Different sociological views on the role of culture in society

Perspectives that see culture as a SYSTEM
Perspectives that see culture in terms of SOCIAL LIFE
Perspectives that see culture in terms of BIOLOGY and NATURE

Key aspects of the debate

  • How far do individuals (social actors) have the capacity to change social structure or create culture?

or . . .

  • Is it the case that our behaviour is largely shaped by social structure and culture – does society shape the way we behave?

A key THEME in the debate – AGENCY


Agency is about CHOICE and the ability to exercise choice in the kind of culture that a person has.

Reflexivity is central to this idea – the capacity we have as humans to REFLECT, to think about ourselves and others around us.

Humans are formed BY their experiences but also shape their own experiences.

CULTURE gives us an infinite number of ACTIONS, we take responsibility for those actions through our AGENCY.


A fundamental concept in sociology

  • Basic structuralist view – culture is ‘the way of life of society’
  • A shared way of life in society – a shared set of norms and values
  • Culture is what binds people together
  • Culture may also be our ‘map of meaning’ – the interactions we experience
  • Culture may also be socially constructed – not biologically inevitable
  • Complex, diverse societies may produce a number of subcultures
  • Cultural universals are those behaviours shared by all humanity
  • Culture and society are similar, but are NOT the same thing


Key functionalist sociologist – Emile Durkheim who believed that the individual was less important than society and culture

Functionalists argue that CULTURE is a way of maintaining social order

Culture – is necessary if social order is to be established and maintained

Society needs a shared/common consensus – a shared culture – it may fail without it. This point is crucial to the way functionalists view culture.

Shared consensus – around NORMS & VALUES that regulate social behaviour. Norms are the ways in which society expects us to behave. They are not universal – different groups in different cultures and countries across different periods of time will experience different norms

Values are more personal and specific. There may be a moral / right or wrong element to values which certain cultures and societies feel are important. Values in society may be closely linked to strong religious beliefs or to particular views on authority and order

Culture should allow change in an ORDERLY way

Culture binds us to society through socialisation


a key CRITICISM argues that functionalists see humans as too ‘passive’ with little or no control over their culture

Interpretivists are critical of functionalist views on culture. They argue that people play an active role in shaping culture and do not have their actions decided only by the socialisation process and the bigger cultural forces in society such as education and the law

Postmodernists also disagree with functionalist views on culture. They argue that modern societies such as the UK are now made up of different ethnic groups, diverse family types and numerous subcultures. Diversity and difference now frame modern societies like the UK not a single shared culture based on consensus.

Marxists are critical of functionalist views on culture because they do not believe there is a shared culture in society that functions in the same way to the benefit of everyone. They point to inequalities in class and wealth as key differences

Feminists make a similar criticism and point to inequalities in society based around the power of the patriarchy and the oppression of women. In this view, culture in society exists as a form of social control – Marxists agree.


For MARXISTS, CULTURE is basically the IDEAS (ideology) and VALUES of the RULING CLASS

Capitalist societies are unequal and are based on the conflict between social classes

The ruling/dominant/capitalist class have all the wealth/income and political power and therefore get to decide what ideas we are exposed to. These ideas do NOT challenge the dominance of the ruling elite (the bourgeoisie)

RULING CLASS ideology/culture is socialised into the minds if individuals through key agencies of socialisation which include families, schools and colleges, the mass media and, in some cultures, religion

CULTURE – in the hands and control of capitalists, restricts and constrains individuals

CULTURE – in the hands and control of capitalists, leads to social order and social control (functionalists would not disagree with this basic observation. Both perspectives share similar views on social control)

CULTURE/IDEOLOGY is a tool of the dominant ruling class

Dominant culture = CAPITALIST CULTURE


(see section below – Neo-Marxism – for evaluation)


Key Neo-MarxistAntonio Gramsci – thought the traditional Marxist view on capitalist culture was too simplistic. People are not so easily fooled: we recognise the power and wealth of rich elites yet also recognise that we are not fabulously rich and powerful and therefore understand that society is not ‘fair’

Capitalist IDEOLOGY/CULTURE – used as a way of control/dominance through process of what Gramsci called the HEGEMONY -which is still a dominant set of ideas but used and exercised in a more subtle way

For Neo-Marxists – culture is more than ideology

Neo-Marxists differ from traditional Marxists in their belief that although capitalist, ruling class culture exists, it does so alongside alternative versions of culture and counter/sub-cultures. This links to studies in education (especially Willis) where working class boys recognise the unfairness of life yet exist in their own alternative sub-culture based on rejecting education and, instead, simply ‘messing about’

Neo-Marxists such as Stuart Hall develop these ideas further. Using concepts such as the ‘counter-hegemony’ they accept the original ideas of Marxism and the refinements of Gramsci but are broadly more positive about the role of culture in modern society

Popular culture’, argues Hall can be a radical force for change, particularly in the hands of youth and/or ethnic sub-cultures that may develop into counter-cultures that contain the potential to challenge the dominant culture/hegemony

