ASPECTS OF CULTURE: Values and norms
Values are relatively
general beliefs that either define what is right and what is wrong or specify
general preferences. A belief that
homicide is wrong and a preference for modem art are both values.
Norms, on the other hand, are relatively precise rules specifying
which behaviors are permitted and which prohibited for group members.
Note that in everyday usage, "norm" has a quite different
meaning (it means average). Here
again sociology has constructed its vocabulary by attaching a new meaning to a
familiar word. When a member of a
group breaks a group norm by engaging in a prohibited behavior, the other group
members will typically sanction the deviant member. To sanction is to communicate disapproval in some way to the
When asked to give
examples of a norm in our society, most students tend to think of laws,
especially, for instance, laws against murder and physical assault.
Most laws in a society are indeed social norms.
The more important point, however, is that your life is governed by many
norms that are not laws.
following case. You feel very close
to someone who has given you every reason to believe that he or she is a close
friend. You then find out that that
person has systematically lied to you in order to gain some advantage.
How would you feel? Quite
hurt, certainly. Most people would
also feel that that person’s behavior was wrong.
Why? Because most people
in this society believe that a close friend should neither deceive nor exploit.
A behavioral norm that follows from this belief is that someone
claiming to be your friend should not lie to you in order to gain some
advantage. Note that your friend
has probably not done anything illegal (that is, no laws have been broken), but
you would consider his or her behavior to be wrong nonetheless.
You are usually not aware, in any explicit way, of many of the norms
that structure your behavior. For
instance, there is one particular norm that strictly regulates your daily
behavior. It is so strongly held
that for me even to suggest that you might violate it will make most readers of
this chapter somewhat ill. Although
students can rarely guess what norm I am talking about, it is one that is very
easy to express: in this culture, there is a strong prohibition against coming
into contact with the bodily discharges (a polite term for such things as urine,
feces, pus, vomit, and mucus) of other individuals. Consider how many times, in a given day you go to great
lengths to make it unlikely that others will come into contact with your bodily
discharges. Think too of how sick
and repulsed you would be if this norm were broken, if you actually did come
into contact with the bodily discharges of some other person.
People in this culture, of course, like to think of themselves as
practical, and so would probably attribute this aversion to bodily discharges to
principles of good hygiene. What
is wrong with such an explanation is the fact that this aversion was present in
our culture long before we became aware that diseases could be spread by germs.
Moreover, there are many pre-industrial cultures that have no notion of
the germ theory of disease but that do have this same strong aversion.
But the main point brought home by this example is that, although this
norm is one that is rarely discussed or thought about in an explicit manner, it
does regulate much of our behavior each day.
As another example of the implicit norms governing your behavior,
consider the norms regulating sexual behavior. What exactly are those norms?
Don’t respond with the norms that you attribute to supposedly
unenlightened types like your parents. What
norms govern your sexual behavior? Some
students might hold to the norm that specifies that sexual intercourse is
correct only when two people are married to each other, or at least only when
marriage is expected to occur in the near future.
The majority of students very likely do not.
Certainly one of the minimal conditions you would impose is that to be
"right" sexual intercourse must occur with the consent of both
partners. But, in this liberal age,
are there any other conditions? Yes.
A number of surveys (reviewed in Hobart, 1979) indicate that Canadian
university students, especially female students, do add one more condition.
Sexual intercourse is most "right" when the two individuals
are in love, or at least where there is some evidence of strong affection.
This is not to say that sexual intercourse without affection does not
occur, but that the preferred behavior for many students is sexual intercourse
between consenting individuals who have a strong affection for one another.
These few examples, of course, do not even begin to exhaust the list of
norms that regulate your daily behavior. But
as soon as you do begin to list the norms that regulate your behavior, it
becomes clear that some seem more important than others.
For sociologists the crucial difference between important and
less-than-important norms lies in the nature of the reaction of group members
when the norm is violated by an individual member.
Sumner (1940) long ago introduced two terms, folkways and mores,
in order to capture this distinction. Folkways
are those norms that do not evoke severe moral condemnation when violated.
Wearing clothes is probably a folkway for most people.
If you saw someone running around campus naked, you might feel
embarrassed, amused, or titillated, but not morally outraged.
Mores are those norms whose violation does provoke strong moral condemnation.
Our strong moral condemnation of rape and murder, for instance, suggests
that the norms prohibiting these behaviors are mores.
It must be emphasized that the difference between mores and folkways
lies in the nature of the reaction the violation of the norm produces, and not
in the content of the rule. For
instance, one of the norms in our society is that "dogs should not be
eaten" while one of the norms in contemporary India is that "cows
should not be eaten.' These two norms are similar in content, but one is a
folkway, the other a mos (singular of mores). You may be upset if you hear that someone has eaten a dog,
but you are unlikely to be morally outraged.
Yet that sense of moral outrage is exactly what would be evoked in India
were someone to openly slaughter, cook, and eat a sacred cow.
the prohibition against the eating of dogs is another good example of an
implicit norm in this culture. Dogs
are both edible, as evidenced by the fact that they are eaten in many cultures,
and plentiful. Yet nobody reading
this book is likely to have eaten one or to have known someone who has.
Furthermore, most of you probably find the whole idea of eating a dog
somewhat repulsive. That a behavior
so easy to perform is rarely, if ever, observed in a group, and that group
members find the very idea of that behavior to be repulsive, are sure
indications that the behavior violates a group norm.
A social role is a
cluster of expectations about the behavior that is appropriate for a given
individual in a given situation. For
instance, most of us expect that a teacher will come to class prepared, will
assign grades fairly, will not show up to class drunk, etc.
These expectations, taken as a sum, define the role "teacher."
(As an exercise, you might try to think of the expectations that define the role
"student" at the college level.)
Whether or not a particular social role exists depends upon the group
under consideration. Do you and
your friends expect certain behaviors from males and different behaviors from
females? If the answer is yes, then for you and your friends, "male"
and "female" are not simply biological categories but also social
roles. But if the answer is no,
then for you, "male" and "female" are not social roles.
Do you and your friends expect certain behaviors from someone whom you
love and who loves you in return? If the answer is yes, then "lover"
is a social role in your friendship group, and if the answer is no, it is not.
A moment's reflection will indicate that one person can occupy several
different social roles at once. What
roles have you occupied during the past week?
Daughter? This playing of
several roles at once opens the way for role conflicts, that is,
situations in which the behavioral expectations associated with one of a
person’s roles are inconsistent with the behavioral expectations associated
with another of his or her roles. Some
of the clearest examples of role conflict involve the role “mother." If
we define "mother" in sociological (rather than biological) terms,
then a frequent expectation associated with the mother role is that she will
have primary responsibility for the rearing of her children.
The need to care for children, or even the need to arrange for the care
of children day in and day out, quite often interferes with the ability to work
outside the home. Thus, there is
the potential for role conflict between the mother role and the full-time worker
role. (We shall have more to say on this topic in the family chapter.)
In studying roles we must always keep in mind that all social roles,
without exception, are social definitions, and thus, to a certain extent,
arbitrary. This means that roles
that we take for granted in our own culture may not exist in the same form in
other cultures. Here again a
consideration of the “mother" role is a particularly good example for
making the general point.
our culture, the traditional definition of the 'mother" role suggests that
mothers are supposed to provide their children with emotional support,
especially when the children are hurt and frightened, to nurse them when they
are first-born (with either breast or bottle), and to provide them with guidance
as they grow. Some
members of our society might even regard these behaviors as natural, as
resulting from an innate tendency in most women towards mothering.
