Section 2.1: What is Culture?

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

As our world becomes more interconnected, it is essential to understand cultural differences. Cultures shape our values, beliefs, and behaviors. Understanding cultural differences can help us avoid misunderstandings and conflicts, as well as foster mutual respect and appreciation.

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Exploring Cultural Differences

Commuting Around the World: It’s Not the Same Everywhere!

Imagine this: You’re rushing to catch a bus in Cairo, but instead of stopping, the bus keeps moving, and you have to run and jump on! Sounds crazy, right? But in Cairo, that’s just how it’s done. Now, picture yourself in Dublin, waiting for a bus. Here, you have to stick out your arm to signal the driver to stop. Quite different, isn’t it?

What about squeezing onto a super crowded train in Mumbai, where there’s a lot of pushing and shoving? In some places, this might be seen as rude, but in Mumbai, it’s just part of the daily commute.

Cultural Universals: What Do We All Have in Common?

Even with all these differences, there are some things that all cultures have in common. These are called cultural universals. Think of them like a universal remote that works with any TV. These universals include basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, and shared human experiences like birth, death, and getting sick (Murdock, 1949). All cultures have family structures, funeral rituals, weddings, and ways to celebrate births. But how they do it can be totally different. For example, while most cultures have funerals, the way people mourn and honor the dead can vary a lot.

Ethnocentrism: When “My Way” Isn’t Always the Right Way

Ever heard someone say, “The way we do things in our country is the best”? That’s ethnocentrism for you (Sumner, 1906). It’s thinking that your culture is better than others. This can lead to misunderstandings, and even conflicts. Think about the Europeans during colonial times. They often thought the people in the lands they colonized needed to be “saved” by European ways. This included their governance, dress, religion, and other cultural practices.

Cultural Relativism: Walking in Others’ Shoes

Now, let’s flip the script. Cultural relativism is about understanding a culture based on its own standards, not just from what you’re used to. It’s like trying to understand a movie by watching it from the beginning, not just jumping in halfway through. It’s about keeping an open mind. However, it’s not always easy. For example, even people who really try to be open-minded might have a hard time accepting practices like female genital mutilation, which is common in some cultures. It can be tough to balance respecting a culture while disagreeing with some of its practices.

Why Understanding Cultures Matters

In our world, where everyone is connected, understanding different cultures is super important. Knowing about cultural universals, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism can help us navigate these differences. By approaching cultural differences with an open mind, we can avoid misunderstandings and conflicts, and instead, build respect and appreciation for diverse cultures.


  1. Can you think of a time when you experienced a cultural practice that was different from your own? How did it make you feel?
  2. Imagine you’re visiting a country with a cultural practice you find strange or hard to accept. How would you handle it?
  3. Do you think it’s possible to fully embrace cultural relativism without compromising your own values? Why or why not?

Material Culture vs. Nonmaterial Culture

Material Culture: The Stuff We Can Touch

Ever thought about all the things we use every day? From smartphones to skateboards, these are part of what sociologists call material culture (Kendall, 2017). It’s all about the physical stuff—tools, technology, buildings, and even fashion. But it’s not just about the objects themselves; it’s also about what they mean in different cultures. For example, in some places, owning a car might be a big deal, a sign of wealth and status. In other places, a car is just a necessary tool to get around.

Nonmaterial Culture: The Ideas and Behaviors We Share

Now, let’s dive into the world of ideas and behaviors, known as nonmaterial culture (Kendall, 2017). This includes beliefs, values, norms, and even the way we use language. It’s the stuff you can’t touch but you definitely feel and experience. Like how some people are super punctual and others are more laid-back about time. That’s nonmaterial culture at work.

How They’re Connected

Material and nonmaterial culture are like two sides of the same coin. They’re linked together (Kendall, 2017). Take a wedding ring—it’s a material object, but it represents the nonmaterial ideas of love and commitment. Or think about clothes. The style and fashion (material culture) are influenced by what’s considered appropriate or cool in a society (nonmaterial culture).

Schools and Styles: Material and Nonmaterial in Action

Consider a school building—that’s material culture. But what about the teaching methods and what you learn? That’s nonmaterial culture. It’s how a society sees education and passes down knowledge.

Travel and Culture: The Adventure of Differences

Now, imagine you’re traveling to a new place. You might find things that are way different from what you’re used to. Eating with chopsticks instead of forks and knives? That’s a material culture shock for some. And when you notice how people in different places value education, family, and social relationships differently, you’re seeing nonmaterial culture differences (Kendall, 2017).

Why It Matters

Understanding material and nonmaterial culture is key to getting the full picture of different societies. It’s like having a map and a guidebook when you’re exploring a new city. You learn to appreciate the diversity of human experiences and how to navigate cultural differences.