Neo-Marxists think that the workers/poor need to challenge this HEGEMONY through their own organisations and cultural institutions such as unions and workers’ education

Neo-Marxists also see CULTURE  in the power of the MASS MEDIA – this is a key view of the Neo-Marxist group the Frankfurt School (this is a key view of modern Neo-Marxists)

According to sociologists such as Marcuse, and the Frankfurt School, ideology is transmitted mainly by the media which serves up an endless diet of cheap entertainment and sensational ‘news’ stories which never focus on the problems of capitalist societies

Mass-media – has power to prevent real social change (it pacifies the workers, it keeps them dumb and uninformed). This view is important in the way it links to key TYPES of culture already discussed: MASS CULTURE/POPULAR CULTURE

Mass-media – sells us things we don’t really need or want: ‘false needs’ (Adorno) that take our minds off the boredom of life

Mass-media – convinces us that consumerism and spending are good/normal: ‘commodity fetishism’ (Marx)

Pierre Bourdieu further develops the ideas of the Frankfurt School by examining how the ruling-class use culture for their own advantages and benefits. He develops his ideas through the key concept of ‘cultural capital’ (see education notes) and explains how the ruling class marginalise and exclude the working class from ‘high culture’ and gain life advantages in the process – especially for their children.


Other perspectives share a common criticism of Marxist views on culture because they feel it probably overstates social class as the primary cause of conflict in modern society.

Modern society offers much evidence that conflict and inequality is as likely to be caused by differences in nationality, ethnicity, religion and gender

Feminism (another conflict theory) agrees with the Marxist view on culture and the way it benefits the powerful over those with no power. However, Feminist theory emphasises the patriarchy as a primary element of modern culture in which men assert their dominance over women – this is much more important than social class

Functionalists also disagree with the Marxist view of culture existing mostly to benefit one class at the expense of all others. This is a fundamental difference between the two views: Functionalists think culture benefits all society, Marxists see it protecting and promoting the power and interests of a small ruling elite.

Functionalism also challenges Neo-Marxism on its views of sub-cultures which are not potential sources of liberation or change but simply examples of deviant (or possibly criminal) elements in society

Marxists and Neo-Marxists also disagree over the true nature of culture in society so there is disagreement within the perspective

Neo-Marxists reject the idea that the working class are the unthinking and passive ‘victims’ of ruling class ideologies and cultures. The working class are aware that they see the world through the culture and ideology of the ruling class but also recognise that this is not fair. Gramsci saw this recognition as an example of the workers possessing a ‘dual consciousness’ – a very different view from the one-sided determinist view of traditional Marxism. Gramsci saw the potential for change in the way the workers view their situation


Feminism (another conflict theory) agrees with the Marxist view on culture and the way it benefits the powerful over those with no power. However, Feminist theory emphasises the patriarchy as a primary element of modern culture in which men assert their dominance over women – this is much more important than social class

All feminists agreeCULTURE plays an important part in the way women are seen to be subordinate to men

Culture benefits the patriarchy

Child socialisation generates GENDER IDENTITIES AND CULTURES – at a basic level these include –

  • Masculine cultures / identities
  • Feminine cultures / identities

Secondary agents of socialisation – media/peer groups – reinforce gender/culture identities (link here to debates in education on subject choice) Sharpe (1976)

Culture/identity ideologies – beauty, marriage, domestic life, motherhood etc – McRobbie (1978) and Ferguson (1983)

Culture/identity in education – gendered subject choices etc. Also research by Norman on girl’s toys etc

Culture/identity – reinforced by ‘sex role’ stereotypes – Bryne (1978)

Girls are treated differently from boys at birth and onwards – Oakley (1972)


Key set of criticisms from postmodernists who see gender as just another identity and that we can reject cultural norms and create our own diverse and changing cultures

Postmodernists also challenge the view that media representations of women are degrading and sexualised. Some of them may be, but postmodernists like Paglia and Woolf also argue that the way the media portrays powerful women – Rhianna, Adele, the Kardashians – is actually empowering

Other postmodernists such as Sciamma argue that women are now in control of their own images and sexualities and are no longer repressed

Radical feministsGreer and Dworkin – challenge the postmodern view and point to the continued way in which women are objectified and fetishised in pornography and the way in which online pornography in particular has become increasingly violent towards women

Marxist feministsCampbell – would argue that culture remains in the control of male elites and does not truly represent the reality of being a woman

INTERACTIONISM AND CULTURE (aka symbolic interactionisim)

This perspective is all about the details of social life

We transmit culture by the way we interact with each other

We communicate culture through signs and signals in our interactions

We look for symbols and meaning in our interactions

Class, ethnicity, nationalism, religion – they all exist – as do key institutions of the state (government, education, law etc) but they don’t necessarily ‘push’ culture onto us from above. The culture of a society is as likely to come from below, from individuals.

