Professor Marshall

LESSON 4: Culture

Lesson 4

Target Competencies (Outcomes)

Evaluate the importance of culture to the study of society

You will demonstrate your competence by:

Completing the learning activities in this Learning Plan

Your performance will be successful when:

You can compare and contrast the terms "society" and "culture"

You can classify the various types of culture (material/non-material, pop/high culture, sub-culture, counter-culture, etc.)

You can explain cultural universals

You can articulate how culture is developed through symbolic meanings

You can explain differences between ethnocentrism and cultural relativism

You can express the impacts of cultural change (culture lag, culture shock, innovation, invention, etc.)

Learning Activities

1. If you have not yet done so, READ Chapter 3 of your text.

2. COMPLETE the lesson below.


In this lesson, you'll learn about a foundational sociological topic – CULTURE; you'll also learn about the importance of the "concept." As Steele and Price state, the concept is defined as "a set of ideas that makes sense of everyday life" (26). Sociologists, whether practicing or applied, use concepts to help clarify what exactly it is they are trying to understand, and to help others understand the scope of specific research projects.

One of the things that sociologists and people who practice a sociological perspective are very good at is the ability to describe a situation fully and robustly. When sociologists conduct research, especially in the field (such as for example doing ethnographic or participant observation research), a big part of the job is being able to describe to the reader exactly what it is that is being researched in painstaking detail. Sociologists get very good at noting and explaining social reality so that the reader can have a viable and accurate understanding of what was going on at that moment in time when the research was actually occurring. As an applied sociologist, or as a professional in any field practicing applied sociology, the more you use a sociological perspective, the easier conceptualizing becomes.

One of the benefits to using a sociological perspectives is being able to "pivot" around a social event, situation, or series of actions and be able to see them from different frames and perspectives. Sociologists commonly come up with questions in their mind about what's going on in a particular scenario – we're interested in knowing what's going on for all of the actors, what the agenda may be for each person involved, where the power and control rests with each individual in the scene, and so on. Each of the things that a sociologist uncovers points to two basic notions:

  • How does the individual influence the situation?
  • How does the situation influence the individual?

The first of these two questions points to the influence of culture, which is created when people interact with each other, and as an example of the micro level forces in society at play (recall the information from prior lessons about macro and micro sociology).

Micro Focus

The second of these two questions – how social reality influences the individual –points to how the structure of society bears down on the individual to influence the situation, and is an example of the macro level forces of society at play (recall the information from your lesson on research methods regarding macro and micro sociology).

Micro Focus

How is Culture Defined?

How do sociologists define culture? The study of culture, to most sociologists today, is basic to the study of society. Culture, commonly understood, relates to how we understand and define the elements of society in a meaningful way. This involves the use to symbols which are embedded with meanings that we agree upon as significant. Cultural studies in the field of sociology are aligned with the the discipline of anthropology.

As you can see, there are some basic elements to the study of culture that sociologists must observe and attempt to measure. In 1970, Sociologist Robin Williams conducted a research project in an attempt to measure the values of American society. He came up with 15 cultural values which Americans say are important. Note how some of these values seem to be in opposition to each other:

Williams' Values Research

Can our American cultural values be in opposition? According to Williams' research, they can. I would assert that even though this research was completed in the early '70s, many of these values--if not all--are still prevalent in American society today. And, the struggle between values may have gotten more pronounced. It might be time for a replication/comparative study in which a sociologist uses the same question set as Williams did in his original research. This would allow us to gather some new data and compare it to the existing data set to see what cultural elements in our society are the same and which, if any, have changed.

Research: Program Evaluation and Understanding Culture

For students who go on to major in the field of sociology, there are entire courses devoted to program design and evaluation. For purposes of this course, there are two main types of program evaluation (Steele and Price 29).


The basic question that a summative evaluation asks is whether or not a program worked. Obviously, this type of evaluation is done after the fact. As an example, you may work in the field of human resources and it might be important for you to know whether or not there has been a substantive change with the implementation of a specific program within your organization. Knowing how to conduct an evaluation of that program will help you to determine whether or not the program was valuable.


Formative program evaluation work toward improving the program for future use. These types of evaluations often include ways of gathering information which can help to point out areas in a program which need to be changed, modified, or deleted. This type of evaluation will also help you to identify new areas which may need to be developed. For example, you may work in the field of drug counseling and rehabilitation. It might be important for you to know whether or not a rehab program that you have in place is working conducting a formative evaluation will help you to change or modify the program before you implement it again.

