Chapter 3. CultureFigure 3.1. Graffiti’s mix of colourful drawings, words, and symbols is a vibrant expression of culture—or, depending on one’s viewpoint, a disturbing expression of the creator’s lack of respect for a community’s shared space. (Photo courtesy of aikijuanma/Flickr)

Learning Objectives

3.1. What Is Culture?

Differentiate between culture and society.Distinguish between biological and cultural explanations of human behaviour.Compare and contrast cultural universalism, cultural relativism, ethnocentrism, and androcentrism.Examine the policy of multiculturalism as a solution to the problem of diversity.

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3.2. Elements of Culture

Understand the basic elements of culture: values, beliefs, and norms.Explain the significance of symbols and language to a culture.Describe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.Distinguish material and nonmaterial culture.

3.3. Culture as Innovation: Pop Culture, Subculture, and Global Culture

Distinguish two modes of culture: innovation and restriction.Discuss the distinction between high culture, pop culture, and postmodern culture.Differentiate between subculture and counterculture.Understand the role of globalization in cultural change and local lived experience.

3.4. Culture as Restriction: Rationalization and Commodification

Describe culture as a form of restriction on social life.Explain the implications of rationalization and consumerism.

3.5. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture

Discuss the major theoretical approaches to cultural interpretation.

Introduction to Culture

Figure 3.2. Fast food nation. (Photo courtesy of Jon Bunting/Flickr)

Are there rules for eating at McDonald’s? Generally, we do not think about rules in a fast food restaurant because they are designed to be casual, quick, and convenient. But if you look around one on a typical weekday, you will see people acting as if they were trained for the role of fast food customer. They stand in line, pick their items from overhead menus before they order, swipe debit cards to pay, and stand to one side to collect trays of food. After a quick meal, customers wad up their paper wrappers and toss them into garbage cans. This is a food system that has become highly rationalized in Max Weber’s terms. Customers’ movement through this fast food routine is orderly and predictable, even if no rules are posted and no officials direct the process.

If you want more insight into these unwritten rules, think about what would happen if you behaved according to some other standards. (You would be doing what sociologists call a “breaching experiment” in ethnomethodology: deliberately disrupting social norms in order to learn about them.) For example: call ahead for reservations; ask the cashier detailed questions about the food’s ingredients or how it is prepared; barter over the price of the burgers; ask to have your meal served to you at your table; or throw your trash on the ground as you leave. Chances are you will elicit hostile responses from the restaurant employees and your fellow customers. Although the rules are not written down, you will have violated deep seated tacit norms that govern behaviour in fast food restaurants.

This example reflects a broader theme in the culture of food and diet. What are the rules that govern what, when, and how we eat? Michael Pollan (b. 1955), for example, contrasts the North American culture of fast food with the intact traditions of eating sit-down, family meals that still dominate in France and other European nations (2006). Despite eating foods that many North Americans think of as unhealthy — butter, wheat, triple-cream cheese, foie gras, wine, etc. — the French, as a whole, remain healthier and thinner than North Americans.

The French eat all sorts of supposedly unhealthy foods, but they do it according to a strict and stable set of rules: They eat small portions and don’t go back for seconds; they don’t snack; they seldom eat alone; and communal meals are long, leisurely affairs. (Pollan, 2006)

Their cultural rules fix and constrain what people consider as food and how people consume food. The national cuisine and eating habits of France are well established, oriented to pleasure and tradition, and as Pollan argues, well integrated into French cultural life as a whole.

Figure 3.3. French dessert of raspberry crème brulee. Does a nation’s cuisine represent a rule-bound tradition, an innovative and inventive art, or both? (Photo courtesy of Йоана Петрова/Flickr)

In North America, on the other hand, fast food is just the tip of an iceberg with respect to a larger crisis of diet in which increasing levels of obesity and eating disorders are coupled with an increasing profusion of health diets, weight reducing diets, and food fads. While an alarming number of North American meals are eaten in cars (19 percent, according to Pollan), the counter-trend is the obsession with nutritional science. Instead of an orientation to food based on cultural tradition and pleasure, people are oriented to food in terms of its biochemical constituents (calories, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, omega fatty acids, saturated and unsaturated fats, etc.). There are Atkins diets, zone diets, Mediterranean diets, paleolithic diets, vegan diets, gluten free diets, Weight Watchers diets, raw food diets, etc.; an endless proliferation that Pollan attributes to a fundamental anxiety that North Americans have about food and health. While each type of diet claims scientific evidence to support its health and other claims, evidence which is disturbingly contradictory, essentially the choice of diet revolves around the cultural meanings attributed to food and its nutritional components:

that taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten; that one should not simply eat what one enjoys; that the important components of food cannot be seen or tasted, but are discernible only in scientific laboratories; and that experimental science has produced rules of nutrition that will prevent illness and encourage longevity. (Levenstein as cited in Pollan, 2006)

It is important to note that food culture and diet are not infinitely malleable, however. There is an underlying biological reality of nutrition that defines the parameters of dietary choice. In his documentary Super Size Me (2004), Morgan Spurlock conducted a version of the sociological participant observation study by committing himself to eating only McDonald’s food for 30 days. As a result, he gained 24 pounds, increased his cholesterol and fat accumulation in his liver, and experienced mood swings and sexual dysfunction. It is clear that one cannot survive on fast food alone; although many teenagers and university students have been known to try.

