Elements of Culture – Sociology

Culture is defined as the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.  In this write-up, we will discuss the elements of culture with examples.

We have already discussed culture in detail in this write-up.

7 Basic Elements of Culture

Elements of culture can be understood as the essential ingredients that together constitute a full-fledged culture. There are seven (7) basic elements of culture.

  1. Values
  2. Norms
    • Formal Norms
    • Informal Norms
    • Mores
    • Folkways
  3. Beliefs
  4. Sanctions
    • Formal Sanctions
    • Informal Sanctions
  5. Customs
  6. Symbols
  7. Language

We will discuss these elements one by one.

1. Values

The first and the most important element of a culture are its “values”. Values are defined as a measure of goodness and desirability in a culture. In other words, values are the standard to perceive what is good, just, and desirable in a society.

In sociology, we are most concerned with values that are involved in social relationships – moral and religious values that have been to some extent institutionalized.

According to H.M. Johnson, “Values are general standards, and may be regarded as higher-order norms”.

Values suggest how people should behave in a particular culture. For example, in Pakistan, people get up from their seats to welcome a guest. Similarly, not serving guests drinks or food is against the values of Pakistani culture.

Values vary from culture to culture. An act or behavior that is deemed good or appropriate in one culture might be deemed inappropriate in another. For example, Arabic men greet each other by kissing both cheeks. In Pakistan or other countries, this is considered inappropriate. Likewise, in a few cultures, men can hold hands while walking; while in other cultures, this sort of practice is uncommon and deemed inappropriate.

People learn cultural values through observation and exposure to society. They imitate people and hardwire cultural values. Cultural values are collectively shared by all the members of a particular society.  Thus, if a person leaves his culture and enters a new culture, he has to suffer from ‘culture shock’, unless he adapts to that new culture.

2. Norms

Norms are closely associated with values. They are the group-shared standards of behavior. Norms impose restrictions on our behavior. They are model practices. They determine control and guide our behavior. In other words, norms are the standard behavior in a particular situation.

For example, it is a norm to stand in a queue while depositing fees in banks.

Norms are further divided into formal and informal norms.

2.1 Formal Norms

Formal norms are established written rules. In other words, formal norms are agreed-upon behaviors that are in the interest of the whole society. Laws in a country are formal norms. For example, it is a formal norm or law in Pakistan not to drive when a person is under 18.

2.2 Informal Norms

Informal norms are casual behaviors that are widely conformed to. These are not imposed on people like formal norms; rather, these are learned through general socialization.

An example of the informal norm is to line up to order food at fast food restaurant and leave when done.

Both formal and informal laws are enforced in society with the help of formal and informal sanctions. (we will discuss this under ‘sanctions’)

Norms can further be classified as mores and folkways.

2.3 Mores

Mores are social norms that are morally acceptable or unacceptable in any given culture. Furthermore, the violation of mores often leads to severe consequences. Thus, social mores are usually legally protected by the laws (formal norms). Furthermore, mores are also guarded or judged by public sentiments. People who violate mores are not accepted or welcomed by any given culture and its members.

For example, it comes under social mores not to drive at 100 km/h on a busy road. A person violating it would instantly meet public condemnation as well as the law in action. Similarly, killing any person is strongly considered immoral and unaccepted by society.

2.4 Folkways

Folkways are norms that are not morally guided. The consequences of violating folkways are also not severe. Further, these social norms are not protected by laws or formal sanctions.

Folkways guide appropriate behavior under a given setting/situation. For example, folkways guide what to wear for an interview or wedding ceremony. Similarly, folkways indicate how to greet your senior/boss, your relatives, a stranger, etc. Also, shaking hands and smiling when meeting someone comes under folkways.

3. Beliefs

Beliefs in a certain culture are convictions that people hold to be true. In empirical terms, beliefs are neither true nor false.

For example, in a particular culture and society, people believe that wearing an amulet will protect them from evil eyes. But, in other cultures, people might not hold this to be true. Similarly, in some cultures, if a black cat crosses the path, people consider it a symbol of bad luck.

Thus, every culture has some specific widespread and collectively shared set of beliefs. (You can sit and think of all such prevailing beliefs in your culture)

4. Sanctions

Sanctions are also an important element of culture. In simple words, sanctions are mechanisms of social control. Basically, sanctions are a form of external control that reinforces norms in a society.

Sanctions can either be positive (reward) or negative (punishment). Further, sanctions can be formal or informal.

4.1 Formal Sanctions

Formal sanctions are the laws and rules that reward or punish a particular behavior. For example, violating traffic rules will lead to a fine, and killing someone will lead to life imprisonment. Similarly, staying disciplined and working hard in an organization will lead to promotion while being undisciplined or lazy would end up being demoted or fired for good.

Hence, formal sanctions are severe consequences of an action. Members of a society stick to norms to be able to avoid such sanctions.

4.2 Informal Sanctions

Informal sanctions are responses to a particular behavior that, though, not severe as formal sanctions, but can encourage or discourage that particular behavior.

For example, we appreciate children getting good marks on tests. It encourages them to work harder next time. We frown at the child when he spits on the floor. It discourages them from repeating the same action again.

Informal sanctions tend to reinforce conformity to social norms or values.

5. Customs

Custom is defined as a ‘traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society or culture’. It is also a regular, patterned behavior in a social system.

For example, in some countries, people bow to older people while greeting them. Similarly, shaking hands or kissing while meeting someone is also a prevalent custom in some cultures. Customs foster social harmony and unity.

6. Symbols

In every culture and society, there are some specific symbols that carry significant meanings understood by all the members of the society.

For example, in Pakistan, raising an eyebrow is a symbol of enquiring about something or greeting the other person. Similarly, waving a hand is a symbol that carries some special meanings in different contexts. Either it means ‘goodbye’ or waving might mean saying ‘Hi! Nice to see you’ to a person at some distance.

Likewise, a police officer’s badge or rank is a symbol of authority. Moreover, cupping the ear is a universal symbol in all cultures. It symbolizes ‘inaudibility or low sound’. In short, every culture has some unique and shared symbols with specific meanings understood by all the members.

7. Language

Language is also an important element of culture. It is through language that culture is transmitted to generations. Any specific society or culture has a single and common language understood by all its members.

Like culture and all its elements, language also evolves continuously with time. Every new experience and thought leads to an addition of a new word or term in a language. For example, almost 20 years ago, there were no terms like internet, uploading, downloading, blogging, etc. With the evolution of material culture, language (nonmaterial culture) also evolved.

You can think of any culture and you will find its own specific language or dialect. In short, language is a key to transmitting and developing culture.

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