Every cultural group has its distinctions. From the Eskimos who hunt whales and use blubber for fuel to the high society ladies living in New York City who spend days at soirees and evenings rubbing shoulders with powerful business leaders, no two cultures are exactly alike. Cultures vary by language, values, norms and sanctions. Even among cultural universals, cultures have specific needs to meet depending on their population, demographic, location, natural resources and opportunity for advancements.
Types of Cultures
A subculture, which is part of a dominant culture, is distinct with its own values, folkways and mores. For example, in the U.S. a subculture is the snake handlers who live in Appalachia in the Southeast or the stock brokers who work on Wall Street. This type of cultural group will often develop its own language, which is known as an argot, that further distinguishes the group. For example, members of subcultures who are fans of electro-house music have an eclectic vocabulary that includes terms like “hipster,” “Molly,” and “raver.” A subculture is not focused on deviancy, but this type of group implements its own social values and ways that are only followed by its own group.
A counterculture, on the other hand, is considered somewhat deviant against society. This type of subculture defies at least one aspect of the dominant culture. Examples of countercultures includes:
- The “hippies” who protested the war in Vietnam
- KKK clan members who terrorize other ethnic groups
- Homeschooling families who choose not to enroll their children in public or private educational institutions
- Militant groups who are against government control
- Survivalists who believe society is going to collapse due to man-made or natural events
Aspects of Culture
When dealing with multiple cultures among societies and subcultures within societies, the differences in cultural practices often create tension. For example, whenever someone travels to another culture, they may experience culture shock, which leaves the traveler feeling disoriented and even fearful. They may be served foods they’ve never seen before, or they may not understand how to act in social situations. Everything they understand based on their own culture may be completely different, sending them into mental and emotional shock.
Ethnocentrism, Cultural Relativism and Xenocentrism
Whenever someone believes that their own culture is superior over another culture, this is ethnocentrism. Rather than judging other societies negatively because they have different cultural beliefs, as sociologists we are trained to maintain cultural relativism. This involves noting other culture’s practices from the position of your own culture. You then use neutrality to notice the differences of behaviors, while attempting to understand why the culture has that particular behavior. You may not accept every behavior of other cultures, such as female genocide or the eating of horse meat, but you are open to understanding why the other cultures do so.
On the reverse end of ethnocentrism is xenocentrism. This means to think that another culture is better than your own. For example, you might think that the math skills of students in Singapore are better than those of American students or that food in France is better than your Spanish cuisine. This can create distress among a society when its individuals do not feel that their own culture is up-to-par.