Sociology of culture

Sociology of culture

The sociology of culture concerns culture—usually understood as sets of cognitive meanings—as it is manifested in society. For Georg Simmel, culture referred to "the cultivation of individuals through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history".[1]

Cultural sociology first emerged in Weimar Germany, where sociologists such as Alfred Weber used the term Kultursoziologie (cultural sociology). Cultural sociology was then "reinvented" in the English speaking world as a product of the "cultural turn" of the 1960s, which ushered in structuralist and postmodern approaches to social science. This type of cultural sociology may loosely be regarded as an approach incorporating cultural analysis and critical theory. Cultural sociologists tend to reject scientific methods, instead hermeneutically focusing on words, artifacts and symbols.

"Culture" has since become an important concept across many branches of sociology, including resolutely scientific fields like social stratification and social network analysis. As a result, there has been a recent influx of quantitative sociologists to the field. Thus there is now a growing group of sociologists of culture who are, confusingly, not cultural sociologists. These scholars reject the abstracted postmodern aspects of cultural sociology, and instead look for a theoretical backing in the more scientific vein of social psychology and cognitive science.

"Cultural sociology" is one of the largest sections of the American Sociological Association. The British establishment of cultural studies means the latter is often taught as a loosely-distinct discipline in the UK.


Development of sociology in culture

Early researchers and development of cultural sociology

The sociology of culture grew from the intersection between sociology, as shaped by early theorists like Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, and with the growing discipline of anthropology where researchers pioneered ethnographic strategies for describing and analyzing a variety of cultures around the world. Part of the legacy of the early development of the field is still felt in the methods (much of cultural sociological research is qualitative) in the theories (a variety of critical approaches to sociology are central to current research communities) and substantive focus of the field. For instance, relationships between popular culture, political control, and social class were early and lasting concerns in the field.

Karl Marx

As a major contributor to the Conflict Theory, Marx's ideas also dealt with culture. Marx's belief of culture is that the most powerful members of a society are those who live in the ruling class. These members set up the culture of a society in order to provide the best interests to that society. He has also talked about how a society's economic status determines their values and ideologies.

Émile Durkheim

Durkheim had the belief that culture has many relationships to society which include:

  • Logical- Power over individuals belong to certain cultural categories, and beliefs such as God.
  • Functional- Certain rites and myths create build social order up more by having people create strong beliefs, the more people who believe in these myths will strengthen social order.
  • Historical- Culture had its origins in society, and from those experiences came evolution into things such as classification systems.

Max Weber

Weber innovated the idea of a status group as a certain type of subculture. Status groups are based on things such as: race, ethnicity, religion, region, occupation, gender, sexual preference, etc. These groups live a certain lifestyle based on different values and norms. They are a culture within a culture, hence the label subculture. Weber also had the idea that people were motivated by their material and ideal interests, which include things such as preventing one from going to hell. Weber also explains that people use symbols to express their spirituality, and that symbols are used to express the spiritual side of real events, and that ideal interests are derived from symbols.

Georg Simmel

For Simmel, culture refers to 'the cultivation of individuals through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history'.[2] Simmel presented his analyses within a context of 'form' and 'content'.


Anthropologists lay claim to the establishment of modern uses of the culture concept as defined by Edward Burnett Tylor in the mid-19th century. Some of the 20th century scholars include Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Mauss.

Bronisław Malinowski

Malinowski collected data from the Trobriand Islands. Descent groups across the island claim parts of the land, and to back up those claims, they tell myths of how an ancestress started a clan and how the clan descends from that ancestress. Malinowski's observations followed the research of that found by Durkheim.

Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown

Radcliffe-Brown put himself in the culture of the Andaman Islanders. His research showed that group solidification among the islanders is based on music and kinship, and the rituals that involve the use of those activities. In the words of Radcliffe-Brown, “Ritual fortifies Society”. Radcliffe-Brown's observations also followed the research of that found by Durkheim.

