Chapter 3: Culture as a Social Construct

Learning Objectives

  • Illustrate how culture is constructed and received.
  • Describe the influence of context on cultural creation and acceptance.
  • Explain the significance of collective culture on group solidarity and cohesion.
  • Discuss and assess the impact of cultural change on the social structure.

3.1 Social Production of Culture

How does culture affect your thinking and behavior? How are you able to communicate the influence of culture on your life to others? How do you justify your culture as true, real, or tangible?

Because culture is a socially meaningful expression that can be articulated and shared it often takes a physical form in our minds. A spiritual or philosophical expression that is not physical in nature becomes tangible in our minds and is equivalent to an “object” (). The cultural expression is so real that people perceive it as something achievable or concrete (even if only in psychological form). The mental picture is the object and the meaning associated with the object is the expression when we are speaking about non-material culture. When people discuss love, they imagine it in their minds and feel it in their hearts even though no one can truly touch love in a physical form. We associate love to a variety of mental and physical interactions, but love itself is not tangible or concrete. Whereas, material culture is associated with physical artifacts projecting a clear understanding of its nature because it is visible, audible, and can be touched. We buy and give gifts to express our love. The material artifact we give to someone is a tangible expression of love. In this example, the expression of non-material culture is evident in material culture (love = gift) and material culture represents non-material culture (gift = love) making both forms cultural “objects.”

Cultural objects become representations of many things and can have many meanings based on the history and biography of an individual, group, or society. Think about the mantra, “Follow your dreams.” The expression is often used in the United States when discussing educational and career motivation and planning. For many U.S. citizens, this statement creates an open space for academic or professional choices and opportunities. However, the “object” is
limited to the culture of the individual. In other words, your “dream” is limited to the cultural environment and social location you occupy. For example, if you are in a family where men and women fill different roles in work and family then your educational and career choices or pathways are limited to the options within the context of your culture (i.e., values, beliefs, and norms). Afghan culture does not value or permit the education of girls. In Afghanistan, one third of girls marry before 18, and once married they are compelled to drop out of school (). The educational and career choices of Afghan girls is limited to the culture of their country and the social location of their gender. This means to “follow your dreams” in Afghanistan is confined to what a dream as an object can represent based on the gender of the person.

How does culture become an “object” or solidified, socially accepted, and followed? According to Griswold () people create, articulate, and communicate culture. However, this does not mean every cultural idea or creation is accepted by society. Though people create culture, other people must receive or accept culture to become tangible, real, or recognized as an object including artifacts. The creation of cultural ideas and concepts must have an audience to receive it and articulate its meaning in order for culture to be established and accepted. The context of the social world including time, place, conditions, and social forces influence whether an audience accepts or rejects a cultural object. Consider the many social media applications available to us today. With so many social media outlets and options available, which are the most recognized and used? Which social media apps have become part of our everyday lives, and which do we expect people to use and be familiar with as a norm? When Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams created Twitter, they introduced a cultural idea to society. As word spread about the application and people began to use it, communication about its relevance and usefulness grew. As the network of users grew more and more people were intrigued to discover the application and make it part of their lives leading to Twitter becoming a cultural object. Not only did Twitter need to demonstrate relevance to reach potential users, but it also had to be timely and applicable in context or to the needs of modern society.

Since the development of the Internet, many people and organizations have developed a variety of social media applications, but only a few apps have transcended time to become part of our culture because they were able to develop an audience or significant number of cultural receivers to legitimize them. Other than Twitter, what social media applications have become part of our culture? Research and describe the demographics of the audience or receivers for each application identified and discuss the context or environment that made the app relevant for its time and users.

Dissecting Cultural Construction

Consider the social issue of cyberbullying

  • Describe the social context or environment that has led to the development and growth of this issue.
  • What cultural elements do we associate with cyberbullying? What are the values, beliefs, norms, symbolic expressions, and artifacts or materials used by perpetrators to create a culture of cyberbullying?
  • How do victims, observers, and the public receive this culture? What meanings do people associate by the expressions used by perpetrators that make the issue “real”?
  • Reflecting on your responses to Questions 1-3, explain how social context, cultural creation, and cultural acceptance work to make the issue of cyberbullying a cultural object.