This is just not true.
Drummond (1978) studied several groups, all located in English-speaking
countries, in which all these behaviors are assigned to someone other than the
children’s biological mothers. Prior
to the Victorian era in England, for instance, the task of breastfeeding
upper class children was often handed over to a wet-nurse, with the children
only later being turned over to the biological mother to be raised.
During the Victorian era, an upper class woman might nurse her own
children, but the task of caring for them and providing them with guidance then
became the responsibility of a nanny. But
obviously, if the behaviors that for us are all associated with the single role
mother were split up and given to any two or three separate women (the
biological mother, the wet-nurse, the nanny), then there was no single social
role among the English upper classes that truly corresponds to the mother role
in our own culture.
The situation is even more complicated among the English-speaking lower
class in Guyana, a South American country also considered by Drummond.
Here the typical family is made up of an unmarried woman, her daughters
(also unmarried), and her daughters' children.
Ask children in our own society to pick out their mother and they will
point to their biological mother. Ask
children in a Guyanese family to pick out their mother and they will point to
the person we would call grandmother. The
English term applied to the woman who gives birth to a Guyanese child is
"auntie" not, “mother." This then represents a case in which
there is a role that closely corresponds to the mother role in our own society,
but in Guyana that role is occupied by the biological grandmother, not by the
Remember the general point that these examples are meant to
illustrate: every role is a cluster of expectations about behavior, but this
clustering varies from culture to culture.
That our own culture groups together certain behavioral expectations in
order to form a particular role does not guarantee that other cultures will
group those same expectations together in the same way to form the same role.
Some additional terms
At this point, it
will be useful to introduce a few additional terms. The first of these terms is subculture, a
group of people within a single society who possess, in addition to the cultural
elements they share with the other members of their society, certain distinctive
cultural elements that set them apart. (Given this definition, I have often
thought that "subsociety" would be a more appropriate term than
subculture, but subculture is too well entrenched in the sociological vocabulary
for any changes to be suggested now.) Thus, Ukrainians, Jews, Italians, or
Greeks living in Canada are often called a subculture because they share among
themselves certain religious or ethnic beliefs and customs that are not
characteristic of the Canadian population as a whole.
When the members of
a society or a subculture agree that a specific set of norms and values should
regulate some broad area of social life, such as the economy, family life,
religion, or politics, then that set of norms and values is called an institution.
Finally, the term material culture refers to all the physical
objects used and produced by the members of a society or a subculture.
Thus, for instance, the material culture of a pre-industrial society
would include its pottery, the tools it uses to gather and process food, and its
sacred objects, while the material culture of our own society would include our
televisions, books, automobiles, and houses.
Ever since the 19th
century, three observations have been made by virtually every investigator concerned
with the study of culture. They
are: (1) that cultures exhibit enormous variation with regard to their values,
norms, and roles; (2) that few cultural elements are common to all known
societies; and (3) that the elements of culture in a given society are often
If we take an
overview of the hundreds of societies that exist or have existed in the world,
the first thing that strikes our attention is that there is tremendous variation
with regard to the cultural traits found in these societies.
Many societies have values and norms that are directly opposite to those
that we might take for granted in this society.
Some of this
cultural variation was apparent in our discussion of the mother role in a
previous section. Other examples of
such variation are not difficult to discover.
In our society many individuals believe that there exists one God,
responsible for all of creation, and they describe this God using imagery that
is undeniably "male" Swanson (1960) found that about half the
pre-industrial societies in the world also believe in a single God, responsible
for creation, although that God is not always seen as a male. Among the Iroquois Indians, for instance, God was female,
while among some South American Indians called the Lengua, God is a beetle.
But the remaining societies in the world either believe in many gods, no
one of which is responsible for all creation, or do not believe in personalized
gods of any sort.
example, consider that in our society, and in many others, the traditional sex
roles are such that males are expected to be aggressive and females are expected
to be passive. But Margaret Mead
(1935) found a society (the Mundugamor) where both sexes were expected to be
aggressive, another (the Arapesh) where both were expected to be passive, and
yet another (the Tchambuli) where females were expected to be aggressive and
males passive. These examples, of
course, cannot begin to exhaust the full range of cultural variation that
The best reason for
suggesting that the beginner student of sociology get some appreciation of
cultural variation is that such an appreciation reduces ethnocentrism.
In its most general sense, ethnocentrism refers to the tendency to
see things from the point of view of your own culture.
But this very general definition masks two distinct usages of the term,
both of which are quite common among social scientists.
On the one hand, ethnocentrism can refer to the tendency to see your own
culture as being somehow better than other cultures.
On the other hand it can refer to the tendency to assume that what is
true of your culture is also true of other cultures.
The tendency to
view other cultures as inferior to one's own was common in western countries
during the 19th century. For
instance, most social anthropologists of the time accepted a theory of social
evolution in which societies passed through three stages, labeled Savagery,
Barbarism, and Civilization. They
also believed that most pre-industrial cultures (and in fact, most cultures that
were not part of the Western cultural tradition) were stuck at the levels of
savagery or barbarism. It seems
obvious that the choice of terms like savagery and barbarism indicates the low
opinion they had of these cultures.
Though far less
common today, ethnocentrism of this sort still crops up now and again.
For instance, someone who uses the term "primitive society" to
refer to what is really only a pre-industrial society might be
accused of ethnocentrism, since "primitive" now carries negative
connotations that go far beyond a simple consideration of the type of economy
found in society. Likewise, a
comparison of the thought and behavior of adults living in pre-industrial
societies and the thought and behavior of children in our own society (and
this sort of comparison is made far more frequently than you might think) is
hardly flattering to pre-industrial peoples, and might result from an implicit
The other sort of ethnocentrism, namely, the tendency to believe that
what is true of your culture is true of other cultures, is usually harder to
spot, even though it is probably the more common type of ethnocentrism.
If you feel that you are unlikely to make such an obvious error, consider
an example taken from the social evolutionary writings of the 19th century,
There are three
ways of deciding who is and who is not your kin. You can trace descent through males only (patrilineal descent),
through females only (matrilineal descent), or through sexes simultaneously
(bilateral descent). (The bilateral method is the one used in
contemporary Western society. These
topics will be discussed more fully in the family chapter.) But in a social
evolutionary sense, which manner of determining descent was the first to
develop? Almost all sociological
thinkers in the 19th century, including Marx and Engels, gave the same answer: matrilineal
descent. Their explanation was
simplicity itself: At the earliest stage of human evolution, there must have
been few restrictions placed upon sexual behavior.
Apart from the restrictions imposed by an incest taboo (the argument
went), everyone had sexual intercourse with whomever they pleased.
In such a situation, one could never be certain who the father of a child
was, but the facts of biology always insured that one would know who the mother
was. Hence, to trace out kinship
relations, one would use a rule that traced descent through females (matrilineal
If such an explanation seems reasonable to you, then you are guilty of
ethnocentrism. In our society, the
term "father" refers simultaneously to the biological father, the male
involved in biological reproduction, and to the social father, the male
who is responsible for the child in the eye of the community.
But in a number of pre-industrial societies, these two functions are
separated. There are a number of
societies where rates of non-marital sex are high and where everyone is
perfectly well aware that the mother's husband may not be the biological father.
