Culture and Society

The Basics of Sociology. Editor: Kathy S Stolley. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. 

Two concepts that are basic to sociology are culture and society. These words are so central to sociology that this book has already used the terms in previous chapters. They are also readily used in everyday, nonsociological conversation. But exactly what do these terms mean when used by sociologists? Why are they so central to sociology?


Culture is an extremely broad concept. To sociologists, culture is made up of all of the ideas, beliefs, behaviors, and products common to, and defining, a group’s way of life. Culture encompasses everything humans create and have as they interact together.

Culture shapes the way we see the world. It impacts how we think, how we act, what we value, how we talk, the organizations we create, the rituals we hold, the laws we make, how and what we worship, what we eat, what we wear, and what we think of as beautiful or ugly. Culture impacts things that seem to nonsociologists as “scientifically determined” as medical care (e.g. Payer 1988; Snow 1993) and things as “natural” as personality (Cooper and Denner 1994; Cross and Markus 1999; J. G. Miller 1999) and sex (Grailey 1987; Kimmel 2000). Even our emotions (Hochschild 1983; McCarthy 1989) and our choices of many of the foods we eat (Belasco and Scranton 2002) are “cultural acquisitions.”

Cultures vary widely around the world. Readers of this book are familiar with Western industrialized cultures. Such ways of life often seem “normal” and often “better” to readers. However, other vastly different cultures exist around the world that also seem “normal” or “better” to their inhabitants. Encountering these different cultures can result in culture shock, confusion that occurs when encountering unfamiliar situations and ways of life. Often-cited research conducted by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon (1997), profiled below, provides a good example of this concept. Starting in the early 1960s, Chagnon studied the Yanomamo people, who live in the rain forests of Brazil and Venezuela. When Chagnon first traveled to meet them, he encountered people who had been virtually isolated from other cultures. They were almost naked, had little privacy, did not have electricity, hunted with bows and arrows, and engaged in intervillage warfare. Many had wads of green tobacco stuck in their teeth and strands of green slime hanging from their nostrils from commonly using an inhaled hallucinogenic. Chagnon was initially horrified. He found them hideous and the odor of the area sickening. The Yanomamo found the clothing, look, and smell of Chagnon just as curious as he found them.

Chagnon’s work is also informative for sociologists interested in globalization and the changes that occur as a result of evolving cultural contact. When he returned several decades later, Chagnon found that contact with the outside world in the form of missionaries and corporations seeking the rain forest’s resources had vastly and tragically changed the Yanomamo’s lives. Much of their traditional land had been taken and their people exploited.

Chagnon’s own research has even become an example of the difficulties that can be involved in studying other cultures. A recent, extremely controversial book by Patrick Tierney charged that, among other things, Chagnon’s research as an outsider to the Yanomamo had exposed them to dangerous diseases and the very sorts of negative consequences that Chagnon had documented (Tierney 2000). Chagnon and a number of other supporters dispute those accusations (e.g., Hagen, Price, and Tooby 2001; “Napoleon Chagnon Responds to Darkness in El Dorado”).

Types of Culture

It is important to sociologists to look at the various facets of culture. Every culture is composed of both material and nonmaterial components. Material culture includes all the tangible products created by human interaction. Any physical objects created by humans are part of the material culture. This includes clothing, books, art, buildings, computer software, inventions, food, vehicles, tools, and so on. Nonmaterial culture consists of the intangible creations of human interaction. These exist as our ideas, languages, values, beliefs, behaviors, and social institutions.

Material culture, such as technology, may change faster than nonmaterial culture. The result may by a cultural lag, in which a gap occurs as different aspects of culture change at different rates (Ogburn 1964; Volti 2001). Cloning provides an example of this situation. Scientific advances make animal, and perhaps human, cloning a reality. However, the procedure is extremely controversial morally and ethically. Similarly, science has investigated ways to transplant human genes into animals or animal organs into humans. These procedures erode traditional boundaries and definitions between human and other animals and challenge traditional values of life (Birke and Michael 1998; Woods 1998).

Sociologists also emphasize the importance of not confusing the sociological use of the word culture with the popular usage of the term. In everyday usage, someone might be referred to as “having culture” or as being “cultured” or “uncultured.” Sociologically speaking, however, everyone has a culture. The popular usage of the term culture typically refers to what sociologists call high culture. High culture consists of things that are generally associated with the social elite. The opera, cotillions or debutante balls, classical music and literature, wine tastings, and the fine arts are all examples of high culture. These activities may not be available to everyone, for several reasons. They may be too expensive, or they may be located in exclusive locations that are largely inaccessible without special membership or hefty financial resources. Additionally, special preparation or knowledge may be important in understanding or fully appreciating these activities.

