Week 3 – Starting Points Ch. 4

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Starting Points


Animals adapt to nature. We live in a social environment that eventually dominates nature. We change the environment to suit ourselves.

Our social environment is not only material but symbolic. Every human group produces meanings that remain in society’s memory (awwww). So culture is a collective memory of the group.

(Reminds me of a section in One Hundred Years of Solitude where the town Macondo was struck by a plague that induces amnesia – “the quicksand of forgetfulness”. Really interesting exploration on this topic. It is also sadly ironic that the author, G. G. Marquez, now has been diagnosed with dementia ): .)

Back on track: since culture is collective memory, it supports the identity of group or society. So culture is shared, remembered, and symbolic. People who share a culture experience the world and behave similarly. Culture is the societal glue. People from other cultures are viewed as “different”.

So, to understand society we need to understand its culture.

Canada is an immigrant country, so culture matters! Just how significant are the differences? Microsociologically, culture can shape people’s lives. e.g. lovers who decide against marrying because of cultural differences.

But if we dig deeper, other cultures are similar! We’re not so much different. In great cities especially – metropolitan lives are similar across the world as discussed in Chapter 2. Outside of great cities people may be more different, but not that much more. If you study history or anthropology though, you will appreciate how human culture has varied through space and time.

Why focus on differences? Because we are naturally proud and we always think we are right. But sometimes it helps to have a new perspective.

Animal behaviour is largely genetic. Does not vary much. (Constant function: ∇(Ab) = 0 and ∂(Ab)/∂t = 0.) But humans learn. And we have language to pass on knowledge. So both micro and macro structures of society can change.

But is there a limit to this change? George Murdock (his name sounds like Moloch) finds out about cultural universals:
-athletic sports
-bodily adornment
-funeral ceremonies
-gift giving
-use fire (identified by other researchers)
Each deals with a fundamental social issue. Fire is a good example of how we change nature into culture. If there are universal cultural concerns, then maybe they meet universal human needs? Even then there is a great variety of cultural ways.

The only real universal is culture itself.
Macro: the values of a culture is expressed in its SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS.
Micro: culture shapes personalities through socialization.



Culture is integrative. Functionalists emphasize order, so they look to culture to explain consensus and stability. People with “modern” values tend to be trusting — good for democracy. A “civic culture” — where citizens participate in social and political life daily — is good for democracy.
A police officer is your best friend!

Work of Émile Durkheim. Functionalists emphasize order, so they look to culture to explain consensus and stability. Culture is not only economic but reflect shared norms, values, beliefs, etc.
Implication: cultural elements signify consensus. So sociologists can look at cultural elements to determine what society wants (and not what capitalists want).
e.g. Importance of education in modern culture — response to society that needs more educated citizens.

Critical Theory

Critical theorists focus on group differences in power and belief. Strongly stated values actually indicate conflict: one side justifies an action with certain values and the other opposes it with some other values. Sometimes overtly stated “general” values may benefit some people and exploit others.

e.g. legalizing marijuana. Often formal disapproval of an action prove that the behaviour is far more common than people would like to admit so come on just legalize marijuana already and we can all get some and so what we get drunk so what we smoke weed we’re just having fun we don’t care who sees living young and wild and free

Insight of Karl Marx, in response to Hegel. Hegel et al. focused on role of culturally based ideas in shaping society. Marx critiqued these arguments for ignoring role of material (i.e. economic) reasons that shape people’s thoughts and actions.
Marx didn’t focus on ideas or cultures; but on modes of production.

Marx says it’s not culture or ideas, but material relationships, that shape culture. (Hence the term: historical materialism.) So culture itself is already rooted in class struggles. Capitalism gives rise to a dominant ideology, which justifies capitalism and perpetuates it.

Since Marx though critical theorists focused less rigidly on economic relations as foundation of culture, but moved onto other sources of domination. Theorists still believe that dominant ideology is self-perpetuating, but they recognize the role of the state and the ideologies of politicians.
Antonio Gramsci (1992) says that during the Great Depression, intellectuals provided knowledge and advice to general public, subduing revolutions. Many consider this the chief role of academics.

Frankfurt School of Theorists (Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin): focused on analyzing ideology, consumerism, especially popular entertainment as capitalist ideals. (Which they are — just look at the amount of sycophancy in the reality TV show “The Apprentice” — who does Donald Trump think he is?).

Symbolic Interactionism

Dramaturgical perspective: culture arises out of interactions of social actors and the symbols they communicate with. Culture is the creative use of values and norms. e.g. In a conversation even if you have a general idea of what you’re gonna say, it’s still a largely spontaneous process.
So values and norms are not something people are programmed to follow, but more like building blocks of a conversation (or an interaction in general).