This is sociology as micro/small scale – it focusses on small individual actions and interactions, not the BIG developments at the level of a whole society or country

IDENTITY – develops from the constant process of how we interact with CULTURE

‘I’ is me (you) actively making decisions

‘Me’ is me (you) socialised into society

Individuals are social actors, we seek meaning and self-development

We pick and choose our CULTURE, we are REFLECTIVE

We have AGENCY, we can change our minds


  • We play roles in society that have norms associated with them – daughter, son, criminal, sister etc
  • We have an understanding how these roles should/could be played, however. . .
  • We interpret the roles in terms of our interests, abilities, talents, time etc
  • Roles change – being a ‘good’ A Level student in 2021 is VASTLY different to being a good A Level student in 1968
  • Roles change – the culture of the society changes


  • The idea of the ‘interaction order’ (1983) – which means the interaction between two people or more in any environment as long as they are in the same place
  • These interactions produce the social life of a society and therefore the CULTURE of the society
  • As we interact, we define others in terms of their characters and their personalities – we categorise each other
  • The culture of a society therefore influences the way we see others but also influence the way we behave and the way others see us


  • Individuals as ‘social actors’
  • We seek self-development
  • We seek some meaning in life
  • We are conscious and we reflect and think about the cultures we are born into
  • We may accept some aspects of our ‘given’ culture, we may reject others


Marxists and feminists argue that interactionism ignores the larger structural features of society i.e. inequalities in social class and gender.

Marxists and feminists argue that interactionism ignores the big power inequalities in society

Interactionists respond by acknowledging the inequalities of class, gender and power but point out that daily interactions ARE important – cross-reference this with examples of LABELLING in education and victim studies in crime

The ‘interaction order’ is also challenged by many modern sociologists – the interaction between two people or more in any environment as long as they are in the same place – where does that leave social media and our online life, where we may never meet the many people we nevertheless interact with?

Neo-Marxism shares some approaches and views that are similar to interactionism, especially the view that people have the agency to shape their own culture.

Popular culture’, argues Hall (Neo-Marxist) can be a radical force for change, particularly in the hands of youth and/or ethnic sub-cultures that may develop into counter-cultures that contain the potential to challenge the dominant culture/hegemony – this is not too di-similar to the basic interactionist position


There’s no real me’ Angela McRobbie

Postmodernism rejects those structuralist approaches which frequently see identity as fixed and singular

Postmodernists reject the idea that we have a dominant identity characterised by class, sex, religion, ethnicity etc and that the rest of our lives and life experiences must be seen in the context of this ‘fixed’ identity and culture

Postmodernists argue that we all have MULTIPLE IDENTITIES

We are not defined by any single culture or identity

You may be a son/daughter, student, co-worker, best friend, partner, aunt, uncle, niece/nephew etc and may act in different ways depending which ‘role’ you find yourself in at any one time.

Class, sex, gender, career – all of these may define our identity/culture

We may all experience culture and identity that are ‘FLUID

We may experience cultural ‘FLOW’ – mainly from the media

There is ‘NO REAL ME’

Postmodernism and popular culture

Partly because ‘there’s no real me’ it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have a single view of people in terms of their age, gender, ethnicity and culture – what it the real difference between ‘high/low’ culture anyway?

We have choice, we have money, we are free to consume whatever we want – the old boundaries of taste and class no longer apply.

Society/culture is dominated by the mass media – to the extent that some people may see fictional characters in the media as being more ‘real’ than real

We are increasingly more obsessed by style rather than substance

What is ‘art’, anyway? Who decides?

The connectedness of the modern world speeds everything up – nothing stays still for long. We appear to be engaged in a non-stop game of smash and grab with ideas from the past, the present and the future. Nothing is fixed.

What if ‘culture’ is whatever YOU want it to be? This is also known as a RELATIVIST perspective/view where no single culture is better or worse than any other


Postmodernism may overestimate its own importance – we DO know fact from fiction, we DO recognise differences / inequalities in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and class.

This is basically a Marxist criticism (Strinati) – choice is fine, as long as you can afford what’s being offered. However, he does agree that some working class cultural interests – football, fashion, popular music – are unfairly seen as being less meaningful than what still goes for ‘high culture’ (opera, ballet, poetry etc)

Feminists would also challenge some of the assumptions of the postmodernists and argue that relativism cannot and should not be applied to human rights and particularly the rights of women. Just because a culture practices female genital mutilation as part of its ‘culture’ does not make it ‘right’


Culture is a product of BIOLOGY / NATURE

Culture helps groups to survive over time – it must be genetic (?)

Sociologists disagree

  • If we eat purely for biological reasons – why do we have so many cultural hang-ups about food?
  • Why do we decide to have smaller families?
  • Why do we stay faithful to partners?
  • Why do we look after the old?

All these points suggest that the ways we behave and the norms, values and cultures we produce are all SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED and not decided primarily by nature

Revision Idea

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Key Perspectives on Sociology

Review your understanding using this table – do you know all the key terms?