Unlike high culture, popular culture consists of activities that are widespread in a culture, with mass accessibility and appeal, and pursued by large numbers of people across all social classes. Examples of popular culture include fast-food restaurants, rock concerts, television situation comedies, and best-selling novels. Sociologists have devoted considerable attention to studying many facets of our popular culture. Works that examine the business of selling cars (Lawson 2000), high-school proms (Best 2000), formal weddings (Ingraham 1999), and John Wayne movies (Shivley 1992) illustrate some of the range of sociological research in this area to which many people can readily relate. To sociologists, high culture is not evaluated as being “better” than popular culture. They are simply different aspects of the larger culture that sociologists find so interesting.


Society is also a central component of sociological study and everyday lives. A society consists of people who interact and share a common culture. “Society is indispensable to the individual because it possesses at a given moment an accumulation of values, of plans and materials which the child could never accumulate alone … But the individual is also indispensable to society because by his activity and ingenuity he creates all the material values, the whole fund of civilization” (Thomas and Thomas 1928, 233-34).

Some definitions of society (particularly older ones) specify that interaction occurs within some shared boundary. Increasing globalization and the rapid expansion of communication, information, and transportation technologies all make culture sharing and convergence possible across the globe. Dropping this geographic aspect of the definition of society allows a more accurate and complex understanding of all that a society is. For example, Palestinian society defies any strictly defined territorial boundaries (Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner 2000, 330).

Social Structure

Society includes our social institutions, the major social organizations formed to meet our human needs. The family, medical system, military, religious system, political system, economy, and educational system are all examples of social institutions. Many introductory sociology textbooks have chapters that discuss these institutions separately, explaining how sociologists apply their theoretical perspectives and research skills to each of these aspects of society.

All of these social institutions are interrelated. Together, they comprise a society’s social structure, the way a society is organized around the regulated ways people interrelate and organize social life. What happens in the economy, for example, impacts all other institutions to some extent. If the economy takes a downturn, large numbers of people have might trouble supporting their families and paying for medical care or college. They might vote a new political candidate into office. Military recruitment and retention rates might increase because people are unable to find civilian-sector jobs. The interconnections go on and on.


Status is central to social interaction and social structure. To sociologists, statuses are established social positions. Unlike popular usage of the term, having “status” in sociological terms does not equate to prestige. To sociologists, everyone has status, although some do have higher status than others as judged by society. The different statuses in a medical clinic, for example, include physician, nurse, lab technicians, janitorial staff, and patient. In this setting, the relationships between these positions are socially defined, with the doctor having the greatest power and prestige.

Statuses are obtained in different ways. They can be either achieved or ascribed. Achieved statuses are those positions acquired through personal effort. Being a law-school student, architect, parent, square dancer, or shoplifter are all achieved statuses. Individuals had to do something to become each of these things. Ascribed statuses are positions involuntarily acquired through birth. Being a female, a Caucasian, a toddler, a son, a brother, or a princess are all ascribed statuses. Some achieved statuses may depend at least to some extent on ascribed statuses. For example, because of their sex, women are not currently allowed to achieve positions as submariners in the U.S. navy.

Collectively, all the statuses a person holds at once comprise his or her status set. Each of the people in the clinic holds a number of different statuses at the same time. The doctor may also be a daughter, wife, mother, member of the garden club, and civic-league president. This status set changes frequently over a person’s lifetime. Continuing with the doctor as an example, her status set changed when she moved from being a medical student to a doctor. It changed when she married and would change again if she were to divorce or be widowed. She could remove or add statuses from her set by resigning from the civic league or running for political office.

Some statuses in a status set are more socially important and influential than others. A very influential status may become a master status, a status that becomes more socially important than all other statuses. A master status may attach to either positive or negative statuses. The doctor in our example may be defined by her occupation. Whatever else she is, she is first a doctor to those she meets in social settings. Other people may respond to her with the prestige accorded that position. If the doctor were to be convicted of a serious crime such as insurance fraud or selling prescription narcotics, she might find that her master status becomes that of a criminal.


Roles, like statuses, are also central to social interaction and social structure. The two concepts of status and role go hand in hand. A role is a behavior expected of someone in a particular status. Using the status of the doctor from the examples above, a number of role expectations can be identified. Doctors should come to work. They should examine patients competently and discuss their concerns. They should prescribe medicine lawfully. All of these examples illustrate how we expect doctors to act. These roles together illustrate a role set, all of the roles that go with a single status.

The roles for different statuses the person holds may conflict with each other. This is known as role conflict. Our doctor, who is also a mother, may find it difficult to devote the long work hours required of her job and concurrently fulfill the expectations of being a parent. Long work hours may make attending her child’s school plays or teacher conferences difficult. Role strain occurs when two or more roles associated with a single status are in conflict. This requires balancing expectations. For example, the doctor may find it difficult to give patients all the time she would like to during appointments while holding to her appointment schedule and seeing the number of patients she must see daily to meet the financial obligations of the clinic.

