Define culture and explain why it is important in helping people in their daily life.

Culture and Society in a Changing World.

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Define culture and explain why it is important in helping people in their daily life.

What is culture? Culture is the knowledge, language, values, customs, and material objects that are passed from person to person and from one generation to the next in a human group or society. As previously defined, a society is a large social grouping that occupies the same geographic territory and is subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations. Whereas a society is composed of people, a culture is composed of ideas, behavior, and material possessions. Society and culture are interdependent; neither could exist without the other.

How important is culture in determining how people think and act on a daily basis? Simply stated, culture is essential for our individual survival and our communication with other people. We rely on culture because we are not born with the information we need to survive. We do not know how to take care of ourselves, how to behave, how to dress, what to eat, which gods to worship, or how to make or spend money. We must learn about culture through interaction, observation, and imitation in order to participate as members of the group. Sharing a common culture with others simplifies day-to-day interactions. However, we must also understand other cultures and the worldviews therein.

Just as culture is essential for individuals, it is also fundamental for the survival of societies. Culture has been described as the common foundation or core that makes individuals understandable to the larger group of which they are a part. Some system of rule making and enforcing necessarily exists in all societies. What would happen, for example, if all rules and laws in the United States suddenly disappeared? At a basic level, we need rules in order to navigate our bicycles and cars through traffic. At a more abstract level, we need rules to establish and protect our rights.

In order to survive, societies need rules about civility and tolerance. We are not born knowing how to express certain kinds of feelings toward others. When a person shows kindness or hatred toward another individual, some people may say “Well, that’s just human nature” when explaining this behavior. Such a statement is built on the assumption that what we do as human beings is determined by nature (our biological and genetic makeup) rather than nurture (our social environment)—in other words, that our behavior is instinctive. An instinct is an unlearned, biologically determined behavior pattern common to all members of a species that predictably occurs whenever certain environmental conditions exist. For example, spiders do not learn to build webs. They build webs because of instincts that are triggered by basic biological needs such as protection and reproduction.

Culture is similar to instincts in animals because it helps us deal with everyday life. Although people may have some instincts, what we most often think of as instinctive behavior can actually be attributed to reflexes and drives. A reflex is an unlearned, biologically determined involuntary response to some physical stimuli (such as a sneeze after breathing some pepper in through the nose or the blinking of an eye when a speck of dust gets in it). Drives are unlearned, biologically determined impulses common to all members of a species that satisfy needs such as those for sleep, food, water, or sexual gratification. Reflexes and drives do not determine how people will behave in human societies; even the expression of these biological characteristics is channeled by culture. For example, we may be taught that the “appropriate” way to sneeze (an involuntary response) is to use a tissue or turn our head away from others (a learned response). Similarly, we may learn to sleep on mats or in beds. Most contemporary sociologists agree that culture and social learning, not nature, account for virtually all of our behavior patterns.

Because humans cannot rely on instincts in order to survive, culture is a “tool kit” for survival (Swidler, 1986). From this approach, culture serves as a tool kit full of abstract things such as our beliefs and rituals, symbols, personal narratives, and overall perspectives on the world. People use these in a variety of configurations to help solve the problems they face. The tools we choose vary according to our own personality and the situations we face. We are not puppets on a string; we make choices from among the items in our own “tool kit.”

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Material Culture and Non material Culture

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Analyze material and non material cultures, and give examples of each.

Our cultural tool kit is divided into two major parts: material culture and non material culture. Material culture consists of the physical or tangible creations that members of a society make, use, and share. Initially, items of material culture begin as raw materials or resources such as ore, trees, and oil. Through technology, these raw materials are transformed into usable items, ranging from books and computers to guns and tanks. Technology is both concrete and abstract. For example, technology includes computers, smartphones, iPads and other tablets, and the knowledge and skills necessary to use them. At the most basic level, material culture is important because it is our buffer against the environment. For example, we create shelter to protect ourselves from the weather and to give ourselves privacy. Beyond the survival level, we make, use, and share objects that are interesting and important to us. Why are you wearing the particular clothes you have on today? Perhaps you’re communicating something about yourself, such as where you attend school, what kind of music you like, where you went on vacation, or something that you saw and liked online.

Non material culture consists of the abstract or intangible human creations of society that influence people’s behavior. Language, beliefs, values, rules of behavior, family patterns, and political systems are examples of non material culture. Even the gestures that we use in daily conversation are part of the non material culture in a society. As many international travelers and business people have learned, it is important to know what gestures mean in various nations (see Figure 3.1). Although the “hook ‘em Horns” sign—the pinky and index finger raised up and the middle two fingers folded down—is used by fans to express their support for University of Texas at Austin sports teams, for millions of Italians the same gesture means “Your spouse is being unfaithful.” In Argentina, rotating one’s index finger around the front of the ear means “You have a telephone call,” but in the United States it usually suggests that a person is “crazy.” Similarly, making a circle with your thumb and index finger indicates “OK” in the United States, but in Tunisia it means “I’ll kill you!”

Figure 3.1

Hand Gestures with Different Meanings

As international travelers and business people have learned, hand gestures may have very different meanings in different cultures.

© Gabriela Trojanowskar/ Shutterstock.com; © Andresr/ Shutterstock.com; Oplar/ Shutterstock.com

As the example of hand gestures shows, a central component of non material culture is beliefs—the mental acceptance or conviction that certain things are true or real. Beliefs may be based on tradition, faith, experience, scientific research, or some combination of these. Faith in a Supreme Being and trust in another person are examples of beliefs. We may also have a belief in items of material culture. When we travel by airplane, for instance, we believe that it is possible to fly at 33,000 feet and to arrive at our destination even though we know that we could not do this without the airplane itself.

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Cultural Universals

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Explain what is meant by the term cultural universal and provide three recent examples.

Because all humans face the same basic needs (such as for food, clothing, and shelter), we engage in similar activities that contribute to our survival. Anthropologist George Murdock (1945: 124) compiled a list of more than seventy cultural universals—customs and practices that occur across all societies. His categories included appearance (such as clothing and hairstyles), activities (such as sports, dancing, games, joking, and visiting), social institutions (such as family, law, and religion), and customary practices (such as cooking, folklore, gift giving, and hospitality). Whereas these general customs and practices may be present in all cultures, their specific forms vary from one group to another and from one time to another within the same group. For example, although telling jokes may be a universal practice, what is considered to be a joke in one society may be an insult in another.

