5 Culture as Thought and Action

Nolan Weil

Suggested Focus

The following task  will help you gain a better grasp of some commonly mentioned elements of culture. Define the following terms. For each term provide the information indicated.

  1. Belief: basic definition – three types – characteristics of each type – unique examples from your own experience
  2. Value: basic definition – examples from the reading – unique examples from your own experience
  3. Norm: basic definition – two types – definition of each type – difference between each type – example of each from text – unique example of each
  4. Custom: basic definition – several characteristics
  5. Tradition: basic definition – several characteristics – difference between custom and tradition
  6. Ritual: basic definition – six genres of ritual – unique example from your own experience of each genre

Non-material aspects of culture

Social scientists have long distinguished material from non-material culture despite the fact that they are closely intertwined. Material culture consists of tangible objects that people create: tools, toys, buildings, furniture, images, and even print and digital media—a seemingly endless list of items. As we saw in Chapter 3, material culture can tell us a lot about the activities of people as remote in time as the Upper Paleolithic (and earlier). In fact, material culture is almost all we have to inform us about human culture in the deep past before the existence of written records. While material culture provides clues about the lives of the people who create and use it, material culture alone is silent about many other details, for much of human culture is non-material.

Non-material culture includes such things as: beliefs, values, norms, customs, traditions, and rituals, to give just a few examples. In this chapter, we will discuss these typical categories of thought and action often associated with the concept of culture.


A belief is a propositional attitude, a settled way of thinking. Beliefs when publicly expressed generally take the form of declarative statements. As Schwitzgebel (2015) has pointed out, the vast majority of our beliefs are actually quite mundane. We rarely bother to express them at all, and we certainly never question them. Here are a couple of examples of some pretty mundane beliefs:

  • All people have heads.
  • The hand on the end of my arm is my hand (not someone else’s).

Mundane beliefs are, for the most part, universally shared by all normally functioning people. Of course, not all beliefs are universally shared. Some beliefs are purely personal. Mary may believe, with good reason, that eggs give her indigestion. George may believe, without very good evidence, that the best way to guarantee rain is to wash his car. Personal beliefs may be well founded or not so well founded. At any rate, mundane beliefs and purely personal beliefs are of no particular cross-cultural interest.

Of greater interest for students of culture are the beliefs (and systems of beliefs) that are widely shared among members of particular communities of people. While mundane beliefs may be universally shared across most cultures, culturally shared beliefs tend to have boundaries. The members of one group may consider their own, shared cultural beliefs as self-evidently true, while members of other groups might consider the same beliefs as questionable, if not strange and arbitrary. Culturally relevant beliefs govern every conceivable aspect of social life: religious, political, economic, and domestic to mention only a few.


Cultural values are closely associated with both the beliefs and norms of a cultural community. Values can be defined as the abstract concepts or standards that represent the ideals of a group. They point to what the group most regards as right, good, beautiful, desirable, etc. Values are often identified in discourse by means of words or phrases, e.g., “freedom,” “equality,” “filial piety,” “respect for elders.” Values, though, go hand in hand with beliefs. Think of a value, when articulated, as a short hand way of referring to a belief. But of course, a value is hardly a value unless it is acted upon. In other words, we generally think of a value as a guide to conduct.

What purpose do values serve? – we might want to ask. For one thing, shared cultural values may help promote group cohesion. They encourage group members to behave in ways that the group considers appropriate, proper, honorable, praiseworthy, and the like. As is true also with beliefs and norms though, not everyone necessarily adheres to the widely shared values of a culture to the same degree, and sometimes not at all. In fact, some cultural values may even be in conflict with other values.

Cross-cultural comparisons of values using questionnaires have been particularly popular with social scientists for well over a half-century. Later in our explorations, we will examine several different frameworks that social scientists have proposed for studying differences in values across cultures.


Norms are the expectations or rules, formal or informal, about how one should behave in a particular social situation. Sociologists since the time of William Graham Sumner (1906) have generally distinguished two different types of norms: folkways and mores. Folkways are a loose collection of usual or customary ways in which the members of a particular cultural community behave. Examples include: how people greet one another, how they dress, what they eat, how they prepare it, and how they eat it, how they handle inter-personal conflict, etc. Mores (pronounced “more-rays”) are stricter than folkways. They are the standards of moral conduct and ethical behavior that the people in a cultural community expect of one another. They include such things as rules against killing, rules about who can or cannot have sex with whom, and so on.

