In this lesson, you will learn how cultures can vary greatly from one another, although most cultures share some basic elements. You will be introduced to sociological interpretations of what happens when people encounter cultures different from their own.
Specifically, this lesson will cover:
- Why We Study Cultural Differences
- Cultural Universals
- Cultural Imperialism
- Culture Shock
- Cultural Relativism
1. Why We Study Cultural Differences
Previously we talked about how fast food consumption in the United States is an example of culture. While many aspects of how people act when buying fast food might seem obvious or basic, even something as simple as a quick hamburger is loaded with specific cultural attributes. These become clear when you try to sell that quick hamburger in another country.
When the American fast-food chain McDonald’s first expanded to East Asia in the 1980s, the company had to change many of the practices that had been successful with American customers if they wanted to succeed in a new country and culture. The anthropologist James Watson found that many elements of the McDonald’s model were seen as strange and challenging when the company first expanded to Hong Kong. McDonald’s staff were instructed to smile at customers because in America a smile is perceived as friendly. But Watson observed that in Hong Kong, people were suspicious of strangers who smile at them or act overly familiar. For the company to be accepted in Hong Kong, managers had to instruct staff to act in a manner that would be the equivalent of “friendly” for Hong Kong customers, which is polite, professional, and efficient -- attributes that might appear rude to many American customers!
If you have traveled or lived outside the United States, or if you have visited other places in the USA or perhaps simply traveled across town, you already know that different groups of people have responded to the needs of life through creating varied customs and approaches to the world. Since the United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world, gaining an understanding of how other people “do” their culture helps us to better understand and interact with people at home and abroad. Just like playing a game, if you know the rules you will be more successful than if you do not. Understanding the basics of culture -- what it is, where it comes from, and how it is transmitted and reinforced -- helps us to understand one another. This enables you to build relationships in your personal and professional life.
2. Cultural Universals
Often, a comparison of one culture to another will reveal obvious differences. But all cultures also share common elements. Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. One example of a cultural universal is the family unit: every human society recognizes a family structure that regulates sexual reproduction and the care of children. Even so, how that family unit is defined and how it functions varies.
In many communities in Asian countries family members from all generations live together in one household. In these cultures, young adults continue to live in the extended household family structure until they marry and join their spouse’s household, or they may remain and raise their own children within the extended family’s household. In many communities in the United States, by contrast, young adults are expected to leave home and live independently for a period before potentially forming a family unit that consists of parents and their offspring.
Anthropologist George Murdock first recognized the existence of cultural universals while studying systems of kinship -- the building blocks of human relationships -- around the world. Murdock found that cultural universals often revolve around basic human survival, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter, or around shared human experiences, such as birth and death or illness and healing. Through his research, Murdock identified other universals including language, the concept of personal names, and, interestingly, jokes. Humor seems to be a universal way to release tensions and create a sense of unity among people (Murdock 1949). Sociologists consider humor necessary to human interaction because it helps individuals navigate otherwise tense situations.
Other cultural universals include marking major life-stage transitions with customs like funeral rites, weddings, and celebrations of births. However, each culture may view and enact these rituals and ceremonies quite differently: the universal is that cultures do something to mark major life stage transitions, not what they do.
- Cultural universals
- Patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies
Despite how much humans have in common, cultural differences are far more prevalent than cultural universals. For example, while all cultures have language, analysis of particular language structures and conversational etiquette reveal tremendous differences. In some Middle Eastern cultures, it is common to stand close to others in conversation. North Americans generally keep more distance and maintain a larger “personal space.” Even something as simple as eating and drinking varies greatly from culture to culture. If your professor comes into an early morning class holding a mug of liquid, what do you assume she is drinking? In the United States, the mug is most likely filled with coffee, and it is less likely to be yak butter tea, a staple in Tibet.
The way cuisines vary across cultures fascinates many people. Some travelers pride themselves on their willingness to try unfamiliar foods, like celebrated food writer Anthony Bourdain, while others return home expressing gratitude for their culture of origin’s fare. Often, people in the United States express disgust at other cultures’ cuisine and think that it’s gross or unethical to eat meat from an octopus or a guinea pig, for example, while they don’t question their own habit of eating cows or chickens. Such attitudes are an example of ethnocentrism or evaluating and judging another culture based on how it compares to one’s own cultural norms.
