Culture means everything that is done, learned or shared by members of a society: values, beliefs, behaviors, symbols, languages and material objects. Society means a group of people who live in a defined territory and who share a culture. Of course, culture is a fundamental component of every society.
Culture influences beliefs and behaviors. Someone who lives in Brazil probably has different habits than people who live in other countries – in the United States, China, India or France. Culture influences not only language, but even people’s body language, the way they greet each other and the values considered important.
The functionalist theory teaches that culture contributes to an ongoing social order, because it transmits the way people should behave in certain situations. Culture also allows people to benefit from the successes achieved by past generations.
The Conflict Theory Karl Marx, on the other hand, supports the idea that the culture justifies inequality. According to the father of socialism, the ruling class, that is, the bourgeoisie, produces a culture that promotes its own interests and that, at the same time, represses those of the proletariat.
Material and non-material culture
Silk drapes. Vietnam.
Culture is something that is learned and that varies a lot from society to society. Human beings start to learn about their culture as soon as they are born, because, in most cases, their parents educate them to adopt the values of society.
Despite the many differences between cultures, all are made up of two fundamental elements: material culture and non-material culture .
Material culture encompasses the physical objects of a society: tools, technology, clothing, means of transport, etc. For example, some symbols of material culture in Brazil are the cell phone, the computer, the iPod , etc.
A component of the material culture that has been adopted by several societies is the use of jewelry to indicate that a person is married. For example, in Brazil and the United States, a ring is worn on the ring finger of the left hand. In non-industrialized societies, made up of few inhabitants, this is unnecessary, as almost everyone knows each other and knows who is and who is not married. In certain regions of India, women wear a necklace to indicate that they are married.
Non-material culture comprises the intangible aspects of a culture: the values and beliefs that influence its members and that differentiate them from the individuals that constitute other societies.
The cultural elements
Culture is the language, symbols, norms, values, beliefs, rituals and artifacts that are part of every society.
The language is a form of communication that allows, through words, information is transmitted to an individual or to a group of people. The language is passed down from generation to generation. Most social scientists believe that the way a society uses language reveals what its members consider important. Non-verbal communication – facial expressions and body movements – are also part of the culture.
Every culture is full of symbols . These evoke, represent or replace something abstract or absent, and generally arouse reactions and emotions among people who consider them significant. Some objects are important symbols. For example, a national flag symbolizes a country and has a patriotic connotation. Most religions also have symbols. Although they are only objects, the symbols have great importance for their followers. For example, burning a country’s flag is considered a major disrespect, although only plastic or fabric is being burned.
Societies also have non-verbal symbols – gestures or movements made with the hands, arms or other parts of the body, which convey ideas and emotions. A certain gesture made in the United States means “OK”, but in Brazil, it means something completely different, being considered obscene and offensive.
Cultures also vary widely in terms of their norms and forms of behavior. Norms are principles and precepts: they are society’s expectations – the way its members are expected to behave under given circumstances. Depending on the culture, standards can vary widely. For example, in the United States, it is a sign of respect to look someone in the eye while talking to them. In many Asian countries, on the other hand, the reverse is true: not looking directly at a person while talking to them is considered a sign of education and respect.
The norms of a society change over time. In the past century, many societies have changed their views on several subjects of great importance: for example, the rights of women and minorities. A greater number of women entered the labor market, divorce became more socially acceptable and members of minorities began to suffer less discrimination.
A society ‘s values are accepted principles or standards: right or wrong, good or bad. Depending on the society, the values can vary widely. For example, in Brazil, many women consider that being thin is synonymous with beauty: most professional models are thin. In Ghana, however, robust women are considered beautiful, not thin women.
It is important to emphasize that the same culture can present conflicting values. That is, members of a society may not act on their own values. For example, a society as a whole may value charity and helping the poor, but many of its members may not be willing to share part of their wealth with the less fortunate. Sociologists distinguish between what people do and what they say. The real culture is the values and norms that a society follows. The ideal culture, on the other hand, is a set of behaviors that society considers positive, but which is not necessarily followed by its members.
The beliefs are the opinions adopted in faith and conviction and are sustained by the values of a society. For example, American society believes in the right to free expression: the right of a person to say whatever he wants about his country and his government without fear of reprisals.
