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Questions About Culture

How do sociologists define culture?

Culture is the values, norms, language, tools and other shared products of society that provide a plan for social life.

What do functionalists see as the functions of culture?

Functionalists suggest that culture provides for continuing social order by handling down prescribed ways of behaving in specific situations and allows people to benefit from the achievements of previous generations.

What are norms and why are they important?

Norms are shared rules or guidelines for behavior in specific situations. The strongest norms are taboos or rules that prohibit certain behavior and carry severe punishment for violators. Norms carry sanctions or rewards for behavior that conform to a norm and punishment for behavior that violates a norm. Institutions are organized sets of norms, values, statuses and roles that are centered on the basic needs of society. The five basic institutions of most societies are: the family, religion, the state, the economic system and education.

How do values underlie norms?

Values are shared ideas about what is right and wrong, good and bad, desirable and undesirable. Values are the general concepts on which our specific norms are built.

How do norms vary between cultures?

Many norms are specific to one society or to one group in a society for example most college students in the United States share a norm against turning in a fellow student for cheating.

What are the symbolic elements of culture?

A symbol is that which represents something else. Norms and values are often transmitted within a culture or to other cultures through symbolic elements such as language, gesture and stance, style of clothing, hairstyle, social distance, time use or symbolic representation such as flags.

What is the importance of language in transmitting culture?

Most social scientists see a strong connection between a society's language and the rest of its culture with the language reflecting what is important to that society to its new members and those outside of the culture. Our silent language or nonverbal space and time messages are also tied to our culture.

How do cultures vary?

Cultures differ in the degree of complexity whether they are focused around kinship or institutions and the pace of change. In simple societies kinship organizes people's lives around families and relatives. Such societies might change rather slowly compared to modern postindustrial society.

How do the functional, ecological, evolutionary, conflict and symbolic interactionist approaches explain cultural variation?

The functional approach suggests that a functional cultural trait has a positive consequence for the society and will probably not be adopted unless it fits well with the existing culture and contributes to the well-being of the society. The ecological approach shows how societies adapt culture to their physical environment in order to survive thus making it a sub form of the functional approach. The evolutionary approach views culture as developing through a series of stages toward forms that are increasingly well suited to the environment based on changes in the culture's basic tools or technology. The conflict approach points out that prevailing definition of beauty, justice and truth may serve the elites at the expense of the masses with culture being created and imposed on the masses by the ruling class. The symbolic interactionist approach highlights the importance of symbols in understanding culture and the social behavior it shapes, suggesting that symbols are the major agent for transmitting and shaping culture.

How do subcultures and counter cultures differ from the dominant culture?

A subculture is the culture of a subgroup of society that adopts norms that set them apart from the dominant group; for instance persons who live in a Chinatown but are integrated into the life of the city as a whole. A counterculture is a subculture whose norms and values are not just different from but in conflict with those of the dominant culture.

How do cultural universalism and cultural relativism differ?

Some sociologists believe that cultural universals or traits common to all human societies,exist.Others suggest that each culture should be studied only in relation to itself and not be judged by an external cultural standards or by a universal standard a stance known as cultural relativism.

How does ethnocentrism affect one's viewpoint?

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to use one's own cultural values in evaluating the beliefs and customs of other cultures with different values. It can be useful to a society in that it bonds members together, but can also lead to conflict with people from other cultures.

NOTES on Culture in Sociology

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