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Elements of Culture

Module by: OpenStax College. E-mail the author

Summary:

  • Understand how values and beliefs differ from norms
  • Explain the significance of symbols and language to a culture
  • Explain the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
  • Discuss the role of social control within culture

Values and Beliefs

The first, and perhaps most crucial, elements of culture we will discuss are its values and beliefs. Values are a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society. Values are deeply embedded and critical for transmitting and teaching a culture’s beliefs. Beliefs are the tenets or convictions that people hold to be true. Individuals in a society have specific beliefs, but they also share collective values. To illustrate the difference, Americans commonly believe in the American Dream—that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. Underlying this belief is the American value that wealth is good and important.

Values help shape a society by suggesting what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, sought or avoided. Consider the value the culture the United States places upon youth. Children represent innocence and purity, while a youthful adult appearance signifies sexuality. Shaped by this value, individuals spend millions of dollars each year on cosmetic products and surgeries to look young and beautiful. The United States also has an individualistic culture, meaning people place a high value on individuality and independence. In contrast, many other cultures are collectivist, meaning the welfare of the group and group relationships are a primary value.

Living up to a culture’s values can be difficult. It’s easy to value good health, but it’s hard to quit smoking. Marital monogamy is valued, but many spouses engage in infidelity. Cultural diversity and equal opportunities for all people are valued in the United States, yet the country’s highest political offices have been dominated by white men.

Values often suggest how people should behave, but they don’t accurately reflect how people do behave. Values portray an ideal culture, the standards society would like to embrace and live up to. But ideal culture differs from real culture, the way society actually is, based on what occurs and exists. In an ideal culture, there would be no traffic accidents, murders, poverty, or racial tension. But in real culture, police officers, lawmakers, educators, and social workers constantly strive to prevent or repair those accidents, crimes, and injustices. American teenagers are encouraged to value celibacy. However, the number of unplanned pregnancies among teens reveals that not only is the ideal hard to live up to, but that the value alone is not enough to spare teenagers from the potential consequences of having sex.

One way societies strive to put values into action is through rewards, sanctions, and punishments. When people observe the norms of society and uphold its values, they are often rewarded. A boy who helps an elderly woman board a bus may receive a smile and a “thank you.” A business manager who raises profit margins may receive a quarterly bonus. People sanction certain behaviors by giving their support, approval, or permission, or by instilling formal actions of disapproval and non-support. Sanctions are a form of social control, a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms. Sometimes people conform to norms in anticipation or expectation of positive sanctions: good grades, for instance, may mean praise from parents and teachers.

When people go against a society’s values, they are punished. A boy who shoves an elderly woman aside to board the bus first may receive frowns or even a scolding from other passengers. A business manager who drives away customers will likely be fired. Breaking norms and rejecting values can lead to cultural sanctions such as earning a negative label—lazy, no-good bum—or to legal sanctions such as traffic tickets, fines, or imprisonment.

Values are not static; they vary across time and between groups as people evaluate, debate, and change collective societal beliefs. Values also vary from culture to culture. For example, cultures differ in their values about what kinds of physical closeness are appropriate in public. It’s rare to see two male friends or coworkers holding hands in the United States where that behavior often symbolizes romantic feelings. But in many nations, masculine physical intimacy is considered natural in public. This difference in cultural values came to light when people reacted to photos of former president George W. Bush holding hands with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2005. A simple gesture, such as hand-holding, carries great symbolic differences across cultures.

Figure 1: In many parts of Africa and the Middle East, it is considered normal for men to hold hands in friendship. How would Americans react to these two soldiers? (Photo courtesy of Geordie Mott/Wikimedia Commons)
Two male soldiers in uniform are shown from behind walking and holding hands.

Norms

So far, the examples in this chapter have often described how people are expected to behave in certain situations—for example, when buying food or boarding a bus. These examples describe the visible and invisible rules of conduct through which societies are structured, or what sociologists call norms. Norms define how to behave in accordance with what a society has defined as good, right, and important, and most members of the society adhere to them.

Formal norms are established, written rules. They are behaviors worked out and agreed upon in order to suit and serve the most people. Laws are formal norms, but so are employee manuals, college entrance exam requirements, and “no running” signs at swimming pools. Formal norms are the most specific and clearly stated of the various types of norms, and the most strictly enforced. But even formal norms are enforced to varying degrees, reflected in cultural values.

