Chapter 2: Culture and Meaning

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the relationship between culture and the social world
  • Understand the role and impact of culture on society
  • Describe concepts central to cultural sociology
  • Summarize and apply the theoretical perspectives on the study of culture


2.1 Introduction

Culture is an expression of our lives. It molds our identity and connection to the social world. Whether it is our values, beliefs, norms, language, or everyday artifacts each element of culture reflects who we are and influences our position in society.
If you think about how we live, communicate, think and act, these parts of our existence develop from the values, beliefs, and norms we learn from others, the language and symbols we understand, and the artifacts or materials we use. Culture is embedded into everyday life and is the attribute in which others view and understand us.


2.2 Link between Culture and Society

Culture is both expressive and social. Neither culture nor society exist in the real world rather it is the thoughts and behaviors of people that constructs a society, its culture, and meanings (). People build the world we live in including the cultural attributes we choose to obtain, exhibit, and follow. Societies communicate and teach culture as part of the human experience.


Adult Artist Ballerina
Ballet_Swan Lake CCO. Image by Niki Dinov from  Pixabay

Historically, culture referred to characteristics and qualities of the fine arts, performing arts, and literature connecting culture to social status. This perspective emphasized a subculture shared by the social elite or upper class and has been historically characterized as civilized culture. This perspective within the humanities studied the “ideal type” or “high culture” of affluent social groups depicting whom was “cultured” or rather was wealthy and educated in society lending itself to a ranking of cultures in its study.


In the 19th century, anthropologist Edward B. Tyler () introduced culture as a complex social structure encompassing “. . . knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” This definition focused on culture as a social attribute of humanity. Social scientists adopted this perspective expanding the study of culture beyond the ethnocentric elitism of “high culture.” With emphasis on human social life as a reflection of culture, social scientists sought to understand not only how culture reflects society but also how society reflects culture. These new insights inspired social scientists to examine the practices of people lending itself to a sociological perspective on culture.

2.3 Defining Culture

Culture is universal. Every society has culture. Culture touches every “aspect of who and what we are” and becomes a lens of how we see and evaluate the world around us (). Culture molds human nature and people learn to express nature in cultural ways. The sociological perspective acknowledges that all people are cultured.

Each generation transmits culture to the next providing us a roadmap and instruction on how to live our lives. Cultural transmission occurs through the learning and expression of traditions and customs. Learning your own group’s culture is enculturation. Adults are agents of enculturation responsible for passing on culture to each generation.

Through learning, people develop individual cultural characteristics that are part of a social pattern and integrated set of traits expressing a group’s core values (). Thus, cultures are integrated and patterned systems serving a variety of social functions within groups. Enculturation gives members of a group a process to think symbolically, use language and tools, share common experiences and knowledge, and learn by observation, experience, as well as unconsciously from each other (). The commonalities we share
through culture establish familiarity and comfort among members of our own group.

Non-Material vs. Material Culture

Culture is either non-material or material. Non-material culture includes psychological and spiritual elements influencing the way individuals think and act. Material culture refers to physical artifacts people use and consume.

Immaterial aspects of culture reflect social values, beliefs, norms, expressive symbols, and practices. Though these cultural elements are intangible, they often take on a physical form in our minds. Non-material culture becomes real in our perceptions and we begin to view them as objects as in the belief of God or other deity. Though we cannot physically see, hear, or touch a God belief makes them real and imaginable to us.

Values or ideals define what is desirable in life and guides our preferences and choices. Changes in core values may seem threatening to some individuals or societies as “a threat to a way of life” (). A strong bind to core values can also blind individuals to reality or objectivity reinforcing fallacies and stereotypes. Throughout history, there have always been differences between what people value (their ideal or public culture) and how they actually live their lives (their real or personal culture).

Beliefs sometimes mirror values. One’s belief system may align or determine their values influencing thoughts and actions. Beliefs are not always spiritual or supernatural. For example, the belief in love or feelings of affection are internal emotions or physical reactions that exhibit physiological changes in human chemistry. Some beliefs are true representations of metaphysical or abstract thinking which transcend the laws of nature such as faith or superstitions.


Cultural Inventory

  • What is your personal cultural inventory? Describe your values and beliefs, the social norms in which you conform, the expressive symbols (including language) you understand and use regularly, your daily practices, and the artifacts you use frequently and those you treasure.
  • How did you learn culture? Explain the socializing agents responsible for teaching you the traditions, customs, and rituals you live by and follow.
  • What impact does culture have on your identity? Discuss how your culture influences your self-image,
    views, and role in society.
  • How does culture influence your thinking and behavior towards others? Explain how your culture impacts the image or understanding you have about others including assumptions, stereotypes, and prejudices.

