If you passed someone in a hallway, joined a video conference, or even called into a radio show, it’s likely you and the other people involved would exchange some version of the following question : “How are you?” One of you may ask the other. You may exchange a greeting and the question or one of its variants. Generally, we do not consider our responses to these acquaintances as rules. We simply say, “Hello!” and ask, “How was your weekend?” or some other trivial question meant to be a friendly greeting.
We all adhere to various rules, expectations, and standards that are created and maintained in our specific culture. These rules and expectations have meaning, and there are many ways by which the meanings can be misinterpreted or misunderstood. When we do not meet those expectations, we may receive some form of disapproval such as a look or comment informing us that we did something unacceptable.
Consider what would happen if you stopped and informed everyone who asked “Hi, how are you?” exactly how you were doing that day, and in detail. In U.S. society, you would violate norms of ‘greeting.’ Perhaps if you were in a different situation, such as having coffee with a good friend, that question might warrant a detailed response.
These examples are all aspects of culture, which is comprised of shared values (ideals), beliefs which strengthen the values, norms and rules that maintain the values, language so that the values can be taught, symbols that form the language people must learn, arts and artifacts, and the people’s collective identities and memories. Sociologically, we examine in which situation and context a certain behavior is expected and in which it is not. People who interact within a shared culture create and enforce these expectations. Sociologists examine these circumstances and search for patterns.
In everyday conversation, people in the U.S. rarely distinguish between the terms culture and society, but the terms have different meanings, and the distinction is important to a sociologist. A culture represents the values, beliefs, norms, language, symbols, and practices of a group, while society represents the people who share a culture. Neither society or culture could exist without the other.
Within the U.S., many groups of people share a community and a culture. By “community,” sociologists refer to a definable region of a society, real terra firma—as small as a neighborhood (Brooklyn, or “the east side of town”), as large as a country (Ethiopia, Nepal or the U.S.), or somewhere in between (in the U.S., this might include someone who identifies with Southern or Midwestern society).
In this chapter, we examine the relationship between culture and society in greater detail and pay special attention to the elements and forces that shape culture, including diversity and social changes. A final discussion examines the theoretical perspectives from which sociologists research culture.