What is Culture?

BBQ isn’t just a meal for Leslie Roark Scott and her family. It’s a tradition, it’s part of her heritage, it connects her to her family group, and it’s part of her identity. In other words, BBQ is part of Leslie’s culture.

Culture is what defines a particular group or segment of society. It is made up of shared customs, beliefs, behaviors, and even objects and gestures. It’s a big part of what defines us as individuals. For Leslie Roark Scott, slow cooking BBQ using her family recipe, and sharing the meal with friends and neighbors, is not just family tradition, it is also part of a larger common culture shared by BBQ lovers everywhere. Even the most devoted fans of Carolina pulled pork recognize common words, symbols, and customs shared by their Memphis dry rub counterparts.

Why does culture matter?

Culture can help define behavior, what we think is acceptable and unacceptable, and can affect many aspects of our lives. You’ve probably heard the term ‘office culture,’ to describe the behaviors and a values of a certain workplace. You may have your own distinctive style and behavior, but when you accept a professional position you are usually expected to adapt to the norms of that office culture. Understanding how culture influences behavior can help in many ways, even if it’s just thinking closely about the culture of a workplace before accepting a job to make sure it’s a place where you will grow and thrive.

As you begin to grow in school, or your career, you may start to travel or work with clients and peers from different countries. Understanding and navigating the customs and behaviors of different cultures will help you collaborate more effectively, with less misunderstanding, and with more mutual respect. In any aspect of your life, understanding how culture influences us grants insight into just about any situation.

As you continue to dive into sociology, you will see that culture is one of the most fundamental components of any society, because culture is how we interpret society and our place in it.


What is culture, and how is it related to society?

What did you have for breakfast today? Depending on what part of the United States you’re in, the answer may be scrambled eggs with country ham and grits, or yogurt with granola and fruit, or breakfast tacos with eggs, cheese, and refried beans. If you live in other parts of the world, you may have eaten bread with salmon and cucumber, or arepas with jam, or rice with pickled vegetables and fish. Food is an element of culture that varies widely from place to place, even in our increasingly globalized world. As you saw in this week’s video, barbecue tastes vary by region of the country. Texans favor beef brisket for their barbecue, while those in Mississippi like pork smoked using hickory wood. These differences in barbecue are a part of the cultural differences that exist between these different regions of the country. Like material possessions or belief systems, food is an aspect of culture, and food choices are often related to the values and beliefs of our social groups or society.

How does culture connect to sociology?

Society and culture aren’t exactly the same thing, but they are deeply interrelated, and neither can exist without the other. Generally speaking, a society or social group is made up of people, and its culture is made up of the material objects, language, manners, values, and beliefs that form the foundation of that society or group. Culture is what differentiates one society from another. Sociologists study culture, including elements like food or language, because it is the expression of what a society is and it greatly influences people’s beliefs and behaviors and the ways they interact with one another. In turn, the people who make up the society also shape the culture. By studying a culture, it’s possible to assess the effect it’s having on the people who make up that society and even to determine how to change it.

This week, we’ll discuss the following topics:

  • The role of culture in society. Culture is an important part of every society, and every society has its own culture.
  • The components of culture. Culture includes the material objects created in a society, as well as nonmaterial components like language, behaviors, and beliefs.
  • Cultural diversity. Cultural beliefs can vary widely in different societies, or even within societies. In order to understand a society, sociologists try to understand its cultural practices, even when those practices are very different from their own.

Before we get to culture, though, you’ll read an overview of your first assignment and complete a practice activity. This will give you a chance to review the sociological research process and the skills you’ll be using in Assignment One.

This is just a sample.

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