Cultural rituals or ceremonies vary from society to society. Rituals mark the transitions of life: they reflect and transmit, from generation to generation, the norms of a culture. Graduation ceremonies are an example of such rituals.
In some societies, life transition periods are celebrated. For example, in some societies, a woman’s first menstrual cycle is celebrated.
In many cultures, men have their own initiation ceremonies. One of the most famous is circumcision . In the United States, for example, most male babies are circumcised a few days after birth. If the boy is Jewish, a religious ceremony is performed on the eighth day of his birth in which he is circumcised. Among the Masai , an East African tribe, circumcision serves as a test of bravery.
The artefacts – objects manufactured -constituem another important element of culture. In simpler societies, artifacts are the tools used for work, the huts built for housing and the typical clothing of their inhabitants.
Indian in the Amazon
Hierarchy of Cultures
Cultural diversity means the existence of several cultures and cultural differences: every society has its own culture. But cultural diversity can also exist within society itself. This is what happens when there are subcultures and countercultures.
In societies where there is a great diversity of people, there is usually a group that is bigger or more powerful than the others. That is, a society is made up of a dominant culture and subcultures and countercultures.
The dominant culture
The dominant culture of a society is the group consisting of the largest number of people or the group that has the most power over others.
It is important to emphasize that a group does not need to be made up of the majority of the inhabitants of a country for it to be the dominant culture. In South Africa, for example, there were four times more blacks than whites. However, under apartheid , a regime of racial segregation and domination, which was in force from 1948 to 1991, the white population controlled the country, politically and economically. It was, therefore, the dominant culture of South Africa.
A subculture is a group that lives differently than the ruling class, but that is not opposed to it. A subculture is a culture that exists within another. For example, spiritism is a subculture that exists in Brazil – a predominantly Christian country. The followers of the Protestant Churches of Brazil are also a subculture, since the majority of the Brazilian population is Catholic. It is important to note that members of such subcultures are also part of the dominant culture. However, they also have their own culture, both material and non-material, which constitutes a subculture.
Religion is not the only element that defines a subculture. Geographic location, age, political ideas, financial status and sexual preference are also factors that can constitute subcultures.
A counterculture is a group whose values are opposed to those of the dominant culture. A counterculture can be violent or peaceful. For example, the Brazilian hippies of the 1960s constituted a counterculture, as they were opposed to many of the values shared by the majority of the Brazilian population. Hippies were generally peaceful, but they were opposed to various elements of the dominant culture, such as marriage and the accumulation of wealth.
Most counterculture members, such as hippies and protest groups, are usually teenagers or young people. The reason for this phenomenon is that youth is a time when many people are experiencing an identity crisis and are looking for new experiences. Sooner or later, most counterculture members adapt to the values and norms of the ruling class.
There are societies in which different cultures coexist. It is almost inevitable that there will be disagreements, prejudices and even conflicts between members of different cultures. However, it is possible for them to learn and live in harmony and for one culture to appreciate others. There needs to be coexistence between the different cultures of a society because it is practically impossible to keep them isolated. The interaction between them is inevitable. It is important, therefore, that the existence of different cultures enriches and strengthens society, and not that it represents a source of conflicts and disagreements among its members.
Assimilation and multiculturalism
The assimilation is the phenomenon in which the dominant culture absorbs cultural, subcultural and countercultural groups. Assimilation means that a subculture or counterculture adopts the values and habits of the dominant culture.
Today, it has come to accept the idea that it is possible for there to be coexistence between cultures without assimilation. This perspective, called multiculturalism , respects cultural differences instead of requiring that the dominant culture assimilate the others. Multiculturalism teaches that it is important that certain cultural values are shared by the whole society, but that it is also desirable that there are cultural differences. For example, today, in certain schools in Western countries, students learn that their culture is neither the only nor superior to others and that there is much to learn from other cultures.
Ethnocentrism is the phenomenon that occurs when an individual or a group of people discriminates against members of another culture.
One of the negative effects of ethnocentrism is the contempt of cultures whose moral standards are different. Cultures that consider themselves more advanced than others may try to impose their values on others. Ethnocentrism can therefore become a source of hostility, prejudice and conflict between members of different cultures.
