Cultural Analysis: Theoretical Approaches

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  • 0:06 Analyzing Culture
  • 0:32 Structural-Functional
  • 1:46 Social Conflict
  • 2:30 Sociobiology
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

In this lesson, we cover three theoretical approaches used by sociologists to analyze culture: structural-functional theory, social-conflict theory, and sociobiology. We define and discuss each theory, along with examples.

Analyzing Culture

The study of culture is a vast, complex task. There are so many aspects of culture, and although many are widely accepted, not all sociologists agree on the way that culture should be studied. Let's examine three of the most common theoretical approaches used to analyze culture: structural-functional theory, social conflict theory, and sociobiology.

Structural-Functional Theory

The first approach we'll discuss is structural-functional theory. This approach views society as a complex, interconnected system. Think of the human body as an example, where all of our limbs, organs and other parts all have their own individual functions but also work together to create a fully functioning system. Structural-functional theory proposes that culture functions as the structure in society that exists to meet human needs.

For example, our culture gives our lives meaning and direction, giving us cues for what to do and how to live. It encourages us to work together to find resources to help us survive and to make connections with other people who provide care and comfort.

Additionally, even though all cultures are unique, structural-functional theory proposes that certain cultural universals exist, even beyond the category elements that we discuss in another lesson. For example, all cultures have behavioral norms, customs and even rituals that are unique. Yet, funeral rituals - although practiced differently - also exist universally to help the people in every culture to cope with death.

Funeral rituals vary by culture but serve a similar purpose.
Funeral Traditions

Social Conflict Theory

The second approach to analyzing culture is social conflict theory, which proposes that cultural traits always benefit some members of a society more than others. This theory is all about inequality and proposes that laws and norms that are created as part of a culture reflect the interests of the most powerful members of society.

For example, this is easy to see in American culture. We have a capitalist society that values competitiveness and material wealth. This benefits those who obtain material success but hurts those who do not. This results in a drastic contrast between the richest and the poorest members of our society.

The gap between the rich and poor illustrates social conflict theory.
Social Conflict Class Gap


The third and final theory used to analyze culture that we'll discuss in this lesson is sociobiology, which proposes that culture is not only socially constructed but is also affected by human biology. Sociobiologists theorize that certain cultural behaviors have persisted and even evolved over time due to biological impulses that prioritize survival and maximize reproduction. They suggest that some elements of culture, particularly values and behavioral norms, are created because of human instinct, which is based on our biology.

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