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Levels of Culture

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    There are three recognized levels of culture in society (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Each level of culture signifies particular cultural traits and patterns within groups. International culture is one level referring to culture that transcends national boundaries. These cultural traits and patterns spread through migration, colonization, and the expansion of multinational organizations (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Some illustrations are evident in the adoption and use of technology and social media across continents. For example, computers and mobile devices allow people to live and operate across national boundaries enabling them to create and sustain an international culture around a common interest or purpose (i.e., Olympics, United Nations, etc.).

    In contrast, cultural traits and patterns shared within a country is national culture. National culture is most easily recognizable in the form of symbols such as flags, logos, and colors as well as sound including national anthems and musical styles. Think about American culture, which values, beliefs, norms, and symbols are common only among people living in the United States? How about those living in China and Brazil?

    Subcultures, another level of culture, are subgroups of people within the same country (e.g.,doctors, lawyers, teachers, athletes, etc.). Subcultures have shared experiences and common cultural distinctions, but they blend into the larger society or cultural system. Subcultures have their own set of symbols, meanings, and behavioral norms, which develop by interacting with one another. Subcultures develop their own self-culture or idioculture that has significant meaning to members of the group and creates social boundaries for membership and social acceptance (Griswold 2013). Think about social cliques whether they be categorized as jocks, nerds, hipsters, punks, or stoners. Each group has a particular subculture from the artifacts they wear to the values and beliefs they exhibit. All groups form a subculture resulting in group cohesion and shared consciousness among its members.


    Research the sport, quadriplegic rugby. Examine the rules of the game, search for information or testimonials about any of the athletes, and watch videos of game highlights and athlete stories or interviews available online.

    1. Describe the subculture of the athletes (i.e., values, beliefs, symbols including meanings and expressions, behavioral norms, and artifacts relevant to the game).
    2. Discuss the socialization process of athletes into the sport.
    3. Explain how social context, cultural creation, and cultural acceptance work to create the idioculture of quadriplegic rugby.

    Doing Culture

    All people are cultured. Social scientists argue all people have a culture represented in values, beliefs, norms, expressive symbols, practices, and artifacts. This viewpoint transcends the humanities perspective that suggests one must project refined tastes, manners, and have a good education as exhibited by the elite class to have culture. The perspective of social scientists reinforce the ideology that cultures are integrated and patterned systems not simply desired characteristics that distinguish the ruling class.

    Cultural patterns are a set of integrated traits transmitted by communication or social interactions (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Consider the cultural patterns associated with housing. Each cultural group or society maintains a housing system comprised of particular cultural traits including kitchen, sofa, bed, toilet, etc. The cultural traits or each individual cultural item is part of the home or accepted cultural pattern for housing.

    Not only do people share cultural traits, but they may also share personality traits. These traits are actions, attitudes, and behaviors (e.g., honesty, loyalty, courage, etc.). Shared personality traits develop through social interactions from core values within groups and societies (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Core values are formally (legally or recognized) and informally (unofficial) emphasized to develop a shared meaning and social expectations. The use of positive (reward) and negative (punishment) sanctions help in controlling desired and undesired personality traits. For example, if we want to instill courage, we might highlight people and moments depicting bravery with verbal praise or accepting awards. To prevent cowardness, we show a deserter or run-away to depict weakness and social isolation.

    Doing culture is not always an expression of ideal culture. People’s practices and behaviors do not always abide or fit into the ideal ethos we intend or expect. The Christmas holiday is one example where ideal culture does not match the real culture people live and convey. Christmas traditionally represents an annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ; however, many individuals and families do not worship Christ or attend church on Christmas day but instead exchange gifts and eat meals together. The ideal or public definition of Christmas does not match the real or individual practices people express on the holiday. Throughout history, there have always been differences between what people value (ideal culture) and how they actually live their lives (real culture).

    Cultural Change

    People biologically and culturally adapt. Cultural change or evolution is influenced directly (e.g., intentionally), indirectly (e.g., inadvertently), or by force. These changes are a response to fluctuations in the physical or social environment (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Social movements often start in response to shifting circumstances such as an event or issue in an effort to evoke cultural change. People will voluntarily join for collective action to either preserve or alter a cultural base or foundation. The fight over control of a cultural base has been the central conflict among many civil and human rights movements. On a deeper level, many of these movements are about cultural rights and control over what will be the prevailing or dominant culture.

    Changes in cultural traits are either adaptive (better suited for the environment) or maladaptive (inadequate or inappropriate for the environment). During times of natural
    disasters, people must make cultural changes to daily norms and practices such as donating time and money to help relief efforts (adaptive) while also rebuilding homes and businesses. However, not all relief efforts direct money, energy, or time into long-term contributions of modifying physical infrastructures including roads, bridges, dams, etc. or helping people relocate away from high disaster areas (maladaptive). People adjust and learn to cope with cultural changes whether adaptive or maladaptive in an effort to soothe psychological or emotional needs.

    Though technology continues to impact changes in society, culture does not always change at the same pace. There is a lag in how rapidly cultural changes occur. Generally, material culture changes before non-material culture. Contact between groups diffuses cultural change among groups, and people are usually open to adapt or try new artifacts or material possessions before modifying their values, beliefs, norms, expressive symbols (i.e., verbal and non-verbal language), or practices. Influencing fashion trends is easier than altering people’s religious beliefs.

    Through travel and technological communications, people are sharing cultural elements worldwide. With the ability to travel and communicate across continents, time and space link the exchange of culture. Modern society is operating on a global scale (known as globalization) and people are now interlinked and mutually dependent. Acculturation or the merging of cultures is growing. Groups are adopting the cultural traits and social patterns of other groups leading to the blending of cultures. Cultural leveling is the process where cultures are becoming similar to one another because of globalization.

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