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Culture shock may appear because people aren’t always expecting cultural differences. Anthropologist Ken Barger (1971) discovered this when he conducted a participatory observation in an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic. Originally from Indiana, Barger hesitated when invited to join a local snowshoe race. He knew he’d never hold his own against these experts. Sure enough, he finished last, to his mortification. But the tribal members congratulated him, saying, “You really tried!” In Barger’s own culture, he had learned to value victory. To the Inuit people, winning was enjoyable, but their culture valued survival skills essential to their environment: how hard someone tried could mean the difference between life and death. Over the course of his stay, Barger participated in caribou hunts, learned how to take shelter in winter storms, and sometimes went days with little or no food to share among tribal members. Trying hard and working together, two nonmaterial values, were indeed much more important than winning.

During his time with the Inuit tribe, Barger learned to engage in cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture. Practicing cultural relativism requires an open mind and a willingness to consider, and even adapt to, new values and norms. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies—ones in which women have political rights and control over their own bodies—would question whether the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of cultural tradition. Sociologists attempting to engage in cultural relativism, then, may struggle to reconcile aspects of their own culture with aspects of a culture that they are studying.

Sometimes when people attempt to rectify feelings of ethnocentrism and develop cultural relativism, they swing too far to the other end of the spectrum. Xenocentrism is the opposite of ethnocentrism, and refers to the belief that another culture is superior to one’s own. (The Greek root word xeno , pronounced “ZEE-no,” means “stranger” or “foreign guest.”) An exchange student who goes home after a semester abroad or a sociologist who returns from the field may find it difficult to associate with the values of their own culture after having experienced what they deem a more upright or nobler way of living.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for sociologists studying different cultures is the matter of keeping a perspective. It is impossible for anyone to keep all cultural biases at bay; the best we can do is strive to be aware of them. Pride in one’s own culture doesn’t have to lead to imposing its values on others. And an appreciation for another culture shouldn’t preclude individuals from studying it with a critical eye.

Overcoming culture shock

During her summer vacation, Caitlin flew from Chicago to Madrid to visit Maria, the exchange student she’d befriended the previous semester. In the airport, she heard rapid, musical Spanish being spoken all around her. Exciting as it was, she felt isolated and disconnected. Maria’s mother kissed Caitlin on both cheeks when she greeted her. Her imposing father kept his distance. Caitlin was half asleep by the time supper was served—at 10 p.m.! Maria’s family sat at the table for hours, speaking loudly, gesturing, and arguing about politics, a taboo dinner subject in Caitlin’s house. They served wine and toasted their honored guest. Caitlin had trouble interpreting her hosts’ facial expressions, and didn’t realize she should make the next toast. That night, Caitlin crawled into a strange bed, wishing she hadn’t come. She missed her home and felt overwhelmed by the new customs, language, and surroundings. She’d studied Spanish in school for years—why hadn’t it prepared her for this?

What Caitlin hadn’t realized was that people depend not only on spoken words but also on subtle cues like gestures and facial expressions, to communicate. Cultural norms accompany even the smallest nonverbal signals (DuBois 1951). They help people know when to shake hands, where to sit, how to converse, and even when to laugh. We relate to others through a shared set of cultural norms, and ordinarily, we take them for granted.

For this reason, culture shock is often associated with traveling abroad, although it can happen in one’s own country, state, or even hometown. Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1960) is credited with first coining the term “culture shock.” In his studies, Oberg found that most people found encountering a new culture to be exciting at first. But bit by bit, they became stressed by interacting with people from a different culture who spoke another language and used different regional expressions. There was new food to digest, new daily schedules to follow, and new rules of etiquette to learn. Living with this constant stress can make people feel incompetent and insecure. People react to frustration in a new culture, Oberg found, by initially rejecting it and glorifying one’s own culture. An American visiting Italy might long for a “real” pizza or complain about the unsafe driving habits of Italians compared to people in the United States.

It helps to remember that culture is learned. Everyone is ethnocentric to an extent, and identifying with one’s own country is natural.

Caitlin’s shock was minor compared to that of her friends Dayar and Mahlika, a Turkish couple living in married student housing on campus. And it was nothing like that of her classmate Sanai. Sanai had been forced to flee war-torn Bosnia with her family when she was fifteen. After two weeks in Spain, Caitlin had developed a bit more compassion and understanding for what those people had gone through. She understood that adjusting to a new culture takes time. It can take weeks or months to recover from culture shock, and it can take years to fully adjust to living in a new culture.