Aspects of Culture

Sociologists studying culture and society focus on several aspects of nonmaterial culture: cultural values, norms, symbols, and language. A look at each of these aspects contributes to our overall understanding of what culture is, how it is created and passed between generations, and how important culture is in everything we do.


Values, culturally defined ideas about what is important, are central to culture. Values delineate how a culture should be. In the United States, sociologists have identified cultural values including success, hard work, freedom, equality, democracy, individualism, and progress (Bellah et al. 1985; Inkeles 1979; Williams 1970). Of course, not everyone in a culture shares identical values. They also do not share them equally. Some people or groups hold more tightly to certain values while rejecting others.

There may also be a mismatch between ideal culture, the values and norms claimed by a society, and real culture, the values and norms that are actually practiced. For example, in the United States, equality is a core value. Encompassed within this value is the ideal that all workers regardless of gender and race should have equal opportunity in the workplace. In reality, however, even women in high-status positions continue to earn less than men (Figart and Lapidus 1998) and experience discrimination in career promotions (Glass Ceiling Commission 1995; Rhode 2001), as do black males seeking high-level positions (Elliott and Smith 2004). These problems are even more pronounced for women of color (Collins 2000; St. Jean and Feagin 1998).


Norms are derived from our societal values. Norms constitute the shared rules or expectations specifying appropriate behaviors in various situations. We need norms to maintain a stable social order. They both direct and prohibit behavior (Hechter and Opp 2001). Norms tell us what we should do (wait our turn, pay bills on time, show respect for our elders, etc.); they also tell us what we should not do (hit our spouse, curse aloud at a church service, run red lights, etc.). Norms are enforced through a process of internalization. They become part of who we are as individuals and as a culture. However, external social enforcement in the form of both positive and negative sanctions is also critical (Horne 2001).

Norms vary over time. Women wearing trousers, especially in public areas or to work, is a relatively recent occurrence. Similarly, recent bans on smoking in many public places signifies shifting norms regarding smoking.

Norms, and the social reaction to breaches, vary in strength and intensity (Sumner 1906). Folkways are weak norms that are often informally passed down from previous generations. They often deal with everyday behaviors and manners. Most folkways are not written down and enumerated. They are the type of things that most of us learn from others to do or not to do. We learn from direct guidance and reinforcement. Parents teach children to share their toys and reward them with hugs and smiles. We also learn folkways through encountering others’ reactions. People react perhaps with stares or avoidance when we act “inappropriately” by singing aloud on a bus or wearing a swimsuit while shopping in an expensive downtown boutique.

Violations of folkways are not considered severe breaches of great moral significance. Generally, no serious negative social sanctions (e.g., arrest) result when a folkway is broken. The reaction to a person who violates a folkway may be as minor as ignoring the behavior. Failing to say “thank you” may be considered rude, but will not result in some harsh penalty for norm violation.

We find folkways governing our behavior throughout our lives. They govern situations that are familiar to large segments of the population and smaller groups. For example, folkways govern Christmas gift-giving behavior, an event familiar to many. These norms are not written down anywhere, but they are “thoroughly familiar” to participants in the gift-exchange process. Among the folkways observed by Theodore Caplow (1984), gifts should be wrapped before they are given, distributed at gatherings involving reciprocal gift giving, and surprise the recipient. Additionally, gifts are scaled in economic value to the emotional value of the relationship. For example, a casual date would likely receive, and expect, a less expensive gift than a long-term date, fiancé, or spouse. Folkways also provide guidance in less widespread activities such as gathering mushrooms. Gary Alan Fine (2001) studied the Minnesota Mycological Society, the second-oldest continuously active mushroom society in the United States. He found that members are expected not to brag about the number of mushrooms they find, downplay big finds, offer to share, and not hoard a big find for themselves. They transfer these norms to new members through socialization (as discussed in chapter 4), talking, warnings of negative sanctions, and even moral messages indicating appropriate behaviors (Fine 2001, 157).

Mores (pronounced more-ays) are strongly held norms. They represent deeply held standards of what is right and wrong. Prohibitions on murder, robbery, and assault are all examples of mores across many cultures. Mores are considered morally significant breaches and are often formalized as laws. For this reason, punishment for violations of mores can be severe, involving sanctions such as arrest or imprisonment. Some mores are so strongly held they have been termed taboos, norms that are so objectionable that they are strictly forbidden. Taboos are often things considered unthinkable in a culture. Common examples include incest and cannibalism. Chapter 6 discusses violations of norms in much more detail.