There are two main questions for you to remember about summative and formative program evaluation:

  • Summative: did the program work?
  • Formative: will the program work in the future?

In either of these cases, culture plays an important role. Understanding the culture of the program (and perhaps of the clients the program serves) will be beneficial to your evaluation, whether summative or formative. There are various components of culture from a sociological perspective that can help you while you're on the job to conduct your program evaluation and understand how each of these cultural components may be influencing the group.

Subcultures: subcultures are a subset of the dominant culture. They have their own distinct set of values and beliefs however they still continue to exist within the framework of the dominant culture (Carl 56). Subcultures, especially in the workplace, can wield a lot of power, both with in their group and when influencing those in other groups in the workplace. For example, it is not uncommon for paramilitary groups such as law enforcement agencies to have several different divisions — patrol, detective, narcotic/undercover, and so on. Each of these groups has its own subcultural values and beliefs about how to best go about doing the job of law enforcement. Of course there are basic safety rules that must be applied no matter the division the officer works in, but each of these groups has different ways of doing the job itself. This creates subcultural attitudes and beliefs about the group and can work to create friction between the group and others.

Two things that a researcher conducting program evaluation needs to be aware of are the concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism (Steele and Price 30).

  • Ethnocentrism: using your own values or beliefs to judge the behaviors of another culture or subculture.
  • Cultural relativism: making a deliberate effort to appreciate a group, culture, or subculture without applying one's own prejudices or preconceived notions.

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

On either end of the ethnocentric – culturally relative spectrum, there are problems. On the far ethnocentric side, there is no room for seeing the value within a subculture. As a researcher, this can lead you to making incorrect assumptions, to collecting data which is skewed, and two missing out on important realities of the situation which might be overlooked due to your inability to evaluate the subculture on its own merits. On the far culturally relative side, problems can arise for you as a researcher because it becomes difficult for you to make appropriate recommendations for change to a program or to the values, beliefs, or behaviors of a particular workplace subculture. Remember — the goal of program evaluation is to identify problematic areas and to target specific recommendations for future changes to the program which will help it run more smoothly. If your job entails program evaluation, you'll need to be aware of some of the ways in which your own personal ideas and prejudices may influence your evaluation. As with any profession or career, people who conduct program evaluation regularly become better at it with practice.

How does Culture get Produced?

Main points about the production of culture:

  • Culture is produced in a systematic way
  • There are markets which are receptors for culture
  • The production of culture is closely related to the production of ideas in a society
  • The success of the cultural object depends on its reception
  • Culture must be interpreted

Some of the things this section will help you to understand:

  • How culture is produced
  • How culture is distributed
  • How culture is marketed
  • How culture is received
  • How culture is interpreted
  • How the systematic production, distribution, marketing, reception, and interpretation of culture apply to nonmaterial (meaning ideas about culture) as well as material culture (meaning physical representations of culture)

The Production of Culture

Griswold has pointed out that culture is a collective product along with explaining the process of cultural production itself (73). The process of how culture is produced is known as the production-of-culture (POC) approach, and attempts to explain what happens in the steps between when culture is created and culture is consumed. This includes the facilities, marketing techniques and advertising, and the creation of situations that brings consumers into contact with cultural objects that have been created by the collective (Griswold 73). One such POC approach was identified by sociologists Paul Hirsch--he calls it the "culture industry system" (1972). Hirsch's culture industry system is illustrated by a series of filters which help to control how and when cultural objects end up being produced, received, and endorsed by society. Essentially, this theory explains that the culture industry system regulates how culture gets to the consumer so that the market is flooded with an oversupply of cultural objects.

In our society today, perhaps the largest filter in the culture industry system is the media. Typically the way that we hear about new product, idea, or way of life, whether we are watching TV, browsing the Internet, sitting in a movie theater watching advertisements, or listening to the radio in our cars, the media is a pervasive aspect of our society today. It is the primary way that producers of cultural objects get the word out to consumers to purchase their products. Producers of culture are highly dependent on the media.

There are also feedback loops built into the culture industry system according to Hirsch's theory (Griswold 75). The first feedback loop is that of the media. However, it is the second with which we are primarily concerned in today's American society. The second is a measurement of revenue, and can be measured by many different types of sales related to the cultural object. Consider the following: where, in the past a child may have been satisfied to carry a lunchbox branded with his favorite action figure, today the same cannot be said. Not only does the child want a lunchbox, he also wants the toys, clothes, the DVDs to watch, the books, the spinoff games, and so on. The sales of all of these items tell us something about our culture.

