How are material and nonmaterial culture defined, and what are examples of material culture or nonmaterial culture?

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tamarakh's profile pic

Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Material culture stems from the philosophy of materialism, which teaches that the universe is made up of only physical matter, and only physical matter exists and influences society and its values. Since materialists see the universe as being only made up of matter, materialists emphasize material possessions as influencing society, as opposed to any intellectual or spiritual beliefs. Similarly, material culture can be defined as referring to the "history and philosophy of objects and the myriad relationships between people and things" (University of Delaware, "What is Material Culture?"). Those who analyze society based on material culture see that things, or matter, "produce meaning," because matter is the essence of what we experience and therefore shapes our world ("What is Material Culture?").

One example of material culture can be seen in the fact that our uses of objects have changed over time. For example, those examining the world through the perspective of material culture could examine various artifacts like stone tools and examine how the society that created stone tools used them, how tools have evolved over time, and what this evolution says about society today.

Nonmaterial culture is the exact opposite of both materialism and material culture. When we understand the world through nonmaterial culture, we see the world as being shaped by "language, norms, symbols, and values," not by material possessions or matter (University of North Carolina at Asheville, Open Education Sociology Dictionary, "nonmaterial culture"). Just as material culture goes hand in hand with materialism, nonmaterial culture goes hand in hand with idealism. The philosophy of idealism teaches that the world as we see it is only one reality and that an ideal world actually exists. Since an ideal world exists, we are constantly being shaped by spiritual influences and our own intellect, not just by the material.

One example of nonmaterial culture would be the differences in morality across cultures and over time. A more specific example might be to look at how sexual morality varies with culture and has changed over time.

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durbanville's profile pic

durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The word culture conjures up images of rich colors, fascinating rituals, and incredible artifacts which give modern man a glimpse of his historical roots and the origin of his beliefs and practices. Culture is significant because it unites people on a large scale and makes them proud but it is also blamed for divisions and differences that others often struggle or fail to accept or respect. Culture affects behavior, preferences and lifestyles and has an impact on decision-making. Within a country's boundaries, there are likely to be many different cultures, and communities are often formed based on cultural similarities where groups of people can share their heritage, customs and styles. Ethnicity is essential in defining culture; it reveals the origin of many shared experiences within groups. Words like tribe, clan and indigenous help people to define themselves in terms of their culture. 

Culture is also an ancient and ever-developing concept as new cultures emerge because of the ease with which people can move around and adjust and combine their traditions and beliefs and create new ones; the process is both static and dynamic as some elements of culture remain constant and others adapt. All of these elements of culture combine to create either material or non-material culture.

As expected, material culture includes those physical things that have particular significance to specific groups and can include objects like tools, pots, buildings, materials and so on which help identify a group based on their appearance. For example, in South Africa, architecture reveals much about the country's history and culture. Buildings reveal the different ethnic influences. Tourists flock to sites where people living in traditional huts give insight into practices that have endured for centuries. Similarly, they study the architecture that reveals a combination of styles due to the British and Dutch influences of the seventeenth century. Therefore material culture can be defined as the proof, the tangible evidence of the existence of a way of life. 

The customs and practices, social roles, hierarchy and beliefs in the presence of spirits and ancestors are all examples of non-material culture, which is the manifestation of the more abstract nature of culture. Non-material culture provides the standard by which any particular group operates and is the foundation which allows them to retain their practices and understand them. It also allows them to adapt their culture. In Africa, the ancestors often guide generations of people who observe strict practices in honor of the dead and in order to find a path forward that meets their traditional expectations. Therefore, non-material culture can be defined as those customs which reveal and point out the foundations of a group of people, which unite them and contribute to their overall identification.

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