For example, some individuals may find the worship of cows in India absurd. But this phenomenon is of great importance for Indian culture and should not be ridiculed by members of other cultures.
It is worth noting that missionaries who travel to other countries to convert the local population to Christianity practice a form of ethnocentrism: they encourage people to change their religion for another.
One country that is often accused of fostering ethnocentrism is the United States. Americans place immense value on technological advances, industrialization and the accumulation of wealth. For many Americans, cultures that do not value technological advances and capitalism are “backward” or “uncivilized”. Such a point of view constituted ethnocentrism: it categorically affirms that the preferable lifestyle is urbanized and industrialized.
On the other hand, a repudiation of American culture is also a form of ethnocentrism. Many Europeans believe that European culture is superior to that of the United States and that Americans are materialistic, arrogant and intellectually inferior to Europeans. Of course, many Americans do not agree with this view.
One form of ethnocentrism that can be quite problematic is nationalism . This phenomenon occurs when a nation considers itself superior to the others. Nazi Germany serves as an example of how nationalism can result in dire consequences.
The cultural relativity is an opposite view to etnocentrismo. Cultural relativism means observing cultural systems without any ethnocentric vision. Cultural relativists seek to understand the values and norms of other cultures objectively. Cultural relativism means not considering any culture superior or inferior to others. It means recognizing that all cultures have pros and cons and that we should not assume that our culture is better than others.
For example: in India, the concepts of dating, love and marriage are quite different than in Brazil. In India, the concept of love is important, but parents choose their children’s spouses. The criteria for such a choice are: educational preparation, religion, caste and family. In Indian society, it is believed that the love between husband and wife will manifest itself after marriage. In the Brazilian ethnocentric perspective, the concept of arranged marriage is an anachronism, which limits the power of choice and, consequently, the couple’s happiness. A Brazilian cultural relativist would not criticize the concept of marriage in India and would agree that arranged marriages play an important social role in the country.
Both cultural relativism and ethnocentrism raise many difficult questions in today’s globalized world. It is not easy to determine whether or not we should condemn the practices of other cultures that we consider offensive or abhorrent. For example, in China, Korea and other Asian countries, canine meat is a delicacy. Many Brazilians, especially those who love dogs, abhor this phenomenon. Do we have the right to condemn this aspect of Asian culture? Why is it justifiable to slaughter cows and pigs and not dogs?
Of course, there are certain practices from other cultures that are more easily reprehensible. For example, in certain cultures, a woman who committed an act that “dishonored” her family can be executed by her own family members. In certain cultures, the concept of a woman “dishonoring” her family means refusing an arranged marriage, having sex with anyone other than her husband, having homosexual relationships or being raped.
Even cultural relativists are not immune to culture shock. Culture shock means the surprise, disorientation and fear that people may feel when they are faced with a new culture.
For example, very religious Muslims experience a culture shock when they visit Western Europe and see people kissing in public and women who dress in clothes that do not cover their entire bodies.
Global Culture and Global Diffusion
Cultural diffusion is the process by which cultural traits are diffused. A cultural trait can be spread both within the culture itself and among others. As there is more interaction between cultures, cultural diffusion increases.
An example of cultural diffusion: various aspects of American culture – McDonald’s hamburgers, Coca-Cola, Apple products such as the iPhone and iPad – have become very popular around the world. At the same time, typical foods from Eastern countries – such as sushi – have come to be much appreciated and consumed in Western countries.
Some sociologists predict that the world is moving towards global culture , which means the absence of cultural diversity. Cultures become similar thanks to cultural diffusion. In fact, virtually every culture is influenced by others. Cultural diffusion occurs thanks to international trade, migratory movements, land conquests and tourism.
Cultural diffusion usually occurs in regions where people from different cultures live. The interaction between them generates cultural diffusion. As the world becomes more globalized, cultural diffusion increases. In recent years, international tourism has grown a lot. The growth of international media, especially the Internet, has helped to create a global culture. Thanks to the Internet and social media, there has never been so much contact between people from all over the world, who represent a wide variety of cultures.