For example, money is highly valued in the United States, so monetary crimes are punished. It’s against the law to rob a bank, and banks go to great lengths to prevent such crimes. People safeguard valuable possessions and install antitheft devices to protect homes and cars. A less strictly enforced social norm is driving while intoxicated. While it’s against the law to drive drunk, drinking is for the most part an acceptable social behavior. And though there are laws to punish drunk driving, there are few systems in place to prevent the crime. These examples show a range of enforcement in formal norms.

There are plenty of formal norms, but the list of informal norms—casual behaviors that are generally and widely conformed to—is longer. People learn informal norms by observation, imitation, and general socialization. Some informal norms are taught directly—“Kiss your Aunt Edna” or “Use your napkin”—while others are learned by observation, including observations of the consequences when someone else violates a norm. But although informal norms define personal interactions, they extend into other systems as well. Think back to the discussion of fast food restaurants at the beginning of this chapter. In the United States, there are informal norms regarding behavior at these restaurants. Customers line up to order their food, and leave when they are done. They don’t sit down at a table with strangers, sing loudly as they prepare their condiments, or nap in a booth. Most people don’t commit even benign breaches of informal norms. Informal norms dictate appropriate behaviors without the need of written rules.

Breaching Experiments:

Sociologist Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011) studied people’s customs in order to find out how societal rules and norms not only influenced behavior but shaped social order. He believed that members of society together create a social order (Weber 2011). His resulting book, Studies in Ethnomethodology, published in 1967, discusses people’s assumptions about the social make-up of their communities.

One of his research methods was known as a “breaching experiment.” His breaching experiments tested sociological concepts of social norms and conformity. In a breaching experiment, the researcher behaves in a socially awkward manner. The participants are not aware an experiment is in progress. If the breach is successful, however, these “innocent bystanders” will respond in some way. For example, if the experimenter is, say, a man in a business suit, and he skips down the sidewalk or hops on one foot, the passersby are likely to stare at him with surprised expressions on their faces. But the experimenter does not simply “act weird” in public. Rather, the point is to deviate from a specific social norm in a small way, to subtly break some form of social etiquette, and see what happens.

To conduct his ethnomethodology, Garfinkel deliberately imposed strange behaviors on unknowing people. Then he would observe their responses. He suspected that odd behaviors would shatter conventional expectations, but he wasn’t sure how. He set up, for example, a simple game of tic-tac-toe. One player was asked beforehand not to mark Xs and Os in the boxes but on the lines dividing the spaces instead. The other player, in the dark about the study, was flabbergasted and did not know how to continue. Their reactions of outrage, anger, puzzlement, or other emotions illustrated the existence of cultural norms that constitute social life. These cultural norms play an important role. They let us know how to behave around each other and how to feel comfortable in our community.

There are many rules about speaking with strangers in public. It’s okay to tell a woman you like her shoes. It’s not okay to ask if you can try them on. It’s okay to stand in line behind someone at the ATM. It’s not okay to look over their shoulder as they make their transaction. It’s okay to sit beside someone on a crowded bus. It’s weird to sit beside a stranger in a half-empty bus.

For some breaches, the researcher directly engages with innocent bystanders. An experimenter might strike up a conversation in a public bathroom, where it’s common to respect each other’s privacy so fiercely as to ignore other people’s presence. In a grocery store, an experimenter might take a food item out of another person’s grocery cart, saying, “That looks good! I think I’ll try it.” An experimenter might sit down at a table with others in a fast food restaurant, or follow someone around a museum, studying the same paintings. In those cases, the bystanders are pressured to respond, and their discomfort illustrates how much we depend on social norms. Breaching experiments uncover and explore the many unwritten social rules we live by.

Norms may be further classified as either mores or folkways. Mores (mor-ays) are norms that embody the moral views and principles of a group. Violating them can have serious consequences. The strongest mores are legally protected with laws or other formal norms. In the United States, for instance, murder is considered immoral, and it’s punishable by law (a formal norm). But more often, mores are judged and guarded by public sentiment (an informal norm). People who violate mores are seen as shameful. They can even be shunned or banned from some groups. The mores of the U.S. school system require that a student’s writing be in the student’s own words or use special forms (such as quotation marks and a whole system of citation) for crediting other writers. Writing another person’s words as if they are one’s own has a name—plagiarism. The consequences for violating this norm are severe, and can usually result in expulsion.

