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Society and Culture

Theoretical Approaches to Culture

Functionalism focuses on shared cultural values, conflict theory focuses on cultural power, and symbolic interactionism focuses on how culture is produced.

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.

Cultural Hegemony

Cultural hegemony is the dominance of one cultural group, maintained through social institutions.
Some sociologists study the idea of cultural hegemony, the dominance of one cultural group over a broader society. This notion is based on the Marxist idea of the dominance of the bourgeoisie––the middle class, or the owner class. In this view, the bourgeoisie has economic dominance because it owns and controls the means of production, such as factories. Furthermore, the bourgeoisie also controls ideology, the ideas in a society. Sociologists who want to understand how this ideological control occurs study the cultural processes that underlie it. Cultural hegemony is how the dominant class in a society is able to diffuse its ideas and values throughout society. This diffusion occurs through social institutions and is reinforced through the mass media. Cultural hegemony also occurs on a global scale. For instance, American cultural hegemony occurs through the economic power of large corporations who have the means to sell American products and ideas throughout the world. American movies, fast-food chains, fashions, and other cultural products are present across the globe. This cultural hegemony is also supported by American dominance in international structures such as the United Nations and the World Bank. American cultural and political power is supported by its military power. The economic, political, and military dominance of the United States gives it power to spread or impose its culture on other societies.

Cultural Change

Cultural change is caused by innovation, discovery, globalization, and the diffusion of one culture into another.

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.