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.
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.
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