Material And Non Material Culture Essay Introductions

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Material Culture of the American Household

By Griffin Monahan

The American Home of 1950


This preliminary research project serves as a guide through material culture in the American household from the late eighteenth century continuing to the present. The study of material culture reveals great amounts of information into the daily lives of Americans. Consumerism’s influence in American culture places great significance on the individual items that occupy the American household. A grandfather clock in an eighteenth century parlor and a kitchen furnished with tupperware in the late twentieth century both can provide windows into the daily lives of past Americans. Items range in representations from status and wealth to a change in accepted gender roles. Understanding how Americans of the past lived and how current Americans live their lives exposes societal normalities as well as cultural shifts.

The guide is utilizes print sources, online collections, audio lectures, and museums to provide information on the topic of material culture in the American household. Beginning with a general background the guide continues with social connotations of material focusing on gender images, taste, and class. Information on specific materials such as the significance of a paper clip forms the following section. Educational sources on material culture serves as the conclusion of the guide providing databases of material culture on the American household.

Material Culture

The study of material culture combines archeology and social history. Material culture utilizes a micro-history approach to understand the past. By studying the significance of the parlor room in 18th century New England one can learn about the social forces of the time. Henry Glassie and Lorraine Daston explain material culture at a general level. Their works serve as a basic starting point for the study of material culture. In both works the authors explain why items hold certain power and how items come to such status.

  • Glassie, Henry. Material Culture. Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Daston, Lorraine. Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science.  New York: Zone Books, 2004.

Bill Brown a professor of English at the University of Chicago presents his “Thing Theory” in his work Things. His work provides an analytical look into the processes that surround material culture. Brown states his purpose of study of material culture on his faculty page from U. Chicago. “I’m asking how inanimate objects enable human subjects (individually and collectively) to form and transform themselves. How do individuals try to stabilize the ‘significance’ of their lives through the act of collecting? What role do objects play in the formation of gender, sexual, ethnic, and national subjectivity? How are subcultural formations (or projections of cultural form) mediated by objects?”

  • Brown, Bill, ed.  Things. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Dick Hebdige looks into what we do not see.

Dick Hebdige’s work Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things looks into popular culture images and the deeper meaning behind these images. Advertisements, photographs, and documentaries are analyzed revealing what hides in plain sight but often goes unrecognized. This book is an appropriate introduction into material culture because of the familiarity of the subject matter.

  • Hebdige, Dick. Hiding in the Light:  On Images and Things. London:  Routledge, 1988.


Social Shifts

The creation, consumption, and use of objects ranging from dinner plates to doorframes are all included in the study of material culture. When studying the American home material culture frequently reflects social transitions. The development of a room can demonstrate the changing desire of the middle class and the popularity of Tupperware can reveal a change of gender roles. Material culture is of special importance in the study of American culture because of the overwhelming influence of consumerism. As groups of Americans changed over time so did the objects and items they interacted with. From the earliest American household material culture can illuminate revolutionary urges, changes in language , and the development of a uniquely American culture. James Deetz’s work The Archaeology of Early American Life, Expanded and Revised Edition provides great insight into the early American household.

  • Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten:  The Archaeology of Early American Life, Expanded and Revised Edition. New York:  Anchor Books, 1996.

Gender Roles

One of the first major developments for women in America was the ability of young girls to leave the home to seek work. This process occurred early in New England with the introduction of mills and factories. Many of these mills had dormitories for the girls, the archeological report Living on the Boott: historical archaeology at the Boott mills boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts describes the homes of mill girls. Dirty privies and combs designed for removing dirt from hair depict the dirty living conditions of the working girls. Young women could leave the house but they would not receive benefits or respect.

  • Mrozowski, S. et al. Living on the Boott: Historical Archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Towards the end of the 19th century young women began to receive more authority as their role changed once again. As women joined the work force more they began to desire an outlet from work other than home. Clubs, dance halls, picnic grounds, all developed for the purpose of entertaining young single women. New flamboyant dress expressed the sexuality of both men and women unseen before in public venues. Once women married they would fall back into the cult of domesticity and remain in the house. The family meal grew out of married women’s desire for control of their situations. The dining room and kitchen became images heavily associated with family and women. The sources below look into the leisurely activities of American women inside and outside of the home.

New flamboyant fashion for women.

  • Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.
  • Goggin, Maureen D. and Tobin, Beth F. Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950 . Burlington: Ashgate, 2009.

The American home presents a large, immobile structure to study in regards to material culture. The interior development of the household room by room reflects trends in society. Women developed overtime to become a part of the American kitchen. How did a room of the home become so gendered and how did women use the kitchen as a source of control? The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses and Kitchen Culture In America take an in depth look at the American home room by room with a special focus on the kitchen.

  • Cromley, Elizabeth C.  The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.
  • Inness, Sherrie A., ed. Kitchen Culture in America. Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

A Judith Arden cosmetics advertisement cerca 1959

Even through today American material culture plays a major role in defining gender. Everyday people interact, observe, and consume material culture it is quickly apparent how much influence material culture has on American society. The works below us contemporary examples of material culture to study how Americans define gender. Pat Kirkham a professor at The Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture presents many interesting cases in her book The Gendered Object. She raises questions of  what influence household objects as simple as dolls and neck ties have on our definition of gender. The work The Sex of Things uses economic, social, and art history to study how material culture interacts with gender roles over time. A section of the work focuses on the cosmetic boom of mid twentieth century American homes, the specificity of the section reveals the influence of a single household object on the American identity.