The mores of a society are enforced in various ways. The most important mores are upheld by means of laws, which are explicitly stated rules. People who violate laws may have to pay a penalty, for example, going to jail, or paying a monetary fine. Other mores may not be strictly against the law but are nevertheless strongly endorsed by a society. Such mores may be upheld mainly by means of social sanctions, which are ways of communicating disapproval or putting pressure on people who violate a community’s mores. For example, people who violate mores for which there are no formal laws may find that the people of a community make life uncomfortable for them. The community may publically condemn the person (“shaming”) or avoid interacting with the person (“shunning”).

One way to look at the difference between folkways and mores is to say that folkways reflect what a cultural community regards as appropriate or inappropriate, polite or rude. Mores, however, reflect what a community considers as morally or ethically right or wrong.

Customs and Traditions

Customs and traditions are two more terms often employed in discussing culture. A custom is a widely accepted way of doing something, specific to a particular society, place or time, and that has developed through repetition over a long period of time. So defined, it is hard to see how customs differ from folkways as discussed above. I am not sure they do. Whether a practice is called a folkway or custom might revolve around whether the practice is being discussed by a sociologist or a social historian.

But what is a tradition? David Gross (1992: 8) defines tradition as “a set of practices, a constellation of beliefs, or mode of thinking that exists in the present, but was inherited from the past.” Gross further elaborates, writing that a tradition “can be a set of observances, a collection of doctrines or teachings, a particular type of behavior, a way of thinking about the world or oneself, a way of regarding others or interpreting reality.”

Gross (1992: 12) acknowledges that customs and traditions have much in common and that therefore the differences between them are easily blurred. He insists, however, that from the perspective of society as a whole, customs are less important than traditions. Compared with traditions, Gross claims, customs involve “mostly superficial modes of behavior” that “are not as heavily invested with value.” For example, says Gross, long standing forms of greeting, like bowing in Japan, or shaking hands in the U.S. are “relatively insignificant social habits,” better characterized as customs than as traditions. Still, Gross admits, “the boundary separating custom from tradition is not always easy to discern.”

To call any practice a tradition, however, is often taken to imply that the practice is not just of great value but also ancient, something that has been passed down through many generations unchanged. Scholarly studies of tradition, however, contradict this widely held assumption. Although some traditions may have ancient roots, rarely, if ever, does any practice remain fixed for all time. Times change, and traditions disappear or are significantly transformed.

Even more startling, traditions are often invented and passed off as ancient, when in fact they are fully modern. As Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) have argued, the invention of tradition is a hallmark of that “recent historical innovation, the ‘nation,’ with its associated phenomena: nationalism, the nation-state, national symbols, histories and the rest.” Although today’s nation-states are modern inventions, they “generally claim to be the opposite … namely rooted in the remotest antiquity,” representing human communities that are entirely ‘natural’ (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983: 13-14).


Rituals are sequences of actions involving gestures, objects, and sometimes the utterance of words performed in prescribed ways and carried out at specific times and places. When I ask American students to identify rituals, they sometimes give examples such as:

  • gathering to watch fireworks on the 4th of July
  • “trick or treating” on Halloween
  • gathering around the TV on Thanksgiving to watch parades and football
  • enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, including turkey and other dishes typical of the occasion

But are these good examples of ritual as most anthropologists would define it?

True, some activities that are not clearly rituals, may seem to have some ritual-like characteristics, an observation that prompted Catherine Bell in her book, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, to propose a distinction between ritual and ritual-like activities.

According to Bell, ritual-like activities have some characteristics of ritual. Routines of greeting and parting, and table manners, for instance, are performative and exhibit formality both of which are characteristic of ritual. On the other hand, the American celebration of Thanksgiving is ritual-like because of its appeal to tradition.

As for full-fledged rituals, scholars have found it convenient for the purpose of study to group them into categories according to shared characteristics. Religious studies scholar, Catherine Bell, has identified six basic categories of ritual.

Rites of passage (or life-cycle rites) are ceremonies that call attention to major events in the social life of individuals, such as birth, the transition from childhood to adulthood, marriage, and death. Rites of passage can also mark initiation into religious communities, for example, baptism in Christian communities. Clubs, fraternities, and secret societies often put new initiates through ritual ordeals before accepting them into the new community.

In some societies, rites of passage may be short and simple while in others they may be lengthy and complex. In rural China, says Bell (2009: 96), birth rituals are often still observed in all their traditional complexity. When a young woman marries, she is brought to live with the husband’s family, and she may be considered an outsider of little importance until she bears a son to carry on the family name. Her mother-in-law may engage in rituals involving presentation of offerings to special maternal deities. Pregnancy and childbirth are also surrounded by a seemingly endless series of ritual observances. (This is not generally the case, however, in modern, urban China.)

