Unit 3 – Culture – The Socjournal


At the end of this unit, students will be able to:

1.  Define culture, counter culture, high culture, mass culture, ideal culture, real culture, and so on.

2.  Describe ethnocentrism, eurocentrism, and reverse ethnocentrism with examples.

3.  Have considered the ways in which culture is created and re-created from generation to generation.

4.  Describe the ways in which culture is enforced.

Core Readings

Steckley, John and Letts, G. (2007). Chapter Three: Introduction to Sociology.


In this section we continue with our sociological look at the world that we create by taking a look at one of the primary and most important creations of human beings, culture.

And just what is culture?

As the textbook points out, culture is a “system” that we (and by we I mean human beings) create and then use to define who we are. It’s not that complicated. A simple definition of culture might look like this: culture is “the system” that we use to define who we are.

And just what does this “system” look like?

As the text book points out, the cultural system which defines who we are is made of both material and ideal things. By material things sociologists mean things like buildings, clothing (i.e., fashions), tools, and sacred items (like crosses, Buddhas, Virgins, and so on). By contrast, ideal things are things like common practices, values, systems of knowledge, and stuff like that. I’m a Canadian so if I look at my culture I see the beaver and Maple Leaf, hockey, business suits, democracy, and compassion (Canadians like to think that they are kind and compassionate) as material and ideal elements of the Canadian culture. Put all these different “things” together and you have a system designed to help us define who we are and (in general) how we are supposed to behave—our identity as Canadians–and thus you have culture.

Not rocket science.

Now of course, as the text book says, cultures are not monolithic. That is, you can’t look at Canada and say the Canadian culture is the only culture (and hence the only identity) that there is in Canada.  Even within the borders of Canada, there is incredible cultural diversity. In this country we live peaceably (though not always harmoniously) with a wide variety of cultural systems. We do this at a national level (e.g., in Canada we have communities, like the Sikh community or the Chinese community) but also at a class level (pop culture, “high culture”) and even generational level. Each generation of kids, for example, develops its own set of counter cultures (i.e. alternative cultural systems) that they use to distinguish them for their “square/uncool/unhip” parents (whom, it is sad to say, the children will eventually become despite their best efforts to the contrary). Canada has been called a “multicultural mosaic” because of the relatively easy way we accept and live amongst sometimes remarkably different cultural systems.

Now, just like it’s important to recognize that, at least in Canada, there is not one primary culture, we also have to understand that “culture” is not confined to one level of aggregation. That is, we can see cultural systems at different “levels” of society. Nations have cultures, it’s true. But so do cities, governments, corporations, and so on. Even “secret societies,” like Freemasonry for example, come with cultural accoutrements (ideas, behaviours, material symbols, buildings, and so on) and these are easy to identify if you know what to look for. And of course there is more. We can also talk about soccer culture and bowling culture and motorcycle culture and so on.

Now, the textbook identities many different types of culture like dominant culture, counter culture, high culture, mass culture and so on. The text book also identifies ideational and behavioural elements of culture, like norms, values, mores, folkways, and taboos, used within cultures to enforce cultural boundaries. If you’re interested in the fine grain details of culture (which you should be if you want to do well on the course test), then go memorize all that stuff right now and come back when you’re done. As you read through the text keep in mind the definition of culture that we have used here: culture is a “system” that we use define who we are.

So, now that you’ve done that, now that you’ve familiarized yourself with various sociological aspects of culture, I want you consider your own culture, whatever that happens to be, at whatever level of aggregation you want. Ask yourself who you are. Are you Canadian, American, Cantonese, Vietnamese, British, etc. Are you a member of a counter culture (e.g., Goth, Biker, Gay, etc.) and if so, which one, or how many? When you have identified your culture (or cultures), then you can try and identify the ideal and material aspects of your culture. Identify the type of dress that is appropriate, the type of symbols used to convey meaning and identity, the behaviours that are expected of you and so on. Ask yourself, what are the norms and values of your culture? Brainstorm about your culture for a few minutes and when you’ve done that, write down what you think of. There’s no right answer here. I just want you to bring to awareness key aspects of your own culture, sub culture, or counter culture.

