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Role and Purpose of Culture

Role and Purpose of Culture

Author: Sophia Tutorial


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what's covered
In this lesson, you will learn how culture is a vital component of society. You will begin thinking about culture like a sociologist, expanding your idea of culture to include everything that is made or interpreted by humans. Specifically, this lesson will cover:
  1. Culture and Society
  2. Origins of Culture

before you start
Why do you think sociologists are interested in understanding culture?

1. Culture and Society

Are there rules for eating in a fast-food restaurant? Generally, we do not think about rules in a fast-food restaurant, but if you look around one on a typical day in the United States, you will see people acting as if they were trained for the role of a fast-food customer. They stand in line, pick items from the colorful menus, pay for their food right after ordering, and wait to collect trays of food. After a quick meal, customers wad up their paper wrappers and toss them into garbage cans. Customers’ movement through this fast-food routine is orderly and predictable, even if no rules are posted and no officials direct the process.

Sociologists and anthropologists have written entire books analyzing the significance of fast food customs. They examine the extensive, detailed physicality of fast food: the food itself, wrappers, bags, trays, those tiny ketchup packets, the tables and chairs, and even the restaurant building. Everything about a fast food restaurant reflects culture, which is the set of beliefs and behaviors that a social group shares. Sociological analysis can be applied to every expression of culture, from sporting events to holidays, from education to transportation, from fashion to etiquette. In this unit, you’ll examine culture and society and come to understand that culture represents the beliefs, practices, and artifacts of a group, while society represents the social structures and organization of the people who share those beliefs and practices. You will apply this to your everyday world, strengthening your self and social awareness skill.

terms to know
Learned sets of behaviors and ideas that are acquired by members of society.
A group of people who live in a delineated space such as a nation and share common symbols, language, and culture.

2. Origins of Culture

The simplest way to think about culture is to think about the distinction between nature (our biology and genetics) and nurture (our environment and surroundings that also shape our identities). Because of our biology and genetics, each individual person has a particular form and certain abilities. But our biological nature does not exclusively determine who we are. For that, we need culture. Culture encompasses all of the non-biological aspects of human life among other humans. Anything that is learned or made by humans is part of a culture. Culture encompasses objects and symbols; the meanings given to those objects and symbols; and the norms, values, rituals, roles, and beliefs that pervade our lives as social animals.

Human beings have faced similar challenges to survival across the years of human existence. Different groups have found various answers to the question, “How shall we live?” When a group of humans successfully found a way to survive, they began to value that approach to life. They built beliefs around their survival and acted on those beliefs and values. Such activities became normal to that group and created the foundation of their culture. Some cultures may appear quite similar to your own while others may seem extremely different.

think about it
Most cultures have some way of marking the anniversary of a person’s birth. How are birthdays marked in your culture? Are there specific activities, foods, or objects that are common for birthdays? What about intangible elements, like songs, reflections, and attitudes towards birthdays? Are birthdays marked the same way by everyone in your culture, or are there differences depending on how old someone is, or their gender, family role, or other factors?

Why Employers Care
In the professional world, you will be working with people from several cultures. You may be coordinating with people in different countries and people who are visiting or have recently immigrated to the U.S. You will be expected to make an effort to understand their culture and this will improve your working relationships. If you experience a cultural barrier, it is appropriate to state that you are not completely versed in the culture and would like the opportunity to learn more.

In this lesson you learned that our biology only determines some aspects of who we are and what we do; culture determines much of the rest. You began thinking about culture and society as a sociologist does, looking at all human-created aspects of life as part of the culture. You learned that the origins of culture arise naturally from the behavior of people seeking to survive and thrive in the world and that cultures can look similar or different in many ways.

Terms to Know

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


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