How do sociologists view cultural universals? In terms of their functions, cultural universals are useful because they ensure the smooth and continual operation of society. A society must meet basic human needs by providing food, shelter, and some degree of safety for its members so that they will survive (Figure 3.2). Children and other new members (such as immigrants) must be taught the ways of the group. A society must also settle disputes and deal with people’s emotions. All the while, the self-interest of individuals must be balanced with the needs of society as a whole. Cultural universals help fulfill these important functions of society.

Figure 3.2

Food is a universal type of material culture, but what people eat and how they eat it vary widely, as shown in these cross-cultural examples from the United Arab Emirates (top), Holland (middle), and China (bottom). What might be some reasons for the similarities and differences that you see in these photos?

Celia Peterson/ArabianEye/Getty Images; Frans Lemmens/Photographer’s Choice/Getty Images; Eddie Gerald/Alamy

From another perspective, however, cultural universals are not the result of functional necessity; members of one society may have imposed these practices on members of another. Similar customs and practices do not necessarily constitute cultural universals. They may be an indication that a conquering nation used its power to enforce certain types of behavior on those who were defeated. Sociologists might ask questions such as “Who determines the dominant cultural patterns?” For example, although religion is a cultural universal, traditional religious practices of indigenous peoples (those who first live in an area) have often been repressed and even stamped out by subsequent settlers or conquerors who possess political and economic power over them. However, many people believe there is cause for optimism in the United States because the democratic ideas of this nation provide more guarantees of religious freedom than do some other nations.

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Symbols

A symbol is anything that meaningfully represents something else. Culture could not exist without symbols because there would be no shared meanings among people. Symbols can simultaneously produce loyalty and animosity, and love and hate. They help us communicate ideas such as love or patriotism because they express abstract concepts with visible objects (Figure 3.3). For example, flags can stand for patriotism, nationalism, school spirit, or religious beliefs held by members of a group or society. Symbols can stand for love (a heart on a valentine), peace (a dove), or hate (a Nazi swastika), just as words can be used to convey these meanings. Symbols can also transmit other types of ideas. A siren is a symbol that denotes an emergency situation and sends the message to clear the way immediately. Gestures are also a symbolic form of communication—a movement of the head, body, or hands can express our ideas or feelings to others. For example, in the United States, pointing toward your chest with your thumb or finger is a symbol for “me.”

Figure 3.3

The customs and rituals associated with weddings are one example of non material culture. What can you infer about beliefs and attitudes concerning marriage in the societies represented by these photographs?

© MNStudio/ Shutterstock.com; GRANT ROONEY PREMIUM/Alamy; Natalie Fobes/CORBIS

Symbols affect our thoughts about class. For example, how a person is dressed or the kind of car that he or she drives is often at least subconsciously used as a measure of that individual’s economic standing or position (Figure 3.4). With regard to clothing, although many people wear casual clothes on a daily basis, where the clothing was purchased is sometimes used as a symbol of social status. Were the items purchased at Walmart, Old Navy, Forever 21, or Saks? What indicators are there on the items of clothing—such as the Nike swoosh, some other logo, or a brand name—that indicate something about the status of the product? Automobiles and their logos are also symbols that have cultural meaning beyond the shopping environment in which they originate.

Figure 3.4

Would you expect the user of this device to be impoverished or affluent? What do possessions indicate about their owner’s social class?

© Denys Prykhodov/ Shutterstock.com

Finally, symbols may be specific to a given culture and have special meaning to individuals who share that culture but not necessarily to other people. Consider, for example, the use of certain foods to celebrate the Chinese New Year: Bamboo shoots and black-moss seaweed both represent wealth, peanuts and noodles symbolize a long life, and tangerines represent good luck. What foods in other cultures represent “good luck” or prosperity? In countries throughout the world, food and drink are powerful symbols of the history and cultural identity of people residing in the area.

Main content

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Language

Language is a set of symbols that expresses ideas and enables people to think and communicate with one another. Verbal (spoken) language and nonverbal (written or gestured) language help us describe reality. One of our most important human attributes is the ability to use language to share our experiences, feelings, and knowledge with others. Language can create visual images in our head, such as describing small white kittens as looking like “snowballs.” Language also allows people to distinguish themselves from outsiders and maintain group boundaries and solidarity.

Language is not solely a human characteristic. Other animals use sounds, gestures, touch, and smell to communicate with one another, but they use signals with fixed meanings that are limited to the immediate situation (the present) and that cannot encompass past or future situations. For example, chimpanzees can use elements of American Sign Language and manipulate physical objects to make “sentences,” but they are not physically endowed with the vocal apparatus needed to form the consonants required for oral language. As a result, nonhuman animals cannot transmit the more-complex aspects of culture to their offspring. Humans have a unique ability to manipulate symbols to express abstract concepts and rules and thus to create and transmit culture from one generation to the next.

Language and Social Reality

Does language create reality or simply communicate reality? Anthropological linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf have suggested that language not only expresses our thoughts and perceptions but also influences our perception of reality. According to the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, language shapes the view of reality of its speakers (Whorf, 1956; Sapir, 1961). If people are able to think only through language, then language must precede thought. If language actually shapes the reality that we perceive and experience, then some aspects of the world are viewed as important and others are virtually neglected because people know the world only in terms of the vocabulary and grammar of their own language.

If language does create reality, does our language trap us? Many social scientists agree that the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis overstates the relationship between language and our thoughts and behavior patterns. Although they acknowledge that language has many subtle meanings and that words used by people reflect their central concerns, most sociologists contend that language may influence our behavior and interpretation of social reality but does not determine it.

Language and Gender

How are language and gender related? What cultural assumptions about women and men does language reflect? Scholars have suggested several ways in which language and gender are intertwined:

  • The English language ignores women by using the masculine form to refer to human beings in general. For example, the word man is used generically in words such as chairman and mankind, which allegedly include both men and women.
  • Use of the pronouns he and she affects our thinking about gender. Pronouns show the gender of the person we expect to be in a particular occupation. For instance, nurses, secretaries, and schoolteachers are usually referred to as she, but doctors, engineers, electricians, and presidents are usually referred to as he.
  • Words have positive connotations when relating to male power, prestige, and leadership; when relating to women, they carry negative overtones of weakness, inferiority, and immaturity. Table 3.1 shows how gender-based language reflects the traditional acceptance of men and women in certain positions, implying that the jobs are different when filled by women rather than men.
  • Sources: Adapted from Korsmeyer, 1981: 122; and Miller and Swift, 1991.
  • A language-based predisposition to think about women in sexual terms reinforces the notion that women are sexual objects. Terms such as fox, broad, bitch, babe, and doll often describe women, which ascribe childlike or even pet-like characteristics to them. By contrast, men have performance pressures placed on them by being defined in terms of their sexual prowess, such as dude, stud, and hunk.

