Culture is everything made, learned, or shared by the members of a society, including values, beliefs, behaviors, and material objects.
Culture is learned, and it varies tremendously from society to society. We begin learning our culture from the moment we’re born, as the people who raise us encourage certain behaviors and teach their version of right and wrong. Although cultures vary dramatically, they all consist of two parts: material culture and nonmaterial culture.
Material culture consists of the concrete, visible parts of a culture, such as food, clothing, cars, weapons, and buildings. Aspects of material culture differ from society to society. Here are a few features of modern material culture in the United States:
- Soy lattes
- CD burners
- Running shoes
- Lifestyle magazines
- Organic vegetables
- Sport utility vehicles
Example: One common form of material culture is jewelry that indicates a person’s status as married. In American culture, people wear a metal band on the ring finger of the left hand to show that they are married. In smaller, nonindustrialized societies, everyone knows everyone else, so no such sign is needed. In certain parts of India, women wear a necklace to indicate that they are married. In Northern Europe, married people wear wedding bands on the right hand.
Nonmaterial culture consists of the intangible aspects of a culture, such as values and beliefs. Nonmaterial culture consists of concepts and ideas that shape who we are and make us different from members of other societies.
- A value is a culturally approved concept about what is right or wrong, desirable or undesirable. Values are a culture’s principles about how things should be and differ greatly from society to society.
Example: In the United States today, many women value thinness as a standard of beauty. In Ghana, however, most people would consider American fashion models sickly and undesirable. In that culture and others, robustness is valued over skinniness as a marker of beauty.
- Beliefs are specific ideas that people feel to be true. Values support beliefs.
Example: Americans believe in freedom of speech, and they believe they should be able to say whatever they want without fear of reprisal from the government. Many Americans value freedom as the right of all people and believe that people should be left to pursue their lives the way they want with minimal interference from the government.