Elements of Culture: Explanation of the Major Elements That Define Culture

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  • 0:07 Elements of Culture
  • 0:45 Symbols
  • 1:49 Language
  • 2:58 Values
  • 3:59 Types of Norms
  • 6:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell
Culture combines many elements to create a unique way of living for different people. In this lesson, we identify four of the elements that exist in every culture, albeit in different forms: symbols, language, values, and norms. We also differentiate between folkways and mores.

Elements of Culture

Culture is a huge topic of study for sociologists. Culture exists anywhere humans exist, and no two cultures are exactly the same. We've started talking about culture in another lesson and discussed its combination of elements that, together, form a people's unique way of life. In this lesson, we are going to take a closer look at those elements, specifically symbols, language, values, and norms. These elements look different across cultures, and many change with time as a society evolves.


The first element that exists in every culture is a variety of symbols. A symbol is anything that is used to stand for something else. People who share a culture often attach a specific meaning to an object, gesture, sound, or image. For example, a cross is a significant symbol to Christians. It is not simply two pieces of wood attached to each other, nor is it just an old object of torture and execution. To Christians, it represents the basis of their entire religion, and they have great reverence for the symbol.

We can see more examples of symbols in American culture. Emoticons are combinations of keyboard characters that many use to represent their feelings online or through texting. The American flag represents our entire country. A red light at a traffic intersection is used to relay the message that you need to stop your vehicle.


The second element present in every culture is a language. Language is a system of words and symbols used to communicate with other people. This includes full languages as we usually think of them, such as English, Spanish, French, etc. But, it also includes body language, slang, and common phrases that are unique to certain groups of people. For example, even though English is spoken fluently in both America and Britain, we have slang and phrases that mean different things. American French fries are British chips, American cookies are British biscuits, and so on.

Another example of how cultural languages differ beyond vocabulary is the fact that eye contact represents different meanings in different cultures. In America, eye contact suggests that you are paying attention and are interested in what a person has to say. In other cultures, eye contact may be considered rude and to be a challenge of authority.


Another cultural element is a system of values, which are culturally defined standards for what is good or desirable. Members of the culture use the shared system of values to decide what is good and what is bad. For example, in America, we are individualistic - we encourage competition and emphasize personal achievement. A person who accepts a promotion in our culture is praised for their individual hard work and talent. But, our values are in stark contrast with the collectivistic values of other cultures, where collaboration is encouraged, and a person's success is only as good as their contributions to the group. The same person that is offered a promotion who lives in a collectivistic culture would consult with his family before accepting to ensure that it would be the most beneficial to the group as a whole.

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