasis on the presence of deities than rites of exchange and communion. Instead what seems to be important is the public display of cultural and religious commitment and sentiment. A good example of ritual fasting is the worldwide Muslim communal fasting during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink anything from the time the sun rises until it sets. (Exceptions are made for the elderly, the sick, and for pregnant women, as well as for people traveling.) After Ramadan, Muslims celebrate Eid al Fitr, literally the “feast of breaking the fast.” Well known festivals include Carnival in places like New Orleans and Brazil and water festivals that take place in many countries in East and Southeast Asia (e.g., China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand).

    Finally, observes Bell (2009: 220), political rites make up a diverse and loose genre. These include ceremonial practices that display and promote the power of political institutions. The coronation of the Queen of England would be an example. In addition, national salutes might also count as political rites, e.g., the American pledge of allegiance, or to give a more sinister example from the WWII era, the “Heil Hitler” salute. Revolutionary or anti-establishment gestures could also be counted as political rites, for instance, cross-burning by the KKK.

    Final reflection

    The terms covered in this chapter are among the most common terms used in enumerating what we have called non-material aspects of culture. But to reiterate a point made at the beginning of the chapter, it is not always possible to separate material and non-material culture. For instance, while we have defined a custom as a widely accepted way of doing something, that doing may very well include a material object. For instance, it might be customary to send a friend or relative a birthday greeting—an action, but that greeting may take material form—a birthday card. Or let’s take ritual as an example. Although a ritual is an action, ritual actions often employ ritual objects: incense, candles, chalices, prayer beads, bells, gongs, drums, and so on.

    Not only can it be difficult to separate material and non-material culture, it is also not always easy to distinguish between some categories of non-material culture discussed in this chapter. For instance, we have already discussed the difficulty of distinguishing between a custom and a tradition. Is there a difference between a custom and a norm? If there is, it is surely subtle and unimportant for our purposes. On the other hand, there clearly is a difference between a law (at least in the modern sense of the term) and a more.

    At this point, I would invite you, dear reader, to go through the list of terms introduced in the chapter and provide original examples of beliefs, values, norms, customs, traditions, and rituals that you consider to be elements of a cultural community that you are familiar with.


    For Further Thought and Discussion
    1. Identify at least three beliefs that are important in a cultural community that you identify with. Try to discover beliefs that govern different aspects of life, e.g., political, economic, social, or some other. Can you name an associated value for each belief?
    2. See if you can discover a cultural belief that is at odds with one of your own deeply held personal beliefs.
    3. We often belong to more than one cultural community. Sometimes the beliefs of one community are in conflict with the beliefs of another community. Can you identify any such situation in your own experience?
    For Further Research
    1. Culture is not something fixed. Cultures can change over time. Can you discover a custom that has changed in the lifetime of someone that you know (e.g., a parent or grandparent)?
    2. Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) have argued that what we regard as ancient traditions are sometimes more recent than we think. Can you discover any tradition that is actually more recent than people commonly believe?


    Bell, C. (2009). Ritual: Perspectives and dimensions (Revised Edition), Oxford University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

    Gross, D. (1992). The past in ruins. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

    Hobsbawm, E. & Ranger, T. (Eds.). (1983). The invention of tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Schwitzgebel, E. (2015). “Belief.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from

    Stephenson, B. (2015). Ritual: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press. Ebook.

    Sumner, W. G. (1906/1940). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Boston: Ginn and Company.

    This page titled 5: Culture as Thought and Action is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Nolan Weil (Rebus Community) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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