Symbols are central to our understanding and sharing of culture. A symbol is something that stands for, represents, or signifies something else in a particular culture. It can represent, for example, ideas, emotions, values, beliefs, attitudes, or events. A symbol can be anything. It can be a gesture, word, object, or even an event.

Sharing symbols can help build a sense of unity and commitment among people. A crucifix, cross, or Star of David are all symbols that have deep, shared meanings regarding Christianity or Judaism. National flags become rallying symbols for citizens and troops. The rush to buy American flags in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States is a good example of this effect in action.

The meaning of symbols derives from the way they are interpreted within a culture. The American flag may be interpreted as standing for individual freedom. However, some (e.g., American militia groups that think the federal government is too involved in their personal business) may see the flag as a symbol of a lack of freedom. People from other cultures see the flag as having various meanings filtered through their own cultural lenses (e.g., as a symbol of democracy, as a symbol of repression). To someone unfamiliar with the United States, the American flag is not a symbol at all. It is simply a red, white, and blue pattern devoid of any such meanings.

Symbols may take on different meanings in different times or circumstances. White wedding gowns, originally intended to symbolize virginity, are now traditional in the United States even though many brides are not virgins. However, until Anne of Brittany wore white when she wed Louis XII of France in 1499, brides wore yellow or red. In China and Japan, brides wear white because that color symbolizes mourning and the symbolic death of the woman leaving her birth family to join her husband’s family. Blue symbolized purity in biblical times, with both bride and groom wearing a blue band around the bottom of their wedding clothing. This old symbol is the origin of modern brides having “something blue” as part of their current wedding attire (Ackerman 1994, 271).

Some symbols are purposely given new meanings over time. During World War II, a pink triangle with the point facing downward was used by the Nazis to identify homosexual prisoners in concentration camps. Every group singled out for persecution in the camps was identified by similar symbols. Perhaps the best-known symbol was the yellow Star of David, composed of two triangles, one inverted on top of the other. In the 1980s, gay rights activists adopted the pink triangle as a symbol of pride and solidarity, a symbol of overcoming a history of oppression. Some groups, such as the activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), have turned the triangle point up to further communicate activism and empowerment over oppression and passivity. (See chapter 9 for more discussion of people in action.)


Another major component of culture, and a special kind of symbol, is language. Language is a system of symbols that allows communication among members of a culture. These symbols can be verbal or written.

Language is central to the way we understand our world. According to the linguistic-relativity hypothesis, languages reflect cultural perceptions. This hypothesis is also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or the Whorf hypothesis. It is named after the anthropological linguists Edward Sapir (1884-1936) and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), profiled below, who largely developed it. For example, because snow is so central to their lives, Eskimos have different words for falling snow, snow on the ground, drifting snow, and a snow drift (Boas 1911). The Canadian Aleuts have over 30 words for snow (Hiller 1933). Some other cultures in tropical climates have no word for snow, because they have no need for such a term. Yet, the Philippine Hanunoo people have almost 100 terms for rice (Thomson 2000).

Language also defines, at least to some extent, how we think about the world and how we act. Research has demonstrated that when people hear the pronoun he they think of a male, even if the pronoun was intended to encompass both males and females (Gastil 1990; Switzer 1990). Such findings are part of the impetus behind changing the grammatical convention away from use of male pronouns to represent everyone. Political spin doctors make careers of choosing words to influence the way we perceive issues. Additionally, the military carefully chooses euphemisms such as collateral damage, friendly fire, shock and awe, and incident to address such unpleasant realities as civilian deaths and troops mistakenly killed by allies (Deva 2003; Page 2003).


Sociologists are quite interested in the large amount of diversity that occurs even within particular cultures. Observers of culture in the United States would easily find many differences if they studied Hollywood’s celebrity community, a neighborhood in Chicago largely populated by descendants of Eastern European immigrants, a Florida town that is home to many retirees, and a coalmining town in southwestern Virginia. Although some sociologists have tried to find a common American culture and have often discussed middle-class culture as if that lifestyle applied to everyone, sociologists are increasingly recognizing the importance of studying, or even promoting, cultural differences.

As part of their interest in cultural diversity, sociologists study subcultures. A subculture is a smaller culture within a dominant culture that has a way of life distinguished in some important way from that dominant culture. Subcultures form around any number of distinguishing factors. They may form, for example, around hobbies (as with ham-radio operators, custom-car enthusiasts, bingo players, online-game players, hunters, stamp collectors, recreational-vehicle owners), shared interests such as music styles (jazz, hip-hop, rap), other behaviors or interests (cheerleaders, Bible study participants, skydivers, drug users, gamblers, outlaw bikers), occupations (car racing, pilots, police officers), or racial and ethnic backgrounds. Subcultures can also consist of even smaller divisions. For example, although the “teen subculture” may be discussed as if there is little diversity, teens are actually very diverse. They include jocks, hippies, preppies, ravers, skaters, and more. Each of these smaller subcultures has their own beliefs, interests, and means of interaction (Finnegan 1998). Yet members of a subculture share most of the values of the dominant culture. They earn money by having a job, pay bills, and see that their children get an education.