Calendrical rites fall into two subcategories. Seasonal celebrations are associated with cycles of planting and harvesting among agriculturalists and with grazing and moving the herd among pastoralists. In many societies, sowing seeds is accompanied by offerings to ancestors or deities, and harvesting often involves giving the first yield to the gods or ancestors. Communal feasting is also common, accompanied by music, dance, and a relaxing of social restraint. Commemorative celebrations revolve around remembrance or re-enactment of events with religious significance, or importance for national heritage. The rite of Holy Communion in the Catholic Church, for instance, is performed in remembrance of the Last Supper.

Rites of exchange and communion involve the making of offerings to a god or gods, sometimes with the expectation of getting something in return, like a good harvest. Offerings may also be made to praise or please or appease a god or deity. In some cultures, the offering consisted of the sacrifice of an animal (e.g., the ancient Hebrews), and some cultures have even practiced human sacrifice (e.g., the Aztecs).

Rituals of affliction involve actions taken to diagnose and deal with the unseen causes of misfortune or to alleviate physical or mental illnesses. Many pre-modern cultures believe such problems are caused by things like evil spirits, spirits of the dead, magic or witchcraft. Rituals of affliction often involve not just the afflicted but entire communities and have as their objective the idea of purification or exorcism.

Rituals of feasting, fasting, and festivals are focused on public displays of cultural and religious commitment and sentiment. A good example of ritual fasting is the worldwide Muslim communal fasting during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink anything from the time the sun rises until it sets. (Exceptions are made for the elderly, the sick, and for pregnant women, as well as for people traveling.) After Ramadan, Muslims celebrate Eid al Fitr, literally the “feast of breaking the fast.” Well known festivals include Carnival in places like New Orleans and Brazil and water festivals that take place in many countries in East and Southeast Asia (e.g., China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand).

Political rites are ceremonial practices that display and promote the power of political institutions. The coronation of the Queen of England would be an example. National salutes might also count as political rites, e.g., the American pledge of allegiance, or to give a more sinister example, the “Heil Hitler” salute in pre-World War II Germany. Revolutionary or anti-establishment gestures could also be counted as political rites, for instance, cross-burning by the KKK.

Most of us living in modern secular societies are not generally surrounded by rituals to the same extent as people in traditional societies often are or were. In the United States, for example, except for people who may belong to a religious tradition in which ritual is important, we tend to observe just a few rites to mark major life transitions such as birth, marriage, and death (Bell, 2009).

Final reflection

The terms covered in this chapter are among the most common terms used in enumerating what we have called non-material aspects of culture. But to reiterate a point made at the beginning of the chapter, it is not always possible to separate material and non-material culture. For instance, while we have defined a custom as a widely accepted way of doing something, that doing may very well include a material object. For instance, it might be customary to send a friend or relative a birthday greeting—an action, but that greeting may take material form—a birthday card. Or let’s take ritual as an example. Although a ritual is an action, ritual actions often employ ritual objects: incense, candles, chalices, prayer beads, bells, gongs, drums, and so on.

Not only can it be difficult to separate material and non-material culture, it is also not always easy to distinguish between some categories of non-material culture discussed in this chapter. For instance, we have already discussed the difficulty of distinguishing between a custom and a tradition. Is there a difference between a custom and a norm? If there is, it is surely subtle and unimportant for our purposes. On the other hand, there clearly is a difference between a law (at least in the modern sense of the term) and a more.

At this point, I would invite you, dear reader, to go through the list of terms introduced in the chapter and provide original examples of beliefs, values, norms, customs, traditions, and rituals that you consider to be elements of a cultural community that you are familiar with.


For Further Thought and Discussion

  1. Identify at least three beliefs that are important in a cultural community that you identify with. Try to discover beliefs that govern different aspects of life, e.g., political, economic, social, or some other. Can you name an associated value for each belief?
  2. See if you can discover a cultural belief that is at odds with one of your own deeply held personal beliefs.
  3. We often belong to more than one cultural community. Sometimes the beliefs of one community are in conflict with the beliefs of another community. Can you identify any such situation in your own experience?

For Further Research

  1. Culture is not something fixed. Cultures can change over time. Can you discover a custom that has changed in the lifetime of someone that you know (e.g., a parent or grandparent)?
  2. Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) have argued that what we regard as ancient traditions are sometimes more recent than we think. Can you discover any tradition that is actually more recent than people commonly believe?


Bell, C. (2009).  Ritual: Perspectives and dimensions (Revised Edition), Oxford University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Gross, D. (1992). The past in ruins. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Hobsbawm, E. & Ranger, T. (Eds.). (1983). The invention of tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Schwitzgebel, E. (2015). “Belief.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/belief/

Stephenson, B. (2015). Ritual: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press. Ebook.

Sumner, W. G. (1906/1940). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Boston: Ginn and Company.


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Speaking of Culture Copyright © 2018 by Nolan Weil is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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