Nevertheless, it is the mother's husband, not the biological father,
whoever he may be, who is considered a kinsman and who is considered responsible
for the child's behavior in the eyes of the community.
This may all seem very strange to us, but it is nevertheless the way
things work in such societies. What
all of this demonstrates is that a relationship of descent can be
established between two individuals quite independently of any biological
considerations. This in turn means
that the 19th century argument that ambiguities over biological paternity would
automatically prevent the use of patrilineal descent is incorrect.
In other words, even if a pre-industrial society was characterized by
much sexual promiscuity, such a society could be either patrilineal or
The final argument, then, is that 19th century social anthropologists
were led to conclude that matrilineal descent evolved first because they implicitly
assumed that the biological father and the social father must always be the same
man. While, this may be generally
true of our own society, these early researchers were being ethnocentric in
assuming it to be true of all societies.
An appreciation of cultural diversity does help us to avoid
ethnocentrism, but unfortunately not all sociologists or their students develop
that appreciation. In fact, most
do not. At best, sociology briefly
mentions such diversity in the "culture" chapter of introductory
textbooks; actual courses in sociology that present data dealing with
pre-industrial and preliterate societies are relatively uncommon. This suggests that students who intend to go on in sociology
and who wish to avoid ethnocentrism (in both senses of the word) would do well
to include a few courses in anthropology in their schedules.
Canadian-American value differences
So far we have been talking about the cultural variation that exists
among all of the world's known societies. What
happens if we move closer to home, and simply consider Canada and her closest
neighbor, the United States? At
this time there is fairly extensive sociological literature on this subject but
almost all of it cites an article written in 1964 by the American sociologist,
Seymour Martin Lipset.
Lipset pointed to a number of values that differentiate Canadians from
Americans. The one to which he
devoted most of his discussion concerns the contrast between
"collectivity-orientation” and "self-orientation." Basically,
Lipset claimed that Canadians were more collectivity-oriented than Americans.
By this he meant that Canadians placed a high value upon the groups to
which they belong and upon orderly group life in general, whereas Americans were
more "self-oriented" and tended to place a greater emphasis upon
"rugged individualism" and individual achievement.
The greater commitment of Canadians to groups explained, for Lipset, why
Canadians were more willing to accept government regulation, as evidenced by the
fact that crime rates in Canada were much lower than comparable rates in the
United States, and why Canadians seemed more committed to the family, as
evidenced by the fact that Canadian divorce rates were so much lower than
American divorce rates.
Lipset traced the greater Canadian emphasis upon the group and the
greater American emphasis upon the individual to several differing historical
experiences. First, he argued,
America went through a revolution, and this bred a general distrust of
government. Canada (and Lipset
quite explicitly limited his analysis to English-speaking Canada) always
retained strong ties to the British monarchy.
Second, he stated, the two nations had different frontier experiences.
In Canada, law and order moved into frontier settlements right along with
the first settlers. In the United
States, on the other hand, frontier settlements were often characterized by an
initial period of lawlessness, which in turn fostered a spirit of individualism. Finally, according to Lipset, the dominant religions in the
United States have always been the Calvinistic Protestant religions, which tend
to stress individual self-reliance. The
dominant religion in, English Canada, on the other hand, has been the Anglican
Church, which has tended to emphasize allegiance both to the formal hierarchy of
the Church itself and to the civil government. (Religion will be covered more
fully in Chapter 9.)
hypothesis came under attack from a number of quarters.
One of the most well-known of these attacks was made by Horowitz (1973)
who pointed out that since the end of World War II ' Canadian/American
differences on a whole range of social indicators, including crime and divorce
rates, have been narrowing. While
Horowitz did not deny that the value differences discussed by Lipset might have
at one point existed for the very reasons that Lipset gave, Horowitz suggested
that these differences are currently disappearing.
He argued that because the Canadian and American economies have become so
intertwined since the end of World War 11, it is only natural to expect that the
two countries will come to adopt similar sets of values.
different attack on the Lipset position has come from sociologists who actually
interviewed Canadians and Americans on various topics and then compared their
answers. For instance, if Americans
really did value individualism more than Canadians, you might expect that more
Americans than Canadians would rather work for themselves than work for a
large company. Yet, when samples of
Canadians and Americans were asked to express their opinions on just these
issues, it turned out that the percentage wanting to work alone or work for
themselves was about the same in both groups (cf. Arnold and Tigert, 1974).
Furthermore, if Canadians really did value group life more than
Americans, then you might expect that Canadians would be more likely than
Americans to join groups, especially voluntary groups like the PTA and various
charitable organizations. Yet the
data indicate that, if anything, Americans are more likely than Canadians to
join such groups (cf. Arnold and Tigert, 1974).
We could look
at dozens of other studies dealing with Canadian/American value differences, but
in the end the debate would boil down to this: whether or not one finds such
differences will, in large measure, be determined both by whether long-term
historical trends or more recent experiences are examined and by the actual
indicators used to measure abstract concepts like
"collectivity-orientation” and "self-orientation.” Since sociologists
do not agree on these issues, they also disagree on whether the differences
really exist. And even if they
agree on the existence of the differences, they may disagree on their nature and
extent. As a result, the issue of
Canadian/American value differences promises to remain an area of considerable
controversy in Canadian sociology for some time to come.
So far we have been concerned only with cultural diversity.
But amongst all the diversity that exists in the world, are there any
cultural universals? That is, are
there any elements of culture found in every single known society?
There do seem to be a few. Every
society, for instance, has some rules limiting sexual behavior, though the
content of these rules varies greatly from society to society.
In every known society there is a division of labor by sex, with certain
tasks being assigned to females and other tasks to males. The task-assignments to either men or women, however, vary
Some students might think that an incest taboo, a norm
prohibiting sexual intercourse between parents and children and between
siblings is universal, and they would be right - almost.
It turns out that there are about a half dozen or so societies in which
incestuous relationships are permitted, if not actively encouraged, for members
of the royal family. For instance,
between 325 BC and 50 BC, Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemies, a royal dynasty
founded by Ptolemy 1, one of Alexander the Great's generals.
Eleven of the thirteen Ptolemaic kings married either a half or a full
sister. Middleton (1962) has even
produced evidence which indicates that brother-sister marriage was widely
practiced among commoners in Egypt during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.
The incest taboo, then, is only a near universal.
One of the most important of all cultural universals has to do with
the relative status of men and women. There
are many societies in which men, on the average, have more political power and
more social prestige than women. These societies are usually called patriarchies.
Then there are a fair number of known societies in which men and
women are roughly equal in social status, either because one group does not on
the average, have more power and prestige than the other, or because greater
male power and prestige in certain areas of social life is balanced by greater
female power and prestige in other areas of social life.
Yet in all the societies of the world, there has never existed a true matriarchy,
that is, a society in which women have more political power and more social
prestige than men. The Amazons of
myth and legend are just that, myth and legend.
What we are dealing with here, then, is a negative universal, that is
with something matriarchy, that is universally absent from all known societies.
important point to make in connection with cultural universals, however, is
that the number of such universals is relatively small, at least as compared to
the ways in which cultures vary.
Before closing this section it is necessary to point out that many of
the elements of a given culture are interrelated, so that a change in one such
element can produce changes in other elements.
The best way to illustrate this process is to consider an extreme case,
where a single cultural change, made with the best of intentions, had massive
and disastrous consequences.