Not all smaller cultures within a dominant culture largely share the dominant culture’s values. A culture that opposes patterns of the dominant culture is known as a counterculture. Countercultures are often youth-oriented (Spates 1976). In the 1960s, hippies advocated dropping out of the mainstream culture into a communal, peaceful, self-exploration lifestyle. Many hippies have today become, at least largely, part of the dominant culture. Militias and white supremacists are examples of modern-day countercultures.

A major issue in the United States, as well as in other cultures, is how much conformity to dominant cultural patterns will be required. America has long been called a melting pot into which others cultures meld into one new culture. The process of a cultural group losing its identity and being absorbed into the dominant culture is known as assimilation.

Many groups do claim shared cultural patterns. However, there is an increasing recognition and interest across the United States in multiculturalism—a recognition of and respect for cultural differences. Multiculturalism allows much of the dominant culture to be shared while valuing some traditions of various subgroups. Events such as Black History Month and courses such as Women’s Studies acknowledge and embrace multiculturalism.

When studying cultures and cultural variations, sociologists must be aware of ethnocentrism, judging other cultures by the standards of one’s own culture. Because we all live within a culture, we tend to see the way our culture does things as “normal” or “natural” and the ways that other cultures do things as “abnormal” or “unnatural.” We also tend to judge our own familiar culture’s ways of doing things as “better.” This is the situation Napoleon Chagnon encountered with his study of the Yanomamo, discussed above.

Restaurant service provides a familiar and simple example. Americans often consider attentive restaurant waitstaff who check with diners several times during a meal as providing good service. Europeans visiting the United States might consider such service annoying. Good service in many places in Europe is defined by an almost invisible waitstaff that provides service without “hovering” around tables. Conversely, Americans visiting Europe might find such service lacking.

Things that are greatly different than our own cultures may evoke ethnocentric feelings. For example, learning that some cultures make meals of bugs or cats may seem especially unappealing to someone raised in the United States. Yet, these are seen as natural and readily accessible fare in the cultures where they are regularly eaten.

Rather than being ethnocentric, sociologists need to develop cultural relativism. This means they should be careful to judge other cultures by those cultures’ own standards. In other words, sociologists try to understand other cultures and why they behave and believe as they do rather than judging them “unnatural” or “wrong.”

A classic study by Marvin Harris (1974), who is profiled below, shows how ethnocentric views can result in major misunderstanding of other cultures. If these misguided views were used to enact social change, the consequences could be severe. Harris examined the Indian Hindu culture, in which cows are venerated as the mother of life. Thus, slaughtering cows for food is not an option. To someone from a wealthy Western country, an ethnocentric perspective on this reverence for cows would likely posit that cow worship is one factor in India’s massive problems of poverty and hunger. Why not eat the cattle, they might ask?

Harris, examined the Indian ecosystem and studied the interplay between humans, culture, and their environment. His findings show how cultural relativism can give a new perspective to this issue. In India, cattle supply fertilizer, tractor power, and milk. Cattle dung provides fuel for cooking and flooring material. Children help their families and earn money by gathering and selling cow dung. Owning a cow provides one final hedge against creditors. The lower castes, that segment of society considered “untouchable” by the rest of society, are allowed to dispose of dead cattle. They are allowed to eat the meat and benefit from a huge leather-craft industry. Overall, Harris concludes that Indians would surely starve if they did eat cows.


Sociologists focus on the importance of social influence in developing cultural patterns. Their emphasis is on how culture is created and perpetuated through social interaction. From this perspective, culture is a social creation and a product of social learning. It is not a product of biology.

However, a controversial area of study called sociobiology ties together culture and biology. The term sociobiology was coined in the 1970s by entomologist Edward O. Wilson, profiled below. Drawing from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (1996, orig. 1859), research on evolutionary theory, and his own background in studying insect behavior, Wilson (1975, 1978) forwarded a perspective that argues that there are biological bases for some human behaviors.

According to Wilson, humans have certain genetically based instincts that influence behaviors and can be observed across cultures. From this perspective, “human beings inherit a propensity to acquire behavior and social structures, a propensity that is shared by enough people to be called human nature … Although people have free will and the choice to turn in many directions, the channels of their psychological development are nevertheless—however much we might wish otherwise—cut more deeply by the genes in certain directions than in others. So while cultures vary greatly, they inevitably converge toward these traits” (Wilson 1994, 332-33). These genetically based behaviors include a division of labor between sexes, parent-child bonding, incest avoidance, tribalism, establishing patterns of dominance between groups, and male dominance (332).