  • Ames, Kenneth L. The Material Culture of Gender, The Gender of Material Culture.Hanover : University Press of New England, 1997
  • Kirkham, Pat, ed. The Gendered Object. Manchester:  Manchester University Press, 1996.
  • de Grazia, Victoria,  and Ellen Furlough, eds. The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Class Status

America unlike many other nation provides it citizens with the ability to move up the social rungs. Improving ones class status has always been associated with the American dream. Thorstein Veblen present his explanation of people’s desire to act like the upperclass in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. This work provides a platform to begin with when studying the behaviors of middle class America.

  • Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York:  Penguin, 1994.

Beginning in the 18th century the American home began to develop a unique room, the parlor. Low and middle class families began to incorporate parlors into their small, modest homes as an attempt to mirror the upper class. As the upper class changed their uses of the parlor from show piece, to museum, to family room so did the lower and middle class. Richard Bushman takes his readers through this process with great detail in his book The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. His analysis of the American home clarifies values as the progressed with the changing home.

  • Bushman, Richard. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Continuing with the progress of the American home into the 20th century Marina Moskowitz explores a new sensation of middle class America; the standard of living. A formal and informal definition, the standard of living quickly became interpreted by Americans as what a home should have. Home ownership, proper plumbing, and elegant kitchens all became associated with what Americans came to believe to be the standard of living.

An advertisement for plumbing features from 1920

  • Moskowitz, Marina. The Standard of Living: The Measure of the Middle Class in Modern America.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2004.

Jessica H. Foy and Thomas J. Sclereth also focus on the American home at the turn of the century with modernity as a theme. Their work looks into numerous components of the American home from the architecture to the new servies of the home such as gas heating, electronic stovetops, and plumbing. The analysis of the household objects and material culture exposes the behaviors of American society at the time.

  • Foy, Jessica H., and Thomas J. Schlereth, eds. American Home Life, 1880-1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services. Knoxville:  The University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

A major part of the American house has always been leisurely activities in the home. When working class men and women came home from work what would they do to relax? Hobbies influenced by material culture become especially promenant when answering this question. Steven M. Gelber’s book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America follows the progression of hobbies and leisure in the American household with examples of collecting dolls and woodcarving.

  • Gelber, Steven M. Hobbies:  Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. New York:  Columbia University Press, 1999.

Style and Taste

The American home reflects the taste and style of the time. Decor, design, innovations, and appliances all are judged as aesthetically pleasing or ugly. Americans develop a sense of style and taste based on the world around them, advertisements, fashion, and quiet often their neighbors. To understand how people in general develop taste French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu enters the mind of the middle class in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. He probes as to why certain pieces of furniture or clothing become fashionable hits or ugly failures as determined by the middle class.

  • Bourdieu,Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

An ideal kitchen of the 1940s

Pamela Simpson a professor of art history at Washington University and Lee University focuses on the construction of American and English homes in her book Cheap Quick & Easy: Imitative Architectural Materials. She investigates the social meanings of materials in the compositions of homes. Pseudo materials replaced expensive marbles and granites, Simpson attempts to answer what is the significance of the use of these materials. An interesting work she concludes that the new use of materials in the American home demonstrates values of modernity and democracy.

  • Simpson,Pamela. Cheap Quick & Easy: Imitative Architectural Materials. Knoxville: University Tennessee Press, 1999.

In all societies those who initially set standards of taste and style are the upperclass. A great point of reference of luxury in America is A Treasury of Great American Houses. From the Vanderbilt mansion to grand plantations homesteads the work presents a collect of luxury in America from its youngest years to the 20th century.

  • Williams, Henry Lionel. and Williams, Ottalick. A Treasury of Great American Houses. New York: Putnam, 1970.

Television bringing family together

When studying American material culture and the American home it is difficult to overlook the influence of the television. With its rapid entrance into the home during the 1950s the television became a fixture that brought the world of taste and style into the living room. For the first times fresh advertisements could enter the home visually with the flick of a switch. Karal Ann Marling provides a history of material culture from the most informal level; the comfort of the living room. Her study of material culture presents the thinking of middle class America during the middle of the 20th century.

  • Marling, Karal Ann.As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Materials and Technology

Material culture uses a micro-approach to understand past culture and behavior. The specificity of the type of study and research lends itself to many single object studies.  The following sources take specific objects and analyze their significance. American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture and Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life are collections of information on American material culture citing many household examples such as telephones, trading cards, and kitchenware.

  • Prown,Jules David. and  Haltman,Kenneth. American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000
  • Wajda, Shirley. and Sheumaker, Helen. Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life. ABC-CLIO, 2007

General Electric advertisement for an all-in-one stereo

The 1960s were fueled with wild changes in the music industry. New business models, recording technology, and attitudes towards the influence of music changed the industry. The introduction of hi-fi stereo systems into the American household allowed for musicians to reach families like never before. Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording follows the progression of recording and the music industry in America.

  • Anderson, Tim J, Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press,2006.