Gender in language has been debated and studied extensively for many years now, and some changes have occurred. The preference of many women to be called Ms. (rather than Miss or Mrs. in reference to their marital status) has received a degree of acceptance in public life and the media. Many organizations and publications have established guidelines for the use of nonsexist language and have changed titles such as chairman to chair or chairperson. To develop a more inclusive and equitable society, many analysts suggest that a more inclusive language is needed.

Language, Race, and Ethnicity

Language may create and reinforce our perceptions about race and ethnicity by transmitting preconceived ideas about the superiority of one category of people over another. Let’s look at a few images conveyed by words in the English language in regard to race/ethnicity:

  • Words may have more than one meaning and create and/or reinforce negative images. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, terms such as black-hearted (malevolent) and expressions such as a black mark (a detrimental fact) and Chinaman’s chance of success (unlikely to succeed) were used to associate the words black and Chinaman with derogatory imagery. Although these terms are seldom used today, they are occasionally referenced in popular culture and film.
  • Overtly derogatory terms such as nigger, kike, gook, honky, chink, spic, and other racial–ethnic slurs have been “popularized” in movies, music, comedy routines, and so on. Such derogatory terms are often used in conjunction with physical threats against persons.
  • Words are frequently used to create or reinforce perceptions about a group. For example, Native Americans have been referred to as “savage” and “primitive,” and African Americans have been described as “uncivilized,” “cannibalistic,” and “pagan.”
  • The “voice” of verbs may minimize or incorrectly identify the activities or achievements of people of color. For example, the use of the passive voice in the statement “African Americans were given the right to vote” ignores how African Americans fought for that right. Active-voice verbs may also inaccurately attribute achievements to people or groups. Some historians argue that cultural bias is shown by the very notion that “Columbus discovered America”—given that America was already inhabited by people who later became known as Native Americans.

In addition to these concerns about the English language, problems also arise when more than one language is involved. Across the nation, the question of whether the United States should have an “official” language continues to arise. Some people believe that there is no need to designate an official language; other people believe that English should be designated as the official language and that the use of any other language in official government business should be discouraged or negatively sanctioned. By 2014, thirty-one states (see Figure 3.5) had passed laws which require that all public documents, records, legislation, and regulations, as well as hearings, official ceremonies, and public meetings, be written or conducted solely in English.

Figure 3.5

States with Official English Laws

Why do some states have official English laws while others do not? How does the composition of the population in each state affect the passage of laws regarding language? Do you see any similarities in the states that have official English laws versus those that don’t? What conclusions can you draw from this map?

Source: U.S. English, 2016.

Are deep-seated social and cultural issues embedded in social policy decisions such as these? Although the United States has always been a nation of immigrants, in recent decades this country has experienced rapid changes in population that have brought about greater diversity in languages and cultures. Recent data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that although 79 percent of the people in this country speak only English at home, 21 percent speak a language other than English. Spanish is the language most frequently used at home by non-English speakers (see Figure 3.6).

Figure 3.6

Languages Spoken at Home, other than English

aIn Census Bureau terminology, a household consists of people who occupy a housing unit. bIncludes Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamarro, Samoan, and other Pacific Islanders. cIncludes Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Asian, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, and other Asians.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2017.

Language is an important means of cultural transmission. Through language, children learn about their cultural heritage and develop a sense of personal identity in relationship to their group. Latinos/as in New Mexico and south Texas use dichos—proverbs or sayings that are unique to the Spanish language—as a means of expressing themselves and as a reflection of their cultural heritage. Examples of dichos include “Anda tu camino sin ayuda de vecino” (“Walk your own road without the help of a neighbor”) and “Amor de lejos es para pendejos” (“A long-distance romance is for fools”). Dichos are passed from generation to generation as a priceless verbal tradition whereby people can give advice or teach a lesson (Gandara, 1995).

Language is also a source of power and social control; language perpetuates inequalities between people and between groups because words are used (intentionally or not) to “keep people in their place.” As the linguist Deborah Tannen (1993: B5) has suggested, “The devastating group hatreds that result in so much suffering in our own country and around the world are related in origin to the small intolerances in our everyday conversations—our readiness to attribute good intentions to ourselves and bad intentions to others.” Language, then, is a reflection of our feelings and values.

Values are collective ideas about what is right or wrong, good or bad, and desirable or undesirable in a particular culture. Values do not dictate which behaviors are appropriate and which ones are not, but they provide us with the criteria by which we evaluate people, objects, and events. Values typically come in pairs of positive and negative values, such as being brave or cowardly, hardworking or lazy. Because we use values to justify our behavior, we tend to defend them staunchly.

Core American Values

Do we have shared values in the United States? Sociologists disagree about the extent to which all people in this country share a core set of values. Functionalists tend to believe that shared values are essential for the maintenance of a society, and scholars using a functionalist approach have conducted most of the research on core values. Analysts who focus on the importance of core values maintain that the values identified by sociologist Robin M. Williams Jr., in 1970 are important to people in the United States but that they have changed somewhat in recent years. How important do you think the following ten values are?

  1. People in the United States are responsible for their own success or failure. Those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame because of their lack of ability, laziness, immorality, or other character defects.
  2. Achievement and success. Personal achievement results from successful competition with others. Individuals are encouraged to do better than others in school and to work in order to gain wealth, power, and prestige. Material possessions are seen as a sign of personal achievement.
  3. Activity and work. People who are industrious are praised for their achievement; those perceived as lazy are ridiculed. From the time of the early Puritans, work has been viewed as important. Even during their leisure time, many people “work” in their play. For example, think of all the people who run in marathons, repair or restore cars, and so on in their spare time (Figure 3.7).
  4. Figure 3.7
  5. Even during their leisure time, many people “work” in their play.
  6. © Rena Schild/ com
  7. Science and technology. People in the United States have a great deal of faith in science and technology. They expect scientific and technological advances ultimately to control nature, the aging process, and even death.
  8. Progress and material comfort. The material comforts of life include not only basic necessities (such as adequate shelter, nutrition, and medical care) but also the goods and services that make life easier and more pleasant.
  9. Efficiency and practicality. People want things to be bigger, better, and faster. As a result, great value is placed on efficiency (“how well does it work?”).
  10. Since colonial times, overt class distinctions have been rejected in the United States. However, “equality” has been defined as “equality of opportunity”—an assumed equal chance to achieve success—not as “equality of outcome.”
  11. Morality and humanitarianism. Aiding others, especially following natural disasters (such as fires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters), is seen as a value. The notion of helping others was originally a part of religious teachings and tied to the idea of morality. Today, people engage in humanitarian acts without necessarily perceiving that it is the “moral” thing to do.
  12. Freedom and liberty. Individual freedom is highly valued in the United States. The idea of freedom includes the right to private ownership of property, the ability to engage in private enterprise, freedom of the press, and other freedoms considered to be “basic” rights.
  13. Ethnocentrism and group superiority. People value their own racial or ethnic group above all others. Such feelings of pride and superiority may lead to discrimination; in the past, slavery and segregation laws were an example. Many people also believe in the superiority of this country and that “the American way of life” is best.

