This lesson will seek to explain the difference between society and culture. In doing so, it will also highlight the concept of norms and what role they play in both society and culture.
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When studying anthropology, it’s pretty rare to make it through a lesson without hearing the word culture or society. In fact, they’re so commonly used that most people tend to think they mean the same thing. However, when it comes to using them in official anthropological terms, this is not quite true.
In today’s lesson, we’ll take a look at these two words and try to nail down their proper use. As we do this, I must admit it’s gonna seem like we’re sort of splitting hairs when it comes to the differences. However, just in case you’re ever stuck sitting at a table with an anthropologist, today’s lesson will come in handy!
To get the ball rolling, we’ll start with culture. According to many anthropologists, culture can be defined as the set of learned behaviors and beliefs that characterize a people group. Putting it simply, it’s what makes a population into a people group. It’s their beliefs, attitudes, and ideals. From their diet, to their religion, to their family structure, to their jobs, to even their entertainment, it’s what makes them them.
Adding to this definition, most anthropologists would agree that people sort of define or label themselves through their culture. Think about it. If you go to a party, what usually fills the conversation? It’s not deep emotional stuff. Instead, it’s things like where people work, what they do in their free time, and maybe even where they choose to worship. Whether we give clues about our national culture of say, being American, or our subculture of being Italian-American, we’re still discussing the beliefs and attitudes that make us us.
While at the party, we’ll also exhibit our culture. For instance, for those of us who grew up in the Westernized world, we’ll probably not remove our shoes at a party. Even though it’d be more comfortable to kick them off and walk around in our socks, we probably won’t. However, if the party took place at my aunt’s home, who just so happens to be Korean, we would all remove our shoes. You see, in Korean culture, it’s considered disrespectful and dirty to wear outdoor shoes inside. Although my aunt considers herself part of the national culture of America, she still holds to many parts of her homeland’s national culture as well.
Now notice, when talking about culture, we’re talking about things that are sort of tangible, almost like objects. They’re our language, our technology, and our institutions – things like our churches, our schools, or even our houses. However, culture is also intangible; it’s our values and our behaviors. Using an anthropological term, our culture includes our norms, the standards or rules about acceptable behavior. And with this definition finished, we’ll move onto our other term, society.
Unlike culture, which encompasses the tangible and intangible things of a people group, society is defined as a group of people who occupy a particular territory and who share a culture. Stating it simply, we would say that a society is a people of a culture. Whereas culture is what makes them them, society is, for lack of a better way of saying it, the actual them. It’s the people living and interacting with one another in order to create a culture. It’s people bonded together by their shared beliefs, attitudes, languages, and institutions; in other words, by their culture.
In saying all this, it’s important to note that people can belong to the same society, while also differing in their, shall we say, layers of culture. For instance, a Hasidic Jew living in New York City and a cowboy from Montana both are part of American society and American culture. However, one identifies himself with the subculture of being a New Yorker and a Jewish American, while the other may have never stepped foot in the Big Apple.
Now, using our earlier example of taking off our shoes, let’s put our knowledge to the test and do a little quiz of sorts. Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll say a sentence and have it display on your screen for a few seconds. The first time I say it, I won’t use the words society and culture – I’ll just describe them. I’ll then reword the sentence so the words culture and society fit. However, I’ll say the word, ‘blank,’ instead of using the words culture or society. Your job will be to place each word in the blank where it belongs.
Okay, here we go with the first sentence. All you have to do is read and listen, and see where you would replace some words with the words culture or society. Here we go:
‘My aunt’s beliefs and attitudes dictate that outdoor shoes should never be worn inside. Therefore, her Korean friends and family often bring slippers when visiting friends.’
Okay, now let’s shorten the sentence by simply placing the words culture and society in the right place. Remember, as we do this, that culture represents more the things, both tangible and intangible, of a people group, while society connotes the actual people. Here we go. Take your time:
‘My aunt’s BLANK dictates that outdoor shoes never be worn inside. Therefore, members of her BLANK often bring slippers when visiting friends.’
Now, you fill in the blanks. Ready? Okay, to be officially correct, our sentence should read, ‘My aunt’s culture dictates that outdoor shoes never be worn indoors. Therefore, members of her society often bring slippers when visiting friends.’
Now, in this situation, there aren’t actually people holding up signs saying ‘no shoes allowed.’ If there were, we could get away with using the word society in the first blank. However, this isn’t the case, obviously. What we’re really talking about is the belief, attitude, or norm that dictates shoes are meant for outside only; hence, the correct placement of the word culture.
Along the same lines, the second blank is society because it replaces the use of the words family and friends – the actual people who are bringing and wearing their slippers. Let’s do another one just to help it stick, but this time we’ll just skip right to filling in the blanks. Here we go:
‘Nadia grew up in a very fundamental Hindu family. In keeping with her family’s BLANK, she never leaves her home without her face covered. For this reason, her BLANK produces lots of beautifully decorated scarves.’
This should read, ‘Nadia grew up in a very fundamental Hindu family. In keeping with her family’s culture, she never leaves her home without her face being covered. For this reason, her society produces lots of beautifully decorated scarves.’
Again, it’s Nadia’s beliefs and attitudes, her culture, that lead to the covering of her face. However, it’s the actual people, her society, that produce the scarves. Now, like I said at the beginning of our lesson, the differences between these terms might seem slight. However, just in case you ever get stuck at a party with an anthropologist, you can really impress him or her with your correct usage of terms!
Although often used synonymously, the words culture and society actually mean two different things. Culture is defined as the set of learned behaviors and beliefs that characterize a society or a people group. It’s the tangible and intangible institutions, beliefs, and attitudes that make them a people group. Included in a culture are norms, standards or rules about acceptable behavior. Unlike culture, which encompasses the things and objects of a people group, the term society denotes a group of people who occupy a particular territory and who share a common culture. In short, the proper use of the word society connotes the actual people of a culture.
Memorize this lesson’s concepts as you prepare to:
- Compare culture to society
- Correctly use each term in sentences