In Australia, members of an aboriginal society called the Yir Yoront
traveled throughout various regions in Australia in small bands.
Each band acted as a cooperative unit that hunted animals and gathered
various plants for food. In the early decades of this century, the Anglican Church
set up a mission with the goal of converting the Yir Yoront to Christianity.
To reward those individuals who came to the mission and took instruction,
these missionaries passed out something that they thought would be useful:
axes with steel heads. Prior to this time, the Yir Yoront had used axes with stone
heads that they had made themselves. A
few years after the coming of the Anglican mission, many Yir Yoront bands had
ceased to function as cooperative social units and their members had become completely
dependent upon handouts from the mission. What
happened? For Sharp (1952), the key
lay in the impact of those steel axes upon Yir Yoront culture.
To understand this impact you need to know more about that culture.
Most of us probably formed our first impression of what life in a
preliterate culture is like from the movies.
Most movies portray tribal societies as having a "chief" of
some sort. The notion that a small
band of individuals should have a single leader strikes us as being perfectly
natural and obvious (and strikes the sociologist as perfectly ethnocentric).
But in fact, small bands do not always have a single leader.
The Yir Yoront did not have "chiefs." In this society, any two
individuals might confront each other and would determine who had authority over
the other by using a complicated system of rules.
Basically, these rules specified that older people had authority over
younger people, that men had authority over women, and that blood relatives had
some authority over other blood relatives.
Though these rules tended to concentrate authority in the hands of the
older males within a given kinship group, the system was complicated enough that
the lines of authority were not always clear.
To solve this problem, the Yir Yoront had devised a very concrete
procedure for constantly reinforcing these lines of authority.
This procedure involved the stone-headed axes that they had traditionally
axes were used for a variety of tasks that confronted the average Yir Yoront.
But while every body might have need of an axe, the axes were the
property of the older males within each kinship group.
This meant that anyone needing an axe would have to go to one of these
individuals. In effect, asking one of these older males for permission to use
his axe became a way of acknowledging that male's authority.
Now enter the European missionaries, possessing the typically Western
attitude that superior technology (steel axe heads rather than stone, for
instance) is always a good thing. They
distribute axes with steel heads to the Yir Yoront who came, the mission.
But it turned out that the only Yir
Yoront who came to the mission were women or young men, and therefore these were
the people who got the new axes. Having
their own axes meant, of course, that they no longer had to go to the older
males for the use of an axe. While
this might seem very fair and egalitarian to us, the fact remains that, lacking
the concrete procedure of "asking for permission to use an axe" to
reinforce the lines of authority in the society, the authority system fell
apart, and nothing arose to take its place.
Without an authority system, it became difficult to maintain the
cooperation among band members that had to be maintained if the band were to
engage in successful hunting and gathering activities.
Consequently the bands ceased to function as self-supporting social
groups. All this occurred because
some missionaries gave axes to young men and women who, under Yir Yoront social
norms, should not have owned such axes.
A traditional club is used to kill an animal brought down by a spear or gun.
The case of the Yir
Yoront is the extreme. Cultures are
never so tightly integrated that any change will have widespread ramifications.
Whether a particular cultural change introduced within a group will have
further cultural ramifications will depend upon the pattern of interrelationships
among the group's cultural traits. Tracing
out the relationships linking the culture traits in various groups is one of the
primary tasks of the sociologist and the social anthropologist.
THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES ON CULTURE
everything that sociologists study is in some way related to culture.
For instance, in studying social class, family life, crime, or religious
behavior, sociologists are studying things that are influenced by the norms and
values that characterize the various subcultures in our society.
But there are some social scientists who are interested in the study of
culture in general, rather than the study of social class, the family, crime, or
religion in particular. These
individuals are typically concerned with one of two questions: first, why are
certain elements of culture found in nearly all known societies, and second, why
are some elements found in only a few societies?
In answering these questions, researchers draw upon a number of different
theoretical perspectives, but four are particularly important. These are (1) functionalism, (2) structuralism, (3) cultural
materialism, and (4) sociobiology.
Functionalism is a
perspective that you have encountered in the introductory chapter and one that
you will encounter again many times throughout this book.
The essence of functionalist explanation, when applied to culture, is
that a given norm or value is "explained" by showing how it
contributes to the overall stability or survival of the society in which it is
found. (A conflict sociologist would instead examine the groups who benefit from
the norm. This topic will be
discussed in the deviance chapter.)
One of the first
investigators to make use of this functional explanation in a very explicit way
was a social anthropologist named Bronislaw Malinowski.
His work, even today, provides some of the clearest examples of
functionalist explanation. Malinowski (1954) was at one: point', studying, a society
located among the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific. The Trobrianders got much of their food from fishing in the
ocean waters surrounding their islands. What
Malinowski found was that every aspect of such ocean fishing was surrounded by
an elaborate system of magic. But
why did they use magic? At first
glance the answer might seem obvious. The
Trobrianders used magic because they believed that it would help them catch more
fish. But, Malinowski argued, if
magic is used simply to insure success, then every society should make extensive
use of magic in order to insure success at whatever activity is important to its
members. Such widespread use of
magic, however, is simply not the case. Some
societies, like the Trobrianders, make extensive use of magic.
Others do not. What accounts
for this cultural difference?
In beginning his
explanation, Malinowski noted that ocean fishing is an extremely uncertain
activity. The Trobrianders had, for
instance, no control over the weather on the ocean or over the locations at
which fish might be caught. Added
to all of this, of course, was the fact that taking a canoe out onto the ocean
was a relatively dangerous activity. How
would you feel if you had to take part in a dangerous and uncertain activity day
after day? You would probably feel
quite anxious. Malinowski assumed
that the Trobrianders felt the same way. This
anxiety would be reduced if you felt, however incorrectly, that you could
control your environment. This is
precisely the feeling that the use of magic gives you.
The use of magic allows you to believe that you can control both the
weather and the locations at which fish are to be found.
Malinowski's conclusion, then, is that magic is likely to be used
wherever people face dangerous and uncertain environments.
The Trobrianders faced such an environment and therefore they made use of
magic. Other societies face
relatively safe, certain environments, and therefore they do not make use of
Malinowski had one final bit of data that provided an especially
convincing conclusion to his argument. Besides
fishing on the open ocean, the Trobrianders also fished in a sheltered island
lagoon. Unlike ocean fishing,
fishing in the lagoon was relatively safe, and, since the lagoon was a
relatively small place, finding the right place to fish was less of a problem.
Given Malinowski's argument, one would therefore expect that magic should
not be associated with lagoon fishing. That
is exactly what Malinowski found. Although
the Trobrianders surrounded ocean fishing with much magic, there was no magic
associated with lagoon fishing.
Notice how Malinowski's explanation fits the basic functionalist
pattern. He explained a given
culture trait, in this case, the use of magic, by showing how it contributes to
the overall stability of the society, i.e., magic reduces the anxiety produced
by the dangers and uncertainties of open ocean fishing.
The functionalism developed by Malinowski and others has influenced not
only social anthropologists, but sociologists as well.
Perhaps the best examples of functionalist explanation in sociology are
contained in a book entitled Human Society, written by Kingsley Davis.
Published originally in 1949, the book has been reprinted many times
since. Human Society was
intended to be an introductory text, though a functionalist one. Thus most of Davis's discussion is devoted to those fairly
standard topics, like socialization, religious institutions, and marriage and
the family, that tend to get covered in every introductory textbook.