Are these values still important today? According to a report by the Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project (2011), people in the United States remain more individualistic than people residing in Western Europe. However, Americans appear to be less inclined to view their culture and way of life as superior to others than they have in the past. Overall, it appears that core values are an important component of culture in all societies but that over time, they tend to shift based on economic conditions, social trends, religious beliefs, and other factors that arise in those nations and around the globe.

Value Contradictions

All countries, including the United States, have value contradictions. Value contradictions are values that conflict with one another or are mutually exclusive (meaning that achieving one value makes it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve another). Core values of morality and humanitarianism may conflict with values of individual achievement and success. For example, humanitarian values reflected in welfare and other government-aid programs for people in need can come into conflict with values emphasizing hard work and personal achievement.

Ideal Culture Versus Real Culture

What is the relationship between values and human behavior? Sociologists stress that a gap always exists between ideal culture and real culture in a society. Ideal culture refers to the values and standards of behavior that people in a society profess to hold. Real culture refers to the values and standards of behavior that people actually follow. For example, we may claim to be law-abiding (ideal cultural value) but may regularly drive over the speed limit (real cultural behavior) and still think of ourselves as “good citizens.” We may believe in the value of honesty and, at the same time, engage in deception.

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Cultural Change

Societies continually experience cultural change at both material and nonmaterial levels. Changes in technology continue to shape the material culture of society. Technology refers to the knowledge, techniques, and tools that allow people to transform resources into usable forms, and the knowledge and skills required to use them after they are developed. Although most technological changes are primarily modifications of existing technology, new technologies refers to changes that make a significant difference in many people’s lives. Examples of new technologies include the introduction of the printing press more than 500 years ago and the advent of computers and electronic communications in the twentieth century. The pace of technological change has increased rapidly in the past 150 years, as contrasted with the 4,000 years prior to that, during which humans advanced from digging sticks and hoes to the plow.

All parts of culture do not change at the same pace. When a change occurs in the material culture of a society, nonmaterial culture must adapt to that change. Frequently, this rate of change is uneven, resulting in a gap between the two. Sociologist William F. Ogburn (1966/1922) referred to this disparity as cultural lag, which is a gap between the technical development of a society and its moral and legal institutions (Figure 3.9). In other words, cultural lag occurs when material culture changes faster than nonmaterial culture, thus creating a lag between the two cultural components. For example, at the material cultural level the personal computer and electronic coding have made it possible to create a unique health identifier for each person in the United States. Based on available technology (material culture), it is possible to create a national data bank that would include everyone’s individual medical records from birth to death. Using this identifier, health providers and insurance companies could rapidly transfer medical records around the globe, and researchers could access unlimited data on people’s diseases, test results, and treatments. However, the availability of this technology does not mean that it will be accepted by people who believe (nonmaterial culture) that such a national data bank would constitute an invasion of privacy and could easily be abused by others. The failure of nonmaterial culture to keep pace with material culture is linked to social conflict and societal problems. As in the above example, such changes are often set in motion by discovery, invention, and diffusion.

Figure 3.9

Facebook and other social networking companies are examples of cultural lag—a gap between technology and a society’s morals and laws.

PhotoEdit/Alamy; TP/Alamy; Douglas Carr/Alamy

Discovery is the process of learning about something previously unknown or unrecognized. Historically, discovery involved unearthing natural elements or existing realities, such as “discovering” fire or the true shape of the Earth. Today, discovery most often results from scientific research. For example, the discovery of a polio vaccine virtually eliminated one of the major childhood diseases. A future discovery of a cure for cancer or the common cold could result in longer and more productive lives for many people.

As more discoveries have occurred, people have been able to reconfigure existing material and nonmaterial cultural items through invention. Invention is the process of reshaping existing cultural items into a new form. Guns, airplanes, TV sets, and digital devices are examples of inventions that positively or negatively affect our lives today.

When diverse groups of people come into contact, they begin to adapt one another’s discoveries, inventions, and ideas for their own use. Diffusion is the transmission of cultural items or social practices from one group or society to another through such means as exploration, war, the media, tourism, and immigration. Today, cultural diffusion moves at a very rapid pace in the global economy.

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Cultural Diversity

Cultural diversity refers to the wide range of cultural differences found between and within nations. Cultural diversity between countries may be the result of natural circumstances (such as climate and geography) or social circumstances (such as level of technology and composition of the population). Some nations—such as Sweden—are referred to as homogeneous societies, meaning that they include people who share a common culture and who are typically from similar social, religious, political, and economic backgrounds (though this is changing in Sweden and other countries as they become more diverse). By contrast, other nations—including the United States—are referred to as heterogeneous societies, meaning that they include people who are dissimilar in regard to social characteristics such as religion, income, or race/ethnicity (see Figure 3.10).

Figure 3.10

Heterogeneity of U.S. Society

Throughout history, the United States has been heterogeneous. Today, we represent a wide diversity of social categories, including our religious affiliations, income levels, and racial–ethnic categories.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 2011g; Humes, Jones, and Ramirez, 2011.

Immigration contributes to cultural diversity in a society. Throughout its history, the United States has been a nation of immigrants (see Figure 3.11). Over the past 200 years, more than 60 million “documented” (legal) immigrants have arrived here; innumerable people have also entered the country as undocumented immigrants. Immigration can cause feelings of frustration and hostility, especially in people who feel threatened by the changes that large numbers of immigrants may produce. Often, people are intolerant of those who are different from themselves. When societal tensions rise, people may look for others on whom they can place blame—or single out persons because they are the “other,” the “outsider,” the one who does not “belong.”

