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Sociology: The Core, 6/e
Michael Hughes, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Carolyn J. Kroehler
James W. Vander Zanden, The Ohio State University (Emeritus)

Culture and Social Structure

Chapter Summary

Components of Culture

    Culture provides individuals with a set of common understandings that they employ in fashioning their actions, and makes society possible by providing a common framework of meaning.

  • Norms.  Norms are social rules that specify appropriate and inappropriate behavior in given situations. They afford a means by which we orient ourselves to other people. Folkways, mores, and laws are types of norms.

  • Values.  Values are broad ideas regarding what is desirable, correct, and good that most members of a society share. Values are so general and abstract that they do not explicitly specify which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.

  • Symbols and Language.  Symbols are acts or objects that have come to be socially accepted as standing for something else. Symbols assume many different forms, but language is the most important of these. Language is the chief vehicle by which people communicate ideas, information, attitudes, and emotions, and it serves as the principal means by which human beings create culture and transmit it from generation to generation.

Cultural Unity and Diversity

  • Cultural Universals.  Cultural universals are patterned and recurrent aspects of life that appear in all known societies. All people confront many of the same problems; culture represents an accumulation of solutions to the problems posed by human biology and the human situation.

  • Cultural Integration.  The items that form a culture tend to constitute a consistent and integrated whole. For example, societies that value universal education also usually have norms and laws about schools, organize education into a collective activity, and create symbols and share meanings about the value of education and educational organizations.

  • Ethnocentrism.  The cultural ways of our own society become so deeply ingrained that we have difficulty conceiving of alternative ways of life. We judge the behavior of other groups by the standards of our own culture, a phenomenon sociologists term ethnocentrism.

  • Cultural Relativism.  In studying other cultures, we must examine behavior in the light of the values, beliefs, and motives of each culture, an approach termed cultural relativism.

  • Subcultures and Countercultures.  
    Cultural diversity may be found within a society in the form of subcultures. When the norms, values, and lifestyles of a subculture are at odds with those of the larger society, it is a counterculture.

Social Structure

People's relationships are characterized by social ordering. Sociologists apply the term social structure to this social ordering-the interweaving of people's interactions and relationships in recurrent and stable patterns.

  • Statuses.  Status represents a position within a group or society. It is by means of statuses that we locate one another in various social structures. Some are assigned to us—ascribed statuses; others we secure on the basis of individual choice and competition—achieved statuses.

  • Roles.  A status carries with it a set of culturally defined rights and duties, what sociologists term a role. A role is the expected behavior we associate with a status. Role performance is the actual behavior of the person who occupies a status. Role conflict arises when individuals are confronted with conflicting expectations stemming from their occupancy of two or more statuses. Role strain arises when individuals find the expectations of a single role incompatible.

  • Groups.  Statuses and roles are building blocks for more comprehensive social structures, including groups of two or more people. Roles link us within social relationships. When these relationships are sustained across time, we frequently attribute group properties to them. Sociologists distinguish groups from aggregates and categories.

  • Institutions.  Institutions are the principal social structures used to organize, direct, and execute the essential tasks of social living. Each institution is built around a standardized solution to a set of problems and encompasses the notions of both cultural patterns and social structure.

  • Societies.  Societies represent the most comprehensive and complex type of social structure in today's world. By virtue of their common culture, the members of a society typically possess similar values and norms and a common language. One particular approach for classifying societies is based on the way people derive their livelihood: hunting and gathering societies, horticultural societies, agrarian societies, industrial societies, and postindustrial societies. Another approach rests on the distinction between traditional and modern types.