Today, we are going to introduce the discipline of sociology and look at the three major sociological perspectives, which will inform our further study of culture. After that, we will define “culture” and discuss various substructures and hierarchies. Finally, we will compare and contrast two competing views on culture: the environmental determinists (whom we have already introduced) and the possibilists, who believe that humans impact their environment just as much, if not more than the environment impacts humans.

Human geography is but one of the sub-disciplines of the social sciences. The social sciences focus on human actions, as opposed to the natural sciences like physics and chemistry, which focus on the physical world. Within the social sciences, there is overlap. Both psychology and economics, for example, seek to explain individual human behavior and individual decisions. Both sociology and political science seek to understand how groups make decisions or reach a consensus.

Sociologists use the scientific method to model, understand and predict human behavior. There are three perspectives that sociologists use, each perspective contains different assumptions regarding the purpose of group behaviors.

The functionalist perspective is primarily an evolutionary perspective. Shared group structures, like marriage, exist because they provide long-term benefits to the larger group. Over time, according to the functionalists, bad ideas have been weeded out and only those group structures that provide superