Symbols, Values & Norms: Crash Course Sociology #10

Symbols, Values & Norms: Crash Course Sociology #10


You’re about to cross a street.
What do you do? If there are no cars coming, do you stay at
the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change? Or do you just go for it? Do you look left first before you cross, or
do you look right? Or maybe you just dart across the street,
shouting, ‘Hey I’m walking here!’ No matter what you do in this situation, what
you do is going to depend on culture. Now you may be thinking, how can something
like crossing the street be a cultural phenomenon? Isn’t culture, like, opera and galas and
fancy art openings with tiny hor d’oeuvres? Or maybe you think culture is bigger than
all that, that culture is your heritage, traditions that have been passed down for generations, like
Quinceañeras, Bar Mitzvahs, or Sweet Sixteen parties. The fact is, all of these things – street-crossing,
fine arts, and traditional rites of passage
– they are all part of culture. [Theme Music] Culture is the way that non-material objects –
like thoughts, action, language, and values – come
together with material objects to form a way of life. So you can basically break culture down into
two main components: things and ideas. When you’re crossing the road, you can see
markers of your culture in the things around you – the street signs, the width of the
road, the speed and style of the cars. This is material culture, the culture of things. Books, buildings, food, clothing, transportation. It can be everything from iconic monuments like the Statue of Liberty to something as simple as a crosswalk sign that counts down how many seconds you have to cross the street. But a lot of the culture that’s packed into
crossing the street is non-material, too. We interpret the color red to mean stop –
because our culture has assigned red as a
symbol for stop and green for go. And if you grew up in a country where cars
drive on the right side of the road, your parents
probably taught you to look left first before crossing. This is non-material culture, the culture
of ideas. It’s made up of the intangible creations of human
society – values, symbols, customs, ideals. Instead of the Statue of Liberty, it’s the
idea of liberty and what it means to be free. For our purposes as sociologists, we’ll mainly be focusing on this second type of culture and its three main elements: symbols, values and beliefs, and norms. Symbols include anything that carries a
specific meaning that’s recognized by people
who share a culture. Like a stop sign. Or a gesture. If I do this [holds up one hand, palm out,
then just 1 finger], you probably know that
I mean: hold on a sec. Non-verbal gestures like this are a form of
language, which is itself a symbolic system that
people within a culture can use to communicate. Language is more than just the words you
speak or write – and it’s not just a matter of
English or French or Arabic. The type of language you use in one cultural
setting may be entirely different than what
you’d use in another. Take how you talk to people online. New linguistic styles have sprung up that
convey meaning to other people online, because
internet culture. See, there’s one right there! If you’re internet fluent, me saying ‘because’
and then a noun makes perfect sense, as a way
of glossing over a complicated explanation. But if you’re not familiar with that particular
language, it just seems like bad grammar. Whether it’s written, spoken or non-verbal, language
allows us to share the things that make up our culture,
a process known as cultural transmission. And one view of language is that it not only lets us communicate with each other, but that it also affects how people within a culture see the world around them. This theory, known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, argues that a person’s thoughts and actions are influenced by the cultural lens created by the language they speak. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble to see an
example of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in action. What gender is the moon? For English speakers, this question might
just conjure images of the man in the moon,
but in many languages, nouns have genders. And in some languages, the moon is feminine,
like the Spanish ‘la luna’. But in others, the moon is masculine, like
the German ‘der mond.’ And this affects how Spanish and German people
perceive the moon! In one study, Spanish and German people were asked to rate objects – which were gendered in their language – with reference to certain traits. Like, is the moon beautiful?
