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Defining Culture

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    Culture is universal. Every society has culture. Culture touches every “aspect of who and what we are” and becomes a lens of how we see and evaluate the world around us (Henslin 2011:36). Culture molds human nature and people learn to express nature in cultural ways. The sociological perspective acknowledges that all people are cultured.

    Each generation transmits culture to the next providing us a roadmap and instruction on how to live our lives. Cultural transmission occurs through the learning and expression of traditions and customs. Learning your own group’s culture is enculturation. Adults are agents of enculturation responsible for passing on culture to each generation.

    Through learning, people develop individual cultural characteristics that are part of a social pattern and integrated set of traits expressing a group’s core values (Kottak and Kozitis 2003). Thus, cultures are integrated and patterned systems serving a variety of social functions within groups. Enculturation gives members of a group a process to think symbolically, use language and tools, share common experiences and knowledge, and learn by observation, experience, as well as unconsciously from each other (Kottak and Kozitis 2003). The commonalities we share through culture establish familiarity and comfort among members of our own group.

    Non-Material vs. Material Culture

    Culture is either non-material or material. Non-material culture includes psychological and spiritual elements influencing the way individuals think and act. Material culture refers to physical artifacts people use and consume. Immaterial aspects of culture reflect social values, beliefs, norms, expressive symbols, and practices. Though these cultural elements are intangible, they often take on a physical form in our minds. Non-material culture becomes real in our perceptions and we begin to view them as objects as in the belief of God or other deity. Though we cannot physically see, hear, or touch a God belief makes them real and imaginable to us.

    Values or ideals define what is desirable in life and guides our preferences and choices. Changes in core values may seem threatening to some individuals or societies as “a threat to a way of life” (Henslin 2011:53). A strong bind to core values can also blind individuals to reality or objectivity reinforcing fallacies and stereotypes. Throughout history, there have always been differences between what people value (their ideal or public culture) and how they actually live their lives (their real or personal culture).

    Beliefs sometimes mirror values. One’s belief system may align or determine their values influencing thoughts and actions. Beliefs are not always spiritual or supernatural. For example, the belief in love or feelings of affection are internal emotions or physical reactions that exhibit physiological changes in human chemistry. Some beliefs are true representations of metaphysical or abstract thinking which transcend the laws of nature such as faith or superstitions.


    1. What is your personal cultural inventory? Describe your values and beliefs, the social norms in which you conform, the expressive symbols (including language) you understand and use regularly, your daily practices, and the artifacts you use frequently and those you treasure.
    2. How did you learn culture? Explain the socializing agents responsible for teaching you the traditions, customs, and rituals you live by and follow.
    3. What impact does culture have on your identity? Discuss how your culture influences your self-image, views, and role in society.
    4. How does culture influence your thinking and behavior towards others? Explain how your culture impacts the image or understanding you have about others including assumptions, stereotypes, and prejudices.

    Norms or rules develop out of a group’s values and beliefs. When people defy the rules, they receive social reactions resulting in a sanction. Sanctions are a form of social control (Griffiths, Keirns, Strayer, Cody-Rydzewsk, Scaramuzzo, Sadler, Vyain, Byer, and Jones 2015). When people follow the rules, they receive a positive sanction or reward, and when they break the rules, they receive a negative one or punishment that may include social isolation.

    Symbols help people understand the world (Griffiths et al. 2015). Symbols include gestures, signs, signals, objects, and words. Language is the symbolic system people use to communicate both verbally and in writing (Griffiths et al. 2015). Language constantly evolves and provides the basis for sharing cultural experiences and ideas.

    The Sapir-Worf Hypothesis suggests people experience the world through symbolic language that derives from culture itself (Griffiths et al. 2015). If you see, hear, or think of a word, it creates a mental image in your head helping you understand and interpret meaning. If you are not familiar with a word or its language, you are unable to comprehend meaning creating a cultural gap or boundary between you and the cultural world around you. Language makes symbolic thought possible.

    Practices or the behaviors we carry out develop from or in response to our thoughts. We fulfill rituals, traditions, or customs based on our values, beliefs, norms, and expressive symbols.

    Culture dictates and influences how people live their lives. Cultural practices become habitual from frequent repetition (Henslin 2011). Habitualization leads to institutionalization by consensus of a social group. This results in cultural patterns and systems becoming logical and the viewed as the norm.

    Material culture is inherently unnatural, such as buildings, machines, electronic devices, clothing, hairstyles, etc. (Henslin 2011). Dialogue about culture often ignores its close tie to material realities in society. The cultural explanations we receive from family, friends, school, work, and media justify cultural realities and utilities of the artifacts we use and consume. Human behavior is purposeful and material culture in our lives derives from the interests of our socializing agents in our environment.

    This page titled Defining Culture is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Vera Kennedy.