Sociology defines culture as something we do (social practices). It involves using things such as dress and food to communicate our social belonging to particular groups, as well as using other physical resources (materials). For example, wealth influences our ideas about what “good” culture is or isn’t. If you’re middle class you may see graffiti as a nuisance, but if you’re poor or working class street art is a form of social resistance and community expression.
Culture doesn’t just exist in our heads; it is something that is communicated in our every day actions and throughout our socialisation. This means that culture depends upon verbal cues such as spoken, written and sign language. We also use non verbal communication to convey culture, such as through the arts, our body gestures, jokes, other activities and representations. Verbal and non verbal signs are the “stuff” we think about when we’re trying to describe “our” ethnic or national culture (symbols).
Culture guides human interaction: it informs our conversations and it tells us what’s expected of us in different social situations. Culture also shapes our sense of meaning. This is why what we take for granted as “normal” and “natural” in one society is not necessarily the same in another culture.
For example in the book Crested Kimono, Matthews Masayuki Hamabata is a third generation American researcher whose parents and grandparents are Japanese. Traveling to Japan to study family businesses, he finds that even without speaking, other Japanese people can tell he was not born in Japan, from the way he walks, to the way he bows his head incorrectly in different situations, to not knowing where to sit when he walks into a dinner party.
Culture contains all the unwritten rules about how we should behave. Given that culture is something that we “do,” it is constantly changing as a result of our interactions with other people. Social media is a good example. Some people think it’s rude to use your phone when you’re sitting down for a meal, whereas for others, it is meaningful to share their activities with other friends who are not with them at the time.
The more we “do” culture, the more it changes over time. In sociology, we study our own culture in comparison to others to give us a critical perspective about the world. Culture can make it seem as if there is a right and wrong way to do things but taking a cross cultural and historical perspective we see a different picture. Culture reveals human experience to be much more about diversity than universal “truths.”