Cultural Scripts Research Paper Starter

Cultural Scripts

(Research Starters)

Cultural scripts are patterns of interaction which are unique to a particular culture. The use of the concept of "scripts," a metaphor from the language of the theater, was introduced into sociology with the ideas of symbolic interactionism. That scripts guiding social action are culture-specific is taken from anthropology. The setting of the stage, the dramaturgy, the scripts, the roles—all of these aspects we find also in everyday social interactions. Several scholars have tried to show that these scripts often very explicitly pre-structure the semantic content of social interactions. Cultural scripts exist in a given culture to deal with conflicts that arise, and pre-structure the resolution through ritual forms.

Keywords Cultural Relativism; Cultural Scripts; Goffman, Irving; Implicatures; Linguistics; Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis; Semantics; Symbolic Interactionism

Culture: Cultural Scripts


Sociology, Culture

Erving Goffman (1922–1982) introduced the idea of the use of dramaturgic language (the language of the theater) to describe situations of social interaction into the lore of sociological theory, with his 1959 work "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life." Much of his work has profited deeply from the influence of George Herbert Mead on Goffman as a young man. He also owes a lot to the education he received in Chicago under Edward Shils and Lloyd Warner; both men were once deeply involved in Harvard's Human and Social Relations movements and well acquainted with the famous sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), who was one of the most interdisciplinary and internationally trained scholars of his time. Parsons revolutionized the language of sociological theory and helped initiate the interdisciplinary Social Relations Laboratory at Harvard.

The interaction of sociology and anthropology with linguistics was highly prominent at Harvard, involving first Parsons, Alfred Tozzer, and Albert Watmaugh, and later Clyde Kluckhohn, Alfred Kroeber, and Roman Jacobson. Parsons, who was well acquainted with the work of anthropologists Malinowski and Franz Boas (1858–1942), also introduced the work of Boas’s students Ruth Benedict, Alfred Kroeber, and Margaret Mead to his students of sociology. The historical importance of this connection to Parsons for the development of the sociological theoretical language has been studied in detail by Stingl (2008).

Franz Boas, who himself had studied in Germany before moving to the US, was trained in an interdisciplinary curriculum that involved physics, geography, philosophy, and physiology. Boas can be credited with emphasizing the cultural context in anthropology, which later became known as "historical-particularism." Boas nurtured the idea that all societies and cultures have a developmental history which helped the preformation of aspects unique to each society. He is also responsible for some anthropological contributions to linguistics, which originally had been the topic of the German Völkerpsychologie, begun by Wilhelm Wundt, Lazarus and Steindahl, and Goerg Simmel, yet developed in a different direction by Carl Stumpf.

Boas’s efforts in investigating the relation between language and culture was followed by the work of his student Edward Sapir (1884–1939). Sapir (and his younger colleague Whorf) developed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the controversial idea that language structures the way people think about reality. While the examples they used to illustrate their hypothesis have come under critical scrutiny, the general idea that there seems to be interplay between culture, language, perception and thought is widely accepted today.

Building on Boas’s idea of cultural relativism, Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) established herself as a leading voice in anthropology with her seminal, "Patterns of Culture" (1934), which postulated that human evolution has to offer, in each culture a few specific traits are impressed onto the development of personalities within that culture. These personalities are formed in interdependent sets of values and principles of aesthetics that in their composure are unique to that culture. In her equally revered "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" (1946), she studied these patterns not by immersing herself in the everyday life of a culture, but by reading through Japanese literature and thereby restricting herself to the study of linguistic expressions only. Another of Boas’s students, Margaret Mead (1901–1978), distinctively studied the phase of "coming of age" in the culture of Samoa. Her work thereby emphasized the role of individual socialization in the rituals and practices of a culture, although Mead focused strongly on the question of the development of sexuality.

Boas’s most famous colleague, Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942), was born in Poland and studied mathematics, physics, philosophy, and physiology, before he eventually became a famous anthropologist who taught at the London School for Economics, where Talcott Parsons studied with him for a year. Malinowski, however, focused less on relativism and more on the functions within a culture, which he saw as working towards the benefit of the development and fulfillment of the needs of individuals. His colleague Radcliffe-Brown, on the other hand, emphasized the role that functions play to fulfill the needs of whole societies.

The Language of Sociology

Parsons, having been immersed in this intellectual climate and soaking up its core ideas, used these concepts of patterns, structures, socialization and so forth to synthesize a unified language for sociology along with Kluchkohn and others. It is this theoretical language which in the 1940s and 1950s was the most prevalent "dialect" which almost every sociologist had to know how to speak. Working from his concepts of social action and social structure, Parsons introduced the idea of the social role to solve functional problems that arose while he was investigating the family as a social unit and the doctor-patient relationship.

It is a short-circuit conclusion from here to the point where the Parsonian language and the early forms of what would later be called Symbolic Interactionism would see the role for the dramaturgic potential it held.

Symbolic Interactionism

Herbert Blumer coined the term Symbolic Interactionism in his effort to do justice to the teachings of George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley. According to Mead, the Self is integrated in everyday practices. The self is socialized into these practices which integrate the levels of 'I' and 'Me' (a distinction that Mead takes from William James). The active I, is the creative and spontaneous aspect, while the Me is the actually socialized and learned aspect; the Self that has learned how to interact with its physical and social environment. The formation of the Me, therefore, can be viewed to be culture specific from an anthropological point of view when it is regarded as the part of an individual identity and self that is shaped by the learning and application of symbolic systems.

Edmund Leach (1910–1989), after pursuing an early career as an engineer, studied anthropology with Malinowski and Raymond Firth (1901–2002), also a sympathetic colleague of Parsons and author of many books on the relations of culture and social organization. While Firth was primarily interested in the economic structures and functions within cultures, Leach focused in his work on the political systems. Leach studied the effects that differing and potentially conflicting structures of authority within one culture have in regard to social and cultural change.


(The entire section is 3369 words.)