Section 2.4: Theories of Culture

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

Culture is an essential component of society, encompassing shared beliefs, values, and practices that shape human behavior. Theoretical perspectives on culture are frameworks that sociologists use to understand how culture influences society and vice versa. These perspectives provide different lenses through which to view the complex interplay between culture and society.

In Section 2.4: Theories of Culture, we will discuss three major theories of culture: functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Each of these perspectives offers unique insights into the role of culture in shaping society.  We will also consider how the perspective of feminism can be applied to this.

Making Sense of Society: A Look at Different Views

What is Functionalism?

Imagine society as a big machine, where all the parts need to work together smoothly. That’s what functionalism is all about. It’s like when everyone in your class has a different role in a group project, and you all work together to make it a success. In functionalism, culture is like the rulebook or the guide that helps everyone know what to do. It creates shared values and norms – basically, the “dos and don’ts” that help people get along and keep things running smoothly. This idea says that culture is really important for keeping society stable and orderly.

What is Conflict Theory?

Now, let’s switch gears and talk about conflict theory. This perspective is like looking at society as a game where not everyone has the same power or resources. Conflict theorists believe that culture isn’t just about shared values; it’s also about who has the power and who doesn’t. According to this view, the values and norms we see in society mostly reflect the interests of those who are in charge or have more power. This can lead to inequality and unfairness, as not everyone’s interests are represented equally.

What is Symbolic Interactionism?

Lastly, let’s explore symbolic interactionism. This is all about how people interact with each other and make sense of the world. Instead of seeing culture as a set of fixed rules, symbolic interactionists see it as something that’s always changing and being shaped by people’s interactions. It’s like how slang words or fashion trends start and change – it all comes from people interacting and giving meaning to things. This view reminds us that culture is not set in stone; it’s constantly being made and remade by people like you and me.

Wrapping It Up

Understanding these different views – functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism – is like having different pairs of glasses to see how culture and society interact. Each pair gives you a different view:

  • Functionalism shows you how culture keeps society stable.
  • Conflict theory points out the inequalities and power struggles in society.
  • Symbolic interactionism highlights the ever-changing and creative nature of culture.

All these perspectives help us understand the complex world we live in and how we, as individuals, play a role in shaping our society.

Structural-Functionalism and Culture

What is Structural-Functionalism?

Let’s dive into a way of looking at society called structural-functionalism. It’s a bit like thinking about society as a team, where everyone has a role to play, and all these roles work together to keep the team running smoothly. When it comes to culture, structural-functionalism sees it as a set of shared beliefs, values, and rules that act like the team’s playbook. This playbook helps everyone understand how to act, ensuring the team (or society) stays stable and united.

Culture’s Role in Society

According to structural-functionalism, culture is super important because it gives people a sense of belonging and purpose. It’s like the glue that holds society together. Culture also acts as a guide, teaching people what’s considered okay and not okay in society. This makes sure that everyone’s actions are somewhat predictable and acceptable, helping to avoid chaos.

Critiques of Structural-Functionalism

Now, let’s talk about some criticisms of structural-functionalism. Some people argue that it’s like looking at society through rose-colored glasses, focusing only on the good stuff and ignoring the bad. It tends to see society as something that doesn’t change much, overlooking how social structures and institutions are always evolving.

When it comes to culture, critics say that structural-functionalism often ignores the darker side. For instance, it might not pay enough attention to how cultural norms and values can support unfairness or discrimination.

Wrapping Up Structural-Functionalism and Culture

Despite the critiques, structural-functionalism gives us a useful way to look at how culture helps maintain social order and unity. It reminds us that culture isn’t just about traditions or customs; it’s also about creating a sense of belonging and guiding how people behave in society.

Reflective Question: In your view, how does culture help in keeping your community or society together? Can you also see any downsides to this?