Cultural Markets

Griswold says that it is easy to envision a cultural "market" where culture is made and sent out into the world to be bought and used by consumers--all you have to do is think about children, toys and Christmas in America to see how the cultural market works. It is more difficult, she says, to see how ideas and concepts would fit into this kind of market (81). How do ideas get produced and then sent to the market for use by consumers? And, what are some of the primary American cultural ideas and concepts that wind up on the cultural market shelf? If we break down these concepts into easier defined sub-sets, what we come up with is a typology of cultural concepts and ideas:

  • Cultural Beliefs - beliefs become part of the market in various ways. For example, the belief that many Americans have about individualism is a cultural belief.
  • Institutions - remember, when a sociologists discusses institutions, they use the word to mean "overarching cultural ideals which endure over generations."
  • Development of "Important" Ideas - the distribution of important ideas via mass communication (film, the web, television, radio and so on)
  • Awards and approvals - sales of objects, thumbs up on Facebook, and our general public approval of ideas

Griswold goes on to further explain that once ideas get put into words or symbols, they become cultural objects (82). Thus, the process of moving something from idea to object to market becomes clearer:

Idea to Symbol

As an example, think about the Hippie Movement. The Hippie Movement is not a THING, but it exemplifies what is meant when we use the term "cultural object." When we break down the ideas behind the Hippie Movement, we see that it has become an institution that has a basic understanding on which we can all agree to have a similar meaning. We also all can basically agree that some general ideas came out of the Hippie Movement which have greatly influenced our society. The Hippie Movement also gave us many symbols, phrases and words which have been incorporated into our society, and which have shared meanings among us:

Peace Sign

Reception of Culture

In the end however, producers have little control over what becomes a "good" or popular cultural object versus what does not. The receiver of the object appears to have the most control over this process. As Griswold goes on to say, (83) we must consider how receivers of cultural objects go on to make these objects meaningful.

Culture is received in two ways:

  1. Individually - individual tastes and preferences determine how we receive and perceive culture
  2. Socially - where we are positioned in the social structure determines how we receive and perceive culture

It is this second – social — aspect of the reception of culture that we are most concerned about in this course.

Many sociologists have studied how class and social structure impact the reception of culture. Furthermore, there are some general types of statements that we can make about the relationship between class and culture: in general when sociologists first started to study culture they made the observation that certain classes enjoy certain types of culture:

  • High culture– the type of culture is associated with the elite or the most learned and members of a society; this type of culture usually requires a significant education to be appreciated or highly skilled labor to be produced.
  • Low culture–the type of culture that is generally associated with those who are working class; this type of culture encompasses things like reality TV, pop music, popular magazine, and so on.

But, consider the problems with defining culture as "high" or "low." As Livesey explains ("From Culture to Identity"), some people have an interest--and the ability--to define what types of culture are IMPORTANT and what types of culture are NOT IMPORTANT in a society. For example, if we use conflict theory to examine how culture is produced and received in society, we can see that some people have more power than others to give artifacts and ideas the labels of "high" or "low" culture. Marx (one of the original conflict theorists) saw society in terms of two different classes:

  • The bourgeoisie (or upper and middle classes) who own and control the means of producing economic survival (they own factories, businesses and the like) and
  • The proletariat (or working class) who survive by working for the bourgeoisie.

These two groups--even today--have very different experiences in American society. The bourgeoisie are the wealthiest people in American society and they spend a considerable amount of their time trying to hang onto their privileged positions. The proletariat, consisting of the least wealthy majority (which is all of the rest of us!), have a common interest--we want to take away the wealth of the bourgeoisie. This is the fundamental relationship between these two classes as imagined by conflict theory--the conflict of interest. In turn the wealthy have a couple of HUGE problems:

  • How to maintain their privileged position from one generation to the next.
  • How to stop other classes taking away their wealth and privilege.

One solution is to develop a specific set of cultural artifacts that set the wealthy apart from the non-wealthy. This accomplishes a couple of goals for the wealthy:

  1. It gives the rich a sense of having things in common (a common culture and a class identity)
  2. It allows the rich to impose their ideas about what is "proper" culture on the rest of society. If this happens it makes it appear that everyone in society has much the same interests, making it less likely that the working class will see themselves as fundamentally different and opposed to the ruling class.

