Jose J. Garcia
Bryant and Stratton
July 28, 2012.
Society is made up of individuals who have agreed to work together for mutual benefit. It can be a very broad term, as we can make generalizations about what the whole of western society believes, or it can be a very narrow definition, describing only a small group of people within a given community. But no matter the size, and no matter the link that binds a society together, be it religious, geographic, professional or economic, society is shaped by the relationships between individuals. Culture and society are not the same thing. Societies are groups of people who directly or indirectly interact with each other. While cultures are complexes of learned behavior patterns and perceptions, societies are groups of interacting organisms. The word culture has many different meanings. For some it refers to an appreciation of good literature, music, art, and food. For a biologist, it is likely to be a colony of bacteria or other microorganisms growing in a nutrient medium in a laboratory dish. However, for anthropologists and other behavior scientists, culture is the full range of learned human behavior patterns (Dean, 2010, p. 688). Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. Culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is a fragile phenomenon. It is constantly changing and easily lost because it exists only in our minds. Our written languages, government, buildings, and other man made things are merely the products of culture. They are not culture in themselves, for this reason, archaeologists cannot dig up culture directly in their excavations.
There are very likely three layers or levels of culture that are part of your learned behavior patterns and perceptions. Most obviously is the body of cultural traditions that distinguish your specific society. When people speak of Italian, Samoan, or Japanese culture, they are referring to the shared language, traditions, and beliefs that set each of these people apart from others. In most cases, those who share your culture do so because they acquired it as they were raised by parents and other family members who have it.
The second layer of culture that may be part of your identity is a subculture. In complex and diverse societies in which people have come from many different parts of the world, they often retain much of their original tradition. As a result, they are likely to be part of an identifiable subculture in their new society. The shared cultural traits of subcultures set them apart from the rest of their society. Examples of easily identifiable subcultures in the United States include ethnic groups such as Vietnamese Americans, African American, and Mexican Americans. Members of each of these subcultures share a common identity, food tradition, dialect or language, and other cultural trait that come from their common ancestral background and experience. As the cultural differences between members of a subculture and the dominant national culture fade and eventually disappear, the subculture ceases to exist except as a group of people who claim a common ancestry. That is generally the case with German American and Irish Americans in the United States today. Most of them identify themselves as Americans first. They also see themselves as being part of the cultural mainstream of the nation.
The third layer of culture consists of cultural universals. These are learned behavior patterns that are shared by all of humanity collectively. No matter where people live in the world, they share these universal traits. Examples of such “human cultural” traits include communicating with a verbal language consisting of a limited set of sounds and grammatical rules for constructing sentences, using age and gender to classify people, classifying people based on marriage and descent relationships and having kinship terms to refer to them, or raising children in some sort of family setting. While cultures have these and possibly many others universal trait, different cultures have developed their own specific ways of carrying out or expressing them. For instance, people in deaf subcultures frequently use their hands to communicate with sign language instead of verbal language. However, sign languages have grammatical rules just as verbal ones.
People in human society also generally perceive that their society is distinct from other societies in terms of shared traditions and expectations. While human societies and cultures are not the same thing, they are connected because culture is created and transmitted to others in a society. Cultures are not the product of lone individuals. They are the continuously evolving products of people interacting with each other (Stoll, 1998, p.98). Cultural patterns such as language and politics make no sense except in terms of the interaction of people. If you were the only human on earth, there would be no need for language or government. There has been much debate over what makes a society successful. People must play a part in agreeing to certain laws and in choosing a given leader. If people lose that right, then society won’t function as well.
Philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that without society, human life would be “nasty, brutish and short”. Man’s natural state, he argued, would be to preserve only oneself. A man without society would steal another family’s food, seduce other men’s wives and kill anyone who got in his way. Of course, the same man would be in constant danger of those things happening to him, his wife and his children. What people needed was a society that would provide protection by subjecting everyone to a set of rules. But the number of governments, tribes, and communities today demonstrate that there’s no single way to form or govern a society (Wildavsky, 1998, p101). A society without an agreed upon code of conduct would be like football without rules or a referee. People will cooperate and commit to a society only as long as they can choose the person who mediates and voice an opinion on the rules.
It’s interesting to observe certain things that affect our society. For example, the Internet, there’s no referee, and the rules that govern our interpersonal contact don’t seem to hold much sway. With the anonymity provided by a screen name, people feel like they can say things they wouldn’t otherwise say, things that may even be hurtful or dangerous. You can do everything from order a pizza online to pay your electric bill, some people worry that the Internet will destroy our real societies, as people opt out of participating in real life in favor of participating in cyberspace. On the other hand, some would argue that the Internet has only made our societies larger (Stoll, 1998, p.154). A person in Chicago, after all, can converse easily with a person in china. It will be interesting to see how much more technology will shape our societies in the future.
Cultures in societies are learned. Infants come into this world with basic drives such as hunger and thirst, but they do not possess instinctive patterns of behavior to satisfy them. Likewise, they are without any cultural knowledge. They are genetically predisposed to rapidly learn language and other cultural traits. Newborn humans are amazing learning machines. Any normal baby can be placed into a family on earth and grow up to learn their culture and accept it as his or her own. Since culture is non-instinctive, we are not genetically programmed to learn a particular one. Every human generation potentially can discover new things and new cultures from different societies. The new cultural skills and knowledge are added onto what was learned in previous generations. As a result, cultures in different societies are cumulative.
There are many different varieties of culture in our society. They are cultures such as subcultures, dominant cultures and countercultures. Each culture plays a very important role in our society today. Society is the structure of relationships within which culture is created and shared through regularized patterns of social interaction, and culture is the totality of our shared language, knowledge, material creations, and the rules for behavior (Witt, 2012, p. 50). Culture and society are not the same thing, yet that cannot exist without each other. Different cultures come out of large society, and society is shaped with different types of culture.
Stoll, J. H. (1998). What is wrong with society today. Leadership University, (1st Ed). St.Paul, MN. Retrieved from http://www.LeaderU.com
Dean, M. (2010). What is Society? Social thought and the arts of government. British Journal of Sociology, 61(4), 677-695. Retrieved from the EBSCOHOST database.
Witt, J. (2012) SOC 2012. The McGraw-Hill Co. (2012 Ed), 46-66.
Wildavsky, A. B. (1998). Culture and Social Theory (1st Ed). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.