Culture: Sociology

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Humanities – Introduction to Sociology

Lecture 5: Culture
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to the question of what is culture. Culture is a complicated phenomenon to understand because it is both distinct from but clearly associated with society. Also, different definitions of culture reflect different theories or understandings, making it difficult to pin down exact definitions of the concept. Generally speaking, the following elements of social life are considered to be representative of human culture: "stories, beliefs, media, ideas, works of art, religious practices, fashions, rituals, specialized knowledge, and common sense" (Griswold 2004:xvi). Yet, examples of culture do not, in themselves, present a clear understanding of the concept of culture; culture is more than the object or behavior. Culture also includes norms, values, beliefs, or expressive symbols. Roughly, norms are the way people behave in a given society, values are what they hold dear, beliefs are how they think the universe operates, and expressive symbols are representations, often representations of social norms, values, and beliefs themselves (Griswold 2004:3). To summarize, culture encompasses objects and symbols, the meaning given to those objects and symbols, and the norms, values, and beliefs that pervade social life.

‘High’ Culture
Many people today use a concept of culture that developed in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries. This concept of culture reflected inequalities within European societies and their colonies around the world. It identifies culture with civilization and contrasts both with nature. According to this thinking, some countries are more civilized than others, and some people are more cultured than others. Thus some cultural theorists have actually tried to eliminate popular or mass culture from the definition of culture. Theorists like Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) believed that culture is simply that which is created by “the best that has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold 1960:6). Anything that doesn't fit into this category is labeled as chaos or anarchy. On this account, culture is closely tied to cultivation, which is the progressive refinement of human behaviour. In practice, culture referred to elite goods and activities such as haute cuisine, high fashion or haute couture, museum-caliber art and classical music, and the word cultured referred to people who knew about, and took part in, these activities. For example, someone who used culture in the sense of cultivation might argue that classical music is more refined than music by working-class people, such as jazz or the indigenous music traditions of aboriginal peoples. People who use culture in this way tend not to use it in the plural. They believe that there are not distinct cultures, each with their own internal logic and values, but rather only a single standard of refinement to which all groups are held accountable. Thus people who differ from those who believe themselves to be cultured in this sense are not usually understood as having a different culture; they are understood as being uncultured.

The Changing Concept of Culture
Today most social scientists reject the cultured vs. uncultured concept of culture and the opposition of culture to human nature. They recognize that non-elites are as cultured as elites (and that non-Westerners are just as civilized); they are just cultured in a different way. During the Romantic Era, scholars in Germany, especially those concerned with nationalism, developed a more inclusive notion of culture as worldview. That is, each ethnic group is characterized by a distinct and incommensurable world view. Although more inclusive, this approach to culture still allowed for distinctions between civilized and primitive or tribal cultures. By the late 19th century, anthropologists had changed the concept of culture to include a wider variety of societies, ultimately resulting in the concept of...
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