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This lesson will seek to explain the difference between ideal and real culture. In doing so, it will give an example of each, while also defining the terms culture and norm.

Definition of Terms

Today’s lesson on real versus ideal culture will be very simple to digest. In fact, as we get into it, I’m guessing most of us will find it very easy to pinpoint examples in our own lives and our own culture. However, before we go digging for these examples of real and ideal culture, it’d probably be a good idea to nail down two other terms. They are culture and norms.For starters, culture is the set of learned behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that characterize a society or a people group.

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It encompasses both the intangible and tangible things of a population. It’s things like how society defines family or how people worship. It’s the people’s favorite pastimes and their music. In short, it’s what makes a people group a people group. It’s what makes them them!Using our next term, our culture is greatly affected by our norms, the standards or rules for acceptable behavior; the things we consider normal. To give a great example of differing norms, many tribal cultures find it normal for women to walk around completely topless. However, this really goes against the norms of most Westernized cultures.

In other words, it’s not acceptable, normal behavior, and odds are you’re not going to see it in rural or urban America.With these terms down, let’s move onto real and ideal culture.

Ideal Culture

When talking about culture, anthropologists like to differentiate between what they call ideal and real culture.To explain, ideal culture is seen as the standards a society would like to uphold or embrace.

It’s the value system that a society would like to uphold. Using one of our vocab words, it’s the norms they ideally would like to have. Simply put, it’s what a society aspires to be!

Real Culture

Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, societies, just like individuals, don’t always live up to their lofty goals and aspirations. This is where real culture comes into play.

Anthropologically speaking, real culture can be easily defined as a society’s actual behaviors; the way a culture really is. It’s a society’s actual norms, what really is going on in everyday life.Now that we’ve got these terms down, let’s look at a tangible example.

We’ll use recycling.

Anecdotal Example

I think it’d be pretty safe to say that American society, in general, sort of preaches that recycling is important. My kids learn about it in school, and our local park has trash cans labeled plastic or aluminum only. In fact, I only live about two miles from a recycling drop off center where you can go and separate your glass pickle jars from your plastic milk jugs. Ideally, this is where my community wants you to take your recyclables.

Centers like this exist across the nation, and parks from Maine to California have plastic-only trash cans in their parks. Case in point, American society thinks recycling is the thing to do. It thinks it’s ideal.However, despite my kids bringing home coloring papers about recycling, and despite the fact that most communities offer recycling centers or even curbside pick-up, some studies show that less than 50% of people utilize offered curbside pick-up of recyclables, and way, way less than that take their recyclables to a center.

Now, not being a civil or environmental scientist, I really can’t vouch for the validity of these studies. However, all I have to do is walk outside on recycling pick-up day and see the absence of blue bins in front of a bunch of houses to know they’re probably true. In other words, despite all the rhetoric for recycling, it just might not be really happening in lots of American homes.Using some of our terms, and getting back to the nitty gritty of our lesson, I think it’d be safe to say that recycling is part of America’s ideal culture, but it hasn’t quite taken a firm foothold in its real culture.

In other words, many of us think it’s a really, really good idea, and we want to do it, but when push comes to shove, a whole bunch of us just can’t quite figure out how to take the time or to get ourselves to separate our trash.

Lesson Summary

Culture is defined as the set of learned behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that characterize a society or a people group. When speaking of culture, the term includes both the intangible and tangible things of a population. A large part of culture is determined by society’s norms, its standards or rules for acceptable behavior.When discussing culture, the terms ‘ideal culture’ and ‘real culture’ are often used. Ideal culture is seen as the standards a society would like to uphold or embrace.

It’s the values and actions a particular society would like to uphold. Conversely, real culture encompasses a society’s actual behaviors. Stated simply, it’s the way a culture really is.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to:

  • Define culture and norms
  • Explain ideal culture
  • Discuss real culture
  • Recall an example of real vs. ideal culture

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