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What Is the Sociology of Culture?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 23, 2024
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The sociology of culture is one of the branches of sociology that focuses on the specific sets of common beliefs, norms, and practices that bring given groups of people together as a culture. Some of the core focuses in this study of culture are those of symbols, objects, and the social meanings attached to them. Many cultural sociologists also research certain criteria that distinguish one culture from another. Unlike some other social sciences, the sociology of culture is often more flexible because cultural norms can change over time.

Symbols make up a particular area of interest within the sociology of culture; they are typically defined as any variety of signs that have prescribed meanings. Words, body language, and works of art can all be classified as symbols within a given culture. The factor that gives a symbol its importance is the widespread agreement on its meaning among the people of a common culture. Symbols are notably different from the elements of material culture because symbols do not necessarily need to be physically tangible artifacts such as clothing. Unlike some other branches of sociology, this type of social science places more emphasis on the study of symbols than it does on the systematic steps of the scientific method.

Cultural sociologists also spend time examining the norms and values of different cultures. Values compose the set of criteria that the members of a culture use to determine which specific ways of life are the most ideal and worth pursuing. Norms are closely related to values because they dictate the behaviors that are deemed the most desirable and best for the good of a certain society as a whole. Some examples of the most frequently found norms include social manners, local laws, and traditional expectations. Failure to follow the norms of a dominant culture can often result in sanctions — or possibly the formation of a subculture, if a significantly large group violates enough of the accepted norms.

Subcultures are a popular research topic within the sociology of culture. These fringe groups typically have quite different sets of norms and values that their members form as counterarguments to those of the dominant culture. Cultural studies cite several reasons for the rise of a subculture, namely dissatisfaction with the expectations that the larger society can impose on its members. The sociology of culture can also point to disparities in cultural capital as other reasons for subcultures.

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Discussion Comments
By hamje32 — On Dec 15, 2011

@NathanG - I think that’s a mild example, personally. I am more concerned about norms here in the United States, with groups that form subcultures.

Some of these groups find musical expression in things like punk rock for example. I don’t really understand what they are trying to say but I don’t think that it’s healthy. It’s rebellion for its own sake.

Some people are in rebellion simply to make a statement, in my opinion, but they offer no clear constructive alternatives for the inequalities they see in the world. They’re just full of platitudes.

Still, they need to be understood, so if I were studying sociology pop culture would be high on my list of priorities.

By NathanG — On Dec 14, 2011

There is one norm that is quite common in the cultural sociology of other countries. It’s how you behave when you eat, or are offered food.

For example, it’s quite impolite to decline an offer of food in some Asian countries, even if you’ve stuffed yourself full already. Years ago I visited my Indonesian wife’s in laws.

I was strictly told that it was impolite to decline food, a warning which I took to heart. The problem was, my mother in law kept offering me food every two or three hours. I kept saying yes.

When I came to the states, I was a plum! I couldn’t believe how much weight I had gained. That’s the price I paid for being too polite, I guess.

Offending her wouldn’t have done any good of course but I did have to explain on subsequent trips that I loved her food but just couldn’t eat anymore.

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