Decorative Arts and Household Furnishings in America, 1650-1920: An Annotated Bibliography serves as a series of analyses on many objects from the earliest day of America to the 20th century. Art, architecture, decor, and technology are all covered in the annotated bibliography. This work provides specific examples of material culture and their influence on the American people.

  • Ames, Kenneth, and Gerald W.R. Ward, editors. Decorative Arts and Household Furnishings in America, 1650-1920: An Annotated Bibliography. Wilmington: Winterthur, Del: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1989.

To understand the progression of the objects that occupy the daily lives of Americans Henry Petroski tells the tale of a paper clip. In his work The Evolution of Useful Things an extreme focus is placed on the most mundane objects that occupy the American home. Petroski answers the question of how these daily items came to be.

  • Petroski, Henry. The Evolution of Useful Things. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Tupperware demonstrates material cultures prevalence in the American home

Tupperware’s influence in mid 20th century suburban America demonstrates the power of material culture. From a simple idea to a revolutionary outlet for women Tupperware grew to become an icon. Alison J. Clarke brings her reader through the progression and growing influence in America. Tupperware grew to such a level that it allowed women to confront social, gender, and racial barriers.

  • Clarke, Alison. Tupperware The Promise of Plastic In 1950s America. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1999.

Electronic Sources

While there is ample amounts of information on material culture and the American home in print there are also many quality electronic resources. Online collections of homes, online lectures, and entire university programs on material culture can all be easily accessed here.

Library of Congress: Material Culture

A "crazy quilt" from a North Carolina home

The Library of Congress has created a collection of American material culture focusing on folk art. The website focuses on folk material culture and vernacular architecture. Vernacular architecture is a category of material culture, in reference to the building styles of a culture. The study of vernacular architecture follows the different architectural styles that reflect the attitudes of the times.

William J. Levitt's prototype suburban home

The Material Culture of New York City

A New York Times online article present the history of New York City through 50 pieces of material culture. The objects ranges from all aspects of daily life in New York City. One of the most helpful pieces covers the development of the suburban house. William J. Levitt created a prototype suburban home that could be quickly and cheaply constructed. He saw the ensuing wave of white middle class American families leaving the city and seeking new suburban homes.

University of Delaware Program on Material Culture

University of Wisconsin-Madison on Material Culture

University of Wisconsin-Madison-Digital Library of Material Culture

Both the University of Delaware and the University of Wisconsin-Madison contain numerous resources on material culture. Each website provides collections, programs, and academic works on material culture.

An advertisement for a mail order home from 1926.

University of Massachusetts Lowell Electronic Libraries

University of Massachusetts Lowell digital collection of elements of style. The website contains a series of galleries of paintings,photographs, and advertisements. The galleries follow the progress of the American household in both rural and urban settings during the 19th and 20th century. One of the galleries covers mail order homes of the early 20th century. Each advertised home reflects the values of America with captions noting practicality, elegance, and distinction.

The National Building Museum-Exhibit on the American Home

The National Building Museum’s exhibit on House & Home in America captures the development of the American home. The National Building Museum introduces the exhibit as  “a kaleidoscopic array of photographs, objects, models, and films that takes us on a tour of houses both familiar and surprising, through past and present, challenging our ideas about what it means to be at home in America. Remarkable transformations in technology, laws, and consumer culture have brought about enormous change in American domestic life.” The interactive exhibit demonstrates the values associated with the materials used in the construction of homes and the significance of home ownership in America.

The Elements of Style: The Art of Fine Furniture-Making in America Then and Now

The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a online lecture on furniture in America from the 17th century to the present. A scholarly discussion of many pieces of material culture from American homes. The discussion takes many angles as the furniture is analyzed from a business perspective, an artistic point of view, and a cultural interpretation.

Early American Material Culture

David Jaffee a professor of new media research at Brad Graduate Institution presents a short lecture on items from the early American home. He reviews the significance of paintings, globes, and furniture to middle class families of 19th century America.

Learning Objectives

  1. Distinguish material culture and nonmaterial culture.
  2. List and define the several elements of culture.
  3. Describe certain values that distinguish the United States from other nations.

Culture was defined earlier as the symbols, language, beliefs, values, and artifacts that are part of any society. As this definition suggests, there are two basic components of culture: ideas and symbols on the one hand and artifacts (material objects) on the other. The first type, called nonmaterial culture, includes the values, beliefs, symbols, and language that define a society. The second type, called material culture, includes all the society’s physical objects, such as its tools and technology, clothing, eating utensils, and means of transportation. These elements of culture are discussed next.


Every culture is filled with symbols, or things that stand for something else and that often evoke various reactions and emotions. Some symbols are actually types of nonverbal communication, while other symbols are in fact material objects. As the symbolic interactionist perspective discussed in Chapter 1 “Sociology and the Sociological Perspective” emphasizes, shared symbols make social interaction possible.

Let’s look at nonverbal symbols first. A common one is shaking hands, which is done in some societies but not in others. It commonly conveys friendship and is used as a sign of both greeting and departure. Probably all societies have nonverbal symbols we call gestures, movements of the hands, arms, or other parts of the body that are meant to convey certain ideas or emotions. However, the same gesture can mean one thing in one society and something quite different in another society (Axtell, 1998). In the United States, for example, if we nod our head up and down, we mean yes, and if we shake it back and forth, we mean no. In Bulgaria, however, nodding means no, while shaking our head back and forth means yes! In the United States, if we make an “O” by putting our thumb and forefinger together, we mean “OK,” but the same gesture in certain parts of Europe signifies an obscenity. “Thumbs up” in the United States means “great” or “wonderful,” but in Australia it means the same thing as extending the middle finger in the United States. Certain parts of the Middle East and Asia would be offended if they saw you using your left hand to eat, because they use their left hand for bathroom hygiene.

