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Sociology Notes and Topics on Sociology

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Old Tuesday, October 09, 2007
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Default Culture


Culture, in anthropology, the patterns of behavior and thinking that people living in social groups learn, create, and share. Culture distinguishes one human group from others. It also distinguishes humans from other animals. A people’s culture includes their beliefs, rules of behavior, language, rituals, art, technology, styles of dress, ways of producing and cooking food, religion, and political and economic systems.

Culture is the most important concept in anthropology (the study of all aspects of human life, past and present). Anthropologists commonly use the term culture to refer to a society or group in which many or all people live and think in the same ways. Likewise, any group of people who share a common culture—and in particular, common rules of behavior and a basic form of social organization—constitutes a society. Thus, the terms culture and society are somewhat interchangeable. However, while many animals live in societies, such as herds of elk or packs of wild dogs, only humans have culture.

Culture developed together with the evolution of the human species, Homo sapiens, and is closely related to human biology. The ability of people to have culture comes in large part from their physical features: having big, complex brains; an upright posture; free hands that can grasp and manipulate small objects; and a vocal tract that can produce and articulate a wide range of sounds. These distinctively human physical features began to develop in African ancestors of humans more than four million years ago. The earliest physical evidence of culture is crude stone tools produced in East Africa over two million years ago.


Culture has several distinguishing characteristics.

(1) It is based on symbols—abstract ways of referring to and understanding ideas, objects, feelings, or behaviors—and the ability to communicate with symbols using language.

(2) Culture is shared. People in the same society share common behaviors and ways of thinking through culture.

(3) Culture is learned. While people biologically inherit many physical traits and behavioral instincts, culture is socially inherited. A person must learn culture from other people in a society.

(4) Culture is adaptive. People use culture to flexibly and quickly adjust to changes in the world around them.


Anthropologists have described a number of different categories of culture. For example, a simple distinction can be made between cultural objects, such as types of clothing, and cultural beliefs, such as forms of religion. Many early anthropological definitions of culture are essentially descriptions of categories of culture or cultural items.

British anthropologist Edward B. Tylor gave one of the first complete definitions of culture in his book Primitive Culture (1871). His definition stated that culture includes socially acquired knowledge, beliefs, art, law, morals, customs, and habits. In 1930 American anthropologist George P. Murdock went much further, listing 637 major subdivisions of culture. Murdock developed an elaborate coding system, known as the Human Relation Area Files. He used this system to identify and sort hundreds of distinctive cultural variations that could be used to compare different cultures.

Later anthropologists came up with simpler categorizations of culture. A common practice is to divide all of culture into three broad categories: material, social, and ideological. A fourth category, the arts, has characteristics of both material and ideological culture.
Material culture includes products of human manufacture, such as technology. Social culture pertains to people’s forms of social organization—how people interact and organize themselves in groups. Ideological culture relates to what people think, value, believe, and hold as ideals. The arts include such activities and areas of interest as music, sculpture, painting, pottery, theater, cooking, writing, and fashion. Anthropologists often study how these categories of culture differ across different types of societies that vary in scale (size and complexity).