As Livesey goes on to explain:

"...[i]n this respect, many Marxist sociologists have tried to show how cultural artifacts can be used by a dominant economic class (the rich and powerful) to enhance their social status over other classes in society, This, therefore, is where a distinction between high culture and low culture can be an important one. The status (or social standing) of a ruling class is enhanced through claims that their culture is superior to the culture of the rest of society (the masses). By its ability to spread its concept of superior (high) and inferior (low) cultural forms (through ownership and / or control of cultural institutions such as religion, education and the mass media), a ruling class is able to impose cultural ideas on the rest of society that reflect its interests.

High culture, therefore, refers to what are (supposedly) the greatest artistic and literary achievements of a society. Clearly, what counts as "the greatest" is going to ultimately be a matter of values - judgements about what should or should not count as high culture.

However, according to Marxists, the people who are in the most influential positions in society are able to impose their definitions of "great" - and these definitions invariably reflect the kinds of activities and ideas that are most relevant and useful to a ruling class. Cultural forms such as opera, classical music, the literary works of Shakespeare and so forth all fall under the heading of high culture.

Low culture, on the other hand, refers to a wide variety of cultural themes that are characterized by their production and consumption by "the masses." At various times, low cultural forms have included the cinema, certain forms of theatre, comics, television (especially soap operas, game shows and the like).

A simple example illustrates the difference between high and low culture: A painting of a nude woman hanging on the wall of a gallery is "art" (part of high culture), whereas a picture of a naked woman published in a mass circulation newspaper is certainly not "art" (and may, under certain conditions, be labeled as pornography) but the very opposite of art, namely low culture. The justification for the distinction is found not in the cultural form itself (a picture of a naked man or woman is much the same whatever medium it is presented in) but in the theoretical elaboration of that form. Thus, when a painting is hung in an art gallery what is being admired is the skill and composition, the cultural references and representations. When a picture appears in a newspaper, these are absent and all that is left is a titillation factor.

Whether or not you are convinced by these arguments is probably a matter of your perspective on culture (although Elite theorists would disagree with such a statement), since there can ultimately be no cultural absolutes on such matters, just cultural preferences - the argument being that one social class is able to impose its cultural preferences on other classes in society.

Livesey's point is well-taken: those at the top of society (the powerful, wealthy bourgeoisie) have the ability (the money, power and privilege) to frame cultural reality in any way they choose AND they have the capability to impose that cultural framework on the rest of us. Further, as Livesey goes on to point out, when the elite are able to impose those preferences on us, we assimilate to their preferences, making it easier for them to maintain their power and control within society.

Today, from a sociological point of view, when we study culture, it is important to note that the line between high and low culture has increasingly become blurred over the years. Other social theorists have broken down the ways in which people define themselves with regard to culture:

  • Cultural omnivores: according to sociologist Michele Ollivier, a cultural omnivore is a well educated person who is open to a wide range of what they consider to be culture
  • Cultural univores: according to sociologist Michelle Ollivier, a cultural univore is a less educated person who has very exclusionary cultural tastes

While over the years we may have blurred the line between high and low culture it would appear based on the work of Ollivier that there is a new cultural distinction brewing between social groups. Some of the additional findings from Ollivier's work:

  • cultural boundaries are often indication of social boundaries and can be reflection of social status
  • regular, habitual reading of printed materials is declining in society
  • a vast majority of our population listen to music frequently.

An even more popular theory among sociologists comes from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, who suggested that there is a relationship between the economy and culture. He made this relationship clear when he discussed economic capital and cultural capital and how they relate to each other:

Bourdieu asserted that when a person has full access to the economy (meaning, they are able to take advantage of economc successes that society makes available to them such as finding rewarding work, saving for retirement, acquiring adequate housing, taking care of health, and so on) AND when a person has full cultural capabilities (meaning, they have the capacity to achieve a good education, not just for their careers but also so that they can move up the social ladder and fit in with higher social classes), then they will be fully able to be personally and socially well-rounded members of their society.

However, as Bourdieu goes on to assert, if a person's economic or cultural capital are not fully realized (either one or both) then the person will not be able to achieve full success in society--the person is distorted. Thus, the structure of the economy becomes an important component of individual success and can be viewed as an essential CULTURAL OBJECT.