3.2 Collective Culture

Among humans, there are universal cultural patterns or elements across groups and societies. Cultural universals are common to all humans throughout the globe. Some cultural universals include cooking, dancing, ethics, greetings, personal names, and taboos to name a few. Can you identify at least five other cultural universals shared by all humans?

In thinking about cultural universals, you may have noted the variations or differences in the practice of these cultural patterns or elements. Even though humans share several cultural universals, the practice of culture expresses itself in a variety of ways across different social groups and institutions. When different groups identify shared culture, we often are speaking from generalizations or general characteristics and principles shared by humans. The description of cultural universals speak to the generalization of culture such as in the practice of marriage. Different social groups share the institution of marriage but the process, ceremony, and legal commitments are different depending on the culture of the group or society.

Cultural generalities help us understand the similarities and connections all humans have in the way we understand and live even though we may have particular ways of applying them. Some cultural characteristics are unique to a single place, culture, group, or society. These particularities may develop or adapt from social and physical responses to time, geography, ecological changes, group member traits, and composition including power structures or other phenomena.

Cultural and Social Bonds

By living together in society, people “learn specific ways of looking at life” (). Through daily interactions, people construct reality. The construction of reality provides a forum for interpreting experiences in life expressed through culture. Emile Durkheim () believed social bonds hold people together. When people live in small, integrated communities that share common values and beliefs, they develop a shared or collective consciousness. Durkheim referred to this type of social integration as mechanical solidarity meaning members of the community are all working parts of the group or work in unity creating a sense of togetherness forming a collective identity. In this example, members of the community think and act alike because they have a shared culture and shared experiences from living in remote, close-knit areas.

As society evolves and communities grow, people become more specialized in the work they do. This specialization leads individuals to work independently in order to contribute to a segment or part of a larger society (). Durkheim referred to this type of social unity as organic solidarity meaning each member of the community has a specific task or place in the group in which they contribute to the overall function of the community that is spatial and culturally diverse. In this example, community members do not necessarily think or act alike but participate by fulfilling their role or tasks as part of the larger group. If members fulfill their parts, then everyone is contributing and exchanging labor or production for the community to function as a whole.

Both mechanical and organic solidarity explain how people cooperate to create and sustain social bonds relative to group size and membership. Each form of solidarity develops its own culture to hold society together and function. However, when society transitions from mechanical to organic solidarity, there is chaos or normlessness. Durkheim referred to this transition as social anomie meaning “without law” resulting from a lack of a firm collective consciousness. As people transition from social dependence (mechanical solidarity) to interdependence (organic solidarity), they become isolated and alienated from one another until a redeveloped set of shared norms arise. We see examples of this transition when there are changes in social institutions such as governments, industry, and religion. Transitions to democracy across the continent of Africa have shown countries contending with poverty, illiteracy, militarization, underdevelopment, and monopolization of power, all forms of anomie, as they move from social dependence to interdependence ().

People develop an understanding about their culture specifically their role and place in society through social interactions. Charles Horton Cooley () suggested people develop self and identity through interpersonal interactions such as perceptions, expectations, and judgement of others. Cooley referred to this practice as the looking glass self. We imagine how  others observe us and we develop ourselves in response to their observations. The concept develops over three phases of interactions. First, we imagine another’s response to our behavior or appearance, then we envision their judgment, and lastly we have an emotional response to their judgement influencing our self-image or identity (). Interpersonal interactions play a significant role in helping us create social bonds and understand our place in society.

Group and Organizational Culture

The term group refers to any collection of at least two people who interact frequently and share identity traits aligned with the group (). Groups play different roles in our lives. Primary groups are usually small groups characterized by face-to-face interaction, intimacy, and a strong sense of commitment. Primary groups remain “inside” us throughout our lifetime (). Secondary groups are large and impersonal groups that form from sharing a common interest. Different types of groups influence our interactions, identity, and social status. George Herbert Mead () called individuals affecting a person’s life as significant others, and he conceptualized “generalized others” as the organized and generalized attitude of a social group.