Critics argue that sociobiology is both unsupported by the preponderance of research and can be used to justify discrimination based on race or gender. If people of one race or gender are born with different skills, abilities, or predispositions than dominant groups, their qualities may be interpreted as inferior. Advocates argue that sociobiologists have conducted rigorous research. Although they acknowledge the potential for misuse, these advocates counter that there are important practical applications of sociobiology (e.g., counselors being able to help couples better understand sexual issues) that, if truly understood by the public, would not be misused (e.g., Alcock 2001).

Globalization and the Internet

The structure of society has changed across time, largely due to various technological advances. These technologies range from the most basic (e.g., learning how to raise animals for food, cultivate crops, or use oxen to plow a field) to what we would consider today the most sophisticated (e.g., wiring financial transactions, knowledge sharing via the Internet). The spread of a common language (primarily English) is also central to the diffusion of culture and globalization (e.g., Smith 1990; Berger 2002). Some sociologists argue that these changes have led to increasing similarity across societies over time. Whether globalization and these technologies are leading to the rise of a global culture or society is, like many aspects of globalization, open to debate (McLuhan 1964; McLuhan and Fiore 1967). However, globalization and communications technologies will undoubtedly continue to change cultures and societies in new ways (Bell 1973, 1989; Lenski, Lenski, and Nolan 1991).

At a basic level, globalization facilitates business relationships and interactions that may seem deceptively simple. For example, in American culture, business cards are casually handed out to others and filed in wallets or folders for later reference. Such treatment of a business card would insult a Japanese businessperson. In that culture, to receive a business card and immediately place it in a wallet would be an insult. Cards should be handled graciously by the recipient and referred to during conversation with the owner. During a business dinner, diners may arrange the business cards of other diners around their place settings to reflect the seating of the card owners around the table. Doing so is not only a practical way for diners to recall names and affiliations, it also demonstrates respect for the card owners.

Culture is often adapted to fit the local area into which it is infused. The U.S. restaurant McDonald’s has spread to many countries. In America, McDonald’s is a fast-food restaurant: people buy an inexpensive meal, eat and leave, or get their order to go. They do not typically linger over the meal and make an evening out, as they might do at a more exclusive establishment. The McDonald’s business model is designed around this fast-food idea. (See more about McDonald’s and efficiency in chapter 5.) In east Asia, however, McDonald’s patrons (especially housewives and children) linger over their food rather than eating and leaving. The establishments are clean and have restrooms, and the women are not hassled by men making unwanted advances. This patron behavior has required management strategies designed around fast food to adapt to the culture (Berger 2002, 10).

Existing culture is also being adapted to the virtual world of the Internet. Norms, for example, have also developed for online culture. According to online etiquette, typing in all capital letters is the equivalent of yelling. The Internet user who types messages in all capital letters might receive a range of sanctions by other users, including polite advice if they perceive the person to be an uninformed novice, “flaming” (written attacks aimed at the violator), or ignoring them. However, online venues may allow behaviors that would be considered unacceptable in offline interactions. For example, some multiuser domains commonly known as MUDs (online social worlds where the participants are able to interact and control various aspects of the program) create a violent virtual world in which characters are expected to fight, curse, rape, or kill other online characters (Dibbell 1999).

Subcultures also exist in cyberspace. For example, fans of such popular television series as Star Trek, Xena: Warrior Princess, and The X-Files have expanded a number of their subcultural activities online. There are over 1,200 Star Trek fan sites and over 200 Xena: Warrior Princess sites online (Bell 2001, 169).

Other subcultures exist because of, and relate closely to, the technology itself. These include MUDs, cyberpunks (those involved in writing that envisions a future of ever-present and ever-powerful computer technology), and hackers (programmers who engage in activities of breaching computer security systems or writing viruses) (Bell 2001). Additionally, largely through its global reach and acceleration of information exchange, the Internet has also contributed to the enlargement and reshaping of conspiracy subcultures and what Bell labels “fringe” beliefs (e.g., Ufology) (170-73).


Napoleon Chagnon

Napoleon A. Chagnon (1938-) was born in Port Austin, Michigan, a small tourist town of only 500 people. Chagnon was the second child in a poor family of 12 children. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan, completing his Ph.D. in 1966. After graduation, he joined the University of Michigan faculty, where he held joint appointments in the Department of Anthropology and in the Department of Human Genetics at the University’s medical school. Chagnon held several subsequent positions and then moved to the University of California-Santa Barbara in 1984, until his retirement (Chagnon, 1997).

