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What Is Culture in Sociology?

Definition of Culture

Culture is the learned set of symbols, beliefs, values, norms, practices, and material goods shared by members of a group.
Culture and society are two concepts so closely interrelated that they are essentially inseparable. Society is a human-made system that organizes and connects people who interact, live in a defined territory, and share a culture. Any society is defined in large part by its culture, the set of shared practices, symbols, values, beliefs, norms, and traditions that shape a specific society or group. Culture is made up of numerous elements, including language, art, music, food, clothing, holidays, customs, attitudes, and perspectives. Culture influences how people behave in particular situations. It shapes people's tastes, beliefs, choices, and judgments. A culture is created and maintained by people who belong to a particular social environment and is reproduced over time, intergenerationally. The values, norms, beliefs, and practices that characterize a culture are replicated through the socialization of young children and the ongoing socialization of older members of society. In order to understand a society, it is necessary to understand its culture.

Cultural Basis of Beliefs

Beliefs are the ideas that people hold to be unwaveringly true and are rooted in the shared values of a culture.

In sociology a belief is defined as an idea that people hold to be unwaveringly true, rooted in the shared values of a culture. A key facet of culture is what people believe and do not believe, as well as what they associate with those beliefs. It is important to note that this goes beyond the question of religious beliefs. People believe in all manner of things, such as political standpoints, definitions of what makes a family, and what constitutes beauty or good taste. These beliefs make up the rules of society. What people believe is part of what creates a culture.

Beliefs are the ideas that people consider deeply true and important. Beliefs are not always based on scientific fact and can be rooted in the shared values of a culture. The social basis of beliefs and what people believe to be true is linked directly to their culture. Belief, in general, has social significance and helps shape a society's collective identity, the shared identity of a group that draws from its members' common interests and experiences. Throughout the world , societies develop commonly held cultural values. For example, many Americans value a certain concept of individualism, the idea that freedom of beliefs and action for individuals takes precedence over community identity or collective needs. This belief is a widely recognized hallmark of American identity.

Cultural Context of Power and Authority

Power and authority are social relations that occur within the context of a culture.

Culture plays a significant role in how power and authority are gained and maintained in a society. German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) developed particular definitions of power and authority. For Weber power is the ability of individuals or groups to achieve their goals, despite resistance. A somewhat broader understanding is that those who have power are able to make their own interests or concerns count in a group or situation. Power is an important factor in most social relations. To fully understand the structure of a society, it is necessary to understand the cultural context that supports its particular distribution of power and the ways in which it grants authority.

Within the field of sociology, the notion of authority has a particular signification. The term authority generally means having the power to make decisions or to issue commands. Weber defined authority as a type of power exercised over people and accepted as legitimate by members of society. He argued that authority is possible because it is supported and accepted by members of a society who legitimate it through their participation. Authority can be anything from a police force to a school to social media. These are all authorities that can only have power if enough people agree to participate in the system that grants them authority. Cultural norms influence the power structure of a society. What a society deems as a legitimate authority depends in part on the traditions, beliefs, values, and practices that shape its culture.

Social Authority

Sociologists study power hierarchies and analyze their social and cultural roles. School systems are social authorities broadly accepted in U.S. culture. Members at all levels legitimate this power structure by participating in it.
For example, in the United States the authority of school systems is widely recognized. Although individuals and groups vary in their attitudes toward schools, teachers, and school systems, the broad cultural norm is that they are legitimate authorities. There are common cultural expectations around how students, teachers, administrators, and officials fit into a basic hierarchy of authority. Sociologists look at the cultural underpinnings of this hierarchy and at ways that different cultural groups participate in, resist, or influence this hierarchy.