Even if we choose not to interact, that itself is a manifestation of culture. (Parallelism with Sartre: ‘not choosing’ itself is a choice.) In interactions we learn culture, and through interaction we add to culture.

Symbolic interactionists allow more room for social factors in shaping and impacted culture. Functionalists and Critical Theorists think of culture as imposed and regulating, but symbolic interactionists think of culture at the same time as dynamic and evolving.

“Cultural Studies” Perspective

Arose at Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at University of Birmingham in 1970s.
Sociology + literary scholarship = cultural studies.
Marginalized subcultural groups: how do they lay claims to the dominant culture and put a twist to it?

Borrowed claims from critical theorists — dominant ideologies. Culture is shaped by dominant groups to maintain status quo. Class relations is only contributing factor, among others like relations of gender, race, ethnicity, and geography.

Like symbolic interactionism — focuses on role of meaning in culture. Stuart Hall (1980) says all communication requires encoding and decoding. (Just like how you’d put signals on LEDs.) But they are subtle! Encoded in a reality TV show, for example, lies assumptions about normality and social values.
While dominant group encodes this material, other factions decode it based on their social and cultural position.
So: culture originates from dominant group, but its effects depend on characteristics of individuals. Culture is both unifying and fragmenting.

“The Production of Culture” Perspective

“Cultural Studies” isn’t really interested in the origin of culture so much as the fact that culture serves dominant classes, because of its Marxist, critical roots.
“The Production of Culture” perspective sees origin of culture in material culture (i.e. mass media, technology, art, other symbolic materials, etc.). It’s interested in social action around this material base.

This perspective looks at how culture is produced, instead of accepting that it just pops out of class relations. Someone has to create culture. Plays, symphonies, advertisements, etc. all has to come from somewhere. “Production of culture” theorists dismiss “cultural studies” approach as too vague.

Other theorists on modern art: product of the times, the values in societies where this art movement arose, role of political and social atmospheres;
Cultural production perspective: labour process by which art is communicated and perpetuated.
Better understanding of cultural content — where it comes from and how it changes.

Canvases and Careers by Harrison White and Cynthia White (1965). Studied Impressionism in 19th century France. Highlights role of “l’artiste” and his/her need to make a living — i.e. to have a career.
Breakdown of Royal Academy system (of the classical style) left room for a new system. Dealers and critics organized markets toward middle-class art buyers, who are less grandiose and even experimental.
Today fine arts are supported by government. And artists eke out a living with sales, commissions, fellowships, teaching, and day jobs.

Fine arts is a particular form of culture, because it requires 1) specialized culture producers and 2) market for their wares (dealers/critics).
Language is a general form of culture, since everyone uses it.
But even language requires a market!

Language: A Key Cultural Realm

Language is interesting to symbolic interactionists and feminists. Other theorists are interested too though: e.g. structural functionalists (group-particular language used as social bond — ghetto talk, etc); critical theorists (language used as part of dominant ideology).

Stemming from critical perspective, feminists says that culture (through language) shapes our perception of reality. Androcentric and sexist language perpetuates inequality. e.g. mankind, policeman, chairman.
If we don’t switch to gender-neutral words such as humankind or chairperson we’re implying that women should be absent from these roles. We are discouraging women! (every step you take, they remind you you ghetto)

Language goes deeper than that though. It structures the way we perceive reality. Language is communicated through sounds, signs, and gestures — the tools of memory. But words are ambiguous or even confusing, with intended and unintended meanings. We learn through observation and through trial and error. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf (1929) says that language expresses our thoughts and structures them. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — androcentric language is the norm. Different languages organize reality differently.

“Instinctive” gestures — e.g. raising an eyebrow — means the same everywhere.
“Coded” gestures — developed in social contexts — prone to misinterpretation.

Assumptions pervade any language. E.g. the Slave (a Native group) of Northwest Territories and Alberta has a complex vocabulary related to ice conditions. (Because they travel and fish on ice).
So language is needed to make social life possible. Globalization may contribute in the decline of language and diversity. But no one knows for sure.

Classic Studies: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Max Weber studies how cultural values influence people’s behaviour in 1905. Began as a series of essays in German, but today it is considered a founding text in sociology. Especially economic sociology. First translated into English by Parsons in 1930. Documents the growing importance of “the non-rational” in sociology.