By the end of Caitlin’s trip, she’d made new lifelong friends. She’d stepped out of her comfort zone. She’d learned a lot about Spain, but she’d also discovered a lot about herself and her own culture.

Three female tourists carrying luggage are shown climbing a cobblestone hill.
Experiencing new cultures offers an opportunity to practice cultural relativism. (Photo courtesy of OledSidorenko/flickr)

Summary

Though “society” and “culture” are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings. A society is a group of people sharing a community and culture. Culture generally describes the shared behaviors and beliefs of these people, and includes material and nonmaterial elements.. Our experience of cultural difference is influenced by our ethnocentrism and xenocentrism. Sociologists try to practice cultural relativism.

Short answer

Examine the difference between material and nonmaterial culture in your world. Identify ten objects that are part of your regular cultural experience. For each, then identify what aspects of nonmaterial culture (values and beliefs) that these objects represent. What has this exercise revealed to you about your culture?

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Do you feel that feelings of ethnocentricity or xenocentricity are more prevalent in U.S. culture? Why do you believe this? What issues or events might inform this?

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Further research

In January 2011, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America presented evidence indicating that the hormone oxytocin could regulate and manage instances of ethnocentrism. Read the full article here: (External Link)

References

Barger, Ken. 2008. “Ethnocentrism.” Indiana University, July 1. Retrieved May 2, 2011 ( (External Link) ).

Darwin, Charles R. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex . London: John Murray.

DuBois, Cora. 1951. “Culture Shock.” Presentation to Panel Discussion at the First Midwest Regional Meeting of the Institute of International Education.” November 28. Also presented to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 3, 1954.

Fritz, Thomas, Sebastian Jentschke, Nathalie Gosselin, et al. 2009. “Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music.” Current Biology 19(7).

Murdock, George P. 1949. Social Structure . New York: Macmillan.

Oberg, Kalervo. 1960. “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments.” Practical Anthropology 7:177–182.

Sumner, William G. 1906. Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Ginn and Co.

Swoyer, Chris. 2003. “The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E. N. Zalta, Winter. Retrieved May 5, 2011 ( (External Link) ).

