Components of Culture

Even though considerable variation exists, all cultures share four components: 1) communication, 2) cognitive, 3) material, and 4) behavioral. (Rollings, 2005)

Communication Component

Language. Perhaps more than anything else, language defines what it means to be human. It forms the core of all culture. When people share a language, they share a
condensed, very flexible set of symbols and meanings. That makes communication possible, at least communication beyond grunts and hand signals, and provides the basis for symbolic interaction, along with non-verbal communication and symbols.

Symbols. Along with language and non-verbal signals, symbols form the backbone of symbolic interaction. They condense very complex ideas and values into simple material forms so that the very presence of the symbol evokes the signified ideas and values. A symbol is anything that carries a particular meaning recognized by people who share culture. Symbols serve as the basis for everyday reality. Symbols vary within cultures, cross-culturally, and change over time. We take much of our culture’s symbols for granted.

Symbols not only bring big ideas and deeply-held values into everyday social life, they can be used for more trivial things. Mickey Mouse is a cultural symbol. Clothing -can take on symbolic meaning (baseball hats worn sideways, belly shirts, etc.) Besides physical things, behavior can be symbolic, especially ritualized behavior.. The Catholic priest raising the host during Mass is symbolic, as is holding the Torah during Jewish services and Muslims performing ritual prayer five times a day.

Cognitive Component

Ideas/Knowledge/Beliefs. Ideas are mental representations (concepts, categories, metaphors) used to organize stimulus; they are the basic units out of which knowledge is constructed and a world emerges. When linked together and organized into larger sets, systems; etc., ideas become knowledge. Knowledge systematically summarizes
and elaborates how we think the world looks and acts. Knowledge is the storehouse where we accumulate representations; information, facts, assumptions, etc. Once stored, knowledge can support learning and can be passed down from one generation to the next. Beliefs accept a proposition, statement, description of fact, etc. as true. Acceptance uses criteria found in knowledge systems provided by external authorities (science, religion, government, etc.) rather than from personal, direct experience. These criteria allow the separation of “true” from “false” facts. Explanations and predictions (cause and effect logic) rely on beliefs.

Values. Values are defined as culturally defined standards of desirability, goodness and beauty, which serve as broad guidelines for social living. They support beliefs, or specific statements that people hold to be true. The values people hold vary to some degree by age, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, and social class. Individuals are likely to experience some inconsistency and conflict with their personal values. Further, the dominant values identified above contain certain basic contradictions. Finally, values change over time.

Accounts. People who share a culture share a common language for talking about their inner selves. Accounts are how people use that common language to explain, justify, rationalize, excuse, or legitimize our behavior to themselves and others. If behavior seems unexpected or possibly immoral, others want to know the context and reasoning behind the action. If the behavior is ordinary or expected, accounts show people we think like them and act from the same belief systems and moral framework.

Motives are another type of account. They are verbalizations that lay out the “why” of our behavior. Usually we think of motives as hidden springs of action that create behavior, but culturally they are linguistic devices created after behavior happens. People use motive talk to explain the reasoning behind our behavior.

Behavioral Component (how we act)

Norms. Norms are rules and expectations by which society guides the behavior of its members. Norms can change over time, as illustrated by norms regarding sexual behavior. Norms vary in terms of their degree of importance. Norms are reinforced through sanctions, which take the form of either rewards or punishments. Through socialization we internalize cultural norms and impose constraints on our own behavior. We may then experience guilt – the negative judgment we make of ourselves for having violated a norm – and shame – the disturbing acknowledgment of other’s disapproval.

Norms are standards that define the obligatory and expected behaviors of people in various situations. They reflect a society’s beliefs about correct and incorrect behaviors.

Once these behaviors become second nature, members of society do not have to consciously analyze every situation and decide what their appropriate actions ought to be. Norms also can inhibit the type of thinking that might result in challenges to dominant members of society. For example, the norms defining appropriate classroom behavior reduce the chances that a student will challenge the teacher’s authority in class. Neubeck and Glasberg (1996).

Types of Norms

The following are types of norms:

Mores. They are customary behavior patterns or folkways which have taken on a moralistic value. This includes respect for authority, marriage and sex behavior patterns, religious rituals, and other basic codes of human behavior. They are considered essential to the group’s existence and, accordingly, the group demands that they be followed without question. People who violate mores are considered unfit for society and may be ostracized and punished as a warning to others that such behavior will not be tolerated (Light, Keller, and Calhoun, 1989).

Laws. Laws constitute the most formal and important norms. Laws are the mores deemed so vital to dominant interests that they become translated into legal formalizations that even nonmembers of society (such as visitors) are required to obey. For example, in many communities no one may purchase alcohol before noon on Sundays (Neubeck and Glasberg (1996): They are formalized norms, enacted by people who are vested with government power and enforced by political and legal authorities designated by the government. Some of the laws grew out of the folkways and norms (Panopio, 1992).

Folkways. These are behavior patterns of society which are organized and repetitive. The key feature of all folkways is that there is no strong feeling of right or wrong attached to them. They are simply the way the people usually do things. Folkways are commonly known as customs. It involves the way we eat, how we dress, and other patterns that we follow because they have been impressed upon us from the time we were born. 

A society’s folkways are the norms which the members have come to accept as the proper way of dealing with the day-to-day problems of living and interacting with each other through either trial-and-error, sheer accident, or some unknown influence. Once established and accepted, these patterns are endorsed by most members of society and become the way of the folks, or their folkways (Hunt, et al., 1998).

Rituals. These are highly scripted ceremonies or strips of interaction that follow a specific sequence of actions. They occur at predetermined times or triggered by specific cues. The following are examples of rituals:

  • Ceremonies: graduation, baptism, funerals, weddings, birthdays.
  • Holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas.
  • Everyday public rituals: handshake, “Hi, how are you?” greeting, kissing, answering the telephone with “Hello, walking on the right side of the sidewalk, birthday and cards.
  • Bonding rituals: exchanging business cards, holding hands, parties, gift giving.
  • Signal rituals: choosing the menu in the restaurant when you want to order, eye contact, holding the door.

The secret to rituals is not the actual behavior, which maybe fairly trivial or unimportant, but the performance of the ritual itself. For instance, when we greet someone with “Hi, how are you?” the last thing we really want to know is how the person is, but not performing the ritual would send a strong signal of unfriendliness or rudeness. Rituals reinforce the solidarity of culture, its “sharedness” feeling, by individuals.

Material Component

Humans make objects, sometimes for practical reasons and sometimes for artistic ones The form and function of these objects is an expression of culture and culturally-defined behavior often depends on the presence of specific objects. We call such objects material culture. Artifacts, or material objects that society creates, express the values of
a culture. The nature of material culture produced by a given society is a function of the society’s level of technology, the available resources, and the need of its people. Modern societies have access to minerals, enormous labor pools, and highly advanced technology. When these resources are applied to the problem of transportation, we produce cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, and a number of other vehicles (Javier et al, 2002).