Conflict and Culture: A Tug-of-War in Society

Diving into Conflict Theory

Imagine society as a big game of tug-of-war, where different groups are always pulling for power. That’s the essence of conflict theory. This sociological perspective sees culture as a battleground where different groups fight to push their values and norms to the top (Crossman, 2021). Let’s unpack conflict theory, understand its connection with culture, and look at some criticisms it faces.

The Roots and Evolution of Conflict Theory

Conflict theory’s roots go back to Karl Marx, a famous German thinker. He saw society as a constant clash between different classes, mainly the wealthy (bourgeoisie) and the workers (proletariat) (Macionis, 2017). Over time, this theory has grown to include struggles between various groups, not just based on class, but also race, gender, and ethnicity.

Culture Through the Lens of Conflict Theory

At its core, conflict theory suggests that culture is molded by these power struggles. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian theorist, introduced the idea of cultural hegemony. It’s about how dominant groups in society push their values and norms onto others, helping them keep their power (Macionis, 2017). For example, if a society is ruled by the wealthy, they might promote ideas that make wealth and consumption look good. This helps them stay on top because everyone starts thinking that’s the way to be successful.

Critiques of Conflict Theory in Culture

Despite its insights, conflict theory isn’t without its critics. One big criticism is that it focuses too much on society’s negative aspects, like inequality and exploitation (Johnson, 2017). Critics argue that this overlooks how agreement, cooperation, and shared values also play a role in keeping society together.

Another critique is that conflict theory might oversimplify things by assuming groups are always self-interested and fighting each other (Johnson, 2017). This viewpoint might not capture the complexity of human behavior and cultural changes, which are influenced by a mix of personal choices, social connections, and historical factors.

Wrapping Up: The Dance of Culture and Power

Conflict theory gives us a fascinating way to look at how power struggles shape culture. It shows us that culture isn’t just traditions or customs; it’s also a field where different groups vie for influence. Recognizing the critiques of conflict theory helps us better understand the intricate interplay between culture and power, painting a fuller picture of human societies.

Reflective Question: How do you think understanding conflict theory can help us address power imbalances in society?

Symbolic Interactionism and Culture

Entering the World of Symbolic Interactionism

Imagine you’re strolling through a city, watching people’s faces, their hand waves, and listening to their conversations. Now, think of diving deeper into these everyday moments to uncover how culture is made. This is the essence of symbolic interactionism, a captivating sociological perspective that examines how social interactions shape culture. Let’s dive into this intriguing approach, understand how it links culture with social interactions, and discuss some critiques it faces.

The Essence of Symbolic Interactionism

Developed by thinkers like George Herbert Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, and Herbert Blumer, symbolic interactionism is all about the power of symbols and social interactions in crafting culture (Jeon, 2021). Symbols can be anything with meaning to us, like words, gestures, or objects (Macionis, 2017). When people interact, they use these symbols to create shared meanings, forming the building blocks of culture.

Culture and Social Interaction: A Real-Life Example

Let’s imagine two friends catching up in a café. They shake hands, chat, and use hand gestures. Each action is loaded with symbolic meaning: a handshake for friendship, words for sharing thoughts, gestures for emphasis. These interactions help them create a shared understanding of their friendship and the cultural world they live in (Jeon, 2021).

Symbolic interactionism also introduces us to the “looking-glass self” by Charles Horton Cooley (Macionis, 2017). This idea suggests that our self-image is shaped through interactions, as we imagine how others see us and adjust our actions. It highlights the dynamic bond between individuals and culture, showing how people actively create and maintain culture in their daily lives.

Critiques of Symbolic Interactionism

While intriguing, symbolic interactionism faces some critiques. One major criticism is that it may focus too much on individual actions and small-scale interactions (Johnson, 2017). Critics argue that this approach might miss the bigger picture, like how larger forces like institutions, economic systems, and power dynamics also shape culture.

Another critique is that symbolic interactionism can be quite subjective. It’s based on how individuals interpret symbols and interactions, which can vary greatly (Johnson, 2017). This subjectivity might make it challenging to draw broad, universal conclusions about culture and social interaction.

