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The study of culture is an important part of contemporary sociological work. The major aspects of culture include language, norms, sanctions and values.
Language is a critical element of culture that sets apart humans from other living beings. Language is the foundation of every living culture, though particular languages may differ in striking ways. Language is an abstract system of word meanings and symbols for all aspects of culture. It includes speech, written characters, numerals, symbols and gestures of nonverbal communication. People depend upon language for it describes and shapes the reality of a culture. The word symbols and the grammar of a language organize the world for us. Linguists suggest that language may influence our behavior and interpretations of social reality. But they also think that language is not a «given», rather it is culturally determined and it leads to different interpretations of reality and certain phenomena. For example, in the United States you ask a hardware store clerk for a «flashlight», while in England, if you needed this item, you would have to ask for «an electric torch». Languages differ in the number of colors that are recognized. There are 11 basic terms in English. But the Russian and Hungarian languages have 12 color terms.
The language barrier extends even to nonverbal communication. Many people in the United States interpreted Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's hands-clasped gesture following a 1973 White House meeting with President Nixon as meaning «I've won» or «I'm the champ.» While that is indeed the American meaning of this gesture, Russians use the gesture as asymbol of friendship.
Language is of great interest to the sociological perspective because it can shape how we see, taste, smell, feel and hear. It also influences the way we think about the people, ideas and objects around us. A culture's most important aspects are communicated to people through language. It is for these reasons that the introduction of new languages into a society is such a sensitive issue in many parts of the world.
While the United States remains resistant to official use of languages other than English, other societies experience the pervasiveness of the English language. The domination of English stems from such factors as the demands of world trade, where English is used to negotiate many international business deals. In addition, English pervades rock music throughout the world. The leading popular and rock groups record in English.
This does not mean that English is being enthusiastically welcomed in all countries. For example, «linguistic integrity» is somewhat a passion in France. The French minister of culture limited the number of American songs that French radio stations and discotheques could play, but later dropped the idea when a survey revealed 'that many discos would promptly have gone bankrupt. The government has gone so far as to establish committees to abolish Anglicisms and invent suitable French alternatives, such as «informatique» for «data processing». Responding with a dry sarcasm to such campaigns, the newspaper Le Monde suggested that the widely used term «sandwich» could be replaced with «two pieces of bread with something in the middle». Less concise but more French, Le Monde observed.
All societies have particular ways of encouraging what they view as appropriate behavior while discouraging and punishing what they consider to be improper conduct. «Put on some clean clothes for dinner» and «Thou shall not kill,» just as respect for older people are examples of norms found in human culture. Norms are established standards of behavior maintained by a society.
Sociologists distinguish between norms in two ways. First, norms are classified as formal or informal.
Formal norms have been written down and involve strict rules for punishment of violators. In human society we often formalize norms into laws, which must be very precise in defining proper and improper behavior.
By contrast, informal norms are generally understood but are not precisely recorded.
Standards of proper dress are a common example of informal norms, while the rules of a card play are considered formal norms.
Norms are also classified by their relative importance to society. When classified in this way, they are known as mores and folkways. Mores are norms highly necessary to the welfare of a society. Thus human society has strong mores against murder, treason and child abuse. Each society demands obedience to its mores; their violation can lead to severe penalties.
Folkways are norms governing everyday behavior whose violation raises comparatively little concern. Folkways very often are not shared in all societies. Let us look at one fascinating example: the folkways that govern how far we should stand from people when interacting with them. The anthropologist Edward Hall suggests that Americans and northern Europeans operate in four distance zones:
1. Intimate distance: up to 18 inches. That is the distance of lovemaking, wrestling, comforting, protecting and also of confrontation as in «Get your face out of mine!»
2. Personal distance: 18 inches to 4 feet. This is the conversational distance generally used with friends.
3. Social distance: 4 to 7 feet. Within this distance we conduct impersonal business, such as purchasing products or interviewing strangers.
4. Public distance: 12 feet and more. This is viewed as the proper distance for public occasions. It will be used to separate a speaker or a famous person from admiring fans.
It is important to note that these distances are not universally upheld in all cultures. Southern Europeans, Arabs and Latin Americans stand closer together when conversing and are more likely to touch one another and maintain eye contact.
What happens when people violate a widely shared and understood norm? In this case they will receive sanctions. Sanctions are penalties and rewards for conduct concerning a social norm. Positive sanctions are a pay raise, a medal, a word of gratitude or a pat on the back. Negative sanctions include fines, threats, imprisonment and even states of contempt.
The relationship between norms and sanctions in a culture reflects that culture's values and priorities. Values are those collective conceptions of what is considered good, desirable and proper or bad, undesirable and improper in a culture.
They indicate what people in a given culture prefer as well as what they find important and morally right (or wrong). Values may be specific, such as honoring one's parents, or they may be more general, such as health, love and democracy.
Values influence people's behavior and serve as criteria for evaluating the actions of others.There is a direct relationship between the values, norms and sanctions of a culture. For example, if a culture views private property as a basic value, it will probably have laws against theft and vandalism. The values of a culture may change but most remain relatively stable during any one person's lifetime.
The sociologist Robin Williams has offered a list of basic American values, including achievement, efficiency, material comfort, nationalism, equality and the supremacy of science and reason over faith. Socially shared, intensely felt these values are a fundamental part of human lives in the United States.
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