But Davis also devoted an entire chapter to something that will strike
many of you as an unlikely candidate for functionalist explanation: sexual
jealousy among males.
Most people probably regard jealousy as somehow pathological, as
resulting from, say, the basic insecurity of males concerning sexual matters.
Nevertheless, sexual jealousy of this sort is found in every known
society, and for the functionalist like Davis, that meant that it probably
contributes to social stability. But
Davis started off by making a very crucial assumption, crucial in the sense that if the assumption was false, his entire argument would fall apart. He assumed that, unless a society places some restrictions upon sexual intercourse, each male would be constantly competing with other males for sexual access to women, producing much conflict. The conflict, in turn, would prevent the cooperation that must be maintained if society is to survive. This led Davis to conclude that every society will have norms of some sort regulating sexual intercourse. But how are these norms going to be enforced? That is, what is going to insure that most members of society obey most of the norms most of the time? That is where sexual jealousy comes in.
Jealousy is an emotional response that fosters aggression.
Specifically, it fosters aggression against the person or persons who
have given someone reason to be jealous. Given
this, Davis argued, a community will encourage its members to be jealous
whenever their sexual rights have been violated. (Sexual rights are those rights
guaranteed to somebody under the society's sexual norms.) The fact that the
community encourages a person to be jealous whenever his or sexual rights have
been violated will discourage individuals who might think of violating those
rights. For instance, suppose that
one of the sexual norms in a society is that the only person who has the right
to have intercourse with a married woman is that woman’s husband.
Knowing that a husband will become jealous (and aggressive) if some other
male has intercourse with his wife and knowing that this jealousy will be
encouraged by the general community would, according to Davis, discourage to
some degree both the wife and any potential lover from violating that norm.
To convince yourself of the reasonableness of the Davis argument, you
might think about things the other way around. If everybody were absolutely
certain that the husbands in this society would not get jealous if someone else
had intercourse with their wives, would this make it more likely that people
would commit adultery? If you answered "yes" to this question, then
you are in basic agreement with Davis's analysis.
of this explanation is that the only way to eliminate sexual jealousy is to
eliminate sexual norms - and if Davis's initial assumption is correct, this
cannot be done without producing much social instability.
Functionalist explanations of the sort developed by Davis (and many
others) are still very popular in sociology, but much less so than they once
There are fads and fashions in sociological theory just as there are in
popular music, and during the 1960s a French social theorist named Claude LeviStrauss
was very popular. The theoretical
perspective associated with Levi-Strauss is called structuralism.
For a time it appeared that structuralism, which was applied to
everything from religion to comic strips, might become the dominant theoretical
perspective in the study of culture. This
has since proven not to be true. Structuralism
never did achieve in North America the popularity that it did in Europe, and
even in Europe interest in structuralism seems to have peaked in the
mid-1970s. Nevertheless, structuralism still has a modest following,
and it is clearly one of the most innovative theoretical perspectives to have
emerged in social science since the end of World War 11. For these reasons alone it is worth reviewing here.
In his study of the structuralist movement, Gardner (1981) has, quite
aptly I think, characterized this movement as being concerned with "the
quest for mind" the title of Gardner's book. What this means is that structuralists (at least structuralists
of the Levi-Straussian variety; there are others) are concerned with those
mental processes which do not vary across cultures and which shape our
perception of the world around us. Structuralists
thus are not concerned with what Levi-Strauss calls the contingent.
That is, structuralists are not concerned with the day-to-day needs
forced upon us by our physiology or by our physical or social environment.
This makes the concerns of the structuralist quite different from those
of the functionalists (considered in the last section) or the cultural
materialists (to be considered in the next section) who do tend to see culture
as an adaptation to practical needs of some sort.
The foundation of Levi-Strauss's theoretical system is found in two
early books, Totemism (1963) and The Savage Mind (1966).
Both will strike the casual reader as being concerned with a fairly
obscure topic, namely, systems of classification in pre-industrial societies.
But commentators like Leach (1974) have pointed out that in each book
Levi-Strauss is really grappling with a very important philosophical question,
this being, "What is it that makes human beings human?" There are many
possible answers to this question, but Levi-Strauss preferred this one: what
most distinguishes us from animals is our ability to think about the abstract,
and therefore non-observable, relations that exist among different social
groups. Not a bad answer as these
things go, and it led Levi-Strauss to a second question, "How do human
beings acquire the ability to think about such abstract relationships?"
Levi-Strauss argued that the ability to think about abstract social
relationships is not innate, but learned. How
is it learned?
Levi-Strauss gave his original answer to this question in his book on
totemism. He defined totemism as a
belief system in which the members of a social group feel a mystical
relationship of some sort with some natural category, usually an animal
category. The members of such
groups will often express this by saying that they are "descended"
from that animal category. The
animal category itself is called their "totem.” For
instance, the members of one lineage in a society (a group of people
who believe themselves to be blood relatives by virtue of the fact that they
share a common ancestor) might say that they are descended from the wolf-totem,
the members of another lineage in the same society might say that they are
descended from the bear-totem, and so on.
For Levi-Strauss, the key to
understanding totemism was that totemism establishes one-to-one correspondence
between a set of natural categories (for example, a set of animal categories)
and a set of social categories (for example, a set of lineage).
Once we realize this, said Levi-Strauss, we will inevitably find that the
relationships existing among the "natural" categories will
reflect the relationships existing among the social categories.
A simple example should make this clearer.
societies, each sexual group has its own totem; that is, males are associated
with one totem and females are associated with another totem.
Let's suppose that in some hypothetical society men see themselves as
being associated with the eagle totem, while females see themselves as being
associated with the bear totem. LeviStrauss's
argument leads us to expect that the natural, or observable, relationship
between eagle and bear should mirror the social relationship among males and
females. If our hypothetical society
is patriarchal (and assume for the sake of the example that it is), then this
would be true: eagles are higher, in a purely spatial sense, than bears, just as
men are higher, with respect to political power and prestige, than women.
But why should a correspondence of this sort exist?
For Levi-Strauss the answer here was simple, and it brought him back to
his original concern. Since we are not born with the ability to think about
abstract social relationships, we must develop that ability. We do this by making use of the easily observable
relationships that exist among natural categories.
Thus, confronted with two social groups that differ with respect to power
and prestige, we use the concrete fact that eagles are higher than bears in
order to think about the social fact that one of these groups has higher social
status than the other. In
summarizing his argument here LeviStrauss tossed out one of the catch-phrases
for which is famous: totemic animals are chosen not because they are bonnes
à manger (good to eat), as Malinowski thought, but rather because they are bonnes
à penser (good to think with). The
Savage Mind simply elaborated upon the theoretical argument developed in Totemism
by applying that argument to some fairly complicated examples of
Many sociologists in English-speaking countries find Levi-Strauss's play
on words just a little too cute and his entire system more than a little too
philosophical. After all, the
dominant research traditions among English-speaking sociologists stress
statistical analysis of quantitative data gathered from surveys and
questionnaires (see Chapter 5). This
orientation does not create a sympathy for puns or for philosophical questions
of the "what is it that makes us truly human type.
On the other hand, a structuralist of the Levi-Straussian variety would
probably respond by suggesting that the over-reliance of modern sociology upon
the quantitative measurement of easily observable and fairly concrete
variables means that modern sociologists, like the "savages" studied
by Levi-Strauss, have difficulty thinking about the abstract.
What I have summarized here is early LeviStrauss.
Having laid the foundations of his theoretical system in his studies of
pre-industrial classification, Levi-Strauss has spent the last 20 years tackling
a far more complicated topic, the logic used to construct myths, and more
generally, religious beliefs. His
work on myth and religion is not easily summarized, and the interested leader
should consult Leach (1974), Gardner (1981), and Carroll (1978).
During the late 1960s a reaction set in against the “creeping
mentalism" that seemed to be pervading the study of culture as a result of
the popularity of theoretical perspectives like structuralism.
One part of this reaction was the development of cultural materialism.
The cultural materialist de-emphasizes ideas and ideology as
determinants of culture, and instead sees culture as an adaptation to the needs
forced upon us by the nature of the physical environment in which we live.
The essence of cultural materialism is best conveyed by examples, and
the best examples of this approach are found in the applications of cultural
materialism developed by Marvin Harris (1974; 1977; 1979).
One of Harris's (1974) early concerns was to explain the ban on the
slaughter of sacred cows in India. To
the Western observer, this ban may seem utterly senseless, a classic example of
how religion and tradition can stand in the way of rational behavior. (Religion
and rationality will be discussed in Chapter 9.) Nothing seems more tragic than
for Indian farmers to see their families starve rather than kill the sacred cows
that wander the countryside. Nevertheless,
Harris argued, if you think that the Indian farmers are in a tragic situation
right now, that is nothing compared to the misery and human devastation that
would result if those farmers started to slaughter their sacred cows.
How did Harris come to this very counterintuitive position?
He started by noting that there are two basic types of agricultural
systems in the world today. One,
the type that is used in Canada and in most Western nations, is a highly mechanized
system that relies on tractors for motive power.
Such a system also relies heavily upon petrochemicals, both to fuel the
tractors and to provide synthetic fertilizers.
The second type is a non-mechanized system that relies on draught animals
like oxen for motive power and that uses dung for fertilizer.
This is the system that characterizes modern India.
There are two reasons why India cannot convert to the more mechanized
system of agriculture. First,
currently India has neither the capital needed to purchase the necessary
machinery nor the capital necessary to establish a system for the distribution
of petrochemical products. Second,
the experience in Western nations makes it quite clear that one effect of
agricultural mechanization is the displacement of people from the country to
the city. India's urban areas are
already overcrowded and simply cannot absorb a massive influx from the country.
India, then, is stuck with the non-mechanized type of agriculture.
At this point Harris came up with an interesting statistic from Indian
government reports: in an average year, the number of oxen available for use by
Indian farmers is only about 66 percent of the number of oxen that are needed by
those same farmers. This chronic
shortage of oxen is one of the major reasons why thousands of Indian farms fail each
year. If Western farmers want new
tractors, a factory, but if Indian farmers want a new ox, they go to - a cow.
We begin to catch a glimmer of the reasoning behind Harris's position.
Only by insuring that most of its farms are productive can India feed
itself. Only by maintaining a large population of cows can India's
farmers be assured that sufficient oxen will be available to make the farms
productive. Even with the current
ban on the slaughter of cows, there are not enough oxen to go around.
Think of how much greater the shortage of oxen would be if a significant
percentage of those cows were slaughtered.
But wait. Isn’t there a flaw in the argument? If maintaining a large population of cows is so much in the
farmers' self-interest, why do things have to be formalized with a religious
ban? Wouldn’t farmers just
naturally not slaughter their cows? Harris's
response to this criticism is simple. Rains
in India are irregular and thus famine is recurrent and unavoidable.
Indian farmers are like you or me. If
they see their families starving they will be sorely tempted to kill their cows
in order to feed their families. Yet
if they do kill those cows during a time of famine, there will be an even
greater shortage of oxen than is normal, and it will be difficult for Indian
agriculture to get back on its feet when the famine ends.
In fact, killing the cows might easily mean that the famine would never
solution is a total, absolute, and religiously-inspired ban on the slaughter of
cows. Only a ban of this sort has
the remotest chance of stopping the farmers' temptations to feed themselves
and their families during times of famine.
well-known example of the cultural materialist approach is also taken from
Harris (1974); it concerns the ancient Israelites. The Old Testament Book of Leviticus records the religious
prohibitions against the Israelites' eating of pork. We know also from other sources that the pig was regarded by
the Israelites as a particularly unclean animal.
Why pigs? Here again the
modern mind tends to prefer "hygienic" explanations.
Pigs, after all, transmit trichinosis, a type of parasitic disease.
But Harris pointed out that from a purely hygienic point of view, cattle
are far more unhealthy than pigs. Cattle,
for instance, serve as carriers of a disease called anthrax.
While trichinosis is rarely fatal, anthrax is deadly.
Anthrax epidemics devastated whole populations, including populations in
the Middle East, until the disease was brought under control in the 19th
century. Yet cattle, far from being
prohibited in the Old Testament, were held up as a preferred food in Leviticus.
If the concern were to prohibit the eating of unhealthy animals, then the
Old Testament did things backwards by prohibiting the eating of pork and encouraging
the eating of beef.
his own explanation by noting that although "sweat like a pig" is a
cliche, the fact of the matter is that pigs do not sweat, at least, not very
much. Remember that the function of
sweating is to cool off the body, and all warm-blooded animals must cool off
their bodies in a hot climate. Because
pigs do not sweat, they must cool themselves off by covering their skin with
liquid of some sort, including, for instance, their own urine and feces if
nothing else is available.
What all of
this means is that if the ancient Israelites had raised pigs, to do so would
have required enormous amounts of water, since the Israelites were living in a
very hot climate. But water was.
scarce in the and regions of the ancient Middle East, and diverting large
amounts of water to the raising of pigs would have left insufficient supplies
for the human population. Over the
long run, Harris argued, this would have proven economically disastrous.
The only solution was a ban on the eating of pigs.
A bit of supporting evidence consistent with Harris's argument is that
the other major religion that developed in the arid regions of the Middle East,
Islam, also prohibits the eating of pork.
who finds these examples interesting should consult Harris's books (1974;
1977; 1979), which develop cultural materialist explanations for a wide array
of cultural practices, ranging from the persecution of witches in the European
Middle Ages to cannibalism among the Aztecs.
These books will also provide references to other authors using the
cultural materialist approach.
The final theoretical perspective on culture presented here is also the
most controversial. It is called
sociobiology, and it is a view that rests upon two basic assumptions.
The first is that a predisposition towards certain social behaviors can
be transmitted genetically from one generation to the next, as easily as
predispositions towards upright posture, large brains, and other physical
characteristics. The second
assumption is that Darwin’s theory of evolution, or at least that theory as it
has been modified by later evolutionary biologists, is substantially correct.
Believing these two things to be true, socio-biologists conclude that it
should be as easy to use the theory of biological evolution to explain some
social behaviors as it is to use that theory to explain certain physical
The attempt to use the theory of biological evolution to explain social
behavior is by itself nothing new. Biologists
as far back as Darwin himself tried to do that.
What makes modern sociobiology so distinctive is its ability to
explain, so its supporters claim, social behaviors that once seemed beyond the
reach of evolutionary theory. Altruism
is the classic example here
Altruism refers to any behavior in which an individual makes a personal
sacrifice in order to secure an advantage for someone else.
The ultimate altruistic act is the individual's laying down his or her
life in order that some other individual might live.