Different types of groups influence our interactions, identity, and social status. An in-group is a group toward which one feels particular loyalty and respect. The traits of in-groups are virtues, whereas traits of out-groups are vices (). An out-group is a group toward which one feels antagonism and contempt. Consider fans at a sporting event, people cheering on our supporting the same team will develop an in-group admiration and acceptance while viewing fans of the opposing team as members of their out-group.

Reference groups are also influential groups in someone’s life. A reference group provides a standard for judging one’s own attitudes or behaviors within a social setting or context (). People use reference groups as a method for self-evaluation and social location. People commonly use reference groups in the workplace by watching and emulating the interactions and practices of others so they fit in and garner acceptance by the group.

Group dynamics focus on how groups influence individuals and how individuals affect groups. The social dynamics between individuals plays a significant role in forming group solidarity. Social unity reinforces a collective identity and shared thinking among group members thereby constructing a common culture (). Commonalities of group membership are important for mobilizing individual members. When people attempt to create social change or establish a social movement group, solidarity helps facilitate motivation of individuals and framing of their actions. The sense of belonging and trust among the group makes it easier for members to align and recognize the problem, accept a possible solution, take certain actions that are congruent and complementary to the collective identity of the group (). People accept the group’s approach based on solidarity and cohesiveness that overall amplifies personal mobilization and commitment to the group and its goals.

Collective Identity and Social Movement

Research TED Talks videos on social movements and social change such as the following:

  1. What lessons can you learn about collective identity from the stories presented?
  2. How does group culture make it possible to construct a social movement? Explain how micro-sociological acts (social interactions) lead to macro-sociological changes (systems, organizations, and processes) in society.
  3. What impact does intrinsic or internal motivation and framing of the issue have on organizing a social movement?

An organization refers to a group of people with a collective goal or purpose linked to bureaucratic tendencies including a hierarchy of authority, clear division of labor, explicit rules, and impersonal (). Organizations function within existing cultures and produce their own. Formal organizations fall into three categories including normative, coercive, and utilitarian (). People join normative or voluntary organizations based on shared interests (e.g., club or cause). Coercive organizations are groups that people are coerced or forced to join (e.g., addiction rehabilitation program or jail). People join utilitarian organizations to obtain a specific material reward (e.g., private school or college).

When we work or live in organizations, there are multiple levels of interaction that effect social unity and operations. On an individual level, people must learn and assimilate into the culture of the organization. All organizations face the problem of motivating its members to work together to achieve common goals (). Generally, in organizations, small group subcultures develop with their own meaning and practices to help facilitate and safeguard members within the organizational structure. Group members will exercise force (peer pressure and incentives), actively socialize (guide feelings and actions with normative controls), and model behavior (exemplary actors and stories) to build cohesiveness (). Small groups play an integral role in managing individual members to maintain the function of the organization. Think about the school or college you attend. There are many subcultures within any educational setting and each group establishes the norms and behaviors members must follow for social acceptance. Can you identify at least two subcultures on your school campus and speculate how members of the group pressure each other to fit in?

On a group level, symbolic power matters in recruiting members and sustaining the culture of a
group within the larger social culture (). Symbolic power is the power of constructing reality to guide people in understanding their place in the organizational hierarchy (). This power occurs in everyday interactions through unconscious cultural and social domination. The dominant group of an organization influences the prevailing culture and provides its function in communications forcing all groups or subcultures to define themselves by their distance from the dominant culture (). The instrument of symbolic power is the instrument of domination in the organization by creating the ideological systems of its goals, purpose, and operations. Symbolic power not only governs culture of the organization but also manages solidarity and division between groups. We see examples of symbolic power in the military. Each branch of the military has a hierarchy of authority where generals serve as the dominant group and are responsible for the prevailing culture. Each rank socializes members according to their position within the organization in relation to the hierarchy and fulfills their role to achieve collective goals and maintain functions.

Cultural Solidarity

Describe the culture of an organization where you have worked, volunteered, or attended school.