Some of our most important symbols are objects. Here the U.S. flag is a prime example. For most Americans, the flag is not just a piece of cloth with red and white stripes and white stars against a field of blue. Instead, it is a symbol of freedom, democracy, and other American values and, accordingly, inspires pride and patriotism. During the Vietnam War, however, the flag became to many Americans a symbol of war and imperialism. Some burned the flag in protest, prompting angry attacks by bystanders and negative coverage by the news media.

Other objects have symbolic value for religious reasons. Three of the most familiar religious symbols in many nations are the cross, the Star of David, and the crescent moon, which are widely understood to represent Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, respectively. Whereas many cultures attach no religious significance to these shapes, for many people across the world they evoke very strong feelings of religious faith. Recognizing this, hate groups have often desecrated these symbols.

As these examples indicate, shared symbols, both nonverbal communication and tangible objects, are an important part of any culture but also can lead to misunderstandings and even hostility. These problems underscore the significance of symbols for social interaction and meaning.

The meaning of a gesture may differ from one society to another. This familiar gesture means “OK” in the United States, but in certain parts of Europe it signifies an obscenity. An American using this gesture might very well be greeted with an angry look.

d Wang – ok – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Perhaps our most important set of symbols is language. In English, the word chair means something we sit on. In Spanish, the word silla means the same thing. As long as we agree how to interpret these words, a shared language and thus society are possible. By the same token, differences in languages can make it quite difficult to communicate. For example, imagine you are in a foreign country where you do not know the language and the country’s citizens do not know yours. Worse yet, you forgot to bring your dictionary that translates their language into yours, and vice versa, and your iPhone battery has died. You become lost. How will you get help? What will you do? Is there any way to communicate your plight?

As this scenario suggests, language is crucial to communication and thus to any society’s culture. Children learn language from their culture just as they learn about shaking hands, about gestures, and about the significance of the flag and other symbols. Humans have a capacity for language that no other animal species possesses. Our capacity for language in turn helps make our complex culture possible.

In the United States, some people consider a common language so important that they advocate making English the official language of certain cities or states or even the whole country and banning bilingual education in the public schools (Ray, 2007). Critics acknowledge the importance of English but allege that this movement smacks of anti-immigrant prejudice and would help destroy ethnic subcultures. In 2009, voters in Nashville, Tennessee, rejected a proposal that would have made English the city’s official language and required all city workers to speak in English rather than their native language (R. Brown, 2009).

Language, of course, can be spoken or written. One of the most important developments in the evolution of society was the creation of written language. Some of the preindustrial societies that anthropologists have studied have written language, while others do not, and in the remaining societies the “written” language consists mainly of pictures, not words. Figure 3.1 “The Presence of Written Language (Percentage of Societies)” illustrates this variation with data from 186 preindustrial societies called the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS), a famous data set compiled several decades ago by anthropologist George Murdock and colleagues from information that had been gathered on hundreds of preindustrial societies around the world (Murdock & White, 1969). In Figure 3.1 “The Presence of Written Language (Percentage of Societies)”, we see that only about one-fourth of the SCCS societies have a written language, while about equal proportions have no language at all or only pictures.

Figure 3.1 The Presence of Written Language (Percentage of Societies)

Source: Data from Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.

To what extent does language influence how we think and how we perceive the social and physical worlds? The famous but controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, named after two linguistic anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, argues that people cannot easily understand concepts and objects unless their language contains words for these items (Whorf, 1956). Language thus influences how we understand the world around us. For example, people in a country such as the United States that has many terms for different types of kisses (e.g. buss, peck, smack, smooch, and soul) are better able to appreciate these different types than people in a country such as Japan, which, as we saw earlier, only fairly recently developed the word kissu for kiss.

Another illustration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is seen in sexist language, in which the use of male nouns and pronouns shapes how we think about the world (Miles, 2008). In older children’s books, words like fireman and mailman are common, along with pictures of men in these jobs, and critics say they send a message to children that these are male jobs, not female jobs. If a teacher tells a second-grade class, “Every student should put his books under his desk,” the teacher obviously means students of both sexes but may be sending a subtle message that boys matter more than girls. For these reasons, several guidebooks promote the use of nonsexist language (Maggio, 1998). Table 3.1 “Examples of Sexist Terms and Nonsexist Alternatives” provides examples of sexist language and nonsexist alternatives.

Table 3.1 Examples of Sexist Terms and Nonsexist Alternatives

BusinessmanBusinessperson, executive
FiremanFire fighter
ChairmanChair, chairperson
PolicemanPolice officer
MailmanLetter carrier, postal worker
MankindHumankind, people
Man-madeArtificial, synthetic
He (as generic pronoun)He or she; he/she; s/he
“A professor should be devoted to his students”“Professors should be devoted to their students”

The use of racist language also illustrates the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. An old saying goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” That may be true in theory but not in reality. Names can hurt, especially names that are racial slurs, which African Americans growing up before the era of the civil rights movement routinely heard. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the use of these words would have affected how whites perceived African Americans. More generally, the use of racist terms may reinforce racial prejudice and racial stereotypes.