Now suppose, just for the sake of argument, that genetic mutations occur
in a population of human beings that predispose some of them towards altruism.
The individuals who possess this altruistic gene, because they are more
willing than those who do not possess it to sacrifice themselves for others,
should be less likely to survive and have children.
In other words, those individuals who lack this gene should be more likely
than those who have it to survive and have children.
According to classic evolutionary theory, what this should mean is that
over several generations those possessing the gene should make up a smaller and
smaller proportion of the population and eventually, because their altruism
puts them at such a competitive disadvantage in the struggle for survival, die
off altogether. In short,
evolutionary theory would seem to suggest that even if it could be transmitted
genetically, altruism would be either quite rare or non-existent. But we know that altruism is quite common.
This suggests that, rather than seeing it as a biological phenomenon, it
should be viewed as the result of a learning process.
For instance, groups train people to be altruistic so that individuals
will be willing to die in order to preserve the group's culture.
But socio-biologists have
taken another look at altruism. Suppose,
they say, there were genetically transmitted predispositions, not toward
altruism itself, but toward maximizing inclusive fitness, which simply
means toward maximizing the degree to which genes are transmitted to succeeding
generations. If predispositions
toward maximizing inclusive fitness do exist, then they would automatically lead
individuals to behave altruistically towards those with whom they share a large
portion of their genes. For
instance, one of the most direct ways to maximize inclusive fitness would be to
have lots of children. But having
children does no good if these children die before they have children
themselves. Hence, one of the best
strategies for maximizing inclusive fitness is to insure that children survive,
even if this means that parents must sacrifice their own lives. Though it may seem strange to suggest that a desire to insure
the survival of genes is stronger than the desire to stay alive, that is just
what sociobiology is saying. Generally,
the prediction from sociobiology is, the more genes you share with an
individual, the more likely you are to behave altruistically toward that person.
By this reasoning, individuals should be more likely to sacrifice
themselves for their own children than for other blood relatives, but more
likely to sacrifice themselves for blood relatives than others.
On the face of it, the evidence from common sense would seem consistent
with these predictions. After all,
you probably would be more willing to lay down your life for your own child than
for someone else's. But perhaps the
most dramatic bit of support for the overall argument comes from considering a
cultural arrangement that at first sight seems to pose a serious problem for
In a great many pre-industrial societies there is a special relationship
between a man and his sister's son that social anthropologists call the avunculate.
One characteristic of the avunculate is that a man is often more
likely to make personal sacrifices for his sister's son than for his own son.
This would seem to run counter to the prediction from sociobiology.
After all, a father shares more genes with his own son than with his
sister's son - or does he? Actually,
In a society like ours, where extramarital sex is strongly discouraged,
it is highly likely that a man is the biological father of his wife's children.
But in a society in which sexual norms are generally not restrictive (and
many pre-industrial cultures fall into this category), the reverse can be true. That is, a man is quite unlikely to be the biological father
of his wife's children. In a
society of this second type, a mass best bet for maximizing his inclusive
fitness is to insure the survival of someone with whom he has a known genetic
relationship, preferably somebody with whom he shares a substantial proportion
of his genes. His sister's son is
just such a person. The fact of
having a common mother insures that a man will share a substantial proportion of
his genes with his sister, and of course that sister will share at least 50
percent of her genes with her son. Together
these two factors insure that a man and his sister's son will share a
substantial proportion of their genes.
One of the appealing things about this argument is that it leads quite
logically to a very precise prediction that can be checked against the data.
Very simply, the argument developed in the last two paragraphs suggests
that the avunculate is most likely to be found in societies where the sexual
norms make it highly unlikely that a man is the biological father of his wife's
children. In fact, the
anthropological evidence (Barkow, 1978: 89) bears out this prediction, in turn
strengthening our confidence in the sociobiology argument.
Some general considerations
It seems appropriate at this point to tidy up our discussion of
sociobiology by bringing out some features of sociobiology thinking that are not
at first obvious. First, students
find it difficult to believe that people make a conscious calculation of the
degree to which they share genes with some individual before deciding whether or
not to act altruistically towards that individual.
In fact, socio-biologists do not assume that such conscious calculations
are made. If the tendency to
maximize inclusive fitness implied a high degree of intellectual activity,
then sociobiology could hardly be used to explain the behavior of social insects
like ants and termites.
In the usual case, socio-biologists simply assume that some very
precise and very observable stimuli can "trigger" a behavioral
predisposition rooted in our genes, and that this behavioral predisposition
has the consequence of maximizing our inclusive fitness.
Consider the case of incest avoidance.
In one sense, mating with a close blood relative is a good
socio-biological bet. After all,
the resulting offspring would share more of your genes than if you mated with
someone who was not a blood relative. Insuring
the survival of someone with whom you shared, say, 75% of your genes would
maximize your inclusive fitness more than insuring the survival of someone with
whom you share, say, only 50% of your genes.
On the other hand, incest (sexual intercourse between father and
daughter, mother and son, or brother and sister), although it does not have
the horrible effects attributed to it in the popular imagination, does
substantially increase the probability of your inheriting the same recessive
gene through both parents. Since
the traits linked to recessive genes (more so than the traits linked to dominant
genes) can substantially lessen the chances of reaching reproductive age, incest
carries the risk that your offspring will not survive to pass on your genes. It turns out the socio-biological strategy that maximizes
your inclusive fitness is to mate with someone who is a close relative, but not
too close. Avoid incest, in other
words, but mate with a first cousin. In
fact, most of the world's known societies do encourage marriage with a first
cousin, a fact that accords well with socio-biological reasoning.
But how does,
say, a monkey avoid incest? That
is, how does it "know" if some particular other monkey is a parent or
sibling? The socio-biological
answer: he or she doesn’t have to know. All
we need to assume is that as a result of genetic mutation and evolution,
monkeys (or humans) have a predisposition to avoid sexual intercourse with those
with whom they had a lot of physical contact while they were young.
Since most such others will be parents or siblings, such a predisposition
has the consequence of leading monkeys (or humans) to avoid incest.
if this is the mechanism that leads to incest-avoidance, it should be possible
to "fool mother nature." This means that if, say, a boy and a girl who
are not blood relatives are for some reason raised together from an early age
on, and literally touch each other a lot while young, then they should develop a
sexual aversion to each other of the sort usually associated with biological
siblings. In fact, there are a
number of studies which indicate that this is exactly what happens.
sociobiology in no way implies that the behaviors it explains are unaffected by
social learning, or that we are totally under the control of our genes.
Sociobiology only spells out predispositions, and predispositions can
always be counteracted and even reversed by learning processes.
For instance, despite a general tendency for close blood relatives to be
altruistic to one another, child abuse does occur, and despite a tendency to
avoid incest, incest does occur.
The range of
social behaviors that have been convincingly explained using socio-biological
principles is, at best, relatively narrow. At the moment there is little likelihood that sociobiology
will become the dominant theoretical perspective in the study of culture.
But sociobiology, along with structuralism, is still among the very few
really novel theoretical perspectives that have developed within sociology
during the past half-century. Anyone
seriously concerned with sociology must come to grips with it.
For those students who wish to pursue this subject further, I would
recommend first the essay by Barkow (1978), then the books by Barash (1977) and
Dawkins (1978), and finally, the collection of readings in Caplan (1978).