  • What are the stories and symbols that everyone who works, volunteers, or attends there knows?
  • What subculture groups exist within the organization, and what forms of conflict take place between units or classifications?
  • How do the heads of the organization use symbolic power to motivate people?

There are external factors that influence organizational culture. The context and atmosphere of a nation shapes an organization. When an organization’s culture aligns with national ideology, they can receive special attention or privileges in the way of financial incentives or policy changes (). In contrast, organizations opposing national culture may face suppression, marginalization, or be denied government and economic. Organizations must also operate across a multiplicity of cultures (). Cultural differences between organizations may affect their operations and achievement of goals. To be successful, organizations must be able to operate in a variety of contexts and cultures. Griswold () suggested one way to work across cultural contexts is to maintain an overarching organizational mission but be willing to adapt on insignificant or minor issues. Financial and banking institutions use this approach. Depending on the region, banks offer different cultural incentives for opening an account or obtaining a loan. In California, homeowners may obtain low-interest loans for ecological improvements including installation of solar panels, weatherproof windows, or drought resistance landscaping. In the state of Michigan, affluent homeowners may acquire a low-interest property improvement loan, and very low-income homeowners may receive grants for repairing, improving, or modernizing their homes to remove health and safety hazards.

Working across organizational cultures also requires some dimension of trust. Organizational leaders must model forms and symbols of trust between organizations, groups, and individuals (). This means authority figures must draw on the organization’s internal and external diversity of cultures to show its ability to adapt and work in a variety of cultural and political settings and climates. Organizations often focus on internal allegiance forgetting that shared meaning across the marketplace, sector, or industry is what moves understanding of the overall system and each organization’s place in it (). The lack of cultural coordination and understanding undermines many organizations and has significant consequences for accomplishing its goals and ability to sustain itself.

Organizational Culture

Consider the culture of an organization where you have worked, volunteered, or attended school. Describe a time when you witnessed someone receive a nonverbal, negative sanction (e.g., a look of disgust, a shake of the head, or some other nonverbal sign of disapproval).

  • What organizational norm was being broken (i.e., what was the act that led the person to give a nonverbal negative sanctioning)?
  • Was the norm broken considered a structural or cultural violation?
  • What was the reaction of the norm violator to the negative sanction?
  • Was the norm being enforced as a result of peer pressure, external forces, mimicking, or modeling?

Level of Culture

There are three recognized levels of culture in society (). Each level of culture signifies particular cultural traits and patterns within groups. International culture is one level referring to culture that transcends national boundaries. These cultural traits and patterns spread through migration, colonization, and the expansion of multinational organizations (). Some illustrations are evident in the adoption and use of technology and social media across continents. For example, computers and mobile devices allow people to live and operate across national boundaries enabling them to create and sustain an international culture around a common interest or purpose (i.e., Olympics, United Nations, etc.).

In contrast, cultural traits and patterns shared within a country is national culture. National culture is most easily recognizable in the form of symbols such as flags, logos, and colors as well as sound including national anthems and musical styles. Think about American culture, which values, beliefs, norms, and symbols are common only among people living in the United States? How about those living in China and Brazil?

Subcultures, another level of culture, are subgroups of people within the same country (e.g., doctors, lawyers, teachers, athletes, etc.). Subcultures have shared experiences and common cultural distinctions, but they blend into the larger society or cultural system. Subcultures have their own set of symbols, meanings, and behavioral norms, which develop by interacting with one another. Subcultures develop their own self-culture or idioculture that has significant meaning to members of the group and creates social boundaries for membership and social acceptance (). Think about social cliques whether they be categorized as jocks, nerds, hipsters, punks, or stoners. Each group has a particular subculture from the artifacts they wear to the values and beliefs they exhibit. All groups form a subculture resulting in-group cohesion and shared consciousness among its members.

Sport as a Subculture

Research the sport, quadriplegic rugby. Examine the rules of the game, search for information or testimonials about any of the athletes, and watch videos of game highlights and athlete stories or interviews available online.

