Culture is that complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society. Culture consists of abstract patterns of and for living and dying. Such abstract patterns are learned directly or indirectly in social interactions of two or more people. In anthropological theory, there is not what could be called closed agreement on the definition of the concept of culture. However, for the present discussion, we want to note three prominent key elements. First, the culture is transmitted. It constitutes a heritage for social tradition. Second, the culture is learned. It is not a manifestation of man’s genetic constitution. Third, the culture is shared. It is, on one hand, the product of and, on the other hand, the determination of systems of human social interaction. When talking about a very small bit of culture, anthropologists use the terms trait or item. A sparkplug, for example, is an item of material culture; the notion the world is round is an item of ideational culture; and the practice of shaking hands with acquaintences is an item of nonmaterial culture classified as norm. Anthropologists are inclined to use the term item when referring to material culture and trait when referring to nonmaterial culture. There is nothing precise about this usage, nor is it standardized in the literature.
Norms: A norm is a rule or a standard that governs our conduct in social situations in which we participate. It is a social expectation. It is a cultural specification that guides our conduct in society. It is a way of doing things, the way that is set for us by our society. It is also an essential instrument of social control. A norm is not a statistical average. It is not a mean, median, or mode. It refers not to the average behavior of number of persons in a specific social situation, but instead, to the expected behavior, the behavior that is considered appropriate in that situation. It is a norm in our society, for example, to say “Please” when requesting a favor and “Thank you” when a favor is received, but no statistical count of the actual frequency of occurence of these polite expressions is available. Nor would such a count be relevent. The norm is considered the standard procedure, whether or not anyone confirms to it, follows it, or observes it in a specific situation. The principle function of the norm for the individual is thus to reduce the necessity for decision in the innumerable social situations that he or she confronts and in which he or she participates. Without them the individual is faced from moment to moment with an almost intolerable burden of decision. Norms are both prescriptive and proscriptive—that is, the norms both prescribe or require certain actions and proscribe or prohibit certain other actions. We are required to wear clothes in our society and forbidden to go naked in the street. Frequently, the prescriptions and proscriptions come in pairs; that is, we are required to do something and forbidden not to do it, or forbidden to commit an act and required to omit it. Proscriptive norms when they are not legal prohibitions are known a taboos. There are many kinds of norms, such as folkways, mores, traditions, belief system, rules, rituals, laws, fashions, manners, and ceremonies, some of which are discussed here.
Folkways: It is a term introduced by the late William Graham Sumner. The term means literally the ways of the folk, the ways people have devised for satisfying their needs, for interacting with one another, and for conducting their lives. Folkways are norms to which we conform because it is customary to do so in our society. Conformity to the folkways is neither required by law nor enforced by any special agency of society. And yet we conform even without thinking. It is matter of custom, matter of usage. Each society has different folkways, and they constitute an important part of the social structure and contribute to the order and stability of social relations.
Mores: The mores differ from the folkways in the sense that moral conduct differs from merely customary conducts. Our society requires us to conform to the mores, without, however, having established a special agency to enforce conformity. The word mores is a Latin word for customs and it is also the Latin source of the word morals. Sumner introduced this word into the sociology literature as those practices that are believed conducive to societal welfare. Folkways, on the contrary, do not have the connotation of welfare.
Laws: Laws are associational norms that appear in the political organization of society. Asociations other than the state have their rules and regulations, too, and these requirements are also classified as associational norms.
Belief System: Cultural belief systems can be divided into two parts. One is existential beliefs, which include (a) empirical-science and empirical lore, (b) nonempirical-philosophical and supernatural lore, and (c) specialization of roles with respect to investigative interests. Second, evaluative beliefs include (a) ideologies, (b) religious ideas and traditions, and (c) role differentiation with respect to responsibility for evaluative beliefs. Religious beliefs are nonempirical ideological beliefs. By contrast with science or philosophy, the cognitive interest is no longer primary, but gives way to the evaluative interest. Acceptance of religious beliefs is then a commitment of its implimentation in action in a sense in which acceptance of a philosophical belief is not. Thus, religious beliefs are those concerned with moral problems of human action, the features of human situations, and the place of man and society in the cosmos, which are most relevant to his moral attitudes and value-orientational patterns.
People of a society conform to normative traits for various reasons. One is that people have been indoctrinated to do so. From earliest childhood, they are taught to observe the norms of their society. Second, people have become habituated by norms. Habituation reinforces the norms and guarantees the regularity of conformity. Third, norms have utility value. As reflective individuals, we can see that norms are useful, that they enable us to interact with others in a way conducive to the best interest of all, and that they contribute to the ease of social exchange. Finally, norms serve as means of group identification. This is the phenomenon of what Robert Merton called “reference group.”
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