Sociology Making a Difference

Overcoming Cultural and Ethnic Differences

People from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds live in large countries such as the United States. Because of cultural differences and various prejudices, it can be difficult for individuals from one background to interact with individuals from another background. Fortunately, a line of research, grounded in contact theory and conducted by sociologists and social psychologists, suggests that interaction among individuals from different backgrounds can indeed help overcome tensions arising from their different cultures and any prejudices they may hold. This happens because such contact helps disconfirm stereotypes that people may hold of those from different backgrounds (Dixon, 2006; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2005).

Recent studies of college students provide additional evidence that social contact can help overcome cultural differences and prejudices. Because many students are randomly assigned to their roommates when they enter college, interracial roommates provide a “natural” experiment for studying the effects of social interaction on racial prejudice. Studies of such roommates find that whites with black roommates report lowered racial prejudice and greater numbers of interracial friendships with other students (Laar, Levin, Sinclair, & Sidanius, 2005; Shook & Fazio, 2008).

It is not easy to overcome cultural differences and prejudices, and studies also find that interracial college roommates often have to face many difficulties in overcoming the cultural differences and prejudices that existed before they started living together (Shook & Fazio, 2008). Yet the body of work supporting contact theory suggests that efforts that increase social interaction among people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds in the long run will reduce racial and ethnic tensions.

Language is a key symbol of any culture. Humans have a capacity for language that no other animal species has, and children learn the language of their society just as they learn other aspects of their culture.


Cultures differ widely in their norms, or standards and expectations for behaving. We already saw that the nature of drunken behavior depends on society’s expectations of how people should behave when drunk. Norms of drunken behavior influence how we behave when we drink too much.

Norms are often divided into two types, formal norms and informal norms. Formal norms, also called mores (MOOR-ayz) and laws, refer to the standards of behavior considered the most important in any society. Examples in the United States include traffic laws, criminal codes, and, in a college context, student behavior codes addressing such things as cheating and hate speech. Informal norms, also called folkways and customs, refer to standards of behavior that are considered less important but still influence how we behave. Table manners are a common example of informal norms, as are such everyday behaviors as how we interact with a cashier and how we ride in an elevator.

Many norms differ dramatically from one culture to the next. Some of the best evidence for cultural variation in norms comes from the study of sexual behavior (Edgerton, 1976). Among the Pokot of East Africa, for example, women are expected to enjoy sex, while among the Gusii a few hundred miles away, women who enjoy sex are considered deviant. In Inis Beag, a small island off the coast of Ireland, sex is considered embarrassing and even disgusting; men feel that intercourse drains their strength, while women consider it a burden. Even nudity is considered terrible, and people on Inis Beag keep their clothes on while they bathe. The situation is quite different in Mangaia, a small island in the South Pacific. Here sex is considered very enjoyable, and it is the major subject of songs and stories.

While many societies frown on homosexuality, others accept it. Among the Azande of East Africa, for example, young warriors live with each other and are not allowed to marry. During this time, they often have sex with younger boys, and this homosexuality is approved by their culture. Among the Sambia of New Guinea, young males live separately from females and engage in homosexual behavior for at least a decade. It is felt that the boys would be less masculine if they continued to live with their mothers and that the semen of older males helps young boys become strong and fierce (Edgerton, 1976).

Other evidence for cultural variation in norms comes from the study of how men and women are expected to behave in various societies. For example, many traditional societies are simple hunting-and-gathering societies. In most of these, men tend to hunt and women tend to gather. Many observers attribute this gender difference to at least two biological differences between the sexes. First, men tend to be bigger and stronger than women and are thus better suited for hunting. Second, women become pregnant and bear children and are less able to hunt. Yet a different pattern emerges in some hunting-and-gathering societies. Among a group of Australian aborigines called the Tiwi and a tribal society in the Philippines called the Agta, both sexes hunt. After becoming pregnant, Agta women continue to hunt for most of their pregnancy and resume hunting after their child is born (Brettell & Sargent, 2009).

Some of the most interesting norms that differ by culture govern how people stand apart when they talk with each other (Hall & Hall, 2007). In the United States, people who are not intimates usually stand about three to four feet apart when they talk. If someone stands more closely to us, especially if we are of northern European heritage, we feel uncomfortable. Yet people in other countries—especially Italy, France, Spain, and many of the nations of Latin America and the Middle East—would feel uncomfortable if they were standing three to four feet apart. To them, this distance is too great and indicates that the people talking dislike each other. If a U.S. native of British or Scandinavian heritage were talking with a member of one of these societies, they might well have trouble interacting, because at least one of them will be uncomfortable with the physical distance separating them.


Different cultures also have different rituals, or established procedures and ceremonies that often mark transitions in the life course. As such, rituals both reflect and transmit a culture’s norms and other elements from one generation to the next. Graduation ceremonies in colleges and universities are familiar examples of time-honored rituals. In many societies, rituals help signify one’s gender identity. For example, girls around the world undergo various types of initiation ceremonies to mark their transition to adulthood. Among the Bemba of Zambia, girls undergo a month-long initiation ceremony called the chisungu, in which girls learn songs, dances, and secret terms that only women know (Maybury-Lewis, 1998). In some cultures, special ceremonies also mark a girl’s first menstrual period. Such ceremonies are largely absent in the United States, where a girl’s first period is a private matter. But in other cultures the first period is a cause for celebration involving gifts, music, and food (Hathaway, 1997).

