Definition of Culture
A culture is a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artefacts that members
of a society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from
generation to generation through learning.
A society is a large group of people (e.g. Canadian society) who interact with one another in
accordance with the values, beliefs, customs, behaviours, and artefacts of a common culture.
As human beings, we are social animals. What does this mean? It means that our very
survival depends upon the social relationships we form with each other. A good example of this
is in the film Castaway starring Tom Hanks. Even though he was able to physically survive on a
deserted island he still had the human need to develop a social relationship -- in his case it was
with a ball! Despite the fact that it was a one-sided relationship (although towards the end we did
believe Tom was hearing the ball speak back to him!) he still needed to be able to engage in a
We are also cultural animals and in order to survive together we develop technologies, different
social institutions (can you name some?), a way of communicating together, rules governing our
behaviour, values and a belief system. All of these things bind us together in social relationships.
People who belong to the same "culture" interpret the world and express themselves in basically
the same way.
Culture is a way of making sense of the world. Socialization is the process whereby we learn
our society's culture.
Four Primary Characteristics of Culture:
(1) Culture is learned. It is not linked to a natural, biological inevitability.
(2) Culture is rooted in symbols -- physical, vocal, or gestural signs that have arbitrary, socially
learned meanings to them.
(3) Culture is a system shared by all members of a society. Embodiment of the collective
rather than just the behavior of one of them.
(4) The elements of culture are generally integrated -- all of these above mentioned
components fit together to make a whole.
(Source: Naiman, 2004:49)
1 | P a g e Types of Culture
What or who makes and regulates culture? Who decides if culture is high culture, popular
culture, or counterculture? Despite the fact that the foundation of culture is a system shared by
all members of a society, embodying the collective rather than the behavior of one, popular or
mass culture is currently produced and created by a select few -- the ones who hold power in our
society. Popular culture, therefore, has become an important tool for our society's ruling
elite to maintain their position of power over the rest of us.
Different cultures exhibit different properties. Here, we break down "culture" into five types:
folk culture, high culture, mass culture, popular culture, and counterculture/subculture.
Each "type" refers to a way scholars have described certain cultural tendencies. What I want to
stress is not that these definitions "sum up" certain types of culture, but rather that each
definition describes a possible way of talking about "culture."
A folk culture consists of the shared values, beliefs, customs, knowledge and traditions of a
particular community or socially identifiable group of people, who tend to be known to one
another and experience frequent face-to-face contact with one another. A folk culture serves the
immediate needs of its members, who tend to be actively involved in the creation and
maintenance of their cultural values. In our modern, industrialized society, folk cultures operate
within small, working-class communities.
High culture consists of allegedly "superior" customs and values. Historically seen as "good," it
emerges out of the Enlightenment era of Western Philosophy. It specifies that "culture" goes
hand-in-hand with civilization, enlightenment and education of humankind. In this view,
classical music (Mozart), literature (Shakespeare), and high art (Vermeer) all reach for the goal
of the perfection of the human spirit whereas Hollywood film, network TV shows, pop music,
and comic books all appeal to inferior instincts.
When someone refers to "mass culture," they usually refer to what they believe is our society's
crudest elements. Contrary to "folk" culture and "high" culture, mass culture denotes both a
quantity and a quality. Mass culture reaches a large amount of people, typically through
technology and mass media. According to its critics, here the quality of culture diminishes as it is
an attempt to appeal to the greatest number of people.
2 | P a g e Popular Culture
People often use the concepts "mass culture" and "popular culture" interchangeably; however,
popular culture has a more positive connotation. Historically seen as "immoral" because it
contradicts high culture, popular culture is produced to appeal primarily to members of the lower
and working classes. Popular culture is the vernacular (people's) culture that prevails in a modern
society. The content of our popular culture is determined in large part by industries that
disseminate cultural material, for example the film, television, and publishing industries, as well
as the news media. But popular culture cannot be described as just the aggregate product of those
industries; instead, it is the result of a continuing interaction between those industries and the
people of the society who consume their products.
Mass Culture vs. Popular Culture
Mass culture and popular culture are terms used to describe sets of ideas, attitudes, beliefs and
ways of life. When sociologists refer to mass culture, they refer to those ideas, attitudes, etc.
mediated by mass communication technologies such as movies and television. "The masses" are
the people who receive these ideas via mass communication devices, and their culture is called
mass culture. When people refer to popular culture, they refer not only to the ideas mediated by
mass communication, but also to the ideas generated by people through face-to-face
Sociologists associate both mass culture and popular culture with the working classes;
however, the term mass culture depicts the working classes negatively as a class of people who
follow mass media mindlessly. Popular culture has a more positive connotation, depicting the
working classes as people who not only consume mass media products but also appropriate them
in a personally meaningful way.
Counterculture or Subculture
Countercultures and subcultures are groups of people who share a set of cultural beliefs,
behaviours, and practices, which differs significantly from the culture of the large