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Culture and Society

Culture and Society

Author: Zach Lamb

Recognize the impact and influences of culture on society.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. And welcome to Sociological Studies. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. Today's lesson is going to be on culture and society. Culture and society are two closely related ideas, almost inseparable. Society is a group of people who live in delineated space, such as a nation, and share common symbols, languages, and cultures. And in the majority of this lesson, we're really going to home in on this idea of culture, which is learned sets of behaviors and ideas that are acquired by members of a society. So culture comes with society. It really helps to glue everyone together.

We learn how to be a member of society and we learn culture as we're growing up, through socialization, through inculturation, the term anthropologists have for growing up, learning how to be an adult member of society. We are surprisingly devoid of instincts, survival instincts. Humans don't have them like the animal has, pre-programmed instincts that teach it how to survive, get food, and reproduce. Our instincts are much more fluid, and culture steps in and kind of shows us what to do and how to go about feeding ourselves, sheltering ourselves, and reproducing.

And it's important to recognize the social aspects of this process. We don't just get culture transmitted into us. But we learn it from being in society, from observing other people, from just being in groups. That's how culture gets transmitted. So without each other, without anybody to teach us these learned behaviors and culture, we're nothing on our own.

I mean, to give you a sad example, some of you might be familiar with the case of Genie, who was a 13-year-old girl who was kept in captivity by her parents in a dark room her entire life, before she was rescued at the age of 13 by Social Services in California. And when they found her, Genie could barely walk. She couldn't even talk. And she was just this vessel devoid of any kind of sentiment that makes us human.

So this is what we are, then, without learned cultural transmission. That's humans in their natural state. They're feral. That's the term, feral child, wild child. We don't have any culture. We're not imbued with any culture that makes us civilized.

Now I'd like to turn and delineate two aspects of our culture and distinguish them. We have non-material culture and material culture. Well non-material culture is ideas, beliefs, thoughts, and spoken languages, for example. Things that are non-tangible. Things that aren't objects, like material culture. Material culture are buildings, tools, or artifacts, what we leave behind, the objects that archaeologists can come find if they were to excavate our society. These would be objects of our material culture.

So economic ideas, political ideas, religious beliefs, our day-to-day cultural thoughts about worldviews-- how we look at the world-- spoken language is a prominent example of a non-material culture. So a good way to distinguish these two in your mind is again to return to this idea of an artifact.

So suppose something happens to American society, and 500 years down the road, archaeologists are going to come to one of our cities and excavate and try to uncover what they find. And they find things left behind. They find some pots and pans. They find an old house that's collapsing in on itself. And they find a bunch of stuff in there. And these are going to be material culture. And then they're going to use that material culture, those things that they find, to try and infer from material culture things about our ideas, what we did with it, what we thought of these things, what they meant in our society. And from there, they might get to our beliefs. And they can find our language. They could read it. They could find it if there's anything left behind.

So material culture and non-material culture are related. We have objects, and we have ideas about the objects. And one concept that relates these two things is technology. Technology is simply any useful tool or skill. I prefer a simple, inclusive definition of technology as any useful tool or skill, because too often, when you hear the term technology, you commonly just think of just high-tech, computers, very high-tech things like that. But that's not always the case.

Technology has a historical component. It evolves, as do our notions of technology. So at one point in time, a hammer and nail was a revolutionary technology. It was a useful tool or skill that increased the standard of living. But now, it's so mundane and everyday that we hardly think of a hammer and nail as technology. But, in fact, it was. And so technology, then, has a historical element when you look at it broadly like this, which is how I like us to look at it.

So we're born into this system. We're born into a system of non-material culture and material culture. And we learn how to get by in it. We learn how to use it. We make it our own as we grow up in society. And, in fact, we naturalize it. And if we step outside of it, we can experience culture shock.

Culture shock is adjusting to a new culture. It takes time because it challenges our familiar understandings and causes us to rethink our own cultural practices. So you can experience cultural shock when you go to a foreign country, for example. This system that you're used to is radically different there. It can be, depending on how far away in terms of culture you go to a different society. So you have to negotiate, then, a new meaning system and culture. And that shocks you because it's different from your own and causes you to then reflect on your own cultural practices as well.

This has been an introduction to culture and society, highlighting the differences between non-material culture and material culture, as well as touching on society definitionally and culture definitionally, and discussing culture shock. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know

Learned sets of behaviors and ideas that are acquired by members of a society.

Culture Shock

Feeling confused, threatened, disoriented, or even angered by contact with an unfamiliar culture.

Material Culture

The physical "artifacts" of our culture like our buildings, highways, food production systems, household objects, and technologies.

Non-Material Culture

The elements of culture that are intangible; i.e. ideas, languages, customs, and beliefs.


A group of people who live in a delineated space such as a nation and share common symbols, language, and culture.


Any useful tool or skill. Technology is more than just "high tech" computers and electronics, which are things that we commonly think of today when we hear the term. A simple hammer and nail was at one point a revolutionary technology. Looking at technology as any useful tool or skill introduces a historical component to the concept.