Unlike mores, folkways are norms without any moral underpinnings. Rather, folkways direct appropriate behavior in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture. Folkways indicate whether to shake hands or kiss on the cheek when greeting another person. They specify whether to wear a tie and blazer or a T-shirt and sandals to an event. In Canada, women can smile and say hello to men on the street. In Egypt, it’s not acceptable. In regions in the southern United States, bumping into an acquaintance means stopping to chat. It’s considered rude not to, no matter how busy one is. In other regions, people guard their privacy and value time efficiency. A simple nod of the head is enough.

Many folkways are actions we take for granted. People need to act without thinking to get seamlessly through daily routines; they can’t stop and analyze every action (Sumner 1906). People who experience culture shock may find that it subsides as they learn the new culture’s folkways and are able to move through their daily routines more smoothly Folkways might be small manners, learned by observation and imitated, but they are by no means trivial. Like mores and laws, these norms help people negotiate their daily life within a given culture.

Symbols and Language

Humans, consciously and subconsciously, are always striving to make sense of their surrounding world. Symbols—such as gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words—help people understand the world. Symbols provide clues to understanding experiences. They convey recognizable meanings that are shared by societies.

The world is filled with symbols. Sports uniforms, company logos, and traffic signs are symbols. In some cultures, a gold ring is a symbol of marriage. Some symbols are highly functional; stop signs, for instance, provide useful instruction. As physical objects, they belong to material culture, but because they function as symbols, they also convey nonmaterial cultural meanings. Some symbols are only valuable in what they represent. Trophies, blue ribbons, or gold medals, for example, serve no other purpose other than to represent accomplishments. But many objects have both material and nonmaterial symbolic value.

A police officer’s badge and uniform are symbols of authority and law enforcement. The sight of an officer in uniform or a squad car triggers reassurance in some citizens, and annoyance, fear, or anger in others.

It’s easy to take symbols for granted. Few people challenge or even think about stick figure signs on the doors of public bathrooms. But those figures are more than just symbols that tell men and women which bathrooms to use. They also uphold the value, in the United States, that public restrooms should be gender exclusive. Even though stalls are relatively private, most places don’t offer unisex bathrooms.

Figure 2: Some road signs are universal. But how would you interpret the signage on the right? (Photo (a) courtesy of Andrew Bain/flickr; Photo (b) courtesy of HonzaSoukup/flickr)
(a) (b)
The photo (a) shows a sign of a pedestrian crossing and an arrow.The photo (b) shows a sign with writing in Chinese.

Symbols often get noticed when they are used out of context. Used unconventionally, symbols convey strong messages. A stop sign on the door of a corporation makes a political statement, as does a camouflage military jacket worn in an antiwar protest. Together, the semaphore signals for “N” and “D” represent nuclear disarmament—and form the well-known peace sign (Westcott 2008). Today, some college students have taken to wearing pajamas and bedroom slippers to class, clothing that was formerly associated only with privacy and bedtime. Though students might deny it, the outfit defies traditional cultural norms and makes a statement.

Even the destruction of symbols is symbolic. Effigies representing public figures are beaten to demonstrate anger at certain leaders. In 1989, crowds tore down the Berlin Wall, a decades-old symbol of the division between East and West Germany, communism, and capitalism.

While different cultures have varying systems of symbols, there is one that is common to all: language. Language is a symbolic system through which people communicate and through which culture is transmitted. Some languages contain a system of symbols used for written communication, while others rely only on spoken communication and nonverbal actions.

Societies often share a single language, and many languages contain the same basic elements. An alphabet is a written system made of symbolic shapes that refer to spoken sound. Taken together, these symbols convey specific meanings. The English alphabet uses a combination of 26 letters to create words; these 26 letters make up over 600,000 recognized English words (OED Online 2011).

