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 deviant member.

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.

Consider the 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.

Incidentally, 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.

Social roles

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?  Brother?  Sister?  Student?  Friend?  Enemy?  Male?  Female?  Son?  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.

In 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 biological mother.

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 interrelated.

Cultural variation

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.

For another 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 exists.

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 ethnocentric bias.

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, discussed below.

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 de­scent).

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 matrilineal.

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.)

The Lipset 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.

A quite 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.

Cultural universals

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 among societies.

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.

The most 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.  

Cultural integration

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 used.

These 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.

  Traditional Club

A traditional club is used to kill an animal brought down by a spear or gun.

  Body Paint

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.


Virtually 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?




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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 magic.

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 how?

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.

A consequence 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 were.


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.

    In many 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 pre-industrial classification.

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).

Cultural materialism

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 end.

The only 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.

Another 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.

Harris began 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.

The student 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 characteristics.


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 sociobiology.

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, it depends.

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.

Incidentally, 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.

Finally, 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).

A:  Nuer Ghost Marriage


  Photos by Michel duCille


Photos by Michel duCille  Photos by Michel duCille


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 husband.

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.)

B:  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 boundaries.

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.

C:  An 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 red.

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.

STOP                        CAUTION                 GO      (actual sequence)

Red                            yellow                        green


red                             green                          yellow  (Other possibilities)

yellow                        red                             green

yellow                        green                          red

green                          yellow                        red     


green                          red                             yellow


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