Cultural Identity

Have you ever noticed that the norms and values of the society you grew up and live in have influenced your taste in music, art, food and way of thinking? 

Cultural Identity Cultural Identity

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Table of contents

    Some might accept and submit to the common rules and values, while others may reject the traditions of their upbringing and look for a culture more suitable to them elsewhere. But none of us goes without being impacted by society's culture in one way or another.

    Culture influences the way we think, feel and behave. It shapes both our collective and individual identities. As a result, it is a rich area of research for sociologists.

    • We will look at the meaning of culture, including material and non-material cultures, and discuss the process of primary and secondary socialisation.
    • Then, we will define norms and values.
    • We will summarise the definition of cultural identity and look at some examples of cultural and social identity.
    • We will move on to identity and cultural diversity, studying different types of cultures.
    • We will look at globalisation and cultural identity.
    • Finally, we will look at different sociological perspectives on culture and cultural identity.

    What is culture?

    Culture refers to the collective characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, such as traditions, language, religion, food, music, norms, customs, and values. Culture can be represented in two ways:

    • Material culture refers to physical objects or artefacts that symbolize or originate from a culture. For example, books, clothes, or decorative items.

    • Non-material culture refers to the beliefs, values and knowledge that shape behaviour and thought. For example, religious beliefs, historical practices, or scientific knowledge.

    Cultural Identity, Statue heads, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Historical artefacts, like statues from Ancient Greece, are part of material culture.

    Culture and socialisation

    Culture is learned through socialisation, which is the process of learning and adapting to social norms, something we all do from a young age. There are two types of socialisation.

    • Primary socialisation takes place in the family. We are taught to carry out and avoid certain behaviours by copying our parents. Conditioning reinforces our ideas of what is right and wrong through reward and punishment.

    • Secondary socialisation takes place in the wider world through various institutions that shape our behaviour. Examples include school, religion, the media, and the workplace.

    Culture plays a large part in people's behaviour, thoughts, and feelings, as culture often defines what is 'acceptable'. Sociologists are therefore interested in how culture affects our behaviour, both collectively and individually. To understand what a culture deems 'acceptable', we can look at its 'norms' and 'values'.

    What are norms?

    Norms are practices that are seen as the standard or normal ways of behaving. They are 'unwritten rules' or expectations that dictate appropriate behaviour. Norms can be reflected in big life decisions or in every day (and often unconscious) behaviour.

    If it is a cultural norm to marry at a young age, it is likely that your behaviour (getting married at 21, for example) will reflect this. Similarly, if it is a cultural norm to take your shoes off before entering the house, you are likely to follow this norm every day without giving it too much thought.

    Both of these norms are examples of standard or normal ways of behaving. You may be able to give more examples, either of the norms you follow or norms that you have heard of.

    Cultural Identity, Shoe rack with three pairs of shoes, StudySmarterFig. 2 - In some cultures, it is the norm to keep shoes out of the home space.

    What are values?

    Values are beliefs and attitudes towards something, e.g., behaviour or social issue. In culture, values are often the standards of social behaviour, as they determine what is right or wrong. Values can be reflected in our norms.

    Behind the norm of marrying at a young age may be a value that discourages dating or sexual activity before marriage. Taking off your shoes before entering the house may show the value of respecting your home and its surroundings.

    As you can imagine, values can vary significantly across different cultures.

    The definition of cultural identity and social identity

    A person's identity can include race, ethnicity, gender, social class, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. Identity can be seen in different dimensions, namely cultural and social identity. The differences between the two are outlined below.

    What is cultural identity?

    Cultural identities are the distinct identities of people or groups in cultural or subcultural categories and social groups. Categories that make up cultural identities include sexuality, gender, religion, ethnicity, social class, or region. We are often born into our cultural identities. Therefore, participation is not always voluntary.