Figure 3.11

Cultural Diversity: A Nation Growing More Diverse Every 10 Years

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder, 2012.

Do you believe that people can overcome these feelings in a culturally diverse society such as the United States? Some analysts believe that it is possible to communicate with others despite differences in race, ethnicity, national origin, age, sexual orientation, religion, social class, occupation, leisure pursuits, regionalism, and so on. People who differ from the dominant group may also find reassurance and social support in a subculture.

Subcultures

A subculture is a category of people who share distinguishing attributes, beliefs, values, and/or norms that set them apart in some significant manner from the dominant culture. This concept has been applied to distinctions ranging from ethnic, religious, regional, and age-based categories to those categories presumed to be “deviant” or marginalized from the larger society. In the broadest use of the concept, members of thousands of categories of people residing in the United States might be classified as participants in one or more subcultures, including Lady Gaga fans, Muslims, and motorcycle enthusiasts. However, many sociological studies of subcultures have limited the scope of inquiry to more-visible, distinct subcultures such as the Old Order Amish and ethnic enclaves such as Little Saigon or Little Gaza to see how participants in subcultures interface with the dominant U.S. culture. Let’s take a brief look at the Old Order Amish, a classic sociological example.

The Old Order Amish Having arrived in the United States in the early 1700s, members of the Old Order Amish have fought to maintain their distinct identity. Today, most of the Amish live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, where they practice their religious beliefs and remain in a relatively closed social network. According to sociologists, this religious community is a subculture because its members share values and norms that differ from those of people who primarily identify with the dominant culture. The Amish have a strong faith in God and reject worldly concerns. Their core values include the joy of work, the primacy of the home, faithfulness, thriftiness, tradition, and humility. The Amish hold a conservative view of the family, believing that women are subordinate to men, birth control is unacceptable, and wives should remain at home. Children (about seven per family) are cherished and seen as an economic asset: They help with the farming and other work. Many of the Old Order Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch (a dialect of German) as well as English. They dress in traditional clothing, live on farms, and rely on the horse and buggy for transportation (Figure 3.12).

Figure 3.12

Although modernization and consumerism have changed the way of life of some subcultures, groups such as the Old Order Amish have preserved some of their historical practices, including traveling by horse-drawn carriage.

AP Images/Tony Dejak

The Amish are aware that they share distinctive values and look different from other people; these differences provide them with a collective identity and make them feel close to one another. The belief system and group cohesiveness of the Amish remain strong despite the intrusion of corporations and tourists, the vanishing farmlands, and increasing levels of government regulation in their daily lives (Schaefer and Zellner, 2010).

Ethnic Subcultures Some people who have unique shared behaviors linked to a common racial, language, or nationality background identify themselves as members of a specific subculture, whereas others do not. Examples of ethnic subcultures include African Americans, Latinos/Latinas (Hispanic Americans), Asian Americans, and Native Americans. Some analysts include “white ethnics” such as Irish Americans, Italian Americans, and Polish Americans. Others also include Anglo Americans (Caucasians).

Although people in ethnic subcultures are dispersed throughout the United States, a concentration of members of some ethnic subcultures is visible in many larger communities and cities. For example, Chinatowns, located in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, are one of the more visible ethnic subcultures in the United States. By living close to one another and retaining their original customs and language, first-generation immigrants can survive the abrupt changes they experience in material and nonmaterial cultural patterns. In New York City, for example, Korean Americans and Puerto Rican Americans constitute distinctive subcultures, each with its own food, music, and personal style. In San Antonio, Mexican Americans enjoy different food and music than do Puerto Rican Americans or other groups.

Subcultures provide opportunities for the expression of distinctive lifestyles, as well as sometimes helping people adapt to abrupt cultural change. Subcultures can also serve as a buffer against the discrimination experienced by many ethnic or religious groups in the United States. However, some people may be forced by economic or social disadvantage to remain in such ethnic enclaves.

Countercultures A counterculture is a group that strongly rejects dominant societal values and norms and seeks alternative lifestyles (Yinger, 1960, 1982). Young people are most likely to join countercultural groups, perhaps because younger persons generally have less invested in the existing culture. Examples of countercultures include the beatniks of the 1950s, the flower children of the 1960s, the drug enthusiasts of the 1970s, and contemporary members of nonmainstream religious sects or cults. Occupy Wall Street and its counterparts throughout the United States and other nations began as a counterculture because participants took a stand against dominant cultural values of wealth, power, and political privilege.

3-4

Culture Shock

LO 7

Explain the concepts of culture shock, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism, and provide one example of each.

Culture shock is the disorientation that people feel when they encounter cultures radically different from their own and believe they cannot depend on their own taken-for-granted assumptions about life. When people travel to another society, they may not know how to respond to that setting. For example, Napoleon Chagnon (1992) described his initial shock at seeing the Yanomamö (pronounced yahnoh-MAH-mah) tribe of South America on his first trip in 1964 (Figure 3.13).

Figure 3.13

Even as global travel and the media make us more aware of people around the world, the distinctiveness of the Yanomamö in South America remains apparent. Are people today more or less likely than those in the past to experience culture shock upon encountering diverse groups of people such as these Yanomamö?

Gavriel Jecan/Danita Delimont/Alamy

The Yanomamö (also referred to as the “Yanomami”) are a tribe of about 20,000 South American Indians who live in the rain forest. Although Chagnon traveled in a small aluminum motorboat for three days to reach these people, he was not prepared for the sight that met his eyes when he arrived:

I looked up and gasped to see a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows. Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips, making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped from their nostrils—strands so long that they reached down to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins and stuck to their chests and bellies. We arrived as the men were blowing ebene, a hallucinogenic drug, up their noses…. I was horrified. What kind of welcome was this for someone who had come to live with these people and learn their way of life—to become friends with them? But when they recognized Barker [a guide], they put their weapons down and returned to their chanting, while keeping a nervous eye on the village entrances.

(Chagnon, 1992: 12–14)

The Yanomamö have no written language, system of numbers, or calendar. They lead a nomadic lifestyle, carrying everything they own on their backs. They wear no clothes and paint their bodies; the women insert slender sticks through holes in the lower lip and through the pierced nasal septum. In other words, the Yanomamö—like the members of thousands of other cultures around the world—live in a culture very different from that of the United States.

