Competency (what you're going to learn):

Learning Objectives (how you're going to learn it):

What is Culture?

First, read this chapter about how sociologists define culture, from the Openstax Introductory Sociology textbook. Next, read the Contexts Magazine article Defining Culture.

As you can tell, for a sociologist, culture explains everything.

When we define culture, we are describing the characteristics of a particular group of people which includes:

Culture is essentially our group identity. We can explain it by saying it is the growth of group identity which is expressed by social patterns unique to the group.

CULTURE: the growth of group identity which is expressed by social patterns unique to the group; characteristics of a specific group of people.

Watch the following video lecture (closed captioning is available for those who need it). You'll also get to hear some good classic rock and roll by way of Pink Floyd. Think about what "the wall" and "the bricks" are symbolic of:

The song "Another Brick in the Wall," by Pink Floyd perfectly illustrates how we are just part of a bigger pattern, the pattern of culture, and when we go against the plan of that pattern, we are encouraged (forced, sanctioned, perhaps bullied) to get ourselves back in line and do what is expected of us.

Western Culture, American Culture?

The term "Western culture" has come to define the culture of many European countries as well as those that have been heavily influenced by European immigration, such as the United States. Western culture has roots in the rise of Christianity in the 14th century. The influences of Western culture can be seen in almost every country in the world today.

In the US, the influence of immigration on our culture cannot be overstated. Every generation of Americans has been greatly influenced by immigrants. As our country grows, so does its cultural diversity.

Culture is key in a world which is made up of so many ethnically diverse societies. Culture also causes us to be riddled with conflicts associated with religion, ethnicity, and ethical/moral beliefs. Culture is fluid and constantly in motion, and this makes it so that it is difficult to define any culture in only one way.

Individualism and American Culture

Americans tend to look at problems as personal problems, but by now, with the lessons and readings you've been assigned, you can see that sociologists tend to view social problems from a collective point of view.

What is Individualism?

INDIVIDUALISM: the belief that the needs of each person are more important than the needs of the whole society or group (the collective).

COLLECTIVISM: the principle of giving a group (or the needs of the entire society) priority over each individual in it.

How the Individual and the Collective make up Society

An individualistic culture places the emphasis on a worldview which asserts that the "I" is more important than the 'We." A collectivistic culture will put the emphasis on the group before the individual. Another way of looking at Individualism (and thus by default, Collectivism): I (individualistic) oriented versus We (collectivistic) oriented.

Characteristics of Individualistic Societies

Characterisitics of Collectivist Societies

The Balance of the Individual and the Collective

If both the macro and the micro levels—the collective and the individual—were perfectly balanced, both the needs of society and the needs of the individual would be equally assessed and weighed. Further, we would find ourselves living in a society where the individual felt supported, and in turn, supported the structure of society. But, in the US, this is not the case. We tend toward an individualistic point of view, often at the expense of examining how this view impacts the collective.

The idea of individualism in the US is perhaps most closely tied, historically, to the "wild west" and the movement into a broad frontier. Trappers, miners and cowboys were not just idealized but lionized as were frontiersmen like Kit Carson, Davy Crockett and "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Additionally scholars assert that female heroines from that time—Annie Oakley, Belle Starr, Calamity Jane and so on—came to be precisely because they lived in overwhelmingly male frontier society and exercised a sense of power and control in order to live life by their own feminist ideals. Of course, this view of the wild west being tamed by poweful and fearless white men is influenced heavily by the privilege of those men—men who had the power to create the United States in a way, perhaps, that suited their own ideals about what a society should be. The majority of women, as well as others who were oppressed (Blacks, Asians, Native Americans and others) didn't have a say in the social construction of the United States at that time.

This view of the individual having control and autonomy of his life may have rung true in the days of the pioneers, but this notion doesn't quite work in today's complex world. Instead of us having near complete control over ourselves to do as we like day-to-day, we instead find ourselves enclosed by rules, regulations, and sanctions. So, while this idea of individualism may have worked well in the past for some groups, it does not work well today—yet still, we tend to have a strong residual effect of this way of thinking in our culture today. We are told that we must pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Politicians tell us that we must make our own way toward success. Even our parents tell us that we must be strong individuals, and that we must fend for ourselves.

So, in the culture of our society, we tend to view the individual as primary; the individual and his/her rights are accounted for above any form of social life, adn this sometimes makes it a challenge for society's structure and the needs of the individual to be balanced.

In countries where the collective has a strong influence, we can end up with an imbalance which forces the individual to give up too much control over her life in favor of meeting the needs of many people in that society:

When the Collective is more Important than Individual Needs

But in the US it is not often the case the the collective's (society's) needs overtake the needs of the individual, due mostly to the ideas and ideals we think of as valuable. In other words, we place the individual and his needs before the needs of society:
The Individual having more Importance than the Collective

How Culture Influences our Understandings of Social Problems

Living in an individualistically-oriented society can present us with some issues to overcome when studying social problems. This is due to the emphasis on the "I" rather than on the "We."

Of course, it is perfectly fine to hold the individual accountable for his or her actions, but this doesn't prove to be very useful when we broaden the lens to try to repair broken aspects (structures) of society. An individualistic point of view can only take us so far—we have to think "bigger."