Argument in this book: religion serves as dominant ideology but can also motivate material progress. Capitalism evolved when Protestant (esp. Calvinist) ethic urged people to work in “this world”. Protestantism downplayed other-worldliness and asked people to work their asses off instead. (If I had an orchard I’d work till I’m sore). So protestantism is the force behind a largely uncoordinated development of capitalism.

That being said, WEBER’s theory was not deterministic. This idea is known as “the Weber thesis” — but it’s not rigid, and Weber himself rejected deterministic approaches. Weber instead presented Protestantism as one element of several leading to modern capitalism. Or in other words, Protestantism has an “elective affinity” with capitalism.

WEBER develops upon a previously identified link between Protestant Christianity and capitalism of the time. Demonstrated a correlation between Protestantism and business, esp. in 16th century northwestern Europe. Maybe religion is a cause? I mean, Hinduism, Confucianism, or ancient Judaism didn’t produce capitalistic societies!

What was Weber’s proof?

  1. Outline nature of capitalism: this-worldliness.
  2. Identify source of this belief system: Protestantism.
  3. Link the rise of capitalism with rise of Protestant beliefs.


1.Nature of capitalism is characterized by the view of profit as an end in itself. Pursuit of profit is righteous. Embraces investment and risk-taking. Requires diligence, thrift, and sobriety, but more importantly this-worldliness.

2.Protestantism is concerned with the ultimate question: am I saved or am I damned? How can I know what God has planned for me? What is the most moral way to live?
Because religion asks these fundamental questions, it is able to transform society and have wide variety of consequences.

3.Economic behaviour that we see in “modern life” would’ve been impossible without a major shift in religious and economic values. In medieval times, wealth is immoral. And so for people to change their economic behaviour, they must first embrace money.

Note on Protestantism:
Developed by John Calvin and Martin Luther, who believed everyone in the world has a “calling”. A task given by God. It’s his/her holy duty to work hard for the glory of God. Especially late Calvinists developed a sense of predestination, and unwittingly helped create capitalism.
Calvinists believed that all people are predestined to go to either heaven or hell. Since everything’s already set for you, why worry about the afterlife? Take advantage of what you have at the moment is the right way to go! Calvinists emphasized the individual’s freedom on Earth.

Such autonomy sure helped the rise of capitalism. But capitalism isn’t just about the money. Instead, it’s about renewable money. The pursuit of endlessly renewable profit. Calvinists searched for signs that they are the “elect” (i.e. heaven people). What are the signs? — that they are doing well in this world, of course!

WEBER’s thesis has been attacked on many grounds though. There may have certainly been other more important factors. e.g. rise of international commerce, invention of mechanized production, development of European nation-states, etc. So the theory’s good, but incomplete. (Kind of like what Einstein said of quantum mechanics.) Even Weber himself said so. Furthermore, the causal relationship may be reversed to an extent; capitalism also helped development of religious theories (i.e. dominant ideology). So it’s kind of like a positive feedback!

The book is a good illustration of WEBER’s approach though. Changes in one cultural element — religion — can contribute to changes in another cultural element — economy. This link is important because it shows that:

  1. social and economic development are tied to culture.
  2. every society is a complex system.
  3. culture is not static, not always a hindrance to change. As cultures change, they cushion the psychological hardships of social and economic change.
  4. religious values can change the course of world history.

The Importance of Values: The Case of Religion

Religion is not the only source of values in Canada anymore. First, it went through secularization. Second, sociologists argue over importance of religion as source of values. e.g. Marxists see source of values rising from dominant ideologies; feminists see source of values rising from “patriarchal relations”. Religion is but a mask, to these people.

But other sociologists do think religion’s important too! Some (like WEBER) say religion is any set of coherent answers to “the questions”. While others (like DURKHEIM) define religion as based upon the idea of the sacred. According to them, religion binds people together.

In both definitions (Weber ∩ Durkheim), religion includes thoughts and practices that connect people with the supernatural or the transcendent. Some think that there is “Tao” in nature. Some think of humanoids (devils, angels, etc.). etc. etc.

How does religion contribute to the way society works? We’ve talked about Weber’s point of view. Durkheim says beliefs and rituals create social bonding. (A certain cannon from a certain engineering school in a certain university comes to mind.)

Cultural Integration, Ethnocentricism, and the Mass Media

DURKHEIM says that values serve to forge social bonds. But his theory is based on small-scale, tight-knit, interrelated, traditional communities. So changes are more easily felt in these communities.

Modern communities are different. Specialization, isolation, and rapid pace prevent integration. Technology and marketplace changes culture. New goods and services change people’s lives even if they don’t square with the ideal culture.

