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Culture and the Individual: Real Culture vs. Ideal Culture

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  • 0:01 Definition of Terms
  • 1:22 Ideal Culture
  • 1:50 Real Culture
  • 2:23 Anecdotal Example
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the difference between ideal and real culture. In doing so, it will give an example of each, while also defining the terms culture and norm.

Definition of Terms

Today's lesson on real versus ideal culture will be very simple to digest. In fact, as we get into it, I'm guessing most of us will find it very easy to pinpoint examples in our own lives and our own culture. However, before we go digging for these examples of real and ideal culture, it'd probably be a good idea to nail down two other terms. They are culture and norms.

For starters, culture is the set of learned behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that characterize a society or a people group. It encompasses both the intangible and tangible things of a population. It's things like how society defines family or how people worship. It's the people's favorite pastimes and their music. In short, it's what makes a people group a people group. It's what makes them them!

Using our next term, our culture is greatly affected by our norms, the standards or rules for acceptable behavior; the things we consider normal. To give a great example of differing norms, many tribal cultures find it normal for women to walk around completely topless. However, this really goes against the norms of most Westernized cultures. In other words, it's not acceptable, normal behavior, and odds are you're not going to see it in rural or urban America.

With these terms down, let's move onto real and ideal culture.

Ideal Culture

When talking about culture, anthropologists like to differentiate between what they call ideal and real culture.

To explain, ideal culture is seen as the standards a society would like to uphold or embrace. It's the value system that a society would like to uphold. Using one of our vocab words, it's the norms they ideally would like to have. Simply put, it's what a society aspires to be!

Real Culture

Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, societies, just like individuals, don't always live up to their lofty goals and aspirations. This is where real culture comes into play.

Anthropologically speaking, real culture can be easily defined as a society's actual behaviors; the way a culture really is. It's a society's actual norms, what really is going on in everyday life.

Now that we've got these terms down, let's look at a tangible example. We'll use recycling.

Anecdotal Example

I think it'd be pretty safe to say that American society, in general, sort of preaches that recycling is important. My kids learn about it in school, and our local park has trash cans labeled plastic or aluminum only. In fact, I only live about two miles from a recycling drop off center where you can go and separate your glass pickle jars from your plastic milk jugs. Ideally, this is where my community wants you to take your recyclables.

Centers like this exist across the nation, and parks from Maine to California have plastic-only trash cans in their parks. Case in point, American society thinks recycling is the thing to do. It thinks it's ideal.

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