Theoretical Approaches to Culture
Three major theories inform sociological study of culture. Functionalism is an approach that views society as a system of parts working together to maintain a social equilibrium, or balance. Conflict theory posits that social groups exist in a state of conflict, competing for scarce resources. It argues that authority and domination maintain social order. Symbolic interactionism holds that social behavior is based on the meaning given to people, places, and things and that those meanings are created from the interaction people have and their understanding of those interactions.
Each of these theories sees culture in different ways, according to their understanding of how people become who they are and why they behave the way they do. Functionalism sees culture as representative of norms, values, and lifestyles, developing from the surrounding society. Functionalists look at how culture guides people in how to behave and how to make choices, thereby supporting the operation of society. For example, a functionalist perspective on education would emphasize how by prioritizing and emphasizing education, a culture maintains its workforce, economy, or political institutions.
Conflict theory, rooted in Marxism, argues that social structures are inherently unequal, creating conflict between groups based on race, socioeconomic class, gender, sexuality, ability, and other traits. Theorists ask questions about why and how certain values dominate in a society, and how those dominant values serve the wealthy and powerful. For example, conflict theorists might look at race and incarceration rates in the United States, where blacks are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites. Young black men are arrested and incarcerated at especially high rates. Conflict theorists would argue that the overincarceration of young black men in the United States is a reflection of how African Americans have less economic and social power in mainstream society. Similarly, young people have less power in society, since they generally have less earning power and hold fewer positions of authority. These factors of American society are reflected and maintained by the way young black males are represented as more violent than their white counterparts in the mass media, which is owned and produced by privileged elites, who are in a position to shape the narrative communicated by the mass media.
Symbolic interactionism understands culture as being created and maintained by the interactions of people in society. This approach stresses that culture is produced by how people understand and interact with signs, symbols, and language. How people make sense of their interactions with one another defines a culture and helps to explain how it changes. People interact not only with one another but with other elements of culture. For example, people interact with language, creating new terms, phrases, or slang. At the root of this theory is an interest in how people continually create and derive meaning within a culture.
Culture and society are closely interconnected. Culture changes when society changes and vice versa. Change typically occurs when something new is introduced into a society or culture. When an innovation catches on and people begin to use it, this change can fundamentally change a culture. An example of this is the evolution of the telephone. With the development of texting and smartphones, the way people communicate has transformed. This shift is accompanied by social and cultural norms about when, how, and how fast people communicate with family, peers, coworkers, supervisors, and others.
Globalization and cultural diffusion are also powerful factors in cultural change. Globalization, the connection of countries and cultures around the world through commerce and communication, often leads to cross-cultural exchange. When people come into contact with other cultures while doing business or traveling, they begin to adopt certain cultural practices. Cultural diffusion occurs when a tradition, practice, or norm is imported into a culture and becomes so widespread that it is no longer seen as foreign. For example, in the United States, foods such as pizza, tacos, sushi, and cappuccino, have become widely embraced in mainstream culture. Both globalization and immigration contribute to cultural diffusion.
Popular Culture and Mass Media
Popular culture includes cultural products, such as art, literature, fashion, film, cyberculture, print media, and music, that are consumed by the majority of members of a society. It can also include language trends, dance, foods, and almost anything that is widely practiced by the majority of a society. Mass media are platforms of information that reach masses of people, such as television, radio, film, magazines, newspapers, and the Internet. These platforms are able to connect with a very large audience, often at the state or national level. Both mass media and popular culture reflect a society's values, norms, and beliefs.Popular culture and mass media influence and feed into each other. Mass media uses the vehicle of popular culture to appeal to large audiences and boost consumption. Both mass media and popular culture can act as agents of social control, serving to wield power over large groups of people in society by influencing behavior. Sociologists analyze the relationship of popular culture and mass media and look at trends in both in order to answer questions about society and culture.