Culture is fundamentally human. It encompasses all of the objects, artifacts, institutions,
organizations, ideas, and beliefs that make up the social environment of human life. Culture
consists of both material and non-material elements and serves as a group’s memory, transmitted
from one generation to the next, thus ensuring the group’s continuity.
All societies have values and norms; these are the ‘glue’ that hold society together. There
are three kinds of norms: folkways, mores, and taboos. These vary in terms of importance and
the extent to which they are enforced.
While functionalist theorists emphasize that culture can be a stabilizing force in society,
promoting group cohesiveness, critical sociologists have noted this apparent stability actually
reflects the perspective of the dominant group and maintains the status quo; however, Max
Weber makes a compelling argument that a change in one cultural element (e.g., religion) can
have a powerful effect on another cultural element (e.g., the economy).
More recently, Pierre Bourdieu notes that culture can act as a divisive force. According to
Bourdieu, those who possess what he calls ‘cultural capital’ are more likely to advance socially
and economically than those who possess little cultural capital. Cultural capital is not evenly
distributed throughout the class structure, and those who start out with more end up with more—
and the class structure reproduces itself from generation to generation.
Symbolic interactionists, who view society through a microsociological lens, point out that
culture is dynamic, arising out of people’s interaction and exchange of symbols. While
functionalist and critical theorists are more likely to view the individual as being passively
shaped by culture, symbolic interactionists take a more interactive view, pointing out that as
much as people are influenced by culture, they influence culture in return.
In this chapter, you will
• interpret culture as a symbolic environment in which humans live;
• connect micro and macro aspects of culture in several ways; and,
• consider the significance of cultural differences in our society and around the world.
cultural integration: The process whereby parts of a culture (for example, ideal culture and real
culture) come to fit together and complement one another. 2
cultural capital: A body of knowledge and interpersonal skills that helps people to get ahead
socially, which often includes learning about and participating in high culture.
culture: Our uniquely human environment. It includes all of the objects, artifacts, institutions,
organizations, ideas, and beliefs that make up the social environment of human life.
ethnocentrism: The tendency to use one’s own culture as a basis for evaluating other cultures.
folkways: Norms based on popular habits and traditions, and ordinary usages and conventions
of everyday life.
high culture: The set of preferences, tastes, and norms that are characteristic of, or supported
by, high status groups, including fine arts, classical music, ballet, and other ‘highbrow’ concerns.
ideal culture: That aspect of culture that lives only in people’s minds. It is the set of values
people claim to believe in, profess openly, hold up for worship and adoration, and in day-to-day
life pay ‘lip service’ to.
material culture: The physical and technological aspects of people’s lives, including all the
physical objects that members of a culture create and use.
mores: Norms that carry moral significance. People believe that mores contribute to the general
welfare and continuity of the group.
non-material culture: People’s values, beliefs, philosophies, conventions, and ideologies; in
short, all the aspects of a culture that do not have a physical existence.
norms: The rules or expectations that serve as common guidelines for behaviour in daily life,
telling us what kinds of behaviour are appropriate or inappropriate in specific social situations.
organizational culture: The way an organization has learned to deal with its environment; it
includes norms and values that are subculturally distinct to the organization.
popular (or mass) culture: The culture of ordinary people. It includes those objects,
preferences, and tastes that are widespread in a society.
signs: Gestures, artifacts, or words that express or meaningfully represent something other than
symbol: A sign whose relationship with something else also expresses a value or evokes an
taboos: Powerful social beliefs that a particular act, food, place, etc. is totally repulsive and
dangerous. Violation of the taboo is supposed to result in immediate punishment. 3
values: Socially shared conceptions of what a group or society considers good, right, and
counterculture: A subculture that rejects conventional norms and values and adopts alternative
subculture: A group that shares the cultural elements of the larger society but which also has its
own distinctive values, beliefs, norms, style of dress, and behaviour patterns.
cultural literacy: A solid knowledge of the traditional culture, which contains the building
blocks of all communication and learning.
real culture: The ways people dress, talk, act, relate, and think in everyday life, as distinct from
their idealized or proclaimed culture.
Alexander, V. D. (2003). Sociology of the Arts: Exploring Fine and Popular Forms. Oxford,
This is a comprehensive and sophisticated overview of the sociology of art, outlining the
theoretical perspectives and both classic and current research on art, music, literature, and
McRobbie, A. (2009). The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change. Los
This book provides an intersection of feminism and culture, laying out a theory of gender
power used to analyze social and cultural phenomena in women’s lives today.
Burke, J. (1995). The Day the Universe Changed. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.
This account of the key changes in the cultural history of the world is based on a PBS
television series and focuses on the issue of a global culture.
Spillman, L. (ed.) (2002). Cultural Sociology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
This is an engaging overview of several empirical studies and theoretical works in the
sociology of culture. It is a good foundation for someone interested in exploring and learning
about the field in greater depth.
Lieberson, S. (2000). A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change. New
Haven, CT/London: Yale University Press. 4
This is a highly interesting study of how cultural taste and fashion change over time.
Presented in a clear and scholarly manner, it explores how cultural patterns shape the names
chosen by parents for their children for the past two centuries.
Berger, J. (1980). Ways of Seeing: Based on the BBC Television Series. London: British
Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books.
As the subtitle suggests, this book is based on a 1970s BBC television series about how we
view paintings. Although some do not approve of Berger’s arguments, the work was seminal
in shaping the view of postmodern art.
National Film Board of Canada (nfb)
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (cbc)
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (unesco)
Ontario Ministry of Culture
Baby Name Wizard
Multiple Choice Questions
1. Sociologists define all of the objects, artifacts, institutions organizations, ideas, and beliefs
that make up the social environment of human life as
a) material culture.
b) culture. 5
c) cultural integration.
d) non-material culture.
2. __________ are socially shared conceptions of what a group or society considers good, right,
3. Bodily adornment, gift giving, and funeral ceremonies are examples of
a) cultural mandates.
b) cultural attributes.
c) cultural levelling.
d) cultural universals.
4. The __________ views culture as having an integrative role in society.
a) symbolic interactionist perspective
b) functionalist perspective
c) cultural studies perspective
d) production of culture perspective
5. The rules or expectations that serve as common guidelines for behaviour in daily life, telling
us which kinds of behaviour are appropriate or inappropriate in specific social situations are
6. __________ are norms based on popular habits and traditions, and ordinary usages and
conventions of everyday life.
d) Taboos 6
7. Norms that carry moral significance are known as
8. Violation of __________ result in immediate punishment.
d) all of the above
9. According to Karl Marx,
a) culture and ideas shape society and the beliefs and decisions of its members.
b) only the bourgeoisie shape culture.
c) material relationships between members of society shape culture.
d) conspicuous consumption promotes capitalist ideals.
10. The cultural studies perspective merges sociology with
a) media studies.
c) social geography.
d) literary scholarship.
11. Sociologists refer to the physical and technolog