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Social Sci LibreTexts

3.1G: Nonmaterial Culture

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  • Non-material culture includes the behaviors, ideas, norms, values, and beliefs that contribute to a society’s overall culture.

    Learning Objectives

    • Analyze the different ways norms, values and beliefs interact to form non-material culture

    Key Points

    • In contrast to material culture, non-material culture does not include physical objects or artifacts.
    • It includes things that have no existence in the physical world but exist entirely in the symbolic realm.
    • Examples are concepts such as good and evil, mythical inventions such as gods and underworlds, and social constructs such as promises and football games.
    • The concept of symbolic culture draws from semiotics and emphasizes the way in which distinctively human culture is mediated through signs and concepts.
    • The symbolic aspect of distinctively human culture has been emphasized in anthropology by Emile Durkheim, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, and many others.
    • Semiotics emphasises the way in which distinctively human culture is mediated through signs and concepts.

    Key Terms

    • social construct: Social constructs are generally understood to be the by-products of countless human choices rather than laws resulting from divine will or nature.

    Culture as a general concept consists of both material and non-material culture. Material culture is a term developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations. In contrast, non-material culture does not include physical objects or artifacts. Examples include any ideas, beliefs, values, or norms that shape a society.

    When sociologists talk about norms, they are talking about what’s considered normal, appropriate, or ordinary for a particular group of people. Social norms are group-held beliefs about how members should behave in a given context. Sociologists describe norms as laws that govern society’s behaviors. Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms. Norms are rules for behavior in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as good or evil. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it exhibits patriotism, which is a value. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral. In certain cultures they reflect the values of respect and support of friends and family. Different cultures honor different values. Finally, beliefs are the way people think the universe operates. Beliefs can be religious or secular, and they can refer to any aspect of life. For instance, many people in the U.S. believe that hard work is the key to success.

    Members take part in a culture even if each member’s personal values do not entirely agree with some of the normative values sanctioned in the culture. This reflects an individual’s ability to synthesize and extract aspects valuable to them from the multiple subcultures they belong to.

    Norms, values, and beliefs are all deeply interconnected. Together, they provide a way to understand culture.



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