Anthropologists have identified several distinct types of societies by scale. The smallest societies are known as bands. Bands consist of nomadic (not settled) groups of fewer than a hundred, mostly related people. A tribe, the next largest type of society, generally consists of a few hundred people living in settled villages. A larger form of society, called a chiefdom, binds together two or more villages or tribes under a leader who is born into the position of rule. The largest societies, known as civilizations, contain from several thousand to millions of mostly unrelated people, many of whom live in large cities. Some anthropologists characterize the world today as a single global-scale culture, in which people are linked together by industrial technology and markets of commercial exchange.
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Old Tuesday, October 09, 2007
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A Early Development
People have long been aware of cultural differences among societies. Some of the earliest accounts of culture come from the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the 400s BC. Herodotus traveled through the Persian Empire, which included much of the Middle East and surrounding parts of Asia and Africa. He wrote at length about the cultural and racial diversity of these places, much of which he linked to differences in people’s environments.
For almost 2000 years following the time of Herodotus, many people attributed cultural differences to racial inheritance. The biblical account of the Tower of Babel, in which God caused people to speak new languages, also provided an explanation for cultural diversity.
At the end of the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century AD), many countries of Western Europe began sending explorers around the world to find new sources of material goods and wealth. Prolonged contacts with new cultures during these travels sparked Europeans’ interest in the sources and meaning of cultural diversity.
The English term culture actually came into use during the Middle Ages. It derived from the Latin word for cultivation, as in the practice of nurturing domesticated plants in gardens. Thus, the word originally referred to people’s role in controlling nature.
B Theories of Cultural Evolution
By the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, many European scientists and philosophers had come to believe that culture had gone through progressive stages of improvement throughout human existence. The first anthropologists, including Tylor, also promoted such theories of cultural evolution.
Many people of the upper classes in 19th-century Victorian England used the term culture in a sense similar to its original meaning. In the Victorian usage, culture referred to the controlling of the unrefined behaviors and tastes associated with the lower classes. Thus, the Victorian term culture referred to the refined tastes, intellectual training, and mannerisms of the upper classes. However, many anthropologists, sociologists, and historians of that same period used the term civilization, from the Latin word for “citizen,” as a scientific description of what the upper classes called culture. Civilization thus also meant the pinnacle of cultural evolution.
C 19th Century Scientific Discoveries
New scientific discoveries in the early and middle 19th century demonstrated that the world and its people had existed much longer than previously had been thought. These new ideas greatly influenced how anthropologists thought about human biological, social, and cultural development.
The accounts of the Bible had promoted the idea of a divine creation of the world sometime between 10,000 and 6000 years ago. In contrast, the observations of Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell in the early 1800s led him to suggest that the earth was much older and had changed gradually over time. Lyell’s geological theories and archaeological discoveries of ancient stone tools, also in the early 1800s, influenced a number of new theories of culture.
C1 Lubbock
Based on both Lyell’s work and on theories proposed in the early 1800s by Danish archaeologists Christian Thomsen and J. J. Worsaae, in 1865 British naturalist Sir John Lubbock proposed that human societies had gone through long stages of cultural development, each marked by advancements in technology. Lubbock thought that the earlier stages were represented in the present by so-called primitive societies. His stages included the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), the Neolithic (New Stone Age), the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Lubbock argued that other forms of cultural development, such as in morality and spirituality, accompanied each stage of technological development.
C2 Spencer
Coinciding with the groundbreaking theory of biological evolution proposed by British naturalist Charles Darwin in the 1860s, British social philosopher Herbert Spencer put forward his own theory of biological and cultural evolution. Spencer argued that all worldly phenomena, including human societies, changed over time, advancing toward perfection. He argued that human evolution was characterized by a struggle he called the “survival of the fittest,” in which weaker races and societies must eventually be replaced by stronger, more advanced races and societies.
Although racist and ethnocentric theory of cultural evolution promoted by Spencer did not agree with the theory of Darwin, it became commonly known by the misapplied name of social Darwinism. Social Darwinism helped European nations justify their domination of peoples around the world through colonialism—the taking of new lands to gain natural resources and human labor Colonialism).
C3 Morgan
American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan introduced another theory of cultural evolution in the late 1800s. Morgan, along with Tylor, was one of the founders of modern anthropology. In his work, he attempted to show how all aspects of culture changed together in the evolution of societies. Thus, in Morgan’s view, diverse aspects of culture, such as the structure of families, forms of marriage, categories of kinship, ownership of property, forms of government, technology, and systems of food production, all changed as societies evolved.
Morgan called his evolutionary stages ethnical periods and labeled them Savagery (with three stages: Lower, Middle, and Upper), Barbarism (also with three stages), and Civilization. Morgan did not necessarily believe in the use of his theory to promote racism, ethnocentrism, or exploitation. But like others of his time, he considered Western civilization to be the highest form of culture. Morgan believed that race, nationality, language, and culture were all related and that Europeans were the most biologically and culturally advanced people.
D Uniqueness and Diffusionism