    Example of cultural identity

    Even though the United Kingdom is one nation, those living in Wales, for example, might have different cultural identities to those living in England, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. This is because there are distinct differences between the four countries.

    What is social identity?

    Social identities are parts of the identity that come from being involved in social groups that individuals are personally committed to. These are voluntary commitments to social groups that frequently stem from interests or hobbies.

    Example of social identity

    If you are a fan of a football team, you are likely to identify with the other fans, keep up with the team's activities, and perhaps show your support through social media and merchandise.

    Identity and cultural diversity: concepts of culture

    It is important to understand there are many types of cultures. Let's look at the most significant types of culture, and how cultural diversity interacts with identity.

    Mass culture

    Mass culture is commercial and emerges from the centralised production processes of mass media (such as social media, film, and TV) for mass audiences. Mass culture is created for mass consumption. Popular culture is sometimes seen as deriving from mass culture, as mass culture produces products and items meant to be popularised.

    Cultural Identity, Stacks of magazines, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Magazines are part of mass culture and tell us what to popularise.

    Popular culture

    Popular culture consists of mainstream interests, ideas, and forms of entertainment.

    The hit 1997 film Titanic is part of popular culture.

    Global culture

    Global culture is shared by people around the world.

    International business, fashion, and travel are part of global culture.

    Subculture

    Subcultures refer to groups within a culture with shared values and behaviours which deviates from the mainstream.

    A good example of this is the 'hipster' subculture, which rejects mainstream popular culture and is associated with alternative values, fashion, music, and political views.

    Folk culture

    Folk culture is the preserve of small, homogeneous, rural groups living in relative isolation from other groups. Cultures like these are a common feature of pre-industrial society. Folk culture embraces tradition, history, and the preservation of a sense of belonging.

    There are usually distinct 'markers' of folk cultures, typically represented through folk dances, songs, stories, clothing, everyday artefacts and ancient relics, and even through daily practices such as farming and diet.

    Due to the small size of these groups, folk culture was preserved through oral tradition.

    Globalisation and cultural identity

    Globalisation became a popular idea towards the end of the 20th century, due to advances in travel, communication, and technology - the world became more connected.

    In terms of cultural shifts, globalisation can look a lot like Westernisation or Americanisation. This is because most of the iconic global brands come from the USA, e.g. Coca-Cola, Disney, and Apple. Some sociologists are critical of Americanisation and claim that globalisation is negative because it creates one homogenised culture everywhere in the world, instead of preserving the cultures and traditions of specific countries.

    Others, however, point out that globalisation contributed to the introduction of non-Western cultures to the Western world, which is a positive consequence. Bollywood or Asian cuisine, for example, is growing in popularity all over the world.

    At the same time, in many countries, people want to retain their traditional culture and identity and resist introducing Western culture and the English language. This is particularly noticeable in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Here, rejections of Western influence have been accompanied by assertions of Islamic identity.

    People also develop collective identities that exist in resistance to globalisation. In Scotland, for example, theorists say British identity is waning.

    Immigration and cultural identity

    People who have moved from one country to another - immigrants - can also struggle with culture and identity, similar to those experiencing globalisation but perhaps even more directly.

    This is because they have been uprooted from one culture and settled in another, creating issues of assimilation, belonging, and passing on cultural norms and traditions to future generations.

    A common issue experienced by children of first-generation immigrants is being unable to connect with their families and their cultures/languages of origin since they were raised in very different ways.

    For instance, a British person raised in the UK, who has Chinese parents but otherwise no other contact with China, is less likely to be as involved with Chinese culture as their parents.

    Theoretical perspectives on culture and identity

    Let's introduce some theoretical perspectives on culture.

    Functionalism on culture and identity

    The functionalist perspective sees society as a system that needs all its parts to function. In this context, culture is necessary to allow society to function smoothly.

    Functionalists suggest that the norms and values in culture are a 'social glue' that bonds people together by creating shared interests and values. Everyone internalises societal norms and values. These norms and values become a part of an individual's identity.