So people have wide variation and differences between what people say they want (stated values) and what they really want. Cultural integration and ethnocentrism are also important.
Ethnocentrism: my culture’s so good, everything else is sh–.

Some would argue that cultural relativism can be taken too far. e.g. cultures that promote racism, sexism, violence cannot be condoned. Why? Because it’s 1) self-evidently inferior, 2) violating first principles of human rights. But this is another version of ethnocentrism. Whenever a conflict like this happens, we must re-examine our own rules and ask whether they are good.

Mass media is important for cultural integration. It communicates to large audiences without being personal. It started with Gutenberg. He spread literacy! (And since people can read the Bible for themselves, they don’t need the priests as much and that started the Reformation).

Explosion of information technology made cultural integration and political rebellion equally possible. e.g. “fall of communism” in 1989.

Classic studies: Theory of the Leisure Class

Thorstein Veblen addresses shift from society based on raw materials to one based on information, as well as distinction between upper and lower classes in 1899.

Critique of modem society, esp. “conspicuous consumption” of upper-class bourgeoisie. Living as though every day were a holiday. Veblen argues that symbolic nature of social prestige (e.g. fashion) encourages a wasteful, even barbaric consumption of time and goods. But this wasteful consumption serves a purpose: to reaffirm the status and power of those who can afford to live like this.

Though published in 1899, the book foreshadows the growing culture of consumption. e.g. 1920s and now. Veblen was one of the first to work on this topic, and provided foundation for many other works on consumerism. Underpins critical analysis of advertising industry and the mass media, both of which are interested in fostering conspicuous consumption.

Veblen recommends a simpler and more austere lifestyle oriented toward civic mindedness and conservation culture. He didn’t base his analysis in either Marx or Weber, which accounted for his book’s failure to attract readers or to generate follow-up research (contradiction: read paragraph above). The textbook says that Veblen failed but I disagree. Ain’t nothing wrong just trying to be yourself.

Researched the way dominant culture maintains its power and privilege. e.g. French education system — “learning of class”. Learned expertise and competent practices are the means by which social domination is transmitted or reproduced from on generation to the next. e.g. symbols and practices and styles and tastes all embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions.

Bourdieu notes that social class is distinctive because of their differing tastes. (Wow, what a French thing to do.) Cultural capital gets passed along. The dominant class defines what tastes are excellent. Differences in cultural capital mark the differences in classes. Criticized Marx for focusing too much on economics. Social and cultural symbols are more important.

Bourdieu’s theme is how cultural and social values are passed down, and the influence of socio-cultural capital. Key concepts include habitus and social field (and social agent).

Habitus: habituation gained through lifelong learning and socialization within a particular context. Can be seen as “cultural competency”. It’s something that “goes without saying”. e.g. You don’t put your elbow on the table as you eat. You don’t wear a tuxedo out the door before 6 pm. You don’t button the last button of your suit, etc.

Social field: social setting, domain, or institution within which habitus is to be exercised. e.g. politics, education, or economics. These are sites of competition where social agents struggle for power and control.

Glastra and Vedder (2010) use field to explain the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees in Netherlands. Catlaw and Hu (2009) use field to analyze construction of bureaucracy in the United States. Wright (2009) says that cricket becomes restricted to those who lack the cultural capital. Kerr and Robinson (2009) use cultural capital and habitus to look at domination in British corporation in Ukraine. Pollmann (2009) draws on habitus and cultural capital to understand how people’s attachment to their country would contribute to “intercultural capital”.

Criticisms for Bourdieu:

  1. Too much focus on high culture. (Well, he’s French, what can you do?)
  2. Is there even a class-based difference in knowledge of fine arts? (Don’t discriminate against the bourgeoisie!)
  3. Didn’t consider the full importance of social capital. (Ok, give the man a break. He invented the whole thing! I’m sure Newton didn’t consider the full importance of calculus/Newtonian mechanics).

Kim (2009) says Bourdieu is right about fields and is empirically accurate. Ignatow (2009) uses Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to develop a theory of morality.

Bourdieu’s book Distinction was named one of the 20th century’s most important sociological works by the International Sociological Association.

Cultural Variation

Unlike high culture, popular culture is fragmented. e.g. Grunge, funk, rock, pop, R&B, etc. But popular culture also reflects the influence of high culture. e.g. ads borrow from classical paintings.

Mass media and modern popular culture have developed together. But trends in high culture reflect growth of new audiences too. Middle class wants to catch up to upper class. Upper class wants to distinguish itself.
Familiarity with high culture is one form of cultural capital. Young people with more cultural capital tend to do better according to a research by DiMaggie.
(So, to schmooze up to Bill Gates, learn to play bridge first.)