Is the moon rugged? Is the moon forceful? The study found that for those whose language used a masculine article, objects were more strongly associated with stereotypically masculine traits, like forcefulness. Another study found that when a name was assigned to an object, and the name matched the gender of the word for it, it was easier for people to remember the name. Like, “Maria Moon” tended to be remembered
more readily by Spanish-speakers than by German
speakers. Thanks, Thought Bubble. Now, I should mention that the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis is one that researchers are divided on. Benjamin Lee Whorf – the American linguist who
helped shape this theory – did his original research
on indigenous languages like Hopi and Inuit. And since then, anthropologists have argued
that some of his findings don’t hold up. For example, Whorf famously claimed that because
the Hopi language describes time differently,
the Hopi people think of time differently. But anthropological evidence about the Hopi
people suggests otherwise. And Whorf’s study led to a strange, and
false, stereotype that Hopi people, quote,
“have no sense of time.” Sociology is an evolving field, and academic
disagreements like this are just one reason that
we study language and how it shapes our society. But if language helps us communicate, shape, and
pass on culture, the next element of culture is what
helps us organize culture into moral categories. Values are the cultural standards that people use
to decide what’s good or bad, what’s right or wrong. They serve as the ideals and guidelines that
we live by. Beliefs, by contrast, are more explicit than
values – beliefs are specific ideas about
what people think is true about the world. So for example, an American value is democracy,
while a common belief is that a good political system
is one where everyone has the opportunity to vote. Different cultures have different values,
and these values can help explain why we see
different social structures around the world. Western countries like the United States
tend to value individualism and stress the
importance of each person’s own needs, whereas Eastern countries like China tend
to value collectivism and stress the importance
of groups over individuals. These different values are part of why
you’re more likely to see young adults in the US
living separately from their parents and more likely to see to multi-generational
households in China. Cultural values and beliefs can also help form
the guidelines for behavior within that culture. These guidelines are what we call norms, or
the rules and expectations that guide behavior
within a society. So giving up your seat for an elderly person?
Great. Picking your nose in public?
Gross. These are two ways of talking about norms. A norm simply relates to what we think is
“normal”, whether something is either
culturally accepted, or not. And we have three main types of norms! The first are what we call folkways. Folkways are the informal little rules that
kind of go without saying. It’s not illegal to violate a folkway, but
if you do, there might be ramifications – or
what we call negative sanctions. Like, if you walk onto an elevator and stand
facing the back wall instead of the door. You won’t get in trouble, but other people
are gonna give you some weird looks. And sometimes, breaking a folkway can be
a good thing, and score you some positive
sanctions from certain parts of society. Like, your mom might ground you for getting a
lip ring, but your friends might think it’s really cool. Another type of norm are mores, which are more official than folkways and tend to be codified, or formalized, as the stated rules and laws of a society. When mores are broken, you almost always
get a negative sanction – and they’re usually
more severe than just strange looks. Standing backward in the elevator might
make you the office weirdo, but you’ll probably
get fired if you come into work topless, because there are strict rules about what
kinds of clothing – or lack thereof – are
appropriate for the workplace. Hawaiian shirts – probably not. No shirt?
You’re fired. But mores aren’t universal. You may get fired for showing up without a
shirt at work, but men can lay on the beach shirtless,
or walk down the street with no problem. For women, these norms are different. In the United States, cultural norms about
women’s bodies and sexuality mean that it’s
illegal for women to go topless in public. But then in parts of Europe, social norms
are more lax about nudity, and it’s not uncommon
for women to also be shirtless at the beach. The last of type of norm is the most serious
of the three: taboo. Taboos are the norms that are crucial to a
society’s moral center, involving behaviors
that are always negatively sanctioned. Taboo behaviors are never okay, no matter
the circumstance, and they violate your very
sense of decency. So, killing a person: taboo or not? Your first instinct might be to say, yes,
killing is awful. But, while most cultures agree that life is
sacred, and murder should be illegal, it’s
not always considered wrong. Most societies say it’s okay to kill in
times of war or in self defense. So what is a taboo? Cannibalism, incest, and child molestation are
common examples of behavior we see as taboo. Yes, you can kill someone in self-defense, but if you
pull a Hannibal Lector and eat that person, you’re going
to jail, whether it started as self-defense or not. So don’t do that.
Ever. Norms like these and many others help societies
function well, but norms can also be a kind of constraint,
a social control that holds people back. Some norms can be bad, like ones that encourage
unhealthy behavior like smoking or binge drinking. But not all norms have clearly defined
moral distinctions – like the way a culture’s emphasis on
competition pushes people toward success,
but also discourages cooperation. And that’s the tricky thing about culture. Most of the time you don’t notice the cultural
forces that are shaping your thoughts and actions,
because they just seem normal. That’s why sociologists study culture! We can’t notice whether our values and our norms
are good or bad unless we step back and look at them
with the analytical eye of a sociologist. Today we learned what culture is and the difference
between material and non-material culture. We learned about three things that make up
culture: symbols, values and beliefs, and norms. We looked at how language influences culture
through the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and discussed the three types of norms – folkways,
mores, and taboos – which govern our daily life. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and it’s made with the help of all these nice people. Our Animation Team is Thought Cafe and Crash
Course is made with Adobe Creative Cloud. If you’d like to keep Crash Course free for everyone, forever, you can support the series at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows you to support the content you love. Speaking of Patreon, we’d like to thank all of our patrons in general, and we’d like to specifically thank our Headmaster of Learning David Cichowski. Thank you for your support.