Starting when he was at Michigan, Chagnon has made several trips to South America to study the Yanomamo people. He says of those studies, “I wanted to get a job in anthropology and the best way to get a job was to do something different … If I was going to make a name for myself, I would have to do it by going to the most difficult, least desirable point in the world” (quoted in Bortnick 1999). Chagnon’s book that chronicles his studies, Yanomamo (1997) is in its 5th edition and has sold over 800,000 copies. Chagnon is also involved in the authorship and production of documentary films.

The conclusions Chagnon drew have proven to be controversial among his colleagues (e.g., Bortnick 1999; Tierney 2000) and others. He even reports death threats (Bortnick 1999). However, Chagnon also has supporters. One colleague calls him “an inspiration … Some people don’t like his results, but no one else in the world can match his data gathering” (quoted in Bortnick 1999). Among Chagnon’s professional recognitions, he is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Anthropological Association, and Current Anthropology. He also founded the Yanomamo Survival Fund in 1988 to support the Yanomamo people (Chagnon 1997; “Chagnon, Napoleon A.” 1990).

Marvin Harris

Marvin Harris (1927-2001) was born in Brooklyn, New York. He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Columbia University. After receiving his doctorate in 1953, Harris taught at Columbia for 27 years. In 1980, he took a position as Graduate Research Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida-Gainesville. He remained there, often summering on the Maine coast, until his retirement in 2000 (Margolis 2002).

In The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968) and Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for the Science of Culture (1979), Harris originated and developed the paradigm of cultural materialism, for which he is best known. According to Harris’s paradigm, social and cultural patterns develop as people find ways to solve the practical problems of existence and best use available resources. Although a controversial paradigm, as many as half of U.S. anthropologists now claim to be cultural materialists to some extent (Margolis 2002, 9). Indeed, in 1986, Smithsonian magazine called Harris “one of the most controversial anthropologists alive” (quoted in Martin 2001).

Harris’s research topics included finding explanations for a variety of “riddles of culture” involving race, evolution, food preferences (which he termed human foodways), and warfare, among others. By looking for the reasons behind such questions as why Hindus do not eat cows but Muslims, Jews, and Christians do, Harris felt that by “bring[ing] some light to bear on problems like that … people will be enlightened not only on the question but also on a way of approaching such questions” (Harris 2001).

Over the course of his career, Harris conducted research in such diverse locations as the United States, India, Mozambique, and Brazil. He also addressed American culture in Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Daily Life (1981). He wrote 17 books that were translated into 14 languages. His work included textbooks as well as books written for a popular audience. Harris also served as the president of the General Anthropology Division of the American Anthropological Association (Margolis 2002, 9).

Marshall McLuhan

Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-80) was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He earned his doctorate from Cambridge in 1943. Three years later, McLuhan joined the faculty of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, where he stayed for the remainder of his career. He became a full professor in 1952. Beginning in 1963, he also served as the director of the Center for Culture and Technology, a center created to keep McLuhan at Toronto when other schools attempted to hire him away (Federmann, “Marshall McLuhan”).

McLuhan addressed many aspects of culture, communication, and the media. His work is complex and not written in linear arguments. As one McLuhan scholar says, “How does one understand Marshall McLuhan? The answer is a quintessentially McLuhanesque paradox: To understand McLuhan, you must read McLuhan, but to read McLuhan, you must first understand McLuhan” (Federman, “On Reading McLuhan,” 1). McLuhan’s books include The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), and War and Peace in the Global Village (1967). He loved wordplay, titling one book The Medium Is the Massage (1967), and is credited with adding such terms as global village to our vernacular.

McLuhan was recognized around the world for his work. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He received an appointment as a Champion of the Order of Canada and a Vatican appointment as consultor of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications. His awards include the President’s Cabinet Award from the University of Detroit, Great Britain’s Institute of Public Relations President’s Award, the Christian Culture Award from Assumption University, and a Gold Medal Award from the President of the Italian Republic at Rimini, Italy. He also held honorary degrees from several universities.

Marshall McLuhan died in his sleep on New Year’s Eve, 1980. After his death, the University of Toronto closed the Center for Culture and Technology. However, continued demand resulted in the creation of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology. In 1994, that program became a distinct segment of Information Studies at the University (Federman, “Marshall McLuhan”; McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, “History and Mandate”).

William Graham Sumner

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) was born in Paterson, New Jersey. He obtained an undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1863. He then traveled to Europe for graduate studies in Britain, Switzerland, and Germany, after which he returned to Yale as a tutor. Sumner left Yale three years later and became an Episcopal pastor. In 1872, he returned once again to Yale as the chair of the Political and Social Science Department, where he would stay for 37 years.