Norms or rules develop out of a group’s values and beliefs. When people defy the rules, they receive social reactions resulting in a sanction. Sanctions are a form of social control (). When people follow the rules, they receive a positive sanction or reward, and when they break the rules, they receive a negative one or punishment that may include social isolation.

Symbols help people understand the world (). Symbols include gestures, signs, signals, objects, and words. Language is the symbolic system people use to communicate both verbally and in writing (). Language constantly evolves and provides the basis for sharing cultural experiences and ideas.

The Sapir-Worf Hypothesis suggests people experience the world through symbolic language that derives from culture itself (). If you see, hear, or think of a word, it creates a mental image in your head helping you understand and interpret meaning. If you are not familiar with a word or its language, you are unable to comprehend meaning creating a cultural gap or boundary between you and the cultural world around you. Language makes symbolic thought possible.

Practices or the behaviors we carry out develop from or in response to our thoughts. We fulfill rituals, traditions, or customs based on our values, beliefs, norms, and expressive symbols. Culture dictates and influences how people live their lives. Cultural practices become habitual from frequent repetition (). Habitualization leads to institutionalization by consensus of a social group. This results in cultural patterns and systems becoming logical and
the viewed as the norm.

Material culture is inherently unnatural, such as buildings, machines, electronic devices, clothing, hairstyles, etc. (). Dialogue about culture often ignores its close tie to material realities in society. The cultural explanations we receive from family, friends, school, work, and media justify cultural realities and utilities of the artifacts we use and consume. Human behavior is purposeful and material culture in our lives derives from the interests of our socializing agents in our environment.

2.4 Cultural Sociology

There is division among sociologists who study culture. Those who study the sociology of culture have limitations on the categorizations of cultural topics and objects restricting the view of culture as a social product or consequence. The theoretical works of Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber and the field of anthropology, shaped the sociology of culture. Durkheim found culture and society are interrelated. He explained social structures or institutions serve a functions society. As a collective group, society’s culture including its social, political and economic values are essentially part of and reflected in all structures or institutions (). Marx believed social power influences culture. He suggested cultural products depend on economics and people who have power are able to produce and distribute culture (). Weber in alignment with the traditional humanities viewpoint emphasized the ability of culture to influence human behavior. His perspective argued some cultures and cultural works are ideal types that could be lost if they were not preserved or archived (). Until the late twentieth century, anthropologists emphasized the importance of art and culture to educate, instill morality, critique society to inspire change (). Initial thoughts on culture focused on how culture makes a person. These works accentuated the idea that certain cultural elements (i.e., elite or high culture) make a person cultured.

In contrast, the study of cultural sociology suggests social phenomena is inherently cultural (). Cultural sociology investigates culture as an explanation of social phenomena. During the cultural turn movement of the 1970s, cultural sociology emerged as a field of study among anthropologists and social scientists evaluating the role of culture in society. Academics expanded their research to the social process in which people communicate meaning, understand the world, construct identity, and express values and beliefs (). This new approach incorporates analyzing culture using data from interviews, discussions, and observations of people to understand the social, historical structures and ideological forces that produce and confine culture.


Cultural sociology examines the social meanings and expressions associated with culture. Cultural sociologists study representations of culture including elitist definitions and understanding such as art, literature, and classical music, but also investigate the broad range of culture in everyday social life (). Noting the significance of culture in human social life, sociologists empirically study culture, the impact of culture on social order, the link between culture and society, and the persistence and durability of culture over time (). Cultural sociology incorporates an interdisciplinary approach drawing on different disciplines because of the broad scope and social influences culture has on people. Culture is inseparable from the acts and influence of cultural practices embedded within social categories (i.e., gender, ethnicity, and social class) and social institutions (i.e., family, school, and work) that construct identities and lifestyle practices of individuals (; ). In the effort to understand the relationship between culture and society, sociologists study cultural practices, institutions, and systems including the forms of power exhibited among social groups related to age, body and mind, ethnicity, gender, geography, race, religion and belief systems, sex, sexuality, and social class.

Cultural Identity in Art

  • What forms of identity and symbolism did you see within the music video This is America by Childish Gambino?
  • Now, watch the breakdown video that explains the hidden symbolism and forms of cultural identity in the music video This is America by Childish Gambino.
  • Compare your list and note what things you were able to identify and what things you missed.
Ethnographers and Native Anthropologists

In the study of cultural sociology, many practitioners examine both quantitative and qualitative data to develop an understanding of cultural experiences. Quantitative or numeric data provides a framework for understanding observable patterns or trends while qualitative or categorical data presents the reasoning behind thoughts and actions associated with patterns or trends.

The collection of qualitative data incorporates scientific methodological approaches including participant observation (observing people as a member of the group), interviews (face-to-face meetings), focus groups (group discussions), or images (pictures or video). Each method focuses on collecting specific types of information to develop a deep understanding about a particular culture and the experiences associated with being a member of that culture.