Now, when you’ve thought about this for a while, when you’ve brought your “culture of interest” into awareness, let us consider the system of culture within which you find yourself. Consider, for a moment or two, all the elements of that culture and then look at your culture as if it’s a kind of “bounding box” placed over you. Notice that, whatever your culture is, whether it’s Canadian or American, Sikh, Goth, or whatever, the culture that you adopt (or that is forced on you by birth), provides a more or less complete set of behavioural prescriptions which, if you are a member of a specific culture, you are expected to observe. In other words the cultures that we adopt have a tendency to govern our behaviour. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this “wikihow” on how to be a Goth.


Read through it and notice the restrictions and guidelines placed on members of the Goth community. Notice how everything from dress to deportment to reading material is defined for you by the Goth subculture (or at least, this one member of it). Of course, if you are a Goth and reading this, you may disagree with the Wikihow and that is to be expected. Cultures are regularly “contested.” That is, there is disagreement and struggle about what ideational and material elements should be included in the cultural “bounding box.” Contestation comes from the inside and the outside. However, that doesn’t change the main point here which is that the culture, as it defines and prescribes, binds you and can shape your behaviour.

Now of course, in the context of Goth culture, the “bounding box” isn’t so big a deal. Goth culture is something that is adopted voluntarily. You can always step out of that culture any time you choose. Unfortunately, it’s not like that in a lot of other cases. In some cases, cultural boundaries are enforced with a great deal of violence and severity. Google “stoning of women” to get a sense of how violent and severe some cultural proscriptions on behaviour can be enforced.

Now if you think for a few moments about your own culture and the way it defines your actions, thinking, and behaviour, you’ll recognize the truth of what I’m saying here. Culture is a box. It provides identity and cultural resources to support identity that’s true, but it also prescribes and circumscribes and as such, and whether or not you agree with restrictions, you’ll see that “culture” is an incredibly important part of your life and is implicated in just about everything we do. Our identity, behaviour, demeanor, dress, deportment, and even our opportunities are often defined and even restricted by the bounding boxes of our cultur.

Now perhaps you may think this is a bit of bomb-shell idea, but nothing could be farther from the truth than that. Culture is obviously defining for us. If you are male middle class person in Canada, fir example, you don’t go to work unless you are wearing a suit. If you are female child, cultural provisions determine that you wear pink. If you are a white, middle class male you can choose amongst a wide variety of occupations, but if you’re female (especially in cultures which do not value the female gender) you are excluded from many occupations and behavioural patterns and may even be violently suppressed should you try to step outside your cultural bounding boxes. It’s the same even in counter cultures which are often set up as a way to step outside the bounding boxes of traditional cultures yet nevertheless force a certain level of conformity if one is to be included. You can always identify a Goth walking down the street because their dress in depressing, monotone black and if they stop dressing like that, then they are no longer Goth. Not that I’m saying all this is necessarily a bad thing. Cultures can be wonderful  and when they’ve got a long history, there’s often a lot of beauty and elegance in them. All I’m pointing out here is that cultures are determining. We adopt cultures, or are born into them, and these cultures, with their material and ideal elements, box us in—more or less.

Now, given that culture is so important, one of the questions we might ask is what is the source of culture. Where does it come from and who creates it? When not thinking about it, it’s easy to see culture as sui generis (i.e., as existing independently of  other causes), but it’s not. Cultures do have sources. These sources? Not surprisingly, given the theme of this course, the source of culture is people like you and me. As all other “sociological” things, cultures are created by human beings and of all the things that we create and that sociology studies, culture is by far the grandest human accomplishment there is.

So how do we, as the creators of our social, political, and economic world, create culture? Well, when we talk about the “source” of culture we can talk about that in two senses. We can talk about the historical source of course, i.e., where a culture started in the mists of antiquity and we also talk about the reproductive source of culture. The historical source of culture is the “historical” source. In the context of Canadian culture, we can look to the history of Canada, the interaction of the British and the French with the natives, the colonial exploitation, the imposition of European culture on a new land, and all sorts of other factors to identify the historical source. Canada is a very young country, and the western history of it is well know so identifying the historical source of our Canadian culture, while not without its problems, is nevertheless relatively unproblematic. It would, of course, be a little more difficult to identity the historical source of an ancient culture like Greek culture for example, but the principle is the same. If we want to know where culture emerges, one of the places we can look is to historical record.[1]

Now, the other source of culture is what we might call the reproductive source of culture. In this case we look to the actions of contemporary individuals as they are born into, forced, accept, choose, or otherwise adopt a particular culture. In this case, the reproductive sources are the actions of members of the culture. For example, the Goth counter culture continues to exist only because it is reproduced and re-created by actions of individuals who adopt it on a daily basis. When you see a Goth walking down the street with a slow ambulatory gait, you are watching the re-creation of Goth culture. Similarly, when you participate in the “Friday night” hockey rituals, or pin a Canadian flag to your roof top, you are re-producing the Canadian culture. The bottom line is, without your reproductive actions, without your willing adoption of the material and ideal elements of a particular culture, it would cease to exist.

