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Society and Culture Are Mutually Exclusive

I am a professional teacher, writer, researcher, and learner. I always try to learn because there is no age for learning.


Several decades ago, culture and society were pretty much the same things. Today, these two words are used quite differently and often in opposition to one another. This is especially true when it comes to the topic of societal change. While many people believe that culture is responsible for bringing about social change, others argue that society and culture can never be the same thing—let alone mutually exclusive entities—and that the only way we can achieve real social progress is through social action which (unlike cultural action) does not require any shift in our cultural values or beliefs as human beings.

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Does Culture Cause Change?

While there is no doubt that culture can change, it has no impact on societies that don’t want to be changed. Society determines culture—not vice versa. No matter how good your ideas may be, they won’t change anything if people don’t believe in them or take action to implement them. So while society may be resistant to change, it will never bring about lasting change without some sort of positive input from those who have a vested interest in its continued growth and stability. However, resistance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A reluctance to accept major change serves as an important reminder for those attempting to affect change; when society ignores you, it doesn’t mean your cause is invalid; rather, it means you need to work harder at changing hearts and minds until everyone finally sees what you see: potential. For better or worse, we shape our realities – so let's make sure we're shaping them into something better than what we started with.

The Problem is with Culture

In recent years, there’s been much discussion about culture changing corporate America. Nowhere is that more evident than in Silicon Valley where startups with free food, unlimited vacation time, and ping pong tables attract millennials in droves. While that may be exactly what those new grads are looking for—free food, no bosses or schedules to follow—these things ultimately hurt culture and make it impossible to have a cohesive group of employees working toward a common goal. If you want true innovation happening at your company, read here first: 5 Steps to Inventing Breakthrough Innovation That Drives Business Growth. It’s not enough to just have young people on staff; they need to feel like they’re valued as professionals too. Similarly, there needs to be respect between people across departments and levels if teams are going to work together efficiently and effectively. After all, most organizations aren't team-driven; they're individual-driven instead.

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Why Does Culture Prevent Change?

To understand why culture can be so hard to change, it’s helpful to break down how it functions. In his book, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theory in Cultural Anthropology, Marvin Harris argues that culture is a set of behaviors or patterned activities that have been learned over time through observation and imitation. These patterns make up social norms, which dictate how we should act. In other words, if a norm becomes established as a result of someone copying what their peers do—for example, flossing after every meal—that behavior will spread through society until everyone is doing it and has become part of our culture.

Understanding Society

Society and culture have a lot in common. Both terms refer to human beings, interactions among them, values, norms, and traditions. However, there is a difference between culture and society. Society refers to a group of people with shared goals or values; it’s an organized body of people who share similar beliefs or interests. On the other hand, culture is defined as one or several related ways of living built on shared traditions. In short, society is a large group that has one unified culture whereas each member of a community has their own individualized culture. It makes sense to note here that not all societies are part of a single civilization. Think about how many civilizations developed independently on different continents (most likely all). If these groups were grouped under society, we could say they fell under a single civilization (which isn't true). The same goes for cultures: While cultures may influence one another or be directly impacted by another (via immigration, trade relations, etc.), two very different cultures do not equal one another.

Where do We Go from Here?

Society and culture can’t coexist, so long as one defines itself by standing in opposition to its counterpart. There will always be those who try to advance their agenda by tearing down what they view as morally corrupting forces—but if history has shown us anything, it’s that an outsider’s push for change is usually met with resistance (or even wholesale rejection). To get past these divisive situations, we need to consider ways of living together that allow us all to thrive on our terms. At its core, society is an agreement between everyone involved: even when there are laws that have been broken or disputed, they exist because we have agreed they should. Perhaps society just needs a name change—to something like culture. Maybe then we could start seeing each other not as enemies but as compatriots. It may take some time before everyone's comfortable switching out society for culture, but I think that's a more promising option than attacking each other without end.

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The terms society and culture have been used interchangeably for so long that we forget to consider their literal definitions. Society is a collection of people with shared interests, values, and beliefs. Culture encompasses societal norms, rules, rituals, beliefs, and processes. In other words: culture is what societies do. Therefore it makes no sense for society to ever change culture—or vice versa. There are only two types of things that can shape culture: individuals or more. Individuals change culture by creating new customs or challenging existing ones; changing society by reinforcing current norms or changing them from within; bringing new ideas into a community through art or education; disseminating information through channels like books, newspaper articles, television shows, etc. etc. Most importantly, individuals make choices that influence their behaviors in ways we don’t even notice. Mores change the culture at an individual level. A group acquires more over time as they absorb those ways of thinking and behaving absorbed by prior generations because they benefit us (like manners) or protect us (like taboos). Mores remain static over time whereas cultures continue to evolve – but there's always give-and-take between individual agency and group influence.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ghulam Nabi Memon

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