Racist and ethnocentric theories of cultural evolution fell out of favor with most anthropologists in the early 20th century. In the early 1900s in North America, German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas developed a new theory of culture known as historical particularism. Historical particularism, which emphasized the uniqueness of all cultures, gave new direction to anthropology. Other anthropologists believed that cultural innovations, such as inventions, had a single origin and passed from society to society. This theory was known as diffusionism.
By the beginning of the 20th century, anthropologists had developed research methods for studying the cultures of individual small societies. Anthropologists would compare their findings with those of other studies to develop universal theories of culture. This form of study became known as ethnology, from the Greek word ethnos, meaning “nation” or “race.”
Though he worked as an ethnologist, Boas felt that the culture of any society must be understood as the result of a unique history and not as one of many cultures belonging to a broader evolutionary stage or type of culture. In order to study particular cultures as completely as possible, Boas became skilled in linguistics, the study of languages, and in physical anthropology, the study of human biology and anatomy.
Historical particularism became a dominant approach to the study of culture in American anthropology, largely through the influence of many students of Boas. But a number of anthropologists in the early 1900s also rejected the particularist theory of culture in favor of diffusionism. Some attributed virtually every important cultural achievement to the inventions of a few, especially gifted peoples that, according to diffusionists, then spread to other cultures. For example, British anthropologists Grafton Elliot Smith and W. J. Perry incorrectly suggested, on the basis of inadequate information, that farming, pottery making, and metallurgy all originated in ancient Egypt and diffused throughout the world. In fact, all of these cultural developments occurred separately at different times in many parts of the world.
E Functionalism
Also in the early 1900s, French sociologist Émile Durkheim developed a theory of culture that would greatly influence anthropology. Durkheim proposed that religious beliefs functioned to reinforce social solidarity. An interest in the relationship between the function of society and culture—known as functionalism—became a major theme in European, and especially British, anthropology. Functionalists viewed culture as a collection of integrated parts that work together to keep a society functioning.
British functionalists, such as Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, also became known as social anthropologists because of their interest in the workings of societies. They wrote detailed ethnographies that described every aspect of a people’s culture and social structure. They also focused on important rituals that appeared to preserve a people’s social structure, such as initiation ceremonies that formally signify children’s entrance into adulthood.
Critics of functionalism felt that it provided a circular argument. Explaining culture by demonstrating that it allows a society to function, they said, does not explain the meaning or origins of any particular cultural traditions.
F Ecology and Economy
Beginning in the 1930s several American anthropologists developed a renewed interest in the material, or economic, and ecological foundations of culture—interests that dated back to the writings of Herodotus. These anthropologists emphasized the importance of discovering how the natural environment, technology, and the ways in which people produced and distributed their necessities, such as food, influence other parts of culture. They proposed that material culture, and particularly those aspects related to making a living, determines the shape of culture as a whole.
F1 Culture Areas
American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, an early proponent of economic and ecological theories of culture, created a map of Native American groups in North America that divided them according to what he called culture areas. According to Kroeber, all groups included within the same culture area shared similar ways of life because they occupied the same ecological regions. They therefore relied on many of the same natural resources, such as sources of food, and developed similar kinds of technology and social organization.
For instance, the native peoples of the Northwest Coast culture area, such as the Kwakiutl and Haida, have a number of cultural similarities. Many of the peoples of this region relied heavily on fishing and the hunting of marine mammals for food. They manufactured large buildings, impressive boats, and clothing from the wood and bark of giant cedar trees. Many groups lived in chiefdoms that relied on the collection and redistribution of wealth in lavish ceremonies known as potlatch.
F2 Cultural Ecology
In research done between the 1930s and the 1960s, American anthropologist Julian Steward noticed that similar types of cultures developed under similar environmental conditions, but in geographically separate places. Steward attributed these cultural similarities to correspondences in their culture core—those aspects of culture that might be influenced by the similar ways in which different peoples adapt to similar natural environments. For example, Steward argued that the similarities in culture and social organization among foraging band societies around the world had much to do with the similar ecologies of the places in which they lived. The work of Steward and many of his students is known as cultural ecology.
F3 Energy and Technology
Beginning in the 1940s, American anthropologist Leslie White promoted a unique perspective of culture and a new concept of cultural evolution. He associated differences in culture with the ways in which different human societies produce and use energy. White attempted to calculate how much energy different societies use per person over a given amount of time. He suggested that each step in the evolution of culture was marked by an increase in the amount of energy used per person.
White noted that so-called advanced societies, such as the United States in the 20th century, generated and used massive amounts of energy. These societies had developed technologies to produce large amounts of energy from such sources as fossil fuels and nuclear fission. These societies also used large amounts of energy to power such complex forms of technology as cars, lights, factories, and industrial farming machinery. On the other hand, according to White, small societies were less evolved because they only used small amounts of energy from the sun, wind, and water to grow food and power simple technologies, such as boats.
Like Morgan, White was interested in the evolution of human culture as a whole, but White considered technology to be the single most important cause of culture change. He also believed, however, that specific cultural patterns could not be explained by economic or ecological circumstances. Instead, he thought of culture as something superorganic, or above human life—something beyond individual human control.
F4 Cultural Materialism