Nuer Ghost Marriage
In two uncommon but
perfectly legitimate forms of marriage among the Nuer, the socially recognized
father (pater in the Latin sense) of a child is not the man whose sexual
intercourse with the mother is presumed to have led to the pregnancy (the genitor).
A Nuer woman whose husband has died remains subject to a legal
contract through which rights to the children she bears were transferred to her
husband's group. By giving cattle
to her father's group, the husband's group acquires rights in perpetuity to her
reproductive powers. Ideally, if
the husband dies, the contract will be sustained by her remarrying, to her
deceased husband's brother or some other member of his group.
But the children she bears from sexual relations with her second husband
are socially defined as the offspring of her dead first husband (hence,
"ghost marriage"). The
widow, rather than remarrying, may simply take lovers; but then the children she
bears from her sexual relations with them are defined as offspring of her dead
In a more rare form, an old and important woman may (by acquiring cattle "marry" a girl.
The senior woman finances the marriage transactions as if she were a man.
The young woman then bears children by lovers, They are socially defined,
as the children of the female "husband," who in turn is their
father." (Hence, they belong to her father's group, even though membership
in it is transmitted to the male line.)
The Function of Deviance
Following is a functionalist explanation of Puritan witch hunts, in which it is argued that
society creates deviance both to mark the bottom boundary of society
and to preserve cultural integrity.
One of the most intriguing efforts to show the positive consequences of
deviance is provided by Erikson's (1966) award-winning study of the sixteenth
and seventeenth century Puritans of New England. In order to study the role of deviance in Puritan
communities, he examined official statistics, such as court records; personal
documents, such as diaries; and a variety of other sources.
Judged by contemporary standards, the Puritans placed tremendous stress
upon conventional morals. They
created communities in which the laws were heavily infused with fundamentalist
religious values. Their persecution
of Quakers, their witchcraft hysteria, and other collective movements were
viewed by Erikson as continuing attempts to define and re-define the
community's social boundaries; that is, to set the limits upon compliance and
deviance, and to maintain the distinctiveness of the community.
Movement of these boundaries, in effect, created “crime waves," as
persons whose behavior was formerly in the range of the acceptable were suddenly
deviant. The branding of heretics
and witches that followed sustained community norms and solidarity.
Thus, movements of the boundaries can be viewed as highly functional to
the maintenance of a distinctive community.
An interesting example is provided by the trials of Ann Hutchinson, who
was ultimately excommunicated from both the church and the community (though the
distinction between the two was blurred).
In the 1630s, the Hutchinson's Boston home was a center of lively
theological discussion. Community
interest in Mrs. Hutchinson's biblical scholarship and viewpoints came to exceed
interest in the minister's "official" sermons.
And because she was critical of the political-religious ruling body, the
battle lines were soon drawn. The
fact that the dissent was spurred by a woman, whose rightful place was believed
to involve housework rather than scholarship, made her position still more
tenuous. Her position was threatening to the establishment, Erikson
notes, because it denied the ministers ability to utilize the covenant of grace
as a political instrument. Thus,
while Ann Hutchinson and her followers appeared to be dissenting on theological
grounds, she was initially charged with sedition rather than heresy.
The civil trial was a sham, even by seventeenth century standards.
Her claim that her position was based on the revealed word of God was
viewed by the court as a "devilish delusion." After polling the court,
Governor Winthrop declared that, “The danger of her course among us ... is not
to be suffered ... Mrs. Hutchinson is unfit for our society" (Erikson,
1966: 99). After a four-month imprisonment she was then tried by the
Church, and "delivered over to Satan." It was another ritual trial
whose outcome was never in doubt.
Throughout the civil trial, Mrs. Hutchinson repeatedly requested to know
the charges that were placed against her. While
all members of the court acted as though the answer was self-evident, no
specific charges were ever given. She
could only be told that her conduct could "not be suffered" because
there existed in the colonies no names for her crimes.
However, she had to be found guilty so that she could be banished,
Erikson concludes, because it was the only way to protect the community's
In this study of Puritan life, Erikson explicitly began with Durkheim's
assumption that, "deviant forms of behavior are a natural and even
beneficial part of social life." What will be regarded as deviant, in any
community, depends upon what is considered "dangerous" or
"embarrassing" or "irritating" to the "people of a
group;" and this will change with the "shifting mood of the
community." Communities maintain boundaries in order to preserve their
"cultural integrity" or distinctiveness. From this perspective religious or civil trials, courts
martial, and even psychiatric confinements can be viewed as ways of drawing
boundary lines. Thus, deviant
behavior is socially, generated and, within limits, provides an important,
albeit generally unrecognized, means for preserving the special character and
the stability of social life.
Example of Structuralism
The color spectrum, which runs from violet, through blue, to green, to
yellow, to red, is a continuum. There
is no natural point at which green changes to yellow or yellow to red.
Our mental recognition of color is a response to variations in the
quality of the light input, notably to luminosity as between dark and light and
to wave length as between long and short. Wave
length gets shorter as we move from infrared to ultraviolet, while temperature,
as measured on a thermometer, gets less; luminosity is zero at either end of
this spectrum and reaches a maximum in the middle that is, in the yellow.
It is a discrimination of the human brain which breaks up this continuum
into segments so, that we feel that blue, green, yellow, red, etc., are quite
"different" colors. This
ordering mechanism of the brain is such that anyone who is not color blind can
readily be taught to feel that green is the "opposite" of red in the
same way that black is the opposite of white.
In our own culture we have in fact been taught to make this discrimination,
and because of this we find it appropriate to use red and green signals as if
they corresponded to plus and minus.
Anyway, in our case, with
traffic lights on both railways and roads, green means go and red means stop.
For many situations this is sufficient.
However, if we want to devise a further signal with an intermediate
meaning - about to stop / about to go - we choose the color yellow.
We do this because, in the spectrum, it lies midway between green and
In this example the ordering of the colors green-yellow-red is the same
as the ordering of the instructions go-caution-stop; the color system and
the signal system have the same "structure," the one is a
transformation of the other.
But notice how we have arrived at this transformation:
a) The color spectrum
exists in nature as a continuum.
b) The human brain interprets
this continuum as if it consisted of discontinuous segments.
c) The human brain
searches for an appropriate representation of a binary opposition plus/minus
and selects green and red as a binary pair.
d) Having set up this polar
opposition, the human brain is dissatisfied with the resulting discontinuity
and searches for an intermediate position: not plus/ not minus.
a) It then goes back to
the original natural continuum and chooses yellow as the intermediate signal
because the brain is able to perceive yellow as a discontinuous intermediate
segment lying between green and red.
f) Thus the final
cultural product, the three-color traffic signal, is a simplified imitation of
a phenomenon of nature - the color
spectrum as apprehended by the human brain.
In my example, the pattern was subject to two special constraints: first,
it is a "fact of nature" that the sequence of colors in the spectrum
is green-yellow-red and not yellow-green-red or green-red-yellow, and second,
there is the further fact of nature, which certainly goes back to very early
paleolithic times, that human beings have a tendency to make a direct
association between red as a color and blood as a substance, so that, if any
one of these three colors is to be selected to mean "stop-danger," it
is much more likely to be red than either yellow or green.
On this account the correlation between the members of the two triads
are, in this case, more or less predetermined.
The equivalences red-yellow-green STOP-CAUTION-GO
are given and we do not need to
pay attention to alternative possibilities offered by the rest of the matrix.
green red yellow