Types, Elements & Subsets of Culture

Types, Elements & Subsets of Culture
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  • 0:02 Culture
  • 0:47 Types of Culture
  • 2:31 Elements of Culture
  • 3:59 Subsets of Culture
  • 5:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore that important but complicated aspect of all our lives: culture. Discover how cultures are categorized and composed, and then test your understanding with a brief quiz.


If I asked you to describe American culture, what would you say? You might mention some favorite activities: baseball, for example. Maybe you would discuss our shared values about the government, equality, and democracy. Or, perhaps you'd talk about hot dogs, soda, and t-shirts that say 'I heart New York'. These are all aspects of American culture. Culture is the set of patterns of human activity within a society or social group. Culture is how we act, think, and behave based on the shared values of our society. It is how we understand symbols, from language to hand gestures. It is everywhere, and we continually develop and define our culture on a daily basis.

Types of Culture

Studying culture is a big job. Social scientists, like anthropologists and sociologists, study culture to understand patterns of human behavior. While there are unlimited ways that people can express their culture, social scientists have developed two fundamental categories to define things produced by a society. First is material culture. Material culture is physical things that are created by a society.

In America, we have a strong material culture based on production of certain items, like cars. America is proud of its car culture. We make cars; we drive cars; we use cars as symbols of our place in society, wealth, or feelings about the environment. Cars, plus the other things that we physically create as Americans, define our material culture. Now, material culture does not mean that it is an object that is bought and sold; it can also be something we all make. For instance, macaroni art is a common thing we all did as children. It is something that is common enough to unite us and therefore part of our material culture.

The other category is nonmaterial culture, or the intangible things produced by a culture. In other words, the parts of culture you cannot touch, feel, taste, or hold. Common examples include social roles, ethics, beliefs, or even language. As a culture, Americans believe in equality. But you cannot hold equality, or make it out of macaroni noodles. Equality is something that does not actually exist; it is an idea that a culture produces about the treatment of people. This is nonmaterial culture, and it is just as big of an influence on our lives as material culture is.

Elements of Culture

The total culture of any specific society is composed of several elements, or parts. First is social organization. This is the way that society divides people. In most cultures, there is a ruler who is more powerful than the average person. In some cultures, there may be several levels of organization based on sex, age, occupation, or even reputation. Social organization is an important element of culture that defines how the society treats the relationships between different members of that culture.

The next element is customs, or the traditions, values, and social norms of a society. These help a society define their beliefs about right and wrong and create social pressure to obey those beliefs. Religion is another element, which demonstrates a society's morals and beliefs about humanity's spirituality and reason for existing. Language is a series of spoken, acted, or written symbols for communication. This is another crucial aspect of how we live our daily lives and connect to people in our society.

The last three elements of culture are government, the structures created by society to maintain order; economy, the rules of buying, selling, trading, and assigning value to things; and arts, the material expressions of beauty, emotions, and beliefs. A culture contains all of these elements to some degree.

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