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  • Discuss the major theoretical approaches to cultural interpretation

Music, fashion, technology, and values—all are products of culture. But what do they mean? How do sociologists perceive and interpret culture based on these material and nonmaterial items? Let’s finish our analysis of culture by reviewing them in the context of three theoretical perspectives: functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

Functionalists view society as a system in which all parts work—or function—together to create society as a whole. In this way, societies need culture to exist. Cultural norms function to support the fluid operation of society, and cultural values guide people in making choices. Just as members of a society work together to fulfill a society’s needs, culture exists to meet its members’ basic needs.

Functionalists also study culture in terms of values. Education is an important concept in the United States because it is valued. The culture of education—including material culture such as classrooms, textbooks, libraries, dormitories—supports the emphasis placed on the value of educating a society’s members.

A statue of Superman between two flagpoles and in front of a two-story brick building is shown.
This statue of Superman stands in the center of Metropolis, Illinois. His pedestal reads “Truth—Justice—The American Way.” How would a functionalist interpret this statue? What does it reveal about the values of American culture? (Photo courtesy of David Wilson/flickr)

Conflict theorists view social structure as inherently unequal, based on power differentials related to issues like class, gender, race, and age. For a conflict theorist, culture is seen as reinforcing issues of "privilege" for certain groups based upon race, sex, class, and so on. Women strive for equality in a male-dominated society. Senior citizens struggle to protect their rights, their health care, and their independence from a younger generation of lawmakers. Advocacy groups such as the ACLU work to protect the rights of all races and ethnicities in the United States.

Inequalities exist within a culture’s value system. Therefore, a society’s cultural norms benefit some people but hurt others. Some norms, formal and informal, are practiced at the expense of others. Women were not allowed to vote in the United States until 1920. Gay and lesbian couples have been denied the right to marry in some states. Racism and bigotry are very much alive today. Although cultural diversity is supposedly valued in the United States, many people still frown upon interracial marriages. Same-sex marriages are banned in most states, and polygamy—common in some cultures—is unthinkable to most Americans.

At the core of conflict theory is the effect of economic production and materialism: dependence on technology in rich nations versus a lack of technology and education in poor nations. Conflict theorists believe that a society’s system of material production has an effect on the rest of culture. People who have less power also have less ability to adapt to cultural change. This view contrasts with the perspective of functionalism. In the U.S. culture of capitalism, to illustrate, we continue to strive toward the promise of the American dream, which perpetuates the belief that the wealthy deserve their privileges.

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological perspective that is most concerned with the face-to-face interactions between members of society. Interactionists see culture as being created and maintained by the ways people interact and in how individuals interpret each other’s actions. Proponents of this theory conceptualize human interactions as a continuous process of deriving meaning from both objects in the environment and the actions of others. This is where the term symbolic comes into play. Every object and action has a symbolic meaning, and language serves as a means for people to represent and communicate their interpretations of these meanings to others. Those who believe in symbolic interactionism perceive culture as highly dynamic and fluid, as it is dependent on how meaning is interpreted and how individuals interact when conveying these meanings.

We began this chapter by asking what culture is. Culture is comprised of all the practices, beliefs, and behaviors of a society. Because culture is learned, it includes how people think and express themselves. While we may like to consider ourselves individuals, we must acknowledge the impact of culture; we inherit thought language that shapes our perceptions and patterned behavior, including about issues of family and friends, and faith and politics.

To an extent, culture is a social comfort. After all, sharing a similar culture with others is precisely what defines societies. Nations would not exist if people did not coexist culturally. There could be no societies if people did not share heritage and language, and civilization would cease to function if people did not agree on similar values and systems of social control. Culture is preserved through transmission from one generation to the next, but it also evolves through processes of innovation, discovery, and cultural diffusion. We may be restricted by the confines of our own culture, but as humans we have the ability to question values and make conscious decisions. No better evidence of this freedom exists than the amount of cultural diversity within our own society and around the world. The more we study another culture, the better we become at understanding our own.