3-4a

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

When observing people from other cultures, many of us use our own culture as the yardstick by which we judge their behavior. Sociologists refer to this approach as ethnocentrism—the practice of judging all other cultures by one’s own culture. Ethnocentrism is based on the assumption that one’s own way of life is superior to all others. For example, most schoolchildren are taught that their own school and country are the best (Figure 3.14). The school song, the pledge to the flag, and the national anthem are forms of positive ethnocentrism. However, negative ethnocentrism can also result from constant emphasis on the superiority of one’s own group or nation. Negative ethnocentrism is manifested in derogatory stereotypes that ridicule recent immigrants whose customs, dress, eating habits, or religious beliefs are markedly different from those of dominant-group members. Long-term U.S. residents who are members of racial and ethnic minority groups, such as Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinas/os, have also been the target of ethnocentric practices by other groups.

Figure 3.14

These children from Norway wave their country’s flag on May 17 (Norwegian Constitution Day), displaying a form of positive ethnocentrism.

Andrea Magugliani/Alamy

An alternative to ethnocentrism is cultural relativism—the belief that the behaviors and customs of any culture must be viewed and analyzed by the culture’s own standards. For example, the anthropologist Marvin Harris (1974, 1985) uses cultural relativism to explain why cattle, which are viewed as sacred, are not killed and eaten in India, where widespread hunger and malnutrition exist. From an ethnocentric viewpoint, we might conclude that cow worship is the cause of the hunger and poverty in India. However, according to Harris, the Hindu taboo against killing cattle is very important to the Indian economic system. Live cows are more valuable than dead ones because they have more important uses than as a direct source of food. As part of the ecological system, cows consume grasses of little value to humans. Then they produce two valuable resources—oxen (the neutered offspring of cows) to power the plows and manure (for fuel and fertilizer)—as well as milk for children. As Harris’s study reveals, culture must be viewed from the standpoint of those who live in a particular society.

Cultural relativism also has a downside. It may be used to excuse customs and behavior (such as cannibalism) that may violate basic human rights. Cultural relativism is a part of the sociological imagination; researchers must be aware of the customs and norms of the society they are studying and then spell out their background assumptions so that others can spot possible biases in their studies. However, according to some social scientists, issues surrounding ethnocentrism and cultural relativism may become less distinct in the future as people around the globe increasingly share a common popular culture. Others, of course, disagree with this perspective. Let’s see what you think.

3-5a

High Culture and Popular Culture

Some sociologists use the concepts of high culture and popular culture to distinguish between different cultural forms. High culture consists of classical music, opera, ballet, live theater, and other activities usually patronized by elite audiences, composed primarily of members of the upper-middle and upper classes, who have the time, money, and knowledge assumed to be necessary for its appreciation. In the United States, high culture is often viewed as being international in scope, arriving in this country through the process of diffusion, because many art forms originated in European nations or other countries of the world.

By contrast, much of U.S. popular culture is often thought of as “homegrown” in this country. Popular culture consists of activities, products, and services that are assumed to appeal primarily to members of the middle and working classes. These include rock concerts, spectator sports, movies, and television soap operas and sitcoms. Although we will distinguish between “high” and “popular” culture in our discussion, it is important to note that some social analysts believe the rise of a consumer society in which luxury items have become more widely accessible to the masses has reduced the great divide between them and the activities and possessions associated with wealthy people or a social elite.

However, most sociological examinations of high culture and popular culture focus primarily on the link between culture and social class. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) cultural capital theory views high culture as a device used by the dominant class to exclude the subordinate classes. According to Bourdieu, people must be trained to appreciate and understand high culture. Individuals learn about high culture in upper-middle-class and upper-class families and in elite education systems, especially higher education. Once they acquire this trained capacity, they possess a form of cultural capital. Persons from poor and working-class backgrounds typically do not acquire this cultural capital. Because knowledge and appreciation of high culture are considered a prerequisite for access to the dominant class, its members can use their cultural capital to deny access to subordinate-group members and thus preserve and reproduce the existing class structure.

3-5b

Forms of Popular Culture

Three prevalent forms of popular culture are fads, fashions, and leisure activities. A fad is a temporary but widely copied activity followed enthusiastically by large numbers of people. Most fads are short-lived novelties. Fads can be divided into four major categories. First, object fads are items that people purchase despite the fact that they have little use value, such as wristbands that make a statement or support a cause. Second, activity fads include pursuits such as body piercing or flash mobs. Third are idea fads, such as New Age ideologies. Fourth are personality fads—for example, those surrounding celebrities such as Taylor Swift, Ryan Seacrest, and Katy Perry (Figure 3.15).

Figure 3.15

Television, the Internet and social media have provided celebrities like Katy Perry with a global platform from which they can spread popular-culture hits to their worldwide audience. What other personality fads can you identify?

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

A fashion is a currently valued style of behavior, thinking, or appearance that is longer lasting and more widespread than a fad. Examples of fashion are found in many areas, including child rearing, education, arts, clothing, music, and sports. Soccer is an example of a fashion in sports. Until fairly recently, only schoolchildren played soccer in the United States. Now it has become a popular sport, perhaps in part because of immigration from Latin America and other areas of the world where soccer is widely played.

Like soccer, other forms of popular culture move across nations. In fact, popular culture is one of the United States’ largest exports to other nations. In turn, people in this country continue to be strongly influenced by popular culture from other nations. Will the spread of popular culture produce a homogeneous global culture? Critics argue that the world is not developing a global culture; rather, other cultures are becoming Westernized. Political and religious leaders in some nations oppose this process, which they view as cultural imperialism—the extensive infusion of one nation’s culture into other nations. For example, some view the widespread infusion of the English language into countries that speak other languages as a form of cultural imperialism. On the other hand, the concept of cultural imperialism may fail to take into account various cross-cultural influences. For example, cultural diffusion of literature, music, clothing, and food has occurred on a global scale. A global culture, if it comes into existence, will most likely include components from many societies and cultures.

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3-6a

Functionalist Perspectives

Functionalist perspectives are based on the assumption that society is a stable, orderly system with interrelated parts that serve specific functions. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1922) suggested that culture helps people meet their biological needs (including food and procreation), instrumental needs (including law and education), and integrative needs (including religion and art). Societies in which people share a common language and core values are more likely to have consensus and harmony.

