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What Is Culture? - Material and Nonmaterial Culture

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  • 0:05 What Is Culture?
  • 1:18 Material vs.…
  • 2:35 Culture vs. Nation vs. Society
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell
Culture is a huge topic of study for sociologists. In this lesson, we define culture and distinguish between material and nonmaterial culture. As culture, nation, and society are often used interchangeably, we also distinguish between these three concepts.

What is Culture?

How would you describe the culture of the United States? Would you talk about the way we dress? The foods that originated here? The English language? The way we salute the American flag? What about our individualistic values and emphasis on competition?

Culture can be defined as the language, norms, values, beliefs, and more that, together, form a people's way of life. It is a combination of elements that affect how people think, how they act, and what they own. American culture, for instance, includes everything just mentioned. It also includes our history, architecture, accepted behavior, and so much more.

Culture is an essential part of being human. No one is completely without it; in fact, an individual can be part of many cultures and subcultures. For example, someone who lives in the U.S. could be part of the national culture in addition to the distinct culture of the South, a religious community, a heritage group, and more.

Material Vs. Nonmaterial Culture

There are many, many elements and aspects of culture. However, each can be categorized as either material or nonmaterial culture. Material culture includes all the physical things that people create and attach meaning to. Clothing, food, tools, and architecture are examples of material culture that most people would think of. Natural objects and materials (rock, dirt, trees, etc.) aren't considered to be part of material culture. However, how people view natural objects and how they use them are.

Nonmaterial culture includes creations and abstract ideas that are not embodied in physical objects. In other words, any intangible products created and shared between the members of a culture over time are aspects of their nonmaterial culture. Social roles, rules, ethics, and beliefs are just some examples. All of them are crucial guides for members of a culture to use to know how to behave in their society and interpret the world.

Culture Vs. Nation Vs. Society

The word culture is often used as a synonym for nation and society, but they aren't the same thing. A nation is a territory with designated borders. A nation can be found on a map. A society is a population in which people interact and share common interests. A society can be found in a nation. Culture, on the other hand, is a people's shared way of living. Culture can be found in a society, and it can also be shared between societies.

To illustrate the difference between these three concepts, think of the lost city of Atlantis described in literature. According to most accounts, it was its own continent - a round island somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Atlantis the nation would be composed of the entire island. It is rumored that the Atlanteans who lived there were a great people.

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