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In this essay, I plan to define “what is culture”. I will also be investigating the problems of culture. I will include youth, family and crime culture also known as ‘subcultures’ I will also be discussing why culture is important to sociology and why it is an important aspect. I will also be discussing briefly the obligations sociologists have with culture and then I will finish by an overview of how society has evolved and why sociologists have to investigate this.
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So what is culture? Sociologist defines culture as ‘designs for living’: the values, beliefs, behaviour, practices and material objects that constitute a peoples way of life. Culture is a tool box of solutions to everyday problems. It is a bridge to the past as well as a guide to the future. One classic account puts it like this.
“Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search for meaning”â€¦ (Geertz, 1995:5)
To begin to understand what culture entails, it is helpful to distinsh between thought and things. What sociologist call non-material culture is the intangible world of ideas created by members of society that span a wide range? Material culture, on the other hand constitutes the tangible things created by members of society. They both involve cultural practices. Human beings make culture and it in turn ‘makes us’. It becomes part of us, what we often describe as ‘human nature’. For sociologist, there is no such thing as human nature in itself ‘nature’ is produced through our varying histories and cultures.
No cultural trait is ‘natural’ to humanity, even though most people around the world view their own way of life that way. What is crucial to human species is the capacity to create culture in our own collective lives. Every other form of life behaves in more uniform, species to species ways. But to a world traveller, the enourmous divesity of human life stands in contrast to the behaviour of cats and other creatures. Most living creatures are guided by instinct, a biological programming over which animals have no control. A few animals have the capacity for limited culture i.e. chimpanzee’s. But the creative power of humans far exceeds that of any other form of life. “Only humans generate and rely on culture rather than instinct to ensure the survival of their kind”. (Macionis, 2008)
The problem with understanding the ‘culture’ of a society, is that the most general idea of culture’ an entire way of life’ virtually covers the whole of sociology. The reason people tend to behave in a particular way, say at weddings, family gatherings or other social events, is that this kind of behaviour is determined by the culture that people live in. So sociologists have to try and refine the idea of culture all the time and even explain what the different ‘culture’ are.
The list is endless when trying to explain culture, as culture ranges from family, youth and crime and now with more modern cultures appearing like cyber culture as we evolve.
We will look more in-depth to these different cultures known as subculture. Subcultures are the cultures of particular groups within society. The term is generally used to refer to youth culture or cultures of subordinate classes. The concept of subcultures, which means ‘under- culture’, implies the existence of a dominate culture. Some Marxist writer have seen subculture based on subordinate classes as resisting the dominate culture and potential at least, challenging the social order. The subcultures that emerged among the young in the working class and middle class in the 1960s were described as ‘counter-cultures’. The 1960s style of the ‘mods’, ‘teds’ and ‘skinheads’ were interpreted as challenges to the dominate culture. There is tension in this, between the idea that a dominate culture is imposed by the ruling class and the possibility of sub cultural resistance to this culture. This discussion situates the analysis of culture within the framework of class relationships in a capitalist society and enables us to make important links between the structures of a society and its culture. It helps us to understand not only the content of culture but also how the existing structures of a society can both be maintained and periodically challenged through culture. One problem with this is that it tends to neglect those aspects of culture linked by gender, ethnicity and nationality and the conflicts taking place between dominate and subordinate groups along with other dimensions of inequality.
Culture is important to sociology as culture covers the whole of sociology. The task of sociology is to study the way individuals fit into cultures that produce them and that they themselves maintain and recreate overtime. Who we think we are, our identity is related to what society says we should do and who society says we should be. The production of ‘culture’ is a massive social undertaking the results of the collective, combined and interrelated efforts of all members of society. Sociologists also have an obligation of culture. The notion of culture raises two interesting problems. The first is a sociological issue about the unified character of cultural foundations of the nation-state, namely the problems of multi cultures and post modernism. The second problem is a philosophical one. While the sociological problem has been addressed by writers on multi centralism, the philosophical issues have been rather neglected with the exception of an influential argument by Onara O’Neill in her essay ‘Practices of Toleration. O’Neill’s approach is useful from a sociologist’s point of view, because it indicates the possibility of cultural risk and the growth of a communications environment which is hazardous and culturally contaminating. Recent sociogical approaches to risk have adopted an ecological approach which in fact fails to address the central question of social risk in the cultural as opposed to the natural environment. Becks theory of risk works best when he provides an analysis of environment hazard, not when he is trying to understand social risk. While one can in principle measure environmental hazards with some degree of neutrality and precision, the measurement of cultural risk inevitably involves an element of moral judgement.
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Culture is a vast subject, what it means today may change in the future as we evolve. In the 1950’s, family culture was two parents married with children and single parent family was not as common, but know in the 21st century this role has reversed with single parent families more common than married. This is just one of many examples of how culture changes and we as sociologist have to embrace and embark on these changes, we also have to investigate as why they are changing and how different society’s are in different parts of the world. In discussing issues of culture we can engage in a debate with the ghosts of the founders of sociology. We can look at the ideas that created the subject and also the newer ideas that challenge many of the assumptions the founders held.
The Reference Section
Fulcher J, and Scott J (2007) Sociology; 3rd edition; Oxford University Press
Inglis, D and Hughson, J. Introduction: Sociology and Culture
Kidd, W. Culture and Identity: A skills based approach
Macionis J and Plummer K (2008) Sociology a Global Introduction 4th edition
Stevenson, N (2001). Culture and Citizenship. London: Sage Publications
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