In addition to being a pioneering sociologist, Sumner was a pastor, professor, economist, political scientist, historian, educator, and public servant (Curtis 1981). Intellectually, he was “vividly alive and insatiably curious,” once writing to his father that he intended to “learn all I can about everything I can” (Starr 1925, 519).

Sumner offered his first sociology course in 1875. He became a popular lecturer, although he often did not know students by name (Curtis 1981, 47-48). He also became an educational reformer and a member of the Connecticut State Board of Education, and was elected for a term as alderman. Sumner was honored with an honorary doctorate of laws after his retirement in 1909, and he was elected president of the American Sociological Society (now the American Sociological Association) in the same year.

Although less known and influential among contemporary sociologists, Sumner was a well-known and influential sociologist during his lifetime. He “wrote with ease” (Starr 1925, 306), producing material on economic history, biographies, essays, political economy, and political science that included a dozen research-based books. His one major sociological work, Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (1906), has been called one of “the few enduring monuments of American sociological theory,” and his “concepts of folkways, of in-groups and outgroups, and of ethnocentricism” continue to be important in sociological thought (Curtis 1981, 154).

During his later years, Sumner was studying the customs and mores of a number of different cultures for a work on the “science of society.” Albert Galloway Keller, Sumner’s successor at Yale, estimated that for this single project Sumner had “collected and filed—without graduate student assistants—more than 150,000 notes from sources in the dozen languages that he read. His cross-referenced note system filled fifty-two file cabinet drawers” (Curtis 1981, 49). After suffering a stroke, Sumner died in 1910 before his final work was completed. Keller completed the work and published it as a coauthored four-volume series titled The Science of Society in 1927 (Curtis 1981; Starr 1925).

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Famous for reformulating the ideas of his teacher Edward Sapir into a view of language and culture known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) began his linguistic studies in his late 20s by learning Hebrew. His “personal struggle to resolve the competing claims of science and religion led him to focus on the study of language as a likely source of insight” (Schultz 1990, 7). His interest progressed to studies of Mexican people and language, correspondence with scholars in those areas, the presentation of his first scholarly paper in 1929, and a Social Science Research Council fellowship to study the Mayan language. He would also later study other languages (Carroll 1956; Schultz 1990).

Through his studies and interactions with Sapir and other Yale University faculty, Whorf refined his powerful concept of the connection between language and culture. To Whorf, “the way man talks about the universe is his only way of knowing anything about it … an Aztec had Aztec ideas about the world, an ancient Hebrew had Hebrew ideas … They all talk about reality, but to each, reality is what he can talk about in his own language” (Trager 1968, 537).

This may seem a successful, albeit unremarkable, career. However, until 1931, when he enrolled in a Yale course under Sapir, Whorf had been self-taught. He also held dual careers. Whorf was not an academic and held a job outside of the area of linguistics and anthropology throughout his life. He was a chemical engineer with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked in fire-prevention engineering at the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. Economically, he did not feel he could leave that position to become an academic (Trager 1968). Whorf died at age 44.

Edward O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson (1929-) was fascinated by and studied insects and sea life as a child. In addition to his interest in these creatures, he was also a self-described workaholic by the age of 13, delivering 420 newspapers each morning. Wilson had his first experience in teaching at age 14 as a nature counselor at a Boy Scout summer camp (Wilson 1994).

Wilson attended the University of Alabama, graduating in 1949. He earned a doctorate from Harvard University five years later. At age 26, he became an assistant professor at Harvard on a five-year contract. He was initially tasked to create a new biology course for non-science majors. Harvard offered him a tenured position only when he was recruited by Stanford University. As Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard four decades later, Wilson was still teaching his course on biology to non-science majors.

In 1975, Wilson authored Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. That work was followed in 1978 by On Human Nature. Both books were highly controversial, even among Wilson’s colleagues at Harvard. They led to public attention, various groups distributing opposition leaflets, anti-sociobiology teach-ins, and small protests. An August 1, 1977, cover feature on sociobiology in Time magazine also generated strong reaction. Wilson recalls attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science two months after that feature appeared. Before he could present his scheduled lecture, demonstrators took the stage, dumped a pitcher of ice water over his head, and chanted, “Wilson, you’re all wet” (Wilson 1994, 307).

Among his many notable accomplishments, Wilson is curator in entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He has written 21 books, almost 400 articles, won two Pulitzer Prizes, and received 27 honorary doctoral degrees. Wilson’s lengthy list of additional awards includes the National Medal of Science, presented at a White House dinner by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. He has also been awarded the 1990 Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (an award that recognizes scientific fields not covered by the Nobel Prize), the 1993 International Prize for Biology, Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal International Prize for Science (2000), the Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society (1999), and the Audubon Medal of the National Audubon Society (Wilson, “Dr. Edward O. Wilson Biography”).