Wrapping Up: The Rich Tapestry of Culture and Interaction

Symbolic interactionism invites us into a fascinating world where culture and social interaction intertwine. It offers a unique lens to view the rich tapestry of symbols and meanings in our daily lives. Although it has its limitations, considering these critiques can help us gain a more rounded understanding of the complex dance between culture and social interaction, enriching our appreciation for the diverse spectrum of human experiences.

Reflective Question: How do you think understanding symbolic interactionism can help us better navigate and appreciate the diverse cultural interactions in our lives?

Feminist Theory and Culture

The Theory

Feminist theory is a critical sociological perspective that aims to dissect and challenge gender inequalities and power dynamics within society. In this exploration, we will delve into the essence of feminist theory, its insights into the relationship between culture and gender inequalities, and the critiques it faces concerning culture.

Birth and Evolution

Emerging as an intellectual companion to the women’s movement in the late 20th century, feminist theory critically examines the social structures perpetuating gender inequality (Hooks, 2015). Encompassing various strands like liberal, radical, Marxist, and postmodern feminism, feminist theories, despite their differences, share a unified mission: to expose and dismantle the ways culture is sculpted by gender inequalities and power relations (Tong, 2014).

Culture Through the Feminist Lens

At its heart, feminist theory recognizes the deep entanglement of culture with gender and power. Consider patriarchy, a societal structure where men often dominate, leading to the subordination of women (Hooks, 2015). Feminist theorists argue that patriarchy influences myriad cultural facets, from language and media portrayal to social norms and values, thus perpetuating gender stereotypes and inequalities (Lorber, 2012).

For instance, the common stereotype of women as emotional nurturers is echoed across cultural mediums like advertisements, films, and literature, consistently casting women in traditional caregiving roles. This cultural repetition helps uphold a patriarchal framework where women are pigeonholed into caregiving, constraining their potential and societal contribution (Lorber, 2012).

The Critiques Faced by Feminist Theory

Feminist theory, while enlightening, is not immune to critiques regarding culture. A significant criticism targets the essentialism found in some feminist theory branches, notably those associated with second-wave feminism (Butler, 1990). Essentialism, the notion of fixed, inherent gender differences, can unintentionally bolster traditional gender roles and stereotypes. This critique has spurred the evolution of more nuanced feminist perspectives, like intersectional feminism, which considers the interwoven influences of gender, race, class, and other societal factors (Crenshaw, 1991).

Another critique points out that feminist theory can sometimes excessively focus on gender inequality, potentially sidelining other forms of oppression and injustice (Hooks, 2015). By positioning gender as the primary axis of social inequality, feminist theory may inadvertently downplay the complex experiences of individuals facing multiple forms of discrimination, such as those related to race, class, or sexual orientation.

Feminist Theory and the Cultural Landscape

Feminist theory offers a profound lens to examine the interplay between culture, gender, and power. It reveals how gender inequalities and power dynamics sculpt our cultural environment but also recognizes its own limitations. By embracing and addressing these critiques, we can work towards a more comprehensive understanding of the intricate relationship between culture, gender, and power, paving the way for a more equitable and just society.


Diverse Perspectives on Culture

This section delves into three enthralling sociological perspectives — conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and feminist theory. Each offers a unique vantage point to comprehend how culture is sculpted and perpetuated through various social dynamics.

Conflict Theory: Power Struggles and Cultural Hegemony

Rooted in Karl Marx’s work, conflict theory underscores the role of power struggles between social groups in molding culture. The concept of cultural hegemony is pivotal, illustrating how dominant groups impose their values and norms, fortifying their power (Crossman, 2021; Macionis, 2017). However, critics point out that conflict theory might excessively focus on society’s negative aspects, overlooking the roles of consensus, cooperation, and shared values (Johnson, 2017). Furthermore, it’s argued that this theory tends to oversimplify human behavior and cultural dynamics (Johnson, 2017).