  • Describe the subculture of the athletes (i.e., values, beliefs, symbols including meanings and expressions, behavioral norms, and artifacts relevant to the game).
  • Discuss the socialization process of athletes into the sport.
  • Explain how social context, cultural creation, and cultural acceptance work to create the idioculture of quadriplegic rugby.

Doing Culture

All people are cultured. Social scientists argue all people have a culture represented in values,
beliefs, norms, expressive symbols, practices, and artifacts. This viewpoint transcends the humanities perspective that suggests one must project refined tastes, manners, and have a good education as exhibited by the elite class to have culture. The perspective of social scientists reinforce the ideology that cultures are integrated and patterned systems not simply desired characteristics that distinguish the ruling class.

Cultural patterns are a set of integrated traits transmitted by communication or social interactions (). Consider the cultural patterns associated with housing. Each cultural group or society maintains a housing system comprised of particular cultural traits including kitchen, sofa, bed, toilet, etc. The cultural traits or each individual cultural item is part of the home or accepted cultural pattern for housing.

Not only do people share cultural traits, but they may also share personality traits. These traits
are actions, attitudes, and behaviors (e.g., honesty, loyalty, courage, etc.). Shared personality traits develop through social interactions from core values within groups and societies (). Core values are formally (legally or recognized) and informally (unofficial) emphasized to develop a shared meaning and social expectations. The use of positive (reward) and negative (punishment) sanctions help in controlling desired and undesired personality traits. For example, if we want to instill courage, we might highlight people and moments depicting bravery with verbal praise or accepting awards. To prevent cowardness, we show a deserter or run-away to depict weakness and social isolation.

Doing culture is not always an expression of ideal culture. People’s practices and behaviors do
not always abide or fit into the ideal ethos we intend or expect. The Christmas holiday is one example where ideal culture does not match the real culture people live and convey. Christmas traditionally represents an annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ; however, many individuals and families do not worship Christ or attend church on Christmas day but instead exchange gifts and eat meals together. The ideal or public definition of Christmas does not match the real or individual practices people express on the holiday. Throughout history, there have always been differences between what people value (ideal culture) and how they actually live their lives (real culture).

3.3 Cultural Change

People biologically and culturally adapt. Cultural change or evolution is influenced directly (e.g.,
intentionally), indirectly (e.g., inadvertently), or by force. These changes are a response to fluctuations in the physical or social environment  (). Social movements often start in response to shifting circumstances such as an event or issue in an effort to evoke cultural change. People will voluntarily join for collective action to either preserve or alter a cultural base or foundation. The fight over control of a cultural base has been the central conflict among many civil and human rights movements. On a deeper level, many of these movements are about cultural rights and control over what will be the prevailing or dominant culture.

Changes in cultural traits are either adaptive (better suited for the environment) or maladaptive (inadequate or inappropriate for the environment). During times of natural disasters, people must make cultural changes to daily norms and practices such as donating time and money to help relief efforts (adaptive) while also rebuilding homes and businesses. However, not all relief efforts direct money, energy, or time into long-term contributions of modifying physical infrastructures including roads, bridges, dams, etc. or helping people relocate away from high disaster areas (maladaptive). People adjust and learn to cope with cultural changes whether adaptive or maladaptive in an effort to soothe psychological or emotional needs.

Though technology continues to impact changes in society, culture does not always change at the same pace. There is a lag in how rapidly cultural changes occur. Generally, material culture changes before non-material culture. Contact between groups diffuses cultural change among groups, and people are usually open to adapt or try new artifacts or material possessions before modifying their values, beliefs, norms, expressive symbols (i.e., verbal and non-verbal language), or practices. Influencing fashion trends is easier than altering people’s religious beliefs.

Through travel and technological communications, people are sharing cultural elements worldwide. With the ability to travel and communicate across continents, time and space link the exchange of culture. Modern society is operating on a global scale (known as globalization) and people are now interlinked and mutually dependent. Acculturation or the merging of cultures is growing. Groups are adopting the cultural traits and social patterns of other groups leading to the blending of cultures. Cultural leveling is the process where cultures are becoming similar to one another because of globalization.


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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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