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Culture combines many elements to create a unique way of living for different people. In this lesson, we identify four of the elements that exist in every culture, albeit in different forms: symbols, language, values, and norms.

We also differentiate between folkways and mores.

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Elements of Culture

Culture is a huge topic of study for sociologists. Culture exists anywhere humans exist, and no two cultures are exactly the same.

We’ve started talking about culture in another lesson and discussed its combination of elements that, together, form a people’s unique way of life. In this lesson, we are going to take a closer look at those elements, specifically symbols, language, values, and norms. These elements look different across cultures, and many change with time as a society evolves.

Symbols

The first element that exists in every culture is a variety of symbols.

A symbol is anything that is used to stand for something else. People who share a culture often attach a specific meaning to an object, gesture, sound, or image. For example, a cross is a significant symbol to Christians.

It is not simply two pieces of wood attached to each other, nor is it just an old object of torture and execution. To Christians, it represents the basis of their entire religion, and they have great reverence for the symbol.We can see more examples of symbols in American culture. Emoticons are combinations of keyboard characters that many use to represent their feelings online or through texting. The American flag represents our entire country. A red light at a traffic intersection is used to relay the message that you need to stop your vehicle.

Language

The second element present in every culture is a language.

Language is a system of words and symbols used to communicate with other people. This includes full languages as we usually think of them, such as English, Spanish, French, etc. But, it also includes body language, slang, and common phrases that are unique to certain groups of people. For example, even though English is spoken fluently in both America and Britain, we have slang and phrases that mean different things. American French fries are British chips, American cookies are British biscuits, and so on.Another example of how cultural languages differ beyond vocabulary is the fact that eye contact represents different meanings in different cultures. In America, eye contact suggests that you are paying attention and are interested in what a person has to say.

In other cultures, eye contact may be considered rude and to be a challenge of authority.

Values

Another cultural element is a system of values, which are culturally defined standards for what is good or desirable. Members of the culture use the shared system of values to decide what is good and what is bad. For example, in America, we are individualistic – we encourage competition and emphasize personal achievement. A person who accepts a promotion in our culture is praised for their individual hard work and talent.

But, our values are in stark contrast with the collectivistic values of other cultures, where collaboration is encouraged, and a person’s success is only as good as their contributions to the group. The same person that is offered a promotion who lives in a collectivistic culture would consult with his family before accepting to ensure that it would be the most beneficial to the group as a whole.

Types of Norms

The last element of culture we’ll discuss in this lesson is a collection of norms. Norms are culturally defined expectations of behavior. They are guidelines we use to determine how we should behave in any given situation and what would be considered inappropriate behavior. For example, we know that we should stand in line to use the restroom without even thinking about our behavior. If someone cuts in front of us, we are certainly irritated – if not angry – that the other person has not followed the norms of our culture.

Norms vary in their perceived importance and in the way that others react to their violation. Some norms are turned into formal rules and laws, while others are simply unwritten rules of etiquette for everyday behavior. These unwritten rules can typically be categorized as either folkways or mores. Folkways are norms that dictate appropriate behavior for routine or casual interaction. In our culture, boys wear pants instead of skirts, and we all know not to pick our nose in public. These are casual rules for behavior; although we may think that people who violate them are weird or rude, we don’t think they should be imprisoned for their behavior.

On the other hand, mores are norms that dictate morally right or wrong behavior. These are rules for behavior that are so important that they usually don’t even get written down because they go without saying. Using loud profanity at a funeral is a fairly mild example.

More serious mores are considered taboo, and people who violate them are considered unfit for society. For example, there are no formal laws against cannibalism in the United States, yet those who participate in cannibalism violate such an important norm that they are punished and severely ostracized from society.

Lesson Summary

In summary, some of the common elements that make up individual cultures are symbols, language, values, and norms. A symbol is anything that is used to stand for something else.

People who share a culture often attach a specific meaning to an object, gesture, sound, or image. Language is a system of words and symbols used to communicate with other people. This includes not only fully spoken or written languages but also body language, slang, and common phrases that are unique to certain cultures.Values are culturally defined standards for what is good or desirable. Members of the culture use the shared system of values to decide what is good and what is bad. Similarly, norms are culturally defined expectations of behavior.

They are guidelines we use to determine how we should behave in any given situation and what would be considered inappropriate behavior.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Provide examples of each of the four elements that exist in all cultures: symbols, language, values, and norms
  • Explain how these elements can differ from culture to culture
  • Describe the differences in folkways and mores

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