51 Outcome: Defining Culture

Define culture, society, cultural universals, and cultural relativism

Are there rules for eating at McDonald’s? Generally, we do not think about rules in a fast food restaurant, but if you look around one on a typical weekday, you will see people acting as if they were trained for the role of fast food customer. They stand in line, pick items from the colorful menus, swipe debit cards to pay, and wait to collect trays of food. After a quick meal, customers wad up their paper wrappers and toss them into garbage cans. Customers’ movement through this fast food routine is orderly and predictable, even if no rules are posted and no officials direct the process.

People have written entire books analyzing the significance of fast food customs. They examine the extensive, detailed physicality of fast food: the food itself, wrappers, bags, trays, those tiny ketchup packets, the tables and chairs, and even the restaurant building. Everything about a chain restaurant reflects culture, the beliefs and behaviors that a social group shares. Sociological analysis can be applied to every expression of culture, from sporting events to holidays, from education to transportation, from fashion to etiquette.

In this section, you’ll examine culture and society and come to understand that a culture represents the beliefs, practices and artifacts of a group, while society represents the social structures and organization of the people who share those beliefs and practices.

What You’ll Learn To Do:

  • Differentiate between culture and society
  • Explain material versus nonmaterial culture and discuss cultural universalism
  • Compare and contrast ethnocentrism and xenocentricism


The learning activities for this section include:

  • Reading: Culture and Society
  • Reading: What Is Culture?
  • Reading: Ethnocentrism and Xenocentricism
  • Self-Check: Defining Culture


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