    Shared norms and values create a consensus. Émile Durkheim called this the collective consciousness of society. Durkheim stated that it is this collective consciousness that socialises people into 'proper' behaviour and prevents society from descending into turmoil, or 'anomie'.

    Marxism on culture and identity

    The Marxist perspective sees society as inherently conflicted between social classes. Marxists believe that culture upholds the capitalist agenda and reinforces the power dynamic and structural inequality between the bourgeoisie (upper capitalist class) and proletariat (working class). Capitalist society uses cultural institutions to perpetuate culture and to prevent workers from achieving class consciousness. This means the proletariat will not revolt.

    Marxists argue that mass culture distracts the proletariat from their problems; cultural ideals and expectations (such as the American Dream) give the working class false hope and motivate them to work hard.

    Neo-Marxists argue that cultural beliefs and products help 'glue' people together, specifically the working class, so they feel they have something in common. Therefore, the proletariat expresses its identity through popular culture.

    Moreover, the distinction between popular culture and 'elite' culture helps social classes develop identities based on their cultural experiences.

    Feminism on culture and identity

    Feminists believe that culture enables the patriarchy to maintain male domination over women. Mass culture stereotypes women into roles such as housewives or sex objects. These roles are reinforced in society, particularly through the media. Magazines, advertisements, film and TV are all ways of perpetuating a culture in which women are sexualised or portrayed as subordinate.

    Postmodernism on culture and identity

    Postmodernists argue that culture is diverse and reject the idea that culture can help unify people. Postmodernists suggest that diversity in culture creates fragmented identities. Individuals can construct their identities from a range of different cultures. Nationality, gender, ethnicity, religion, and political beliefs are all layers of identity.

    Interactionism on culture and identity

    Interactionists believe that people control how they behave, and their behaviour is not the result of social forces. They suggest culture is based on people's own ideas of how they interact with one another. They see culture as having developed at the bottom of society at an individual level. So, if people change the way they interact with each other, culture will change too.

    Cultural Identity - Key takeaways

    • Culture refers to the collective characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, such as traditions, language, religion, food, music, norms, customs and values. It can be material and non-material, and is learned through primary and secondary socialisation. Norms and values can help us understand a culture.
    • Identity is the term given to the values, beliefs, characteristics, appearance, or expressions that make a person or group what they are. There is cultural identity and social identity.
    • There are different types of culture: mass culture, popular culture, global culture, subcultures, and folk cultures.
    • Globalisation and immigration can cause tension and struggles with culture and identity for many.
    • Theoretical perspectives on culture and identity include functionalism, Marxism, feminism, postmodernism, and interactionism.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Identity

    What does cultural identity mean?

    Cultural identities are the distinct identities of people or groups in culture or subcultural categories and social groups. Categories that make up cultural identities include sexuality, gender, religion, ethnicity, social class, or geographical region.  

    What are examples of cultural identities?

    Examples of cultural identities include identifying as a particular ethnic background, religion, or nationality. For example, stating that you are British Asian is a cultural identity.

    What is the difference between culture and identity?

    Culture refers to the collective characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people such as traditions, language, religion, food, music, norms, customs, and values. On the other hand, identity refers to the values, beliefs, characteristics, appearance, or other forms of expression.

    Why is language important to culture and identity?

    People form societies based on common values, norms, traditions and language among other things. Speaking a language can connect an individual to a specific social group and society. Socialising into a culture through language also means that both the culture and the language would be significant in the person's personal identity.

    What is your cultural identity? 

    Cultural identities are the distinct identities of people or groups in cultural or subcultural categories and social groups. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    S. Hall argues that a person's identity is not formed out of personal attributes, but is predetermined.

    According to Weber, ethnicity is a social construct, for it is based on subjective beliefs created by the members of the group.

    Which one of the following is not a secondary agent of socialisation?

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