And why is this important?

For a couple of reasons. As a sociologist interested in culture, for example, I am always interested in the source of a culture. As a sociologist I understand that we create culture and so my first question whenever I’m looking at a culture is “where did it come from?” And of course, this is only one intellectual route of interest we might follow. As a sociologist, I might also be interested in how our culture is reproduced these days. If so I might be led to a critical look at the media, the school system, and even the family as “agents of socialization” (see chapter four) whose “job” it is to “teach culture” in order to recreate and (in many cases) enforce culture. For me as a sociologist, the enforcement of culture is a very big question because as we have seen culture is, more or less, enforced. This is true of subcultures like the Goth subculture, and it’s certainly true of national cultures like the Canadian culture, and even religious culture or quasi religious cultures like Freemasonry. Enforcement of the “cultural box” (whatever that box, or boxes, is for you) is an important part the sociological fabric of academic inquiry and leads us into a greater awareness of class structure, the elite organization of society, the psychological and sociological mechanisms of social control, and so on. All in all, it’s a fascinating (if sometimes depressing) look at the “world we create.”

So what’s the moral of the story here? I suppose there a couple of things we could say. If you are going on to be a sociologist, or a social scientist of some sort, keep in mind the constructed nature of culture and the way culture defines and boxes individuals in society. Tracing and understanding the roots of culture, either in the case of social disaffection (e.g., Goths), class based social control, or elite socialization (freemasonry for example) is an excellent way to understand the sociological concept of culture. On the other hand, if you’re just passing through on your way to some other degree in engineering or something, keep in mind the constructed nature of culture and the way culture defines and boxes individuals in society. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not necessarily a negative thing. It’s true cultural boxes restrict, but culture also provide opportunities for their members, a sense of belongingness, resources to get things done (if you know the secret handshake and conform to the rules and expectations), and even established practices and short cuts which makes “society” possible. As human beings living in society, we need culture like we need food and water. It’s an essential part of our lived world.

Assignment Three

In the commentary section for unit three I asked you to spend a few moments considering your culture. In this week’s assignment, write between 800 and 1200 worlds (two or three double spaced pages) sharing your culture with us. Tell us about your culture (or cultures). Is it a mainstream culture or a counter culture? What are the norms, values, and folkways which govern your behaviour and thinking? What are the material and ideal elements which help you to distinguish your culture from the culture of others? How old is your culture and, most importantly, how did it come about and how is it enforced? In this assignment you may want to discuss this with your cultural elders if (grandparents and stuff) if you have any available. Mark will be given for creativity and insight into your own cultural background(s). In addition to sending this assignment into the tutor, please post your cultural assessment in the online forums for week three.

Study Questions

What is ‘high culture’? Provide some examples of high culture. Why do you think it is important in any particular country?

How might culture be ‘contested’ in a multicultural society like Canada?

Compare and contrast the notion of a dominant culture with countercultures and subcultures.

Briefly discuss at least three groups that you would consider to be ‘dominants’ in Canadian culture.

What is a subordinate culture? Provide at least two examples.

What is popular culture? Why should sociologists be interested in studying it?

What is a norm? How do we, as humans, come to understand them?

Distinguish between a positive and negative sanction. What’s the purpose of sanctions?

What is the difference between ‘folkways’ and ‘mores’? Provide an example to illustrate your understanding of each of these terms.

How do sociologists define the term ‘values’? Provide two examples of Canadian values.

Distinguish between ‘ideal culture’ and ‘real culture’.

How are Canadian and American values becoming more different than alike? Provide at least two examples of contrasting values.

What is ethnocentrism and how might it lead to problems?

Define ‘xenocentrism’. How could this belief hurt Canadian businesses?

[1] On the other hand, locating the historical source of Goth culture is relatively easy because the Goth subculture is a modern invention. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toronto_goth_scene for discussion of the historical roots of the Goth culture in Canada.

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