Ethnographers study people and cultures by using qualitative methods. Ethnography or ethnographic research is the firsthand, field-based study of a particular culture by spending at least one year living with people and learning their customs and practices (). In the field, ethnographers are participant observers and a participant of the group or society of study. Participant observers face challenges in remaining objective, non-bias, and ensuring their participation does not lead or influence others of the group in a specific direction (). This research approach expects ethnographers to eliminate the risk of contaminating data with interference or bias interpretations as much as humanly possible.

Some researchers choose to study their own culture. These practitioners refer to themselves as native anthropologists. Many native anthropologists have experience studying other cultures prior to researching their own (). The practice of learning how to study other cultures gives practitioners the skills and knowledge they need to study their own culture more objectively. In addition, by studying other cultures then one’s own, native anthropologists are able to compare and analyze similarities and differences in cultural perceptions and practices.

2.5 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture

The social structure plays an integral role in the social location (i.e., place or position) people occupy in society. Your social location is a result of cultural values and norms from the time period and place in which you live. Culture affects personal and social development including the way people will think or behave. Cultural characteristics pertaining to age, gender, race, education, income, and other social factors influence the location people occupy at any given time.

Furthermore, social location influences how people perceive and understand the world in which we live. People have a difficult time being objective in all contexts because of their social location within cultural controls and standards derived from values and norms. Objective conditions exist without bias because they are measurable and quantifiable (). Subjective concerns rely on judgments rather than external facts. Personal feelings and opinions from a person’s social location drive subjective concerns. The sociological imagination is a tool to help people step outside subjective or personal biography, and look at objective facts and the historical background of a situation, issue, society, or person ().

Perceptions of Reality

The time period we live (history) and our personal life experiences (biography) influence our perspectives and understanding about others and the world. Our history and biography guide our perceptions of reality reinforcing our personal bias and subjectivity. Relying on subjective viewpoints and perspectives leads to diffusion of misinformation and fake news that can be detrimental to our physical and socio-cultural environment and negatively impact our interactions with others. We must seek out facts and develop knowledge to enhance our objective eye. By using valid, reliable, proven facts, data, and information, we establish credibility and make better decisions for the world and ourselves.

  • Consider a socio-cultural issue you are passionate about and want to change or improve.
  • What is your position on the issue? What ideological or value-laden reasons or beliefs support your
    position? What facts or empirical data support your position?
  • What portion of your viewpoint or perspective on the issue relies on personal values, opinions, or beliefs in comparison to facts?
  • Why is it important to identity and use empirical data or facts in our lives rather than relying on ideological reasoning and false or fake information?

According to C. Wright Mills (), the sociological imagination requires individuals to “think themselves away” in examining personal and social influences on people’s life choices and outcomes. Large-scale or macrosociological influences help create understanding about the effect of the social structure and history on people’s lives. Whereas, small-scale or
microsociological influences focus on interpreting personal viewpoints from an individual’s biography. Using only a microsociological perspective leads to an unclear understanding of the world from biased perceptions and assumptions about people, social groups, and society ().

Sociologists use theories to study the people. “The theoretical paradigms provide different lenses into the social constructions of life and the relationships of people” (). The theoretical paradigms in sociology help us examine and understand cultural reflections including the social structure and social value culture creates and sustains to fulfill human needs as mediated by society itself. Each paradigm provides an objective framework of analysis and evaluation for understanding the social structure including the construction of the cultural values and norms and their influence on thinking and behavior.

The Theoretical Paradigms

Macrosociology studies large-scale social arrangements or constructs in the social world. The macro perspective examines how groups, organizations, networks, processes, and systems influences thoughts and actions of individuals and groups (). Functionalism, Conflict Theory, Feminism, and Environmental Theory are macrosociological perspectives.

Microsociology studies the social interactions of individuals and groups. The micro perspective observes how thinking and behavior influences the social world such as groups, organizations, networks, processes, and systems (). Symbolic Interactionism and Exchange Theory are microsociological perspectives.

Functionalism is a macrosociological perspective examining the purpose or contributions of interrelated parts within the social structure. Functionalists examine how parts of society contribute to the whole. Everything in society has a purpose or function. Even a negative contribution helps society discern its function. For example, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs inspired society to define the behavior as undesirable, develop laws, and consequences for people committing such an act. A manifest function in society results in expected outcomes (i.e., using a pencil to develop written communication). Whereas, a latent function has an unexpected result (i.e., using a pencil to stab someone). When a function creates unexpected results that cause hardships, problems, or negative consequences the result is a latent dysfunction.