How might functionalist analysts view popular culture? According to many functionalist theorists, popular culture serves a significant function in society in that it may be the “glue” which holds society together. Regardless of race, class, sex, age, or other characteristics, many people are brought together (at least in spirit) to cheer teams competing in major sporting events such as Super Bowl Sunday and the Olympics. Television, the Internet, and social media help integrate recent immigrants into the mainstream culture, whereas longer-term residents may become more homogenized as a result of seeing the same images and being exposed to the same beliefs and values. However, functionalists acknowledge that all societies have dysfunctions, which produce a variety of societal problems. When a society contains numerous subcultures, discord may result from a lack of consensus about values and social norms. In fact, popular culture may undermine cultural values rather than reinforce them. For example, popular culture may glorify crime, rather than hard work, as the quickest way to get ahead. According to some analysts, excessive violence in music, video games, movies, and television shows may be harmful to children and young people. From this perspective, popular culture can be a factor in antisocial behavior such as hate crimes and fatal shootings.

A strength of the functionalist perspective on culture is its focus on the needs of society and the fact that stability is essential for society’s continued survival. A shortcoming is its overemphasis on harmony and cooperation. This approach also fails to fully account for factors embedded in the structure of society—such as class-based inequalities, racism, and sexism—that may contribute to conflict among people in the United States or to global strife.

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3-6b

Conflict Perspectives

Conflict perspectives are based on the assumption that social life is a continuous struggle in which members of powerful groups seek to control scarce resources. According to this approach, values and norms help create and sustain the privileged position of the powerful in society while excluding others. As early conflict theorist Karl Marx stressed, ideas are cultural creations of a society’s most powerful members. Thus, it is possible for political, economic, and social leaders to use ideology—an integrated system of ideas that is external to, and coercive of, people—to maintain their positions of dominance in a society. As Marx stated,

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force in society, is at the same time, its ruling intellectual force. The class, which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production…. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.

(Marx and Engels, 1970/1845–1846: 64)

Many contemporary conflict theorists agree with Marx’s assertion that ideas, a non material component of culture, are used by agents of the ruling class to affect the thoughts and actions of members of other classes. The role of the mass media in influencing people’s thinking about the foods that they should—or should not—eat is an example of such ideological control.

How might conflict theorists view popular culture? Some conflict theorists believe that popular culture, which originated with everyday people, has been largely removed from their domain and has become nothing more than a part of the capitalist economy in the United States. From this approach, media conglomerates such as Time Warner and ABC/Disney create popular culture, such as films, television shows, and amusement parks, in the same way that they would produce any other product or service. Creating new popular culture also promotes consumption of commodities—objects outside ourselves that we purchase to satisfy our human needs or wants. According to contemporary social analysts, consumption—even of things that we do not necessarily need—has become prevalent at all social levels, and some middle- and lower-income individuals and families now use as their frame of reference the lifestyles of the more affluent in their communities. As a result, many families live on credit in order to purchase the goods and services that they would like to have or that keep them on the competitive edge with their friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

A strength of the conflict perspective is that it stresses how cultural values and norms may perpetuate social inequalities. It also highlights the inevitability of change and the constant tension between those who want to maintain the status quo and those who desire change (Figure 3.16). A limitation is its focus on societal discord and the divisiveness of culture.

 

3-6c

Symbolic Interactionist Perspectives

Unlike functionalists and conflict theorists, who focus primarily on macrolevel concerns, symbolic interactionists engage in a microlevel analysis that views society as the sum of all people’s interactions. From this perspective, people create, maintain, and modify culture as they go about their everyday activities. Symbols make communication with others possible because symbols provide us with shared meanings.

According to some symbolic interactionists, people continually negotiate their social realities. Values and norms are not independent realities that automatically determine our behavior. Instead, we reinterpret them in each social situation we encounter. However, the classical sociologist Georg Simmel warned that the larger cultural world—including both material culture and nonmaterial culture—eventually takes on a life of its own apart from the actors who daily re-create social life. As a result, individuals may be more controlled by culture than they realize.

Simmel (1990/1907) suggested that money is an example of how people may be controlled by their culture. According to Simmel, people initially create money as a means of exchange, but then money acquires a social meaning that extends beyond its purely economic function. Money becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Today, we are aware of the relative “worth” not only of objects but also of individuals. Many people revere wealthy entrepreneurs and highly paid celebrities, entertainers, and sports figures for the amount of money they make, not for their intrinsic qualities. According to Simmel (1990/1907), money makes it possible for us to relativize everything, including our relationships with other people. When social life can be reduced to money, people become cynical, believing that anything—including people, objects, beauty, and truth—can be bought if we can pay the price. Although Simmel acknowledged the positive functions of money, he believed that the social interpretations people give to money often produce individual feelings of cynicism and isolation.

A symbolic interactionist approach highlights how people maintain and change culture through their interactions with others. However, interactionism does not provide a systematic framework for analyzing how we shape culture and how it, in turn, shapes us. It also does not provide insight into how shared meanings are developed among people, and it does not take into account the many situations in which there is disagreement on meanings. Whereas the functional and conflict approaches tend to overemphasize the macrolevel workings of society, the interactionist viewpoint often fails to take these larger social structures into account.

3-6d

Postmodernist Perspectives

Postmodernist theorists believe that much of what has been written about culture in the Western world is Eurocentric—that it is based on the uncritical assumption that European culture (including its dispersed versions in countries such as the United States, Australia, and South Africa) is the true, universal culture in which all the world’s people ought to believe (Lemert, 1997). By contrast, postmodernists believe that we should speak of cultures, rather than culture.

However, Jean Baudrillard, one of the best-known French social theorists and key figures in postmodern theory, believes that the world of culture today is based on simulation, not reality. According to Baudrillard, social life is much more a spectacle that simulates reality than it is reality itself. Many U.S. children, upon entering school for the first time, have already watched more hours of television than the total number of hours of classroom instruction they will encounter in their entire school careers. Add to this the number of hours that some children will have spent playing computer games or using the Internet, where they often find that it is more interesting to deal with imaginary heroes and villains than to interact with “real people” in real life. Baudrillard refers to this social creation as hyperreality—a situation in which the simulation of reality is more real than experiencing the event itself and having any actual connection with what is taking place. For Baudrillard, everyday life has been captured by the signs and symbols generated to represent it, and we ultimately relate to simulations and models as if they were reality.