We tend to view success, and thus also failure, as attributes that are solely caused by the individual. If we have this kind of cultural perspective, then for some people (perhaps many) it is difficult to see past the individual and toward the collective. Further, this kind of viewpoint masks the role of the collective in the creation of social problems. In other words, our distinct American cultural view of the world and of individuals leads us toward an understanding of people which allows us to place the responsibility for problems squarely on the shoulders of the individual.

However, sociologists warn us against this point of view, as it masks the role of the structure in CREATING problems for the individual as it also ABSOLVES the collective (social structure) from taking any action to ease the problems that it plays a role in creating. As we move on in this course, it is important that we take a "collective" approach to the study of social problems. That is to say, in order to understand social problems, we have to look outside of the individual and to the structure as having played a primary role in the creation and maintenance of problems that many individuals experience. Completing the readings and lessons, and remembering to put into use the Four Questions Approach is paramount.


Culture shapes the way we see and understand our world, and the world of others. It includes groups that we are born into, such as race, national origin, gender, class, and religion; it may also include a group we join or become part of. It is possible to acquire a new culture by moving to a new country or region, by a change in our economic status, or by becoming disabled. When we think of culture this broadly we realize we all belong to many cultures at once.

Culture plays a strong part in our lives. It influences our points of view, values, humor, hopes, worries and fears. As we continue on in this course, it will be helpful to you to think about the cultural norms of other groups and people; this will give you a fair perspective and understanding of why they do what they do.

Even though our cultures may be very different, it is important to remember how much we have in common. People see the world very differently, but we know what it is like to wake up in the morning and look forward to the day—we all share that in common. We are all human beings. We all love deeply, want to learn, have hopes and dreams, and have experienced pain and fear.

We can't pretend that our cultures don't matter; we can't gloss over differences and pretend they don't exist. We aren’t completely alike, and wishing it were so won’t make it happen. What a boring place the world would be!

What we can do is work toward understanding others, establishing relationships with people from cultures different from our own, and acting as allies against racism and other forms of discrimination. This will help us to overcome internalized and institutional oppression, and build strong and diverse communities.

Envisioning your Cultural Community

It is important to remember that everyone has an important point of view; likewise, everyone has a role to play when it comes to expressing and understanding culture. But you don't have to be an expert to build relationships with people different from yourself; you don't have to have a degree to learn to become sensitive to cultural issues; and you don't have to be a sociologist to know how culture has affected your life.

The world is becoming increasingly diverse and includes people of many religions, languages, economic groups, and so on.

It is becoming clear that in order to build a strong community, country, and world, we need to understand and appreciate many cultures, establish relationships with people from cultures other than our own, and build strong alliances with different cultural groups. Additionally, we need to bring non-mainstream groups into the center of civic activity. Why is this the case?

To build powerful communities, we need large numbers of people working together. If people of different cultures and subcultures join forces, they will be more effective in finding common ground, in reaching common goals, than if we operate in isolation. Every culture has unique strengths and perspectives that the community can benefit from. We need a wide range of ideas, customs, and wisdom to solve problems and enrich community life. Bringing non-mainstream groups into the center of civic activity can provide fresh perspectives and shed new light on tough social problems.

Understanding cultures will help us overcome and prevent racial and ethnic divisions. Racial and ethnic divisions result in misunderstandings, loss of opportunities, and sometimes violence. Racial and ethnic conflicts drain communities of financial and human resources; they distract cultural groups from resolving the key issues they have in common.

People from different subcultures and groups must be included in decision-making processes in order for all kinds of programs or policies (governmental, social, political, and so on) to be effective. People who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in finding solutions to the problem—this is a basic democratic principle. Without the input and support of all the groups involved, decision-making, implementation, and follow through are much less likely to occur.

An appreciation of cultural diversity goes hand-in-hand with a just and equitable society. If we do not learn about the influences that cultural groups have had on our mainstream history and culture, we are all missing out on an accurate view of our society and our communities.

As you think about diversity, it may be helpful to envision the kind of cultural community you want to build. In order to set some goals related to building relationships between cultures, resolving differences, or building a diverse coalition, it helps to have a vision of the kind of cultural community you hope for.

People have very different views of what a multicultural society or community should be like or could be like. In the past few decades there has been a lot of discussion about what it means to live and work together in a society that is diverse as ours. People struggle with different visions of a fair, equitable, moral, and harmonious society.

So, what kind of community do you envision for yourself? How will diversity be approached in your community? If you could have your ideal community right now what would it look like? If you can't have your ideal community right now, what will be the next steps you will take in building the kind of cultural community you want?

A final word on culture: although every person is unique, some of us have been mistreated or oppressed because we are members of a particular group. If we ignore these present-day or historical differences, we may fail to understand the needs of those individuals. Often people are afraid that recognizing differences will divide people from each other. However, learning about cultural differences can reveal important clues about how we got to where we are as relates to social structure (economically, educationally and in other social systems) and in our own personal lives.

We are bombarded daily with newspapers and TV reports of doom and gloom. People have a difficult time functioning at all when they feel there is no hope for change. Social problems courses are the most hopeful in the academic discipline of sociology because they implore YOU to take an active approach in making the world a better place.

Social problems classes help us understand our multicultural world and allow us to effective work toward living in the kinds of communities we dream of. Learning about social problems helps us to transform our neighborhoods, institutions, and governments into equitable, non-oppressive, and diverse communities.