Boys have their own initiation ceremonies, some of them involving circumcision. That said, the ways in which circumcisions are done and the ceremonies accompanying them differ widely. In the United States, boys who are circumcised usually undergo a quick procedure in the hospital. If their parents are observant Jews, circumcision will be part of a religious ceremony, and a religious figure called a moyel will perform the circumcision. In contrast, circumcision among the Maasai of East Africa is used as a test of manhood. If a boy being circumcised shows signs of fear, he might well be ridiculed (Maybury-Lewis, 1998).

Are rituals more common in traditional societies than in industrial ones such as the United States? Consider the Nacirema, studied by anthropologist Horace Miner more than 50 years ago (Miner, 1956). In this society, many rituals have been developed to deal with the culture’s fundamental belief that the human body is ugly and in danger of suffering many diseases. Reflecting this belief, every household has at least one shrine in which various rituals are performed to cleanse the body. Often these shrines contain magic potions acquired from medicine men. The Nacirema are especially concerned about diseases of the mouth. Miner writes, “Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them” (p. 505). Many Nacirema engage in “mouth-rites” and see a “holy-mouth-man” once or twice yearly.

Spell Nacirema backward and you will see that Miner was describing American culture. As his satire suggests, rituals are not limited to preindustrial societies. Instead, they function in many kinds of societies to mark transitions in the life course and to transmit the norms of the culture from one generation to the next.

Changing Norms and Beliefs

Our examples show that different cultures have different norms, even if they share other types of practices and beliefs. It is also true that norms change over time within a given culture. Two obvious examples here are hairstyles and clothing styles. When the Beatles first became popular in the early 1960s, their hair barely covered their ears, but parents of teenagers back then were aghast at how they looked. If anything, clothing styles change even more often than hairstyles. Hemlines go up, hemlines go down. Lapels become wider, lapels become narrower. This color is in, that color is out. Hold on to your out-of-style clothes long enough, and eventually they may well end up back in style.

A more important topic on which norms have changed is abortion and birth control (Bullough & Bullough, 1977). Despite the controversy surrounding abortion today, it was very common in the ancient world. Much later, medieval theologians generally felt that abortion was not murder if it occurred within the first several weeks after conception. This distinction was eliminated in 1869, when Pope Pius IX declared abortion at any time to be murder. In the United States, abortion was not illegal until 1828, when New York state banned it to protect women from unskilled abortionists, and most other states followed suit by the end of the century. However, the sheer number of unsafe, illegal abortions over the next several decades helped fuel a demand for repeal of abortion laws that in turn helped lead to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973 that generally legalized abortion during the first two trimesters.

Contraception was also practiced in ancient times, only to be opposed by early Christianity. Over the centuries, scientific discoveries of the nature of the reproductive process led to more effective means of contraception and to greater calls for its use, despite legal bans on the distribution of information about contraception. In the early 1900s, Margaret Sanger, an American nurse, spearheaded the growing birth-control movement and helped open a birth-control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. She and two other women were arrested within 10 days, and Sanger and one other defendant were sentenced to 30 days in jail. Efforts by Sanger and other activists helped to change views on contraception over time, and finally, in 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that contraception information could not be banned. As this brief summary illustrates, norms about contraception changed dramatically during the last century.

Other types of cultural beliefs also change over time (Figure 3.2 “Percentage of People Who Say They Would Vote for a Qualified African American for President” and Figure 3.3 “Percentage of People Who Agree Women Should Take Care of Running Their Homes”). Since the 1960s, the U.S. public has changed its views about some important racial and gender issues. Figure 3.2 “Percentage of People Who Say They Would Vote for a Qualified African American for President”, taken from several years of the General Social Survey (GSS), shows that the percentage of Americans who would vote for a qualified black person as president rose almost 20 points from the early 1970s to the middle of 1996, when the GSS stopped asking the question. If beliefs about voting for an African American had not changed, Barack Obama would almost certainly not have been elected in 2008. Figure 3.3 “Percentage of People Who Agree Women Should Take Care of Running Their Homes”, also taken from several years of the GSS, shows that the percentage saying that women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country to men declined from almost 36% in the early 1970s to only about 15% in 1998, again, when the GSS stopped asking the question. These two figures depict declining racial and gender prejudice in the United States during the past quarter-century.

Figure 3.2 Percentage of People Who Say They Would Vote for a Qualified African American for President

Source: Data from General Social Surveys, 1972–1996.

Figure 3.3 Percentage of People Who Agree Women Should Take Care of Running Their Homes

Source: Data from General Social Surveys, 1974–1998.

Some norms may change over time within a given culture. In the early 1960s, the hair of the four members of the Beatles barely covered their ears, but many parents of U.S. teenagers were very critical of the length of their hair.

Although many societies disapprove of homosexuality, other societies accept it. This difference illustrates the importance of culture for people’s attitudes.