Marcel Mauss

Marcel Mauss made many comparative studies on religion, magic, law and morality of occidental and non-occidental societies, and developed the concept of total social fact, and argued that the reciprocity is the universal logic of the cultural interaction.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Lévi-Strauss, based, at the same time, on the sociological and anthropological positivism of Durkheim, Mauss, Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, on the economic and sociological marxism, on freudian and Gestalt psychology and on structural linguistics of Saussure and Jakobson, realized great studies on areas myth, kinship, religion, ritual, symbolism, magic, ideology (souvage pensée), knowledge, art and aesthetics, applying the methodological structuralism on his investigations. He searched the universal principals of human thought as a form of explaining social behaviors and structures.

Additional anthropology

  • In an anthropological sense, culture is society based on the values and ideas without influence of the material world (Radcliffe-Brown). “The cultural system is the cognitive and symbolic matrix for the central values system” (Parsons).
  • Culture is like the shell of a lobster. Human nature is the organism living inside of that shell. The shell, culture, identifies the organism, or human nature. Culture is what sets human nature apart, and helps direct the life of human nature.

Major areas of research in sociology of culture

Theoretical constructs in Bourdieu's sociology of culture

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's influential model of society and social relations has its roots in Marxist theories of class and conflict. Bourdieu characterizes social relations in the context of what he calls the field, defined as a competitive system of social relations functioning according to its own specific logic or rules. The field is the site of struggle for power between the dominant and subordinate classes. It is within the field that legitimacy—a key aspect defining the dominant class—is conferred or withdrawn.

Bourdieu's theory of practice is practical rather than discusive, embodied as well as cognitive and durable though adaptive. A valid concern that sets the agenda in Bourdieu's theory of practice is how action follows regular statistical patterns without the product of accordance to rules, norms and/or conscious intention. To explain this concern, Bourdieu explains habitus and field. Habitus explains the mutually penetrating realities of individual subjectivity and societal objectivity after the function of social construction. It is employed to transcend the subjective and objective dichotomy.

Frankfurt School

Walter Benjamin

Theodor W. Adorno

Herbert Marcuse

Erich Fromm


Cultural change

The belief that culture is symbolically coded and can thus be taught from one person to another means that cultures, although bounded, can change. Cultures are both predisposed to change and resistant to it. Resistance can come from habit, religion, and the integration and interdependence of cultural traits.

Cultural change can have many causes, including: the environment, inventions, and contact with other cultures.

Several understandings of how cultures change come from anthropology. For instance, in diffusion theory, the form of something moves from one culture to another, but not its meaning. For example, the ankh symbol originated in Egyptian culture but has diffused to numerous cultures. Its original meaning may have been lost, but it is now used by many practitioners of New Age Religion as an arcane symbol of power or life forces. A variant of the diffusion theory, stimulus diffusion, refers to an element of one culture leading to an invention in another.

Contact between cultures can also result in acculturation. Acculturation has different meanings, but in this context refers to replacement of the traits of one culture with those of another, such as what happened with many Native American Indians. Related processes on an individual level are assimilation and transculturation, both of which refer to adoption of a different culture by an individual.

Griswold outlined another sociological approach to cultural change. Griswold points out that it may seem as though culture comes from individuals – which, for certain elements of cultural change, is true – but there is also the larger, collective, and long-lasting culture that cannot have been the creation of single individuals as it predates and post-dates individual humans and contributors to culture. The author presents a sociological perspective to address this conflict,

Sociology suggests an alternative to both the unsatisfying it has always been that way view at one extreme and the unsociological individual genius view at the other. This alternative posits that culture and cultural works are collective, not individual, creations. We can best understand specific cultural objects... by seeing them not as unique to their creators but as the fruits of collective production, fundamentally social in their genesis. (p. 53) In short, Griswold argues that culture changes through the contextually dependent and socially situated actions of individuals; macro-level culture influences the individual who, in turn, can influence that same culture. The logic is a bit circular, but illustrates how culture can change over time yet remain somewhat constant.

