Different Conceptions of Culture


From the AQA specification – you need to be able to identify, explain, analyse and evaluate:

Students are expected to be familiar with sociological explanations of the following content:

  • different conceptions of culture

You also need to understand

  • How different sociologists / perspectives view the role of culture in society
  • How sociologists use these concepts

You need to remind yourself what CULTURE is

When we covered this in class – we made the following points:

Culture is a significant concept for sociologists because it both identifies a fundamental set of ideas about what sociologists’ study and suggests a major reason for the existence of Sociology itself – that human social behaviour can be explained in the context of the social groups into which people are born and within which they live their lives.

We took our original definition from Haralambos – culture is something that is the learned, it is the shared behaviour of members of society which is passed on from generation to generation.

It consists of ways of behaving which are seen as normal.

It is the way of life of a particular society.

We went on to develop our definitions of ‘culture’

We need to think a little more clearly about what we mean by ‘culture’ and we can do this by noting that the concept covers a range of ideas and meanings relating to –

  • roles – our status and position in society and how society sees us
  • values and norms – the key ideas/traditions/customs of a society/culture that are passed-on generation to generation through the process of socialisation
  • institutional structures (such as types of family, work, educational and political systems)
  • beliefs – these could be religious
  • and the variety of ‘arts and artifacts’ produced by different cultures

We used the definition from the sociologist Christopher Jencks (1993) who saw culture as ‘the whole way of life of a society’.

We developed these ideas further:

Structuralist theories of culture‘Way of life’ etc Shared norms + values Culture has a social function Binds individuals together Gives us collective symbols Frames our ‘patterns of life’ Provides us with ‘rules of life’   But not all cultures are the same
Culture as a ‘map of meaning’It’s what’s in our heads It’s created by our interactions It gives us symbols & rules We are active – we create our culture Our culture creates the world we live in It allows us to understand our actions and the actions of others It is ‘artificial’ (Bauman) It trains us to follow cultural ‘codes’ It gives us the ‘signs’ we use to interpret the world
Culture as a ‘social construction’It’s not inevitable We have to learn our culture We learn through socialisation   It’s socially constructed

We also looked at CULTURAL UNIVERSALS:

Learned behaviours BY ALL HUMANITY – these aspects of culture are central to entire human race, they’re what make us ‘human’.

  • Language
  • Rearing children
  • Living in a family
  • Sexual division of labour
  • Regulating sexual behaviour
  • Norms and values
  • Art, culture and music
  • Government
  • Leadership

We also stressed the point that CULTURE & SOCIETY ARE NOT THE SAME THING

  • Because CULTURE is about complex behaviour patterns and how we see each other as individuals
  • SOCIETY – is about STRUCTURAL relationships between people (marriage,  families etc)
  • CULTURE and SOCIETY are similar but DIFFERENT
  • Culture is continually evolving through our INTERACTIONS
  • CULTURE is the BALANCE in society between individuals and structures

We should also be aware of THREE contemporary/modern views of CULTURE

A critical view of modern culture might focus on the extent to which it has become HOMOGENISED (the ‘homogenisation’ of culture – it’s all become the same, wherever you are).  

Views on the homogenisation of culture are concerned that local cultures and traditional cultures are being replaced by a ‘one size fits all’ version of American culture.  

This critical/negative view of culture is also linked to the idea of globalisation – the theory that the world is ‘shrinking’ in the face of dominant capitalist cultures of media, dress, language, consumerism, language and behaviours.  
A more positive view celebrates society in terms of its CULTURAL DIVERSITY.

This is especially noticed in cities and societies with large numbers of ethnic groups representing a variety of different traditions, languages, beliefs, customs and CULTURES.  
MULTICULTURALISM is another mostly positive view of modern culture.

It is the view that cultures, races, and ethnicities, particularly those of minority groups, deserve special acknowledgment (and celebration) of their differences within a dominant political culture.  

However, there are views that are critical of multiculturalism: recent terrorist attacks in the UK carried out by British born Muslims and the number of young Muslims who left the UK to join ISIS may all be used as examples of groups of people born and raised in a multicultural society yet not socialised into British norms and values.

Brexit has encouraged these negative views of multiculturalism.  

There are eight key types of culture to learn