Cultural Universals: What We All Have in Common

What Are Cultural Universals?

Imagine if you could zoom out and see every society on Earth from a bird’s-eye view. You’d notice some patterns that pop up everywhere. These patterns are what we call cultural universals. They’re like the common threads in the huge tapestry of human culture. Cultural universals are traits or habits that are found in every society around the globe. Murdock (1949) pointed out that these universals often relate to our basic needs—like eating, sleeping, and finding shelter—or to shared experiences like being born, getting sick, or passing away.

The Family Unit: A Classic Example

One classic example of a cultural universal is the family unit. No matter where you go in the world, there’s some form of family structure. It’s like a universal recipe for taking care of kids and making sure the next generation grows up okay. But here’s the interesting part: the ingredients for this family recipe can vary a lot from place to place.

In many Asian cultures, it’s normal for lots of generations to live under one roof. Think grandparents, parents, kids—all together. But in places like the United States, the recipe is a bit different. People often move out and live on their own before starting their version of a family, usually just parents and their kids.

Celebrations and Ceremonies: Universally Unique

Then there are things like weddings, funerals, and birthday parties. These events happen everywhere, but the way people celebrate or mourn can be really different. It’s like everyone has the same calendar events, but each culture has its own unique way of marking them.

More Than Just Family: Language, Names, and Laughter

Murdock didn’t stop at families. He mentioned that language, personal names, and even jokes are universal (Murdock, 1949). Think about it—everyone laughs, right? Humor is like a social glue; it helps us get through awkward or tough times. And then there’s fire, cooking, and music. These things are everywhere, part of every culture’s toolkit in one way or another (Brown, 1991).

Why Cultural Universals Matter

So, why do we care about these universal traits? Because they show us something really special: While we’re all incredibly diverse and different, there are these amazing similarities that tie us together as humans. By studying cultural universals, we get to appreciate both the shared human journey and the unique paths each culture has taken.

Time to Reflect

  1. Can you think of a family tradition that might be unique to your culture?
  2. Have you ever noticed a universal habit or tradition while traveling or learning about another culture?
  3. Why do you think it’s important to recognize both the differences and similarities in cultures around the world?

Remember, understanding our shared traits helps us appreciate the richness and diversity of human culture. It’s like discovering we’re all reading different chapters of the same big story of humanity.

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

What is Ethnocentrism?

Imagine you’re looking at the world through glasses that only show your culture’s colors and shapes. That’s kind of like ethnocentrism. It’s when people think their culture is the best or the “normal” one, and they judge other cultures based on their own standards. For example, back in history, European colonizers thought they were better than the people they colonized, calling them “uncivilized savages” who needed to be more like Europeans (Sumner, 1906).

Cultural Relativism: A Different Lens

Now, picture taking off those glasses and putting on a pair that lets you see all the different colors and shapes of the world. That’s more like cultural relativism. It’s about looking at a culture from its own point of view, not yours. Cultural relativists try to understand and appreciate different ways of living without saying one is better than the other.

The Benefits and Challenges of Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism opens doors. It helps you be more open-minded and respectful toward people who live differently. But it’s not always easy. Sometimes, it can be tough to balance your own beliefs with understanding another culture. Plus, cultural relativism doesn’t mean that anything goes. Just because something is part of a culture doesn’t mean it’s okay if it hurts people or violates their rights. For instance, practices like female genital mutilation might be part of a culture, but they’re harmful and violate human rights.

Cultural vs. Moral Relativism

It’s important to remember that cultural relativism isn’t the same as saying every belief or practice is morally okay. It’s about understanding and respecting differences, but that doesn’t mean you can’t question things that are harmful or unjust (Kottak, 2017).

Time to Reflect

  1. Can you think of a time when you felt your way of doing things was better than someone else’s? How might looking at it from their perspective change your view?
  2. How do you think understanding cultural relativism can help when meeting people from different backgrounds?
  3. Why do you think it’s important to find a balance between respecting cultural differences and standing up for human rights?

Remember, exploring different cultures is like adding more colors to your worldview. By understanding ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, you can learn to appreciate the diversity around us while still standing up for what’s right.

Adventures in New Cultures: Understanding Culture Shock

What is Culture Shock?

Think of culture shock as a bumpy ride into a new world. It’s what you feel when you land in a place where everything seems different – the way people talk, what they eat, even how they say hello. This roller coaster of feelings happens when someone moves or travels to a new place and bumps into ways of life that they’re not used to (Oberg, 1960). It can make you feel lost, confused, or even a bit sad as you try to find your footing in this new environment.