Cultural capital includes a variety of skills. e.g. how to speak interestingly, what topics to discuss, how to order food and eat graciously, etc. etc.
Few people learn them in public school. You really need a wide variety of personal experiences, indulging and knowledgeable parents, devoted teachers, and time and money.

People are encouraged to conform. If they conform they can move up the social ladder, if not they slide down. People at bottom have “nothing to lose but their chains”. And so they can form countercultures. People at top gain nothing by conforming, and so they form subcultures — often equally grotesque!

For poorer people, cultural literacy is often the critical issue. Unlike cultural capital, it is a necessity. E.D. Hirsch (1988) says that schools ought to provide students with a store of cultural knowledge instead of abstract thinking skills. Implication: knowledge is more important than creativity, experience more important than “ability”. e.g. A chess grandmaster is better at identifying traditional (optimized) game strategies and responding to them.

So creativity and problem-solving abilities depend on solid knowledge.
(You know it’s true when you’ve tried to pick up object-oriented programming with nothing but self-help tutorials on the Internet.)
So before people can learn anything else, or solve any problems, they need to master a body of information.
(Sounds like something my bio prof would say.)

Cultural Change

All cultures change. e.g. fashion; baby names.

Canadian Culture

How is the Canadian society unique? American Seymour Martin Lipset (1990) says we are elitist, traditional, and collectivistic (group-focused). The difference from US results in birth of Canada in counter-revolution and compromise.

Some survey data say otherwise. A lot of times Canada and US are indistinguishable. In fact Canadians are less traditional and less elitist than Americans. e.g. medicare. (Maybe) Canadians prefer order more than liberty, and Americans vice versa.

Some say Canadian culture does not exist at all. It’s just a collection. “A tossed salad” — cultural mosaic. In reality the findings gave just about everyone some ammunition.

A Global Culture?

Yes. No. Maybe.

New Insights

Who Authors the Authors?
Agger (2001) says that cultural “texts” must be viewed with author’s social context and personal subjectivity in mind.

Let’s Roll
Arvidsson (2001) analyzes root of postmodern consumer culture. Case study of marketing strategies of Italian motor scooters called Piaggio. The company used popularity of its vehicles to create a lifestyle image to invoke a “mod subculture” (or kitsch).

A Neon God They Made
Bishop (2001) analyzed the “changing nature of professional sports logos, using semiotics and work of postmodern writers”. Before logos were worn as signs of loyalty. Now they show social rapport. In essence, sentiment has turned into material consumption.

A Place Like This
Till (2007) studied link between popular culture and religion through club music. Till says that club music actually incorporates many elements of mainstream Christian religion and spirituality. e.g. Nine-O’clock Service (NOS).

Embracing Chaos
Boggs and Pollard(2001) focused on postmodern cinema, which included “class polarization, social atomization, urban chaos and violence, etc etc etc.” Though “dark” and seemingly unmainstream, these elements are popular in today’s society.

Back Street’s Back
Critical theorists have much to say about culture. Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin from the Frankfurt School critiqued modern pop culture and mass consumption. Critical theory assumes that both reality and science are socially created, so understanding culture, the social basis, is important! Today, Castro-Gomez argues that critical theory is useful for understanding culture.

One Is Whole, and Whole Is One
Modern critical theory, as informed by feminist approaches, say that cultural elements like gender, race, ethnicity, class, etc, are socially constructed and culturally bound. We can’t consider such elements without considering cultural and social, political, and historical contexts.

The End of Art?
Kirkpatrick (2007) applied critical theory on computer games. Basically what he’s saying is that the design of computer games requires art. But this art is easily reproducible (through screenshots, etc.) and so loses its uniqueness. Since computer games are recreational, they lose their purely expressive value.
(I beg to differ. Anyone who’s played Heavy Rain or Shadow of the Colossus will know what I’m talking about. Those games are real pieces of art.)

What’s Computer Games Gotta Do with This?
Rief (2008) sees computer games as another form of consumption in modern society. But he says consumption is simply a cultural and social practice, not evidence of social decay. Consumption is not psychopathology but rather is connected to different social and cultural contexts.

Some Distinctions
Goldfarb(2005) claims that modern sociology is not yet developed enough from critical theory perspective. We need to distinguish between: culture and ideology, high culture and autonomous culture, and power and knowledge. Calls for consideration of links between arts and sciences and everyday life and politics.

Creative Commons License
SOC103 Notes by digitalhardhat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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