Conflict Theory is a macrosociological perspective exploring the fight among social groups over resources in society. Groups compete for status, power, control, money, territory, and other resources for economic or other social gain. Conflict Theory explores the struggle between those in power and those who are not in power within the context of the struggle. Cultural wars are common in society, whether controversy over a deity and way of life or ownership and rights over Holy Land.

Symbolic Interactionism is a microsociological perspective observing the influence of interactions on thinking and behavior. Interactionists consider how people interpret meaning and symbols to understand and navigate the social world. Individuals create social reality through verbal and non-verbal interactions. These interactions form thoughts and behaviors in response to others influencing motivation and decision-making. Hearing or reading a word in a language one understands develop a mental image and comprehension about information shared or communicated (i.e., the English word “bread” is most commonly visualized as a slice or loaf and considered a food item).
There are three modern approaches to sociological theory ().

Feminism, a macrosociological perspective, studies the experiences of women and minorities in the social world including the outcomes of inequality and oppression for these groups. One major focus of the feminist theoretical approach is to understand how age, ethnicity, race, sexuality, and social class interact with gender to determine outcomes for people ().

Exchange Theory examines decision-making of individuals in society. This microsociological perspective focuses on understanding how people consider a cost versus benefit analysis accentuating their self-interest to make decisions. Environmental Theory explores how people adjust to ecological (environmental and social) changes over time (). The focal point of this macrosociological perspective is to figure out how people adapt or evolve over time and share the same ecological space.

Applying Theories

Functionalists view how people work together to create society as a whole. From this perspective, societies needs culture to exist (). For example, cultural norms or rules function to support the social structure of society, and cultural values guide people in their thoughts and actions. Consider how education is an important concept in the United States because it is valued. The culture of education including the norms surrounding registration, attendance, grades, graduation, and material culture (i.e., classrooms, textbooks, libraries) all support the emphasis placed on the value of education in the United States. Just as members of a society work together to fulfill the needs of society, culture exists to meet the basic needs of its members.

Conflict theorists understand the social structure as inherently unequal resulting from the differences in power based on age, class, education, gender, income, race, sexuality, and other social factors. For a conflict theorist, culture reinforces issues of “privilege” groups and their status in social categories (). Inequalities exist in every cultural system. Therefore, cultural norms benefit people with status and power while harming others and at the expense of others. For example, although cultural diversity is valued in the United States, some people and states prohibit interracial marriages, same-sex marriages, and polygamy ().

Symbolic interactionists see culture as created and maintained by the interactions and interpretations of each other’s actions. These theorists conceptualize human interactions as a continuous process of deriving meaning from the physical and social environment. “Every object and action has a symbolic meaning, and language serves as a means for people to represent and communicate their interpretations of these meanings to others” (). Interactionists evaluate how culture depends on the interpretation of meaning and how individuals interact when exchanging comprehension and meaning. For instance, derogatory terms such as the “N” word might be acceptable among people of the same cultural group but viewed as offensive and antagonistic when used by someone outside of the group.

Feminists explore the cultural experiences of women and minorities. For example, women in Lebanon do not have the right to dissolve a marriage without her husband’s consent even in cases of spousal abuse (). Feminism explicitly examines oppression structures within culture systems and the inequity some groups confront in relation to their age, gender, race, social class, sexuality, or other social category.

Exchange theorists observe how culture influences decision-making. Cultural values and beliefs often influence people’s choices about premarital sex and cohabitation before marriage. If you evaluate your decisions on a daily basis, you might see elements of culture behind the motivation driving your choices.

Environmental theorists assess how culture, as part of the social and physical environment, adapts and changes over time. If you contemplate any rule of law, you can see how culture has altered because of shifts in social ideas or ecological fluctuations. Consider the anti-tobacco laws in the United States making it illegal to smoke in public areas as an example of social shifts towards health and wellness or water meters to control and regulate residential water usage and waste as an example of ecological drought and prolonged water shortages in the United States.

Theoretical Application

Popular culture reflects prominent values, beliefs, norms, symbolic expressions, and practices while reinforcing American ideologies and myths. Develop a written response exploring the depiction of contemporary American culture in an episode of a contemporary television show drama (i.e., NCIS, Game of Thrones, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Breaking Bad, etc.)

  • Describe American cultural ideologies or principles portrayed in the show (i.e., unity, diversity, patriotism, etc.).
  • Explain which myths or untruths are evident in the film that express fundamental cultural values or norms.
  • Discuss how the show mirrors social and cultural trends.
  • Analyze the culture portrayed in the television show using each of the theoretical paradigms: Functionalism, Conflict Theory, Interactionism, Feminism, Exchange Theory, and Environmental Theory.


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Adapted from Modules 1 through 5, pages 1 through 77 from “Beyond Race: Cultural Influences on Human Social Life” by Vera Kennedy under the license CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

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