Examples of Culture Shock

Imagine you’re from a bustling city in the U.S. and you go to Japan for the first time. Suddenly, you’re trying to wrap your head around the Japanese language and customs like bowing or taking off your shoes indoors. It can be pretty overwhelming! Or picture an anthropologist who’s used to city life diving into research with a remote tribe in the Amazon. They might find themselves in a world so different that it turns their ideas about life upside down.

Tackling Culture Shock with Cultural Relativism

So, how do you ride out culture shock? That’s where cultural relativism comes in handy. It’s like a guidebook for understanding new cultures without judging them. Instead of comparing everything to what you know, you try to see things from the local perspective. By doing this, you start to see the beauty in how different people live and think.

Time to Explore

  1. Have you ever experienced culture shock? What was it like for you?
  2. Think of a custom or tradition from another culture that seemed strange at first. How did you come to understand or appreciate it?
  3. Why is it important to approach new cultural experiences with an open mind?

Remember, culture shock is part of the journey of exploring new places and ideas. It can be a bit of a challenge, but with a dash of cultural relativism, it can also open your eyes to the amazing diversity of the world. So, buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Exploring Beyond Borders: Understanding Xenocentrism

What is Xenocentrism?

Xenocentrism is like looking through a telescope at far-off lands and thinking everything over there is just better. It’s when people believe that other cultures, ideas, or products are superior to their own (Ritzer, 2018). Instead of thinking “our way is the best,” xenocentric folks are more like “the grass is greener on the other side.”

Examples of Xenocentrism

For a vivid picture, imagine you’re in a country where local brands are overshadowed by Western ones. Here, owning a pair of jeans from an American brand or sipping a drink from a U.S. coffee chain might be seen as a symbol of style and status. In this scenario, Western goods aren’t just products; they’re tickets to a perceived higher social standing.

Or think about someone who’s so fascinated by another culture that they start dressing in its traditional clothing, learning the language, and immersing themselves in its media, all while sidelining their own cultural roots. They’re not just exploring; they’re almost trying to transplant themselves into this new culture.

Navigating Between Ethnocentrism and Xenocentrism

It’s a tightrope walk to balance an appreciation for other cultures without losing sight of your own. To study cultures fairly, it’s crucial to shake off both ethnocentrism and xenocentrism. You’ve got to look at each culture—including your own—with a critical yet open mind. This means embracing the beauty in diversity while being mindful not to place any culture on a pedestal.

Time to Reflect

  1. Can you think of a situation where you admired aspects of another culture? How did it affect your view of your own culture?
  2. Why is it important to maintain a balance between appreciating other cultures and valuing your own?
  3. How can one avoid falling into the trap of xenocentrism while exploring different cultures?

Remember, every culture has its own sparkle and worth. While it’s wonderful to be curious and learn from others, it’s just as important to cherish where you come from. So, keep your cultural telescope handy, but don’t forget to look around and appreciate the beauty of your own cultural landscape too!


Cultural differences are important to understand in our increasingly interconnected world. Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies, such as family structures, funeral rites, weddings, and celebrations of births. Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to others, while 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. Cultural relativism encourages individuals to be open-minded and respectful toward cultural diversity. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible, as aspects of a culture may conflict with one’s own values and beliefs.

Material culture refers to the physical objects that are used by society, while nonmaterial culture consists of the beliefs, values, norms, and language of a society. Material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas. Understanding material and nonmaterial aspects of culture is integral to understanding the complexities of different societies. Cultural shock is a phenomenon that occurs when individuals experience feelings of disorientation, confusion, and discomfort in a new cultural environment. Xenocentrism is the opposite of ethnocentrism, where individuals view foreign cultures as superior to their own. When studying different cultures, it is important to maintain a critical perspective and avoid both ethnocentrism and xenocentrism.

Word Count:  2540

Key Terms

critical perspective, cultural differences, cultural imperialism, cultural relativism, cultural universals, culture, ethnocentrism, family structure, fire, funeral rites, humor, language, material culture, music, nonmaterial culture, personal names, weddings, xenocentrism

References and Further Reading 

  • Eriksen, T. H. (2015). Small places, large issues: An introduction to social and cultural anthropology. Pluto Press.
  • Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Sage.
  • Kendall, D. (2018). Sociology in our times. Cengage Learning.
  • Kottak, C. P. (2017). Mirror for humanity: A concise introduction to cultural anthropology (10th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.
  • Macionis, J. J. (2019). Society: The basics. Pearson.
  • Murdock, G. P. (1945). The common denominator of cultures. In R. Linton (Ed.), The science of man in the world crisis (pp. 123-142). Columbia University Press.
  • Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social structure. The Free Press.
  • Schaefer, R. T. (2018). Sociology: A brief introduction. McGraw-Hill Education.
  • Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Ginn.
  • Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Ginn and Company.
  • Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism and collectivism. Westview Press.
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File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  10/27/2023

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