Questions & Answers

pls what's today's discussion all about?
Ojewande Reply
every one can start any relevant topic on sociology... bcz every question is imp about society
Ritu
explain the term subculture
Peter
identify and explain four types of subculture in the school
Peter
explain why the status of the teacher is important in schools
Peter
explain the meaning of social stratification
Peter
what's is difference between premonition and foreknowledge
Ritu Reply
hello
suraj
g
Aimal
?
Ritu
difference between prescience and premonition is that prescience is knowledge of events before they take place; foresight; foreknowledge while premonition is a clairvoyant or clairaudient experience, such as a dream, which resonates with so
Aimal
hi
APARNA
in short foreknowledge is the knowledge of something before it's happened .and premonition a knowledgeof something is going to happen specially unpleasant
Ritu
..
Ritu
Who is the father of modern sociology
Shah Reply
who is the fat60f modern sociology
Shah Reply
Who is the father of sociology
Shah
august compte is called a father of sociology
Ritu
what can one become after studying sociology in Nigeria
Chisom Reply
What is the Socialization is culturally specific, but this does not mean certain cultures talking about?
Sammi Reply
yes
Kenneth
v
Kenneth
what is serfdom by Karl Marx
Ritu Reply
the condition of a tenant farmer bound to a hereditary plot of land and to the will of a landlord. it is Another form of slavery.
APARNA
thanks
Ritu
ghati and legory is markx
Abid
we often listen that he does root learning or he understand the concepts still I don't know what is difference between those ....which symptom shows ...
Ritu Reply
I asked from many literate people but don't gave a satisfied answer
Ritu
i asked from many literate people but they don't gave satisfied answer
Ritu
.....
Ritu
watch Jordan Peterson lectures on learning, it can clarify your misunderstanding
Sourabh
about what
Rafiq
yea! tell about what?
Badar
difference between understanding and root learning ..Because both seem the same from outside
Ritu
I would recommend watching Jordan Peterson lectures on learning (available on YouTube), It may help.
Sourabh
all right thanks
Ritu
learning and understanding are two sides of one coin.
Rafiq
all right
Abid
inequality and social fractionalization how differenciated?
Siam Reply
fractionalization is reality it's positive .without social fractionalization social system will be destroy ... it is compulsory and inequality is a negative approach .both are different
Ritu
if there is negation of negation of everything so what is negation. of primitive communism stage
Ritu Reply
?
Ritu
hermits,vagrants and alcoholics are examples of
tajown Reply
These are examples of social deviants because their ways of life violate social norms.
Mary
how to convert in hindi
bb Reply
society is a major cause of alienation .not individual ..why?
Ritu Reply
what is Upward mobility
Ritu
upward mobility is movement from lower status to higher status in hierarchy
SHIVAM
what is difference between Candidate Socialization and Adult Socialization
Ritu
what is the difference between general test and standardized test
NIRUPAM
one member can't do anything . so society is a major cause of alienation
NIRUPAM
but alienation is psychological state of individuals ....
Ritu
hegal says that Alienati is a social psychological condition that dissuades a person from his social existence.
Ritu
standardized test is scientific and general test is mere subjective or not scientific
Ritu
accha ..thank u ...Ritu
NIRUPAM
what are the effects of covid 19 on culture in our society
SAMUEL Reply
Here in America, where quarantine is being lifted slowly throughout the country, cases are beginning to rise again due to people laxing on wearing masks and continuing to practice social distancing. I believe this is causing anomie.
Mary
ghati
Abid
Truth, Abid 👍🏽
Mary
Love you
Abid
When it is a matter of culture, people are paying more attention to culture. Somewhere the positive effect of this quarantine is also happening.
Ritu
it a reality of a men before quarantine everybody was busy in their particular works like youth was busy in study family's was busy in earning money but naw I think people are realizing that there are more thing like a feeling of caring not just for own self but for a country in short nationalism .
Ritu
we r also going towards are culture we r giving more time towards culture .as I watch people are giving time on cultural food whether it is dance,dressup ,kahin na kahin this time making us psychologically and imotionally strong towards are feeling for nation 🙏. .
Ritu
this is best opportunity for making us still better then we was..we all should make the best use of such opportunity for improving our internal skill to better our self
Ritu
Describe an iron cage that leads to a false consciousness.
Mary Reply
Pakistan Govt is an iron cage that leads to false conscience
Abid
Please explain to me why you feel this way about the Pakistan Govt. I am from the Midwest in America.
Mary
for this you you may read the policies that makes by Pakistan govt for Pakistan
Ritu
@Ritu Verma : Improve English
Milan
This is the way to Improve English.. we have to appreciate the person who want to improve this international language.
Safed
I feel blind faith is an iron cage, that leads to false consciousness. For eg. There are certain rituals in relegion, which doesn't help anybody, also can harm people/animals but those who have blind faith in relegion, they have the consciousness of doing very meaningful.
Milan
@Safed, pointing out mistakes, inspires you to improve. that was my intention.
Milan
yes sir i respect your point I will never take it the other way i respect your point .. thank you ..The people who tell me my mistakes, they help me get success more quickly.
Ritu
always I welcome people who does ..you r ryt sir
Ritu
Is sociology different from common sense ? How ?
NIRUPAM
yaa is a different from practical intelligence ...bcz it's a pure science Sociologist does not do his knowledge in practical area.
Ritu
A sociologist, for example, does not determine social policies in the same way that a physicist does not build bridges.
Ritu
The job of a sociologist is to understand the facts as they are. Sociologist tells the relevant knowledge.
Ritu
It is the work of administrators, leaders and repressors to give practical shape
Ritu
It is right ? thinking of sociologist are different from other common people . How ?
NIRUPAM
what you mean by common people .... clear it
Ritu
may be u r ryt its bcz a sociologist observe fact with Interdisciplinary approach
Ritu
you may should read hirarichy of science by August compte
Ritu
The subject matter and subject area of ​​a sociologist is very broad and dynamic.
Ritu
A sociologist has to study the entire society which includes Economics, Geography, Physical, Political, Astronomy, Math, History, Anthropology and much more.
Ritu
So we can say that a sociologist's thinking is slightly different from the common people
Ritu
naw u free to agree or disagree
Ritu
yes
Siam
i am student of economics,but i am interest in sociology
Siam
you may go ahead ... with this it gives knowledge that will very good for upsc or pcs and ias
Ritu
economics has a great effect on society and is a key factor in social stratification. To understand sociology better one has to have a basic knowledge of economics.
Abu
personally sociology is a key of all success .I. m doing graduation in politics still i will give entrance in sociology
Ritu
Sociology is not a single subject, it is combination of different subjects.
Abu
hmmm ryt
Ritu

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Source:  OpenStax, Introduction to sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX. Jan 20, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11762/1.6
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