Culture: Values, Norms & Material Objects Research Paper Starter

Culture: Values, Norms & Material Objects

(Research Starters)

The sociological study of culture focuses on values, norms, material objects, language, and cultural change. These cultural components, while not an exhaustive list, comprise the bulk of cultural activities and practices of interest to cultural sociologists. This article defines the main components of culture, provides examples, and explains the role these components plays in constructing a culture. This article explores the sociology of culture in three parts: An overview of values, norms; material objects, language, and cultural change; a description of the growth of cultural relativistic thought in cultural sociology, and; a discussion of the issues related to cultural sociology's relationships with the fields of cultural studies and traditional sociology.

Keywords Cultural Relativism; Culture; Immaterial Objects; Material Objects; Mores; Norms; Roles; Society; Values

Culture: Culture: Values, Norms


The sociology of culture, also referred to as cultural sociology, is an increasingly studied sub-field of sociology. While society remains sociology's primary object of study, sociologists do actively explore the ways in which culture operates in and shapes society. The term society refers to a group of people living and interacting in a defined area and sharing a common culture. Sociologists define culture as the set of customs, attitudes, values, and beliefs that characterize one group of people and distinguish them from other groups. Culture is the collection of customs, attitudes, values, and beliefs that characterizes one group of people and distinguishes them from other groups. Culture includes the products of a group of people. Culture is passed from one generation to succeeding generations through immaterial culture, such as values, norms, language, rituals, and symbols, and material culture, such as objects, art, and institutions.

Sociological Approaches to Cultural Study

Cultural sociology employs five distinct approaches to the study of culture. These approaches, including the organizational approach, social-systemic approach, culture-critical movement, sociological phenomenology, and semiotic approach, each offer a distinctive conception of culture.

• In the organizational approach, sociologists study the impact that the social relations of production, distribution, and consumption of culture have on culture.

• In the social-systemic approach, sociologists study the exchanges between culture as a whole and society as a whole.

• In the culture-critical movement approach, sociologists study a culture as a whole entity. In the sociological phenomenology approach, sociologists study the subjective meanings that the researcher or interpreter attributes to cultural elements, objects and acts.

• In the semiotic approach, sociologists study the meanings and definitions symbolic designs and social texts (Kavolis, 1985).

Despite variations in approach and focus to the sociological study of culture, cultural sociology recognizes that the main components of culture include values, norms, and material objects. Understanding the role culture plays in society is vital background for all those interested in the sociology of culture. This article explores the sociology of culture in three parts: An overview of values, norms; material objects, language, and cultural change; a description of the growth of cultural relativism in cultural sociology, and; a discussion of the issues related to cultural sociology's relationships with the fields of cultural studies and traditional sociology.


Values refer to intangible qualities or beliefs accepted and endorsed by a given society. Values are distinct from attitudes, traits, norms, and needs. Values share the following characteristics and qualities:

• Values tend to be unobservable;

• Values tend to be conflated with other social and psychological phenomena;

• Values tend to have historical and cultural variability.

• Values express an idealized state of being.

Examples of modern U.S. values include achievement; success; independence; freedom; democracy; scientific discovery; progress; comfort; education; and ideas of racial, sexual, religious, or gender superiority and have found ten values shared by 70 cultures spread throughout the world. These ten values include hedonism, power, achievements, stimulation, self-direction, universalism, benevolence, conformity, tradition, security.

Values influence individual and group action. Sociologists study the mechanisms through which values inspire, motivate and influence action in and by society. Sociologists have found that values must be activated in individual and group consciousness to effect action. Values, once activated, lead to varying levels of acceptance for certain actions. Values influence attention, perception, and interpretation within situations and ultimately influence the planning of individual and group action. Sociologists study how individuals learn values. Sociology currently speculates that an individual's values, shaped through late adolescence, tend to be stable across the life course (Hitlin & Piliavin, 2004).


Norms refer to conditions for social relations between groups and individuals, for the structure of society and the difference between societies, and for human behavior in general. Norms are shared rules, customs, and guidelines that govern society and define how people should behave in the company of others. Norms may be applicable to all members of society or only to certain subsets of the population, such as students, teachers, clergy, police officers, or soldiers in warfare. Norms guide smooth and peaceful interactions by prescribing predictable behavior in different situations. For instance, in the United States, handshaking is a traditional greeting; in other countries, the expected protocol upon meeting someone might be to kiss both cheeks, bow, place palms together, or curtsy. Norms tend to be institutionalized and internalized. Most social control of individuals through norms is internal and guided by the pressures and restraints of cultural indoctrination. Individual cultures sanction their norms. Sanctions may be rewards for conformity to norms or punishment for nonconformity. Positive sanctions include rewards, praise, smiles, and gestures. Negative sanctions include the infliction of guilt, condemnation, citations, fines, and imprisonment (Opp, 1979).

There is a definite difference and distinction between values and norms. Values are individual or, in some instances, commonly shared conceptions of desirable states of being. In contrast, norms are generally accepted prescriptions for or prohibitions against behavior, belief, or feeling. While values can be held by an individual, norms cannot and must be upheld by a group. Norms always include sanctions but values never do. Norms tend to be based on and influenced by common values and they tend to persist even after the reasons for certain behaviors are forgotten. For instance, the habit of shaking hands when meeting another person has its origin in the practice of revealing that the right hand did not conceal a weapon (Morris, 1956).

Types of Norms

Sociologists divide norms into four types: Folkways, mores, taboos, and laws. These four types of norms are ranked from least restrictive to most compulsory.

• Folkways refer to norms that protect common conventions. Most people in a society follow traditional folkways but failure to conform to them is considered neither illegal nor immoral. Examples of common folkways found in the United States include having turkey for Thanksgiving dinner or mowing ones lawn.

• Mores refer to stronger norms with associated moral values. Examples of common mores found in the United States include prohibitions against murder, multiple spouses, or desecration of religious symbols.

• Taboos refer to the strongest types of mores. Taboos include the belief that certain activities, such cannibalism, are outside the bounds of cultural acceptance. Violations of mores and taboos tend to be treated with strong social disapproval or criminal consequences.

• Laws refer to the mores that are formally enforced by political authority and backed by the power of the state. Laws may enforce norms or work to change them. Examples of laws that worked to change existing norms include the liquor prohibition laws of the 1920s or civil rights legislation of the 1950s.

Ultimately, social norms are important, in part, because they enable individuals to agree on a shared interpretation of the social situation and prevent harmful social interactions. When individuals transgress against existing norms, they are engaging in a norm violation. Norm violations refer to public or private instances of transgression and deviance from culturally-sanctioned behaviors (Kiesler, 1967).

Material Objects

Material objects, also known as material culture, refer to items with physical substance shaped or produced by humans. Material culture includes all past...

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