An interesting assertion that comes out of the work of Bourdieu is that because cultural capital is so important people tend to try to make the value of the cultural objects they possess high, and they try to prevent other people from possessing any of these cultural objects (Griswold 86). This can help to explain the values that are placed on famous pieces of art--does this art really have any value other than what has been placed on it by "experts?" Of course not! But, the wealthy have used their cultural and economic capital to create a system whereby certain values have been placed on rare artworks that only the very wealthy can afford to own. This keeps this kind of art within the realm of the ultra-rich and makes it something that only they can afford to possess. As an example, this painting by American artist Jackson Pollock sold recently for 53 million dollars:

Pollock is known for "drip" painting, which is a technique where the surface of a canvas is covered with layer upon layer of paint drips. There are many within the art world who would argue the value of this work however as Bourdieu would assert, the wealthy have artificially created this value to keep these cultural objects for themselves, to set themselves apart from the rest of us, and to make art a symbol of the ultra rich--something that the rest of us cannot understand and will never own. This kind of cultural and economic capital will not, according to Bourdieu, ever be the domain of the "everyday" man.

In recent years, even middle class America has attempted to create artifically high values for some of their own cultural objects. We only need to think about Michael Jordan's shoes, Christmas, Birthday parties, first days of school, and the wants (versus the needs) of our selves and our families to consider how mainstream America is falling into the cultural capital "trap" that the wealthy have employed so craftily for many decades.

The Interpretation of Culture

Fortunately, everything isn't as black and white as Griswold would make us believe. The structure of society doesn't dictate to us how we receive all culture. While it does do a good job of "managing" the creation, production, and distribution of the cultural markets in our society, we do still have some freedom of interpretation (Griswold 89).

So how much freedom do we have to interpret the meanings of cultural objects? Griswold asserts that there are two answers to this question:

  1. People can make any meanings whatsoever – this means that we as individuals are strong and have personal determination and that cultural objects themselves are weak and have no strong cultural symbolism or value until individuals interpret them. In this view, meanings are entirely a function of the receiver's mind (Griswold 90).
  2. People must submit to whatever meanings are in the cultural object – this means that we as individuals are weak and have very little control over the cultural object and its meaning; the object itself is given to us with meeting intact and it is our job to embrace that meaning when we receive the cultural object. In this view, there is only one meaning, and whether the individual "gets it" or not, the individual has no choice over that meaning.

Neither of these positions is satisfactory in the extreme (Griswold 90). There are however a couple of theories in the social sciences that help us to better understand both of these extreme views.

Mass culture theory

Mass culture theory leans towards the strong culture/weak receiver side.

According to Griswold, mass culture theorists have little good to say about the culture industry (90). These theorists see the industry as attempting to capture such a huge market that they dilute culture to the point that it becomes distasteful, immoral, or less than intellectually stimulating. According to these theorists, this type of culture leaves a society numb and apathetic and this apathy in turn causes people to become passive in a society. When this happens, the producers of culture have to increasingly look to more and more shocking and violent materials to get a response from society (Griswold 91).

Popular Culture Theory

Popular culture theory leans towards the weak culture/strong receiver side.

As Griswold points out, this theory leans towards the receiver as being active in the process of making meanings out of cultural objects (90). And so, even if the manufacturer or producer of the cultural object has an intended meaning for that object, the receiver has a lot of power to decide the meaning of the object.


It is interesting to think of our own selves in terms of this dichotomy – are we receivers of culture, just going along with whatever someone else tells us is culturally "good" or "meaningful?" Or, do we have the ability to decide what culture is for ourselves, and in turn help to shape culture for our broader society? These questions should not be taken lightly by any of us as the impacts of culture have consequence for individuals and for the broader society in which we live.

The structure of society has a tremendous impact on us, and we also impact it. And social theorists are always considering the push-and-pull between the macro and micro perspectives. You are encouraged to do additional research on this topic to better understand the point of view of sociologists who study the impacts of social structure to society.


Carl, John. Think Sociology Second Edition. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. 2011. Print.

"From Culture to Identity." Retrieved 18 Dec. 2013.

Griswold, Wendy. Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. Los Angeles: Sage, 2013. Print.

Ollivier, Michele. Cultural Diversity: Omnivore vs. Univore. Research Perspectives. Spring 2006. Web. 24 November 2013.

Steele, Stephen F., Jammie Price. Applied Sociology. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.