Rules for speaking and writing vary even within cultures, most notably by region. Do you refer to a can of carbonated liquid as “soda,” pop,” or “Coke”? Is a household entertainment room a “family room,” “rec room,” or “den”? When leaving a restaurant, do you ask your server for a “check,” the “ticket,” or your “bill”?

Language is constantly evolving as societies create new ideas. In this age of technology, people have adapted almost instantly to new nouns such as “e-mail” and “Internet,” and verbs such as “downloading,” “texting,” and “blogging.” Twenty years ago, the general public would have considered these nonsense words.

Even while it constantly evolves, language continues to shape our reality. This insight was established in the 1920s by two linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. They believed that reality is culturally determined, and that any interpretation of reality is based on a society’s language. To prove this point, the sociologists argued that every language has words or expressions specific to that language. In the United States, for example, the number 13 is associated with bad luck. In Japan, however, the number four is considered unlucky, since it is pronounced similarly to the Japanese word for “death.”

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is based on the idea that people experience their world through their language, and that they therefore understand their world through the culture embedded in their language. The hypothesis, which has also been called linguistic relativity, states that language shapes thought (Swoyer 2003). Studies have shown, for instance, that unless people have access to the word “ambivalent,” they don’t recognize an experience of uncertainty due to conflicting positive and negative feelings about one issue. Essentially, the hypothesis argues, if a person can’t describe the experience, the person is not having the experience.

In addition to using language, people communicate without words. Nonverbal communication is symbolic, and, as in the case of language, much of it is learned through one’s culture. Some gestures are nearly universal: smiles often represent joy and crying often represents sadness. Other nonverbal symbols vary across cultural contexts in their meaning. A thumbs-up, for example, indicates positive reinforcement in the United States, whereas in Russia and Australia, it is an offensive curse (Passero 2002). Other gestures vary in meaning depending on the situation and the person. A wave of the hand can mean many things, depending on how it’s done and for whom. It may mean “hello,” “goodbye,” “no thank you,” or “I’m royalty.” Winks convey a variety of messages, including “We have a secret,” “I’m only kidding,” or “I’m attracted to you.” From a distance, a person can understand the emotional gist of two people in conversation just by watching their body language and facial expressions. Furrowed brows and folded arms indicate a serious topic, possibly an argument. Smiles, with heads lifted and arms open, suggest a lighthearted, friendly chat.

Is the United States Bilingual?:

In 1991, when she was 6 years old, Lucy Alvarez attended a school that allowed for the use of both English and Spanish. Lucy’s teacher was bilingual, the librarian offered bilingual books, and many of the school staff spoke both Spanish and English. Lucy and many of her classmates who spoke only Spanish at home were lucky. According to the U.S. Census, 13.8 percent of U.S. residents speak a non-English language at home. That’s a significant figure, but not enough to ensure that Lucy would be encouraged to use her native language in school (Mount 2010).

Lucy’s parents, who moved to Texas from Mexico, struggled under the pressure to speak English. Lucy might easily have gotten lost and left behind if she’d felt the same pressure in school. In 2008, researchers from Johns Hopkins University conducted a series of studies on the effects of bilingual education (Slavin et al. 2008). They found that students taught in both their native tongue and English make better progress than those taught only in English.

Technically, the United States has no official language. But many believe English to be the rightful language of the United States, and over 30 states have passed laws specifying English as the official tongue. Proponents of English-only laws suggest that a national ruling will save money on translation, printing, and human resource costs, including funding for bilingual teachers. They argue that setting English as the official language will encourage non-English speakers to learn English faster and adapt to the culture of the United States more easily (Mount 2010).

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) oppose making English the official language, claiming that it violates the rights of non-English speakers. English-only laws, they believe, deny the reality of our nation’s diversity and unfairly target Latinos and Asians. They point to the fact that much of the debate on this topic has risen since 1970, a time when the United States experienced new waves of immigration from Asia and Mexico.

Today, a lot of product information gets written in multiple languages. Enter a store like Home Depot and you’ll find signs in both English and Spanish. Buy a children’s product and the safety warnings will be presented in multiple languages. While marketers are financially motivated to reach the largest number of consumers possible, this trend also may help people acclimate to a culture of bilingualism.