A child in all-white cultural dress is shown.
This child’s clothing may be culturally specific, but her facial expression is universal. (Photo courtesy of Beth Rankin/flickr)

Summary

There are three major theoretical approaches toward the interpretation of culture. A functionalist perspective acknowledges that there are many parts of culture that work together as a system to fulfill society’s needs. Functionalists view culture as a reflection of society’s values. Conflict theorists see culture as inherently unequal, based upon factors like gender, class, race, and age. An interactionist is primarily interested in culture as experienced in the daily interactions between individuals and the symbols that comprise a culture. Various cultural and sociological occurrences can be explained by these theories; however, there is no one “right” view through which to understand culture.

Questions & Answers

what's sociology?
Amos Reply
Sociology is a social science that studies the society, social institutions and all what pertains the making of a society.
Victor
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Abid
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Sihab
sociology is intrecation between two persons or group which perform some rules
Abid
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Abid
Sociology is the study of human socialrelationships and institutions. ... At the personal level, sociology investigates thesocial causes and consequences of such things as romantic love, racial and gender identity, family conflict, deviant behavior, aging, and religious faith.
Abid
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Importance of the study of culture and society
Hafsa Reply
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Abid
democratic principles and national values have to be grounded in cultural understanding of the society, which can enhance the developmental decisions and harmonious relationship with social groups.
Sourabh
technology and culture have an intimate exchange of acceptance and rejection. the possible emergence of bad elements when there is an introduction of new technology in a relatively stagnant society can be recognised through a clear understanding of cultural values.
Sourabh
sociology itself emerged when there was a technological change (the industrial revolution) and the society with its contemporary culture faced numerous challenges
Sourabh
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Noora
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In modern definition of sociology is" The systematic study of human behaviour ,social interaction,social institution and society is called sociology."
Yashzada
how country is best in education
Limbadiya Reply
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Raja Reply
what are the values espoused by religion
Karen Reply
Altruism is an often neglected value. Especially, when it takes the form of Altruistic donation in form of cash or material. Social Control is exercised within a religious community through the tenets or religious texts. Max Weber also analysed the relation between Protestant ethic and Capitalism
Sourabh
what is imperialism
ogie Reply
a country ruled by royalty.?
Renae
a policy of extending a country's power and influence through diplomacy or military force.
Renae
a political system in which a rich a rich and powerful country control other countries which are not powerful and rich as itself
Manoj
act of assisting or making easier the progress or improvement of somthing is referd to.. Brainstormig mobilization priorittization facilitaion answer needed
Sayed
can sociology study farming and in what way?
John Reply
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John
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Manoj
I would like to see my chapter test answer results and a better list review at the end of the chapter for the vocabulary
Tiffany Reply
what are five implications of sociology to an extension worker
John Reply
Gender roles in a community - messages by male workers in Indian rural areas are not accepted as the same by female workers. And there is a minority of female extension workers Weberian 'Charismatic' leader needed, who can work within administrative and political framework of state.
Sourabh
Act as change agents, Hence, deep connection with the social group is needed. This entails an 'interpretative' understanding of the community and an 'objective' analysis through positivist approach as to the results of state policies with the social behaviour prevalent in the area since years.
Sourabh
What policies does US need in countering structural racism ?
Sourabh Reply
what is a sociological perspective ? How to analyse a issue from sociological angles ? what should be addressed in sociological understanding ?
Sourabh
how is social status spatially and socially specific
John Reply
Spatially, because of unequal distribution of natural resources which promotes industrial growth in few areas, leading to better economic situation. Income and wealth derived from this improvement in economic situation leads to higher social status.
Sourabh
Socially specific because usually the control over the resources like land for example are a result of cultural and social history. In India, certain castes had more land under control, when Industrialization and came knocking, their situation improved specifically because of their social standing.
Sourabh
spatially in terms of higher distribution of natural resources in some areas which brings about growth and development to that particular environment and leads to accumulation of wealth and better living standard for individuals in such environment, which I n turn determines the social activities
Amoo
reasons for the population growth since 18th century
Lucy Reply
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Mr Reply
features of social control agent
Lucy Reply
Social control agents such as religion, family, relatives, castes control the people of the society… helpless in preventing them from doing bad deeds.
Ritu
Mentally and physically also control both ways
Ritu
And no human being against social control can live in society
Ritu
What about subcultures? perpetrators always exist in almost every society
Nyasha
what policy values racial, ethnic, national, and linguistic backgrounds
tajown
Practice MCQ 4

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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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