Values are another important element of culture and involve judgments of what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. A culture’s values shape its norms. In Japan, for example, a central value is group harmony. The Japanese place great emphasis on harmonious social relationships and dislike interpersonal conflict. Individuals are fairly unassertive by American standards, lest they be perceived as trying to force their will on others (Schneider & Silverman, 2010). When interpersonal disputes do arise, Japanese do their best to minimize conflict by trying to resolve the disputes amicably. Lawsuits are thus uncommon; in one case involving disease and death from a mercury-polluted river, some Japanese who dared to sue the company responsible for the mercury poisoning were considered bad citizens (Upham, 1976).

Individualism in the United States

In the United States, of course, the situation is quite different. The American culture extols the rights of the individual and promotes competition in the business and sports worlds and in other areas of life. Lawsuits over the most frivolous of issues are quite common and even expected. Phrases like “Look out for number one!” abound. If the Japanese value harmony and group feeling, Americans value competition and individualism. Because the Japanese value harmony, their norms frown on self-assertion in interpersonal relationships and on lawsuits to correct perceived wrongs. Because Americans value and even thrive on competition, our norms promote assertion in relationships and certainly promote the use of the law to address all kinds of problems.

Figure 3.4 “Percentage of People Who Think Competition Is Very Beneficial” illustrates this difference between the two nations’ cultures with data from the 2002 World Values Survey (WVS), which was administered to random samples of the adult populations of more than 80 nations around the world. One question asked in these nations was, “On a scale of one (‘competition is good; it stimulates people to work hard and develop new ideas’) to ten (‘competition is harmful; it brings out the worst in people’), please indicate your views on competition.” Figure 3.4 “Percentage of People Who Think Competition Is Very Beneficial” shows the percentages of Americans and Japanese who responded with a “one” or “two” to this question, indicating they think competition is very beneficial. Americans are about three times as likely as Japanese to favor competition.

Figure 3.4 Percentage of People Who Think Competition Is Very Beneficial

Source: Data from World Values Survey, 2002.

The Japanese value system is a bit of an anomaly, because Japan is an industrial nation with very traditional influences. Its emphasis on group harmony and community is more usually thought of as a value found in traditional societies, while the U.S. emphasis on individuality is more usually thought of as a value found in industrial cultures. Anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis (1998, p. 8) describes this difference as follows: “The heart of the difference between the modern world and the traditional one is that in traditional societies people are a valuable resource and the interrelations between them are carefully tended; in modern society things are the valuables and people are all too often treated as disposable.” In industrial societies, continues Maybury-Lewis, individualism and the rights of the individual are celebrated and any one person’s obligations to the larger community are weakened. Individual achievement becomes more important than values such as kindness, compassion, and generosity.

Other scholars take a less bleak view of industrial society, where they say the spirit of community still lives even as individualism is extolled (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985). In American society, these two simultaneous values sometimes create tension. In Appalachia, for example, people view themselves as rugged individuals who want to control their own fate. At the same time, they have strong ties to families, relatives, and their neighbors. Thus their sense of independence conflicts with their need for dependence on others (Erikson, 1976).

American culture promotes competition and an emphasis on winning in the sports and business worlds and in other spheres of life. Accordingly, lawsuits over frivolous reasons are common and even expected.

Clyde Robinson – Courtroom – CC BY 2.0.

The Work Ethic

Another important value in the American culture is the work ethic. By the 19th century, Americans had come to view hard work not just as something that had to be done but as something that was morally good to do (Gini, 2000). The commitment to the work ethic remains strong today: in the 2008 General Social Survey, 72% of respondents said they would continue to work even if they got enough money to live as comfortably as they would like for the rest of their lives.

Cross-cultural evidence supports the importance of the work ethic in the United States. Using earlier World Values Survey data, Figure 3.5 “Percentage of People Who Take a Great Deal of Pride in Their Work” presents the percentage of people in United States and three other nations from different parts of the world—Mexico, Poland, and Japan—who take “a great deal of pride” in their work. More than 85% of Americans feel this way, compared to much lower proportions of people in the other three nations.

Figure 3.5 Percentage of People Who Take a Great Deal of Pride in Their Work

Source: Data from World Values Survey, 1993.

Closely related to the work ethic is the belief that if people work hard enough, they will be successful. Here again the American culture is especially thought to promote the idea that people can pull themselves up by their “bootstraps” if they work hard enough. The WVS asked whether success results from hard work or from luck and connections. Figure 3.6 “Percentage of People Who Think Hard Work Brings Success” presents the proportions of people in the four nations just examined who most strongly thought that hard work brings success. Once again we see evidence of an important aspect of the American culture, as U.S. residents were especially likely to think that hard work brings success.

Figure 3.6 Percentage of People Who Think Hard Work Brings Success

Source: Data from World Values Survey, 1997.

If Americans believe hard work brings success, then they should be more likely than people in most other nations to believe that poverty stems from not working hard enough. True or false, this belief is an example of the blaming-the-victim ideology introduced in Chapter 1 “Sociology and the Sociological Perspective”. Figure 3.7 “Percentage of People Who Attribute Poverty to Laziness and Lack of Willpower” presents WVS percentages of respondents who said the most important reason people are poor is “laziness and lack of willpower.” As expected, Americans are much more likely to attribute poverty to not working hard enough.

Figure 3.7 Percentage of People Who Attribute Poverty to Laziness and Lack of Willpower

Source: Data from World Values Survey, 1997.