Figure 3.4. Kentucky Fried Chicken instant mashed potato, 1974. (Photo courtesy of Roadsidepictures/Flickr)

Sociologists would argue, therefore, that everything about fast food restaurants, choice of diet, and habits of food consumption reflects culture, the beliefs and behaviours that a social group shares. Diet is a product of culture. It is a product of the different meanings we attribute to food and to the relationship we have with our bodies. The significant point is that while diet is a response to the fundamental conditions of biological life, diet is also a tremendous site of innovation and diversity. Culture in general is a site of two opposing tendencies: one is the way that cultures around the world lay down sets of rules or norms which constrain, restrict, habitualize, and fix forms of life; the other is the way that cultures produce endlessly innovative and diverse solutions to problems like nutrition. Cultures both constrain and continually go beyond constraints.

This raises the distinction between the terms “culture” and “society” and how sociologists conceptualize the relationship between them. In everyday conversation, people rarely distinguish between these terms, but they have slightly different meanings, and the distinction is important to how sociologists examine culture. If culture refers to the beliefs, artifacts, and ways of life that a social group shares, a society is a group that interacts within a common bounded territory or region. To clarify, a culture represents the beliefs, practices, and material artifacts of a group, while a society represents the social structures, processes, and organization of the people who share those beliefs, practices, and material artifacts. Neither society nor culture could exist without the other, but we can separate them analytically.

In this chapter, we examine the relationship between culture and society in greater detail, paying special attention to the elements and forces that shape culture, including diversity and cultural changes. A final discussion touches on the different theoretical perspectives from which sociologists research culture.

3.1. What Is Culture?

Figure 3.5. What is culture? (Image courtesy of Chris Jones/Flickr)

Humans are social creatures. Since the dawn of Homo sapiens, nearly 200,000 years ago, people have grouped together into communities in order to survive. Living together, people developed forms of cooperation which created the common habits, behaviours, and ways of life known as culture — from specific methods of childrearing to preferred techniques for obtaining food. Peter Berger (b. 1929) argued that this is the result of a fundamental human predicament (1967). Unlike other animals, humans lack the biological programming to live on their own. They require an extended period of dependency in order to survive in the environment. The creation of culture makes this possible by providing a protective shield against the harsh impositions of nature. Culture provides the ongoing stability that enables human existence. This means, however, that the human environment is not nature per se but culture itself.

Over the history of humanity, this has lead to an incredible diversity in how humans have imagined and lived life on Earth, the sum total of which Wade Davis (b. 1953) has called the ethnosphere. The ethnosphere is the entirety of all cultures’ “ways of thinking, ways of being, and ways of orienting oneself on the Earth” (Davis, 2007). It is our collective cultural heritage as a species. A single culture, as the sphere of meanings shared by a single social group, is the means by which that group makes sense of the world and of each other. But there are many cultures and many ways of making sense of the world. Through a multiplicity of cultural inventions, human societies have adapted to the environmental and biological conditions of human existence in many different ways. What do we learn from this?

Firstly, almost every human behaviour, from shopping to marriage to expressions of feelings, is learned. In Canada, people tend to view marriage as a choice between two people based on mutual feelings of love. In other nations and in other times, marriages have been arranged through an intricate process of interviews and negotiations between entire families, or in other cases, through a direct system such as a mail-order bride. To someone raised in Winnipeg, the marriage customs of a family from Nigeria may seem strange or even wrong. Conversely, someone from a traditional Kolkata family might be perplexed with the idea of romantic love as the foundation for the lifelong commitment of marriage. In other words, the way in which people view marriage depends largely on what they have been taught. Being familiar with these written and unwritten rules of culture helps people feel secure and “normal.” Most people want to live their daily lives confident that their behaviours will not be challenged or disrupted. Behaviour based on learned customs is, therefore, not a bad thing, but it does raise the problem of how to respond to cultural differences.

Figure 3.6. The cultural norms governing public transportation vary in Canada, Austria, Mumbai, and Tokyo. How would a visitor from a rural Canadian town act and feel on this crowded Tokyo train? (Photo courtesy of simonglucas/Flickr)

Secondly, culture is innovative. The existence of different cultural practices reveals the way in which societies find different solutions to real life problems. The different forms of marriage are various solutions to a common problem, the problem of organizing families in order to raise children and reproduce the species. The basic problem is shared by the different societies, but the solutions are different. This illustrates the point that culture in general is a means of solving problems. It is a tool composed of the capacity to abstract and conceptualize, to cooperate and coordinate complex collective endeavours, and to modify and construct the world to suit human purposes. It is the repository of creative solutions, techniques, and technologies humans draw on when confronting the basic shared problems of human existence. Culture is, therefore, key to the way humans, as a species, have successfully adapted to the environment. The existence of different cultures refers to the different means by which humans use innovation to free themselves from biological and environmental constraints.

Thirdly, culture is also restraining. Cultures retain their distinctive patterns through time. In global capitalism, although Canadian culture, French culture, Malaysian culture and Kazakhstani culture will share certain features like rationalization and commodification, they also differ in terms of languages, beliefs, dietary practices, and other ways of life. They adapt and respond to capitalism in unique manners according to their specific shared heritages. Local cultural forms have the capacity to restrain the changes produced by globalization. On the other hand, the diversity of local cultures is increasingly limited by the homogenizing pressures of globalization. Economic practices that prove inefficient or uncompetitive in the global market disappear. The meanings of cultural practices and knowledges change as they are turned into commodities for tourist consumption or are patented by pharmaceutical companies. Globalization increasingly restrains cultural forms, practices, and possibilities.

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There is a dynamic within culture of innovation and restriction. The cultural fabric of shared meanings and orientations that allows individuals to make sense of the world and their place within it can either change with contact with other cultures or with changes in the socioeconomic formation, allowing people to reinvision and reinvent themselves, or it can remain rigid and restrict change. Many contemporary issues to do with identity and belonging, from multiculturalism and hybrid identities to religious fundamentalism, can be understood within this dynamic of innovation and restriction. Similarly, the effects of social change on ways of life, from the new modes of electronic communication to failures to respond to climate change, involve a tension between innovation and restriction.