11.2 Culture - Social Structure and Demographics

MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review - Kaplan Test Prep 2021–2022

11.2 Culture
Social Structure and Demographics


After Chapter 11.2, you will be able to:

· Distinguish between material and symbolic culture

· Recall the definitions of, and the differences between, the values, beliefs, norms, and rituals of a culture

The study of culture is likely the most diverse and complex dimension within sociology. Culture can be defined as encompassing the entire lifestyle for a given group. It binds our nation-states, political institutions, marketplaces, religions, and ideologies. Culture flavors our interpretations of the world, and is generally passed through familial lines. In short, culture is what makes human societies unique from one another.


A description of culture in the context of group processes is described in Chapter 8 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review

MCAT ExpertisE

Ethnography is the study of cultures and customs, and ethnographic methods are experimental methods used to study the ethnicity or culture of a group.


Sociologists view culture according to two different categories: material culture and symbolic culture.


Symbols are also discussed in Chapter 6 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review

Material Culture

One can discern a lot about people by looking at their artifacts: material items that they make, possess, and value. This examination surrounds material culture, which includes the physical items one associates with a given group, such as artwork, emblems, clothing, jewelry, foods, buildings, and tools. Sociologists explore the meaning of these objects to a given society.

An example of material culture in the United States is the American flag. This item is used to reinforce a sense of belonging via shared American citizenship. Other symbols that are considered traditionally American include barbecue, baseball, apple pie, and rock and roll.

Material culture is often most visible during ceremonies, such as birthdays, weddings, and funerals. Some artifacts of traditional Indian material culture are shown in Figure 11.3.

ImageFigure 11.3. Material CultureMaterial culture includes objects important to a group, including clothing, jewelry, cuisine, ceremonial objects, and so on.

Symbolic Culture

Symbolic culture, also called nonmaterial culture, focuses on the ideas that represent a group of people. These may be encoded in mottos, songs, or catchphrases, or may simply be themes that are pervasive in the culture. Phrases like free enterprise and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are examples of American symbolic culture. Material culture is often the tangible embodiment of the underlying ideas of symbolic culture.

Key Concept

Material culture is associated with artifacts (objects). Symbolic culture is associated with ideas.

For any social group to remain connected over time, there must be a culture that binds its members together. In times of war and crisis, governments often draw upon symbolic culture to rally people to action, using songs, parades, discussion of heroes past, and so on, as shown in Figure 11.4. It is not a coincidence that most high schools have a school mascot, school colors, and a school song. Such cultural artifacts are in place to help create a shared sense of identity, loyalty, and belonging. Symbolic culture includes both cognitive and behavioral components; that is, it informs cultural values and beliefs, as well as cultural norms and communication styles.

ImageFigure 11.4. Symbolic CultureSymbolic culture includes ideas that identify a culture; it may be drawn upon to encourage loyalty or patriotism, as shown here.

Symbolic culture is usually slower to change than material culture, which can lead to the phenomenon of culture lag. The expansion of devices and technology in contemporary times are prototypical examples of culture lag: whereas American culture still prizes individuality and privacy, the development of smartphones and social media push toward a more community-oriented and less private world. Still, there is evidence that symbolic culture is beginning to change in response to these technological (material) innovations: younger generations appear to be less concerned about what personal information is publicly accessible than older generations.


Language is the most highly developed and complex symbol system used by most cultures. Language consists of spoken, written, or signed symbols, which are regulated according to certain rules of grammar and syntax. Language enables us to share our ideas, thoughts, experiences, discoveries, fears, plans, and desires with others. Written language extends our capacity to communicate across both spatial and temporal boundaries. Without language, it would be difficult to transmit culture. Understanding a group’s language is critical to understanding its culture.


Language is critically important in the transmission of culture. It requires a complex interplay of multiple brain circuits, which are discussed in Chapter 4 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review.


An important component of culture are the rules that structure society. Values are what a person deems important in life, which dictates one’s ethical principals and standards of behavior. A belief is something that an individual accepts to be truth. Every culture has its own beliefs and value systems. This will be important in your future career, as patients tend to carry their beliefs into the healthcare system. For example, as described in the chapter introduction, some Asian cultures believe that healthcare decisions should be the responsibility of a patient’s family, which avoids burdening the patient (who is already ill) with having to make such a decision. This belief is in direct contrast to the American belief that patient autonomy should be prized and that healthcare decisions should be made by a patient whenever possible. These conflicts can prove challenging to healthcare professionals, and there is not always one correct answer to such dilemmas. Such situations—when a cultural difference impedes interaction with others—are called cultural barriers.

Real World

Many health systems have an ethics board to deal with conflicts that may arise from differences in belief systems between patient and practitioner, among other ethical issues. These committees tend to facilitate discussion, rather than simply issuing a decision.

As described in Chapter 8 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review, norms are societal rules that define the boundaries of acceptable behavior. While norms are not laws, they do govern the behavior of many individuals in society and provide a sense of social control. Norms are what provide us with a sense of what is appropriate, what we should do, and what we should not do. Norms exist for behavior, speech, dress, home life, and more.

A ritual is a formalized ceremony that usually involves specific material objects, symbolism, and additional mandates on acceptable behavior. Rituals tend to have a prescribed order of events or routine. These rituals can be associated with specific milestones, such as a baby-naming, graduation ceremony, wedding, or funeral; with holidays, such as a Thanksgiving dinner, trick-or-treating on Halloween, or a Passover seder, shown in Figure 11.5; or with regular activities, such as a Catholic mass, a pregame pep rally, or even just getting ready in the morning (showering, brushing teeth, eating breakfast, and so on).

ImageFigure 11.5. A Passover Seder Is an Example of a RitualSeder means “order” in Hebrew; most rituals have a specific order of events.


Evolution may have selected for the development of culture. Culture serves as a method of passing down information from generation to generation; in prehistoric times, the transmission of information through culture served to teach future generations how to create tools, hunt, domesticate animals, and grow crops. Culture also creates a sense of loyalty and allegiance, which, as described in Chapter 10 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review, may help explain altruistic behavior. Finally, culture creates a sense of us vs. them, which presumably served a role in the dispersion of populations across the globe in different environmental niches.

Culture, in turn, may also influence evolution. There is evidence that some genetic traits may have been favored because of cultural values and beliefs. For example, human beings—at least those who are not lactose intolerant—are the only animals that are able to digest milk after adolescence; they are also the only animals that ingest another animal’s milk. These evolutionary adaptations may have arisen out of Northern European cultures, which relied heavily on cattle farming for sustenance. A mutation permitting digestion of milk into adulthood presumably imparted a nutritional and survival advantage to certain individuals, and would thus be retained within the population.

MCAT Concept Check 11.2:

Before you move on, assess your understanding of the material with these questions.

1. What are material and symbolic culture?

o Material culture:

o Symbolic culture:

2. What is the difference between a value and a belief?