Ethnocentrism, as sociologist William Graham Sumner (1906) described the term, involves a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others, and should therefore serve as the standard frame of reference. Almost everyone is a little bit ethnocentric. For example, Americans tend to say that people from England drive on the “wrong” side of the road, rather than on the “other” side. Many Westerners refer to parts of Asia as the “Far East,” but one might ask, “far east of where?” Someone from India, where more than 40% of the population keeps a vegetarian or vegan diet for religious and cultural reasons, might be alarmed to see a group of Americans tucking into a meal of hamburgers -- and they might also have little in common with an American vegetarian who is abstaining from cow meat for environmental reasons.
The following are examples of more ways in which ethnocentrism can manifest.
- 3a. Cultural imperialism
Having an appreciation for one’s own culture can be healthy; a shared sense of community pride, for example, connects people in a society. But ethnocentrism can lead to disdain or dislike for other cultures and could cause misunderstanding and conflict. People with the best intentions sometimes travel to a location to “help” its people, because they see others as uneducated or backward or in need of unasked-for religious salvation — essentially inferior. In reality, these travelers are guilty of cultural imperialism
, the deliberate imposition of one’s own ostensibly advanced cultural values on another culture.
Europe’s colonial expansion, begun in the sixteenth century, was often accompanied and justified by severe cultural imperialism. European colonizers often viewed the people in the lands they invaded as uncultured savages who were in need of European governance, dress, religion, and other cultural practices; many of the people they colonized felt the same way about the Europeans.
Some European colonizers genuinely thought they were helping, such as missionaries who believed the Christian religion was true and thus “better” than any indigenous religions people may have been happily practicing already. Many other imperialists were self-aware and cynical enough to realize that their cultural imperialism was better only for them, the imperialists; one example is the British traders who introduced addictive opium to China in order to develop trade opportunities, and who supported this choice with the belief that the victims of their choices, in this case, Chinese people who became addicted to opium, didn’t matter as much as British people.
A more modern example of cultural imperialism may include the work of well-meaning international aid agencies who introduce agricultural methods and plant species from developed countries to previously colonized countries while overlooking indigenous varieties and agricultural approaches that are better suited to a particular region.
- 3b. Culture shock
Ethnocentrism can be so strong that when confronted with all of the differences of a new culture, one may experience disorientation and frustration. In sociology, we call this culture shock
. A traveler from Chicago might find the nightly silence of rural Montana unsettling, not peaceful. An exchange student from China might be annoyed by the constant interruptions in an American classroom as other students ask questions — a practice that is considered rude in China. Perhaps the Chicago traveler was initially captivated by Montana’s quiet beauty and the Chinese student was originally excited to see an American-style classroom firsthand. But as they experience unanticipated differences from their own culture, their excitement gives way to discomfort and doubts about how to behave appropriately in the new situation. Eventually, as people learn more about a culture and adapt to its norms, they recover from culture shock.
Have you ever experienced culture shock when you have gone to another country, state, or community? If the system is radically different there from what you’re used to--and it can be, depending on how far away in terms of culture the different society is--you might have to negotiate a new meaning system and culture. This ‘shocks’ you because it's different from your own and causes you to reflect on your own cultural practices as well.
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 Inuit community members congratulated him, saying, “You really tried!” In Barger’s own culture, he had learned to value victory. To the local community, 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 community members. Trying hard and working together, two nonmaterial values, were indeed much more important than winning.
- 3c. Cultural relativism
During his time with the Inuit community, 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 full political rights and control over their own bodies — would question whether it is acceptable for a Christian-majority country to restrict access to abortion and contraception for everyone even if these restrictions are only in line with the religious values of the people making the laws. Sociologists attempting to engage in cultural relativism, then, may struggle to reconcile aspects of their own culture with aspects of a culture they are studying.
- 3d. Xenocentrism
Sometimes when people attempt to rectify feelings of ethnocentrism and to practice 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 more noble 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.
Imagine you are sent on a 3-month work trip to Indonesia. What steps would you take to learn cultural norms and use that information to build relationships? How might you ensure you are aware of your own potential ethnocentricism or xenocentricism, and work to mitigate these biases?
- Evaluating and judging another culture based on how it compares to one’s own cultural norms. It involves a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others, and should therefore serve as the standard frame of reference.
- Cultural imperialism
- The deliberate imposition of one’s own cultural values on another culture.
- Culture shock
- The feeling of disorientation and frustration which results from being confronted with all of the differences of a new culture.
- Cultural relativism
- The practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture.
- The opposite of ethnocentrism; the belief that another culture is superior to one’s own.
In this lesson, you learned about the different ways that people encounter other cultures and why we study cultural differences, from ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism on one end to xenocentrism on the other, and how cultural relativism is a mindset that can sometimes help a researcher or visitor keep perspective.