We could discuss many other values, but an important one concerns how much a society values women’s employment outside the home. The WVS asked respondents whether they agree that “when jobs are scarce men should have more right to a job than women.” Figure 3.8 “Percentage of People Who Disagree That Men Have More Right to a Job Than Women When Jobs Are Scarce” shows that U.S. residents are more likely than those in nations with more traditional views of women to disagree with this statement.

Figure 3.8 Percentage of People Who Disagree That Men Have More Right to a Job Than Women When Jobs Are Scarce

Source: Data from World Values Survey, 2002.


The last element of culture is the artifacts, or material objects, that constitute a society’s material culture. In the most simple societies, artifacts are largely limited to a few tools, the huts people live in, and the clothing they wear. One of the most important inventions in the evolution of society was the wheel. Figure 3.9 “Primary Means of Moving Heavy Loads” shows that very few of the societies in the SCCS use wheels to move heavy loads over land, while the majority use human power and about one-third use pack animals.

Figure 3.9 Primary Means of Moving Heavy Loads

Source: Data from Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.

Although the wheel was a great invention, artifacts are much more numerous and complex in industrial societies. Because of technological advances during the past two decades, many such societies today may be said to have a wireless culture, as smartphones, netbooks and laptops, and GPS devices now dominate so much of modern life. The artifacts associated with this culture were unknown a generation ago. Technological development created these artifacts and new language to describe them and the functions they perform. Today’s wireless artifacts in turn help reinforce our own commitment to wireless technology as a way of life, if only because children are now growing up with them, often even before they can read and write.

Sometimes people in one society may find it difficult to understand the artifacts that are an important part of another society’s culture. If a member of a tribal society who had never seen a cell phone, or who had never even used batteries or electricity, were somehow to visit the United States, she or he would obviously have no idea of what a cell phone was or of its importance in almost everything we do these days. Conversely, if we were to visit that person’s society, we might not appreciate the importance of some of its artifacts.

In this regard, consider once again India’s cows, discussed in the news article that began this chapter. As the article mentioned, people from India consider cows holy, and they let cows roam the streets of many cities. In a nation where hunger is so rampant, such cow worship is difficult to understand, at least to Americans, because a ready source of meat is being ignored.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris (1974) advanced a practical explanation for India’s cow worship. Millions of Indians are peasants who rely on their farms for their food and thus their existence. Oxen and water buffalo, not tractors, are the way they plow their fields. If their ox falls sick or dies, farmers may lose their farms. Because, as Harris observes, oxen are made by cows, it thus becomes essential to preserve cows at all costs. In India, cows also act as an essential source of fertilizer, to the tune of 700 million tons of manure annually, about half of which is used for fertilizer and the other half of which is used as fuel for cooking. Cow manure is also mixed with water and used as flooring material over dirt floors in Indian households. For all of these reasons, cow worship is not so puzzling after all, because it helps preserve animals that are very important for India’s economy and other aspects of its way of life.

If Indians exalt cows, many Jews and Muslims feel the opposite about pigs: they refuse to eat any product made from pigs and so obey an injunction from the Old Testament of the Bible and from the Koran. Harris thinks this injunction existed because pig farming in ancient times would have threatened the ecology of the Middle East. Sheep and cattle eat primarily grass, while pigs eat foods that people eat, such as nuts, fruits, and especially grains. In another problem, pigs do not provide milk and are much more difficult to herd than sheep or cattle. Next, pigs do not thrive well in the hot, dry climate in which the people of the Old Testament and Koran lived. Finally, sheep and cattle were a source of food back then because beyond their own meat they provided milk, cheese, and manure, and cattle were also used for plowing. In contrast, pigs would have provided only their own meat. Because sheep and cattle were more “versatile” in all of these ways, and because of the other problems pigs would have posed, it made sense for the eating of pork to be prohibited.

In contrast to Jews and Muslims, at least one society, the Maring of the mountains of New Guinea, is characterized by “pig love.” Here pigs are held in the highest regard. The Maring sleep next to pigs, give them names and talk to them, feed them table scraps, and once or twice every generation have a mass pig sacrifice that is intended to ensure the future health and welfare of Maring society. Harris explains their love of pigs by noting that their climate is ideally suited to raising pigs, which are an important source of meat for the Maring. Because too many pigs would overrun the Maring, their periodic pig sacrifices help keep the pig population to manageable levels. Pig love thus makes as much sense for the Maring as pig hatred did for people in the time of the Old Testament and the Koran.

Key Takeaways

  • The major elements of culture are symbols, language, norms, values, and artifacts.
  • Language makes effective social interaction possible and influences how people conceive of concepts and objects.
  • Major values that distinguish the United States include individualism, competition, and a commitment to the work ethic.

For Your Review

  1. How and why does the development of language illustrate the importance of culture and provide evidence for the sociological perspective?
  2. Some people say the United States is too individualistic and competitive, while other people say these values are part of what makes America great. What do you think? Why?

The iPhone is just one of the many notable cultural artifacts in today’s wireless world. Technological development created these artifacts and new language to describe them and their functions—for example, “There’s an app for that!”

Philip Brooks – iPhone – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

According to anthropologist Marvin Harris, cows are worshipped in India because they are such an important part of India’s agricultural economy.


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This is a derivative of Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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