Studies show that most American immigrants eventually abandon their native tongue and become fluent in English. Bilingual education helps with that transition. Today, Lucy Alvarez is an ambitious and high-achieving college student. Fluent in both English and Spanish, Lucy is studying law enforcement, a field that seeks bilingual employees. The same bilingualism that contributed to her success in grade school will help her thrive professionally as a law officer serving her community.

Figure 1: Nowadays, many signs—on streets and in stores—include both English and Spanish. What effect does this have on members of society? What effect does it have on our culture? (Photo courtesy of istolethetv/flickr)
A keep out sign with text in English and Spanish is shown.

Summary

A culture consists of many elements, such as the values and beliefs of its society. Culture is also governed by norms, including laws, mores, and folkways. The symbols and language of a society are key to developing and conveying culture.

Section Quiz

Exercise 1

A nation’s flag is:

  1. A symbol
  2. A value
  3. A culture
  4. A folkway

Answer

A

Exercise 2

The existence of social norms, both formal and informal, is one of the main things that inform ___________, otherwise known as a way to encourage social conformity.

  1. values
  2. sanctions
  3. social control
  4. mores

Answer

C

Exercise 3

The biggest difference between mores and folkways is that

  1. mores are primarily linked to morality, whereas folkways are primarily linked to being commonplace within a culture
  2. mores are absolute, whereas folkways are temporary
  3. mores refer to material culture, whereas folkways refer to nonmaterial culture
  4. mores refer to nonmaterial culture, whereas folkways refer to material culture

Answer

A

Exercise 4

The notion that people cannot feel or experience something that they do not have a word for can be explained by:

  1. linguistics
  2. Sapir-Whorf
  3. Ethnographic imagery
  4. bilingualism

Answer

B

Exercise 5

Cultural sanctions can also be viewed as ways that society:

  1. Establishes leaders
  2. Determines language
  3. Regulates behavior
  4. Determines laws

Answer

C

Short Answer

Exercise 1

What do you think of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Do you agree or disagree with it? Cite examples or research to support your point of view.

Exercise 2

How do you think your culture would exist if there were no such thing as a social “norm”? Do you think chaos would ensue or relative peace could be kept? Explain.

Further Research

The science-fiction novel, Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delaney was based upon the principles of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Read an excerpt from the novel here: http://openstaxcollege.org/l/Babel-17

References

Mount, Steve. 2010. “Constitutional Topic: Official Language.” USConstitution.net, last modified January 24. Retrieved January 3, 2012 (http://www.usconstitution.net/consttop_lang.html).

OED Online. 2011. Oxford University Press. Retrieved May 5, 2011 (http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/260911).

Passero, Kathy. 2002. “Global Travel Expert Roger Axtell Explains Why.” Biography July:70–73,97–98.

Slavin, R. E., A. Cheung, C. Groff, and C. Lake. 2008. “Effective Reading Programs for Middle and High Schools: A Best-Evidence Synthesis.” Reading Research Quarterly 43(3):290–322.

Sumner, William G. 1906. Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Ginn and Co.

Swoyer, Chris. 2003. “The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E. N. Zalta, Winter. Retrieved May 5, 2011 (http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2003/entries/relativism/supplement2.html).

Vaughan, R. M. 2007. “Cairo’s Man Show.” Utne Reader March–April:94–95.

Weber, Bruce. 2001. “Harold Garfinkel, a Common-Sense Sociologist, Dies at 93.” The New York Times, May 3. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/us/04garfinkel.html?_r=2).

Westcott, Kathryn. 2008. “World’s Best-Known Protest Symbol Turns 50.” BBC News, March 20. Retrieved January 3, 2012 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7292252.stm).

Glossary

beliefs:
tenets or convictions that people hold to be true
folkways:
direct appropriate behavior in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture
formal norms:
established, written rules
ideal culture:
consists of the standards a society would like to embrace and live up to
informal norms:
casual behaviors that are generally and widely conformed to
language:
a symbolic system of communication
mores:
the moral views and principles of a group
norms:
the visible and invisible rules of conduct through which societies are structured
real culture:
the way society really is based on what actually occurs and exists
sanctions:
a way to authorize or formally disapprove of certain behaviors
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:
people understand the world based on their form of language
social control:
a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms
symbols:
gestures or objects that have meanings associated with them that are recognized by people who share a culture
values:
a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society

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