In the 1960s and 1970s American anthropologist Marvin Harris attempted to show through studies of specific societies that many aspects of culture relate directly to a people’s economic conditions. He argued that a culture’s technology shaped its economy, which in turn shaped its beliefs and values. The theories of Harris and other anthropologists that focus on the strictly economic basis of culture are known as cultural materialism.
In one study, Harris gave an economic explanation for the Hindu tradition in India of regarding cattle as sacred. He viewed this tradition as a cultural response to the economic importance of cattle as draught animals for farming, as scavengers of trash, and as providers of a major source of fuel (dried cattle feces).
Many anthropologists continue to examine the complex relationship among environment, economy, and culture. Some have studied how people modify their environments and develop technology to increase the number of people that the environment can support. For example, industrialized societies continue to develop new technologies to increase food and energy production. They also promote technologies, such as birth control methods, and ways of thinking, such as the ideal of having small families, that help to keep populations in check and to avoid running out of natural resources.
G The Interpretation of Culture
In the 1950s anthropologists began to distinguish between two ways of interpreting culture: from an emic perspective and from an etic perspective. The people native to a society have an emic understanding of its culture. Someone who comes from outside a society, such as an anthropologist, gains an etic understanding of its culture.
Traditional ethnographies, written from an etic perspective, describe and analyze each aspect of a society’s culture in detail. Many early anthropological books, for example, discuss each aspect of culture in its own chapter or section. On the other hand, the people within a society can provide an emic description of their culture. Such a description rarely resembles an anthropological interpretation.
People living within a particular culture do not usually analyze its meaning. They do not think, for instance, about why they perform one kind of ceremony rather than another, or why they produce food one way rather than another. A native of the United States, for example, might say that Americans commonly go to the movies on Friday and Saturday nights but not discuss or even understand the significance of this behavior.
Anthropologists, on the other hand, specialize in comparing and analyzing cultures. For this reason, anthropologists have traditionally regarded immersion in a foreign culture as a fundamental part of doing research. Still, they remain outsiders. But in the 1960s some anthropologists began attempting to describe and analyze culture from an emic perspective, as an insider experiences it.
G1 Lévi-Strauss
French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss tried to gain an emic understanding of culture by looking for consistent patterns in people’s myths, rituals, and habits. He proposed that powerful systems of logic underlie these cultural patterns, even though the people of a society are not consciously aware of the logic. He also felt that the logic underlying cultural patterns was somehow rooted in the structure of the human mind. Thus, he referred to his form of cultural analysis as structuralism.
Lévi-Strauss noted that myths, rituals, and habits in many cultures emphasize dichotomous (two-sided) contrasts. For example, many people have myths that tell of a past transformation of people from immortal to mortal beings. The dietary habits of many cultures also emphasize the transformation of raw food through cooking. And many cultures have rituals of transformation through purification. To Lévi-Strauss, the common theme running through these different aspects of culture was not accidental but the result of a fundamental system of logic, common to all people.
G2 Symbolic Anthropology
Beginning in the late 1960s, another group of anthropologists began focusing their studies on important symbols within particular cultures. This form of anthropology became known as symbolic, or interpretive, anthropology. Symbolic anthropologists, such as British anthropologist Victor Turner and American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, have attempted to describe the specific meanings people assign to objects, behaviors, and emotions. Instead of looking for the universal logic underlying all culture, symbolic anthropologists have tried to discover the specific internal logic that a people use to interpret their own culture.
H Postmodern Theories of Culture
In the 1980s and 1990s some anthropologists turned to an even more radical interpretive perspective on culture, known generally as postmodernism. Postmodernism questions whether an objective understanding of other cultures is at all possible. It developed as a reaction to modernism, which was the scientific and rational approach to understanding the world found in most ethnographies.
Postmodern anthropologists suggest that all people construct culture through an ongoing process that resembles the writing, reading, and interpretation of a text. From this view, people continually create and debate with each other about the meaning of all aspects of culture, such as words, rituals, and concepts. People in the United States, for instance, have long debated over cultural issues such as what constitutes a family, what women’s and men’s roles in society should be, and what functions the federal government should perform. Many anthropologists now study and write about these kinds of questions, even in their own societies.
Rapid changes in technology in the last several decades have changed the nature of culture and cultural exchange. People around the world can make economic transactions and transmit information to each other almost instantaneously through the use of computers and satellite communications. Governments and corporations have gained vast amounts of political power through military might and economic influence. Corporations have also created a form of global culture based on worldwide commercial markets.
Local culture and social structure are now shaped by large and powerful commercial interests in ways that earlier anthropologists could not have imagined. Early anthropologists thought of societies and their cultures as fully independent systems. But today, many nations are multicultural societies, composed of numerous smaller subcultures. Cultures also cross national boundaries. For instance, people around the world now know a variety of English words and have contact with American cultural exports such as brand-name clothing and technological products, films and music, and mass-produced foods.
Many anthropologists have become interested in how dominant societies can shape the culture of less powerful societies, a process some researchers call cultural hegemony. Today, many anthropologists openly oppose efforts by dominant world powers, such as the U.S. government and large corporations, to make unique smaller societies adopt Western commercial culture.
Rashid Kureshi
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