Baudrillard (1983) uses Disneyland as an example of a simulation—one that conceals the reality that exists outside rather than inside the boundaries of the artificial perimeter (Figure 3.17). According to Baudrillard, Disney-like theme parks constitute a form of seduction that substitutes symbolic (seductive) power for real power, particularly the ability to bring about social change. From this perspective, amusement park “guests” may feel like “survivors” after enduring the rapid speed and gravity-defying movements of the roller-coaster rides or see themselves as “winners” after surviving fights with hideous cartoon villains on the “dark rides.” In reality, they have been made to appear to have power, but they do not actually possess any real power.

Figure 3.17

Disneyland in Tokyo, Japan, illustrates the idea of postmodern social theorist Jean Baudrillard that theme parks provide visitors with a simulation of reality—their symbolic power as “guests” and “consumers” is a substitute for having real power to bring about change in the real world.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/Getty Images

Concept Quick Review

Analysis of Culture

Components of Culture Symbol Anything that meaningfully represents something else.
  Language A set of symbols that expresses ideas and enables people to think and communicate with one another.
  Values Collective ideas about what is right or wrong, good or bad, and desirable or undesirable in a particular culture.
  Norms Established rules of behavior or standards of conduct.
Sociological Analysis of Culture Functionalist Perspectives Culture helps people meet their biological, instrumental, and expressive needs.
  Conflict Perspectives Ideas are a cultural creation of society’s most powerful members and can be used by the ruling class to affect the thoughts and actions of members of other classes.
  Symbolic Interactionist Perspectives People create, maintain, and modify culture during their everyday activities; however, cultural creations can take on a life of their own and end up controlling people.
  Postmodern Perspectives Much of culture today is based on simulation of reality (e.g., what we see on television) rather than reality itself.

In their examination of culture, postmodernist social theorists thus make us aware of the fact that no single perspective can grasp the complexity and diversity of the social world. There is no one, single, universal culture. They also make us aware that reality may not be what it seems. According to the postmodernist view, no one authority can claim to know social reality, and we should deconstruct—take apart and subject to intense critical scrutiny—existing beliefs and theories about culture in hopes of gaining new insights.

Although postmodern theories of culture have been criticized on a number of grounds, we will mention only three. One criticism is postmodernism’s lack of a clear conceptualization of ideas. Another is the tendency to critique other perspectives as being “grand narratives,” whereas postmodernists offer their own varieties of such narratives. Finally, some analysts believe that postmodern analyses of culture lead to profound pessimism about the future.

This chapter’s Concept Quick Review summarizes the components of culture as well as how the four major perspectives view it.

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3-7

Looking Ahead: Culture, Social Change, and Your Future

Many changes are occurring in the United States. Increasing cultural diversity can either cause long-simmering racial and ethnic antagonisms to come closer to a boiling point or result in the creation of a truly “rainbow culture” in which diversity is respected and encouraged.

In the future the issue of cultural diversity will increase in importance, especially in schools (see “You Can Make a Difference”). Multicultural education that focuses on the contributions of a wide variety of people from different backgrounds will continue to be an issue of controversy from kindergarten through college. In the Los Angeles school district, for example, students speak more than 150 different languages and dialects (Figure 3.18). Schools will face the challenge of embracing widespread cultural diversity while conveying a sense of community and national identity to students.

Figure 3.18

Although students often use similar digital equipment, their diverse backgrounds represent a challenge for teachers who wish to focus on everyone’s cultural heritage but also provide a sense of community.

Bill Aron/PhotoEdit

Technology will continue to have a profound effect on culture. Television and radio, films and videos, and digital communications will continue to accelerate the flow of information and expand cultural diffusion throughout the world. Global communication devices will move images of people’s lives, behavior, and fashions instantaneously among almost all nations. Increasingly, computers and cyberspace will become people’s window on the world and, in the process, promote greater integration or fragmentation among nations. Integration occurs when there is a widespread acceptance of ideas and items—such as democracy, hip-hop music, blue jeans, and hamburgers—among cultures. By contrast, fragmentation occurs when people in one culture disdain the beliefs and actions of other cultures. As a force for both cultural integration and fragmentation, technology will continue to revolutionize communications, but most of the world’s population will not participate in this revolution.

You Can Make a Difference

Schools as Laboratories for Getting Along: Having Lunch Together

Where did you make many of your childhood friends? Where did you learn about their families and cultural backgrounds? Research has shown that schools and friendship groups can expose children and young people to cultures that are different from their own. Studies have also shown that it may be easier for children to set aside their differences and get to know one another than it is for adults to do so, particularly if they are able to spend time together at lunch or talking in other informal settings. Consider what happened among some children at the International Community School in Decatur, Georgia. Some students were born in the United States, but many were refugees from as many as forty war-torn countries. This school became a “laboratory for getting along,” particularly as some children took the initiative to befriend and help others by doing such things as eating lunch with them (St. John, 2007). An excellent example is the friendship that developed between nine-year-old Dante Ramirez and Soung Oo Hlaing, an eleven-year-old Burmese refugee who spoke no English:

The two boys met on the first day of school this year. Despite the language barrier, Dante managed to invite the newcomer to sit with him at lunch.

“I didn’t think he’d make friends at the beginning because he didn’t speak that much English,” Dante said. “So I thought I should be his friend.”

In the next weeks, the boys had a sleepover. They trick-or-treated on Soung’s first Halloween. Soung, a gifted artist, gave Dante pointers on how to draw. And Dante helped Soung with his English. “I use simple words that are easy to know and sometimes hand movements,” Dante explained. “For ‘huge,’ I would make my hands bigger. And for ‘big,’ I would make my hands smaller than for huge.”

(St. John, 2007: A14)

Over time, as the boys got to know each other better, their mothers also developed a friendship and began to celebrate ethnic holidays together even though they largely relied on gestures (a form of nonverbal communication) to communicate with each other. Could “laboratories” such as this help more people from diverse cultures get along? Would you like to participate in a school or community effort, such as arranging lunches or other meals together, to help people get to know individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds?

Reflect & Analyze

  • What examples can you provide that show how eating together or having other social gatherings may create new bonds across diverse cultural groups on your college campus or in the community where you reside?

From a sociological perspective, the study of culture helps us not only understand our own “tool kit” of symbols, stories, rituals, and worldviews but also expands our insights to include those of other people of the world, who also seek strategies for enhancing their own lives. If we understand how culture is used by people, how cultural elements constrain or further certain patterns of action, what aspects of our cultural heritage have enduring effects on our actions, and what specific historical changes undermine the validity of some cultural patterns and give rise to others, we can apply our sociological imagination not only to our own society but to the entire world as well.

 

 

 

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