Symbolic Interactionism: Symbols and Social Interaction

Developed by George Herbert Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, and Herbert Blumer, symbolic interactionism stresses the significance of symbols and social interaction in shaping and sustaining culture (Jeon, 2021; Macionis, 2017). The “looking-glass self” concept illustrates how individuals’ self-perceptions and behaviors are molded through social interactions, actively influencing and maintaining culture. Critics, however, contend that symbolic interactionism overly emphasizes individual agency and micro-level interactions, potentially neglecting macro-level cultural influences (Johnson, 2017). Its inherent subjectivity might also hinder establishing clear, universally applicable conclusions.

Feminist Theory: Challenging Gender Inequalities

Emerging in tandem with the women’s movement, feminist theory seeks to unravel and confront gender inequalities and power relations (Hooks, 2015). It sheds light on how patriarchal systems pervade various cultural facets, fortifying gender inequalities and perpetuating stereotypes (Lorber, 2012). Critics note that some feminist theory branches might inadvertently bolster traditional gender roles through essentialism (Butler, 1990). Additionally, it’s argued that feminist theory can occasionally focus too narrowly on gender inequality, possibly marginalizing other oppression forms (Hooks, 2015).

Concluding Thoughts: A Mosaic of Sociological Insights

Each sociological perspective — conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and feminist theory — provides invaluable insights into the intricate relationship between culture and social dynamics. Conflict theory unveils power struggles, symbolic interactionism highlights the role of social interaction, and feminist theory probes into gender inequalities and power relations. By considering each perspective’s critiques, we can cultivate a more holistic understanding of the multifaceted interplay among culture, power, and social interaction, enriching our comprehension of the social world.

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Key Terms

conflict theory, cultural hegemony, Karl Marx, consensus, symbolic interactionism, George Herbert Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, Herbert Blumer, symbols, social interaction, looking-glass self, micro-level, macro-level, feminist theory, gender inequality, power relations, patriarchy, stereotypes, liberal feminism, radical feminism, Marxist feminism, postmodern feminism, essentialism, intersectional feminism, oppression

References and Further Reading 

  • Bonilla-Silva, E. (2001). White supremacy and racism in the post-civil rights era. Lynne Rienner Publishers.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge University Press.
  • Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge.
  • Collins, R. (1990). Stratification, emotional energy, and the transient emotions. In J. Clark (Ed.), Emotions and social structure: Towards a new sociological paradigm (pp. 29-51). Cambridge University Press.
  • Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.
  • Crossman, A. (2021). Understanding conflict theory. ThoughtCo. 
  • Durkheim, E. (1915). The elementary forms of religious life. George Allen & Unwin.
  • Gans, H. J. (1979). Symbolic ethnicity: The future of ethnic groups and cultures in America. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2(1), 1-20.
  • Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Sage Publications.
  • Hooks, B. (2015). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (3rd ed.). Routledge.
  • Jeon, Y. (2021). Symbolic interactionism. In Ritzer, G. & Rojek, C. (Eds.), Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (2nd ed.). Wiley Blackwell.
  • Johnson, A. G. (2017). The Forest and the Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise. Temple University Press.
  • Lorber, J. (2012). Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics (5th ed.). Oxford University Press.
  • Macionis, J. J. (2017). Sociology (16th ed.). Pearson.
  • Merton, R. K. (1957). Social theory and social structure. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
  • Murdock, G. (2021). Cultural hegemony. In Ritzer, G. & Rojek, C. (Eds.), Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (2nd ed.). Wiley Blackwell.
  • Parsons, T. (1951). The social system. The Free Press.
  • Storey, J. (2006). Cultural theory and popular culture: An introduction. Pearson Education.
  • Tong, R. (2014). Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (4th ed.). Westview Press.
  • West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing gender. Gender & Society, 1(2), 125-151.
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File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  10/27/2023

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