What is Culture, Exactly?

Definition, Discussion and Examples

An Indian woman participating in a Holi celebration demonstrates the concept of culture as defined by sociologists.
A young woman participates in a Holi celebration in India, a ritual which symbolizes the triumph of good over evil, the coming of spring, and the start of new chapters in social relationships. THEPALMER/Getty Images

Culture is a term that refers to a large and diverse set of mostly intangible aspects of social life. It is primarily composed of the values, beliefs, systems of language and communication, and practices that people share in common and that can be used to define them as a collective, as well as the material objects that are common to that group or society. Culture is distinct from social structural and economic aspects of society, but it is connected to them—both continuously informing them and being informed by them.

How Sociologists Define Culture

Culture is one of the most important concepts within sociology because sociologists recognize that it plays a crucial role in shaping social relationships, maintaining and challenging social order, determining how we make sense of the world and our place in it, and in shaping our everyday actions and experiences in society. It is composed of both non-material and material things.

In brief, sociologists define the non-material aspects of culture as the values and beliefs, language and communication, and practices that are shared in common by a group of people. Expanding on these categories, culture is made up of our knowledge, common sense, assumptions and expectations. It is also the rules, norms, laws, and morals that govern society; the words we use and the how we speak and write them (what sociologists call "discourse"), and the symbols we use to express meaning, ideas, and concepts (like traffic signs and emojis, for example).

Culture is also what we do and how we behave and perform (think theater and dance). It informs and is encapsulated in how we walk, sit, carry our bodies, and interact with others; how we behave depending on place, time, and "audience"; how we express identities of race, class, and gender and sexuality, among others; and the collective practices we participate in like religious ceremonies, the celebration of secular holidays, and attending sporting events, for example.

Material culture is composed of the things that humans make and use. This aspect of culture includes a wide variety of things, from buildings, technological gadgets, and clothing, to film, music, literature, and art, among others.

Sociologists see the two sides of culture—the material and non-material—as intimately connected. Material culture, more commonly referred to as cultural products, emerge from and are shaped by the non-material aspects of culture. In other words, what we value, believe, and know, and what we do together in everyday life, influence the things that we make. But, it is not a one-way relationship between material and non-material culture. While the non-material influences the material, so too, the material influences non-material aspects. This is why cultural products tend to follow patterns. What has come before, in terms of music, film, television, and art, for example, influences the values, beliefs, and expectations of those who interact with them, which then, in turn, influence the creation of additional cultural products.

Why Culture Matters to Sociologists

Culture is important to sociologists because it plays a significant and important role in the production of social order, which refers to the stability of society based on the collective agreement to rules and norms that allow us to cooperate, function as a society, and live together (ideally) in peace and harmony.

For sociologists, there are both good and bad aspects to this fact.

Rooted in the theory of classical French sociologist Émile Durkheim, both material and non-material aspects of culture are valuable in that they hold society together. The values, beliefs, morals, communication and practices that we share in common provide us with a shared sense of purpose and a valuable collective identity. Durkheim revealed through his research that when people come together to participate in rituals, they reaffirm the culture they hold in common, and in doing so, strengthen the social ties that bind them together. Today, sociologists see this important social phenomenon happening in religious rituals and celebrations like (some) weddings and the Indian festival of Holi, but also in secular ones like high school dances and widely attended and televised sporting events like the Super Bowl and March Madness, among others.

Famous Prussian social theorist and activist Karl Marx established the critical approach to culture in the social sciences. According to Marx, it is in the realm of non-material culture that a minority is able to maintain unjust power over the majority. He reasoned that it is subscribing to the mainstream values, norms, and beliefs that keep people invested in unequal social systems that do not work in their best interests, but rather, benefit the powerful minority. Sociologists today see Marx's theory in action in the way that most people in capitalist societies buy into the belief that success comes from hard work and dedication, and that anyone can live a good life if they do these things, despite the reality that work that pays a living wage is increasingly hard to come by.

Both theorists were right about the role that culture plays in society, but neither was exclusively right. Culture can be a force for oppression and domination, but it can also be a force for creativity, resistance, and liberation. And, it is a deeply important aspect of human social life and social organization. Without it, we would not have relationships or society.