It is, of course, important to recognize here that Griswold is talking about cultural change and not the actual origins of culture (as in, "there was no culture and then, suddenly, there was"). Because Griswold does not explicitly distinguish between the origins of cultural change and the origins of culture, it may appear as though Griswold is arguing here for the origins of culture and situating these origins in society. This is neither accurate nor a clear representation of sociological thought on this issue. Culture, just like society, has existed since the beginning of humanity (humans being social and cultural). Society and culture co-exist because humans have social relations and meanings tied to those relations (e.g. brother, lover, friend). Culture as a super-phenomenon has no real beginning except in the sense that humans (homo sapiens) have a beginning. This, then, makes the question of the origins of culture moot – it has existed as long as we have, and will likely exist as long as we do. Cultural change, on the other hand, is a matter that can be questioned and researched, as Griswold does.

Current research

Computer-mediated communication as culture

Computer-mediated communication is the process of sending messages—primarily, but not limited to text messages—through the direct use by participants of computers and communication networks. By restricting the definition to the direct use of computers in the communication process, you have to get rid of the communication technologies that rely upon computers for switching technology (such as telephony or compressed video), but do not require the users to interact directly with the computer system via a keyboard or similar computer interface. To be mediated by computers in the sense of this project, the communication must be done by participants fully aware of their interaction with the computer technology in the process of creating and delivering messages. Given the current state of computer communications and networks, this limits CMC to primarily text-based messaging, while leaving the possibility of incorporating sound, graphics, and video images as the technology becomes more sophisticated.

Cultural Institutions Studies

Cultural activities are institutionalised; the focus on institutional settings leads to the investigation "of activities in the cultural sector, conceived as historically evolved societal forms of organising the conception, production, distribution, propagation, interpretation, reception, conservation and maintenance of specific cultural goods".[3] Cultural Institutions Studies is therefore a specific approach within the sociology of culture.

Key figures

Key figures in today's cultural sociology include: Julia Adams, Jeffrey Alexander, John Carroll, Ron Eyerman, Andreas Glaeser, Wendy Griswold, Michele Lamont, Stjepan Mestrovic, Margaret Somers, Yasemin Soysal, Lynette Spillman, Ann Swidler, Diane Vaughan, Annette Lareau, Diana Crane, Karin Knorr-Cetina, Eva Illouz, Dan Sperber, and Sarah Gatson.

See also


  1. ^ Levine, Donald (ed) 'Simmel: On individuality and social forms' Chicago University Press, 1971. pxix.
  2. ^ Levine, Donald (ed) 'Simmel: On individuality and social forms' Chicago University Press, 1971. pxix.
  3. ^ Zembylas, Tasos (2004): Kulturbetriebslehre. Begründung einer Inter-Disziplin. Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, p.13.
  1. Stark, Rodney. 2007. Sociology: Tenth Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, Inc.ISBN 049509344-0
  2. Walker, Gavin. 2001. Society and culture in sociological and anthropological tradition. Thousand Oaks, CA : Sage Publications.
  3. Peacock, James L. 1981. Durkheim and the Social Anthropology of Culture. Social Forces, Vol. 59, No. 4, Special Issue.
  4. Lawley, Elizabeth. 1994. The Sociology of Culture in Computer-Mediated Communication: An Initial Exploration.
  5. Swartz, David. 1997. Culture & Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago, IL : University of Chicago Press.
  6. Griswold, Wendy. 2004. Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
  7. Swidler, Ann. 1986. Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies. American Sociological Review, Vol. 52, No. 2.
  8. Corchia, Luca, 2010. La logica dei processi culturali. Jürgen Habermas tra filosofia e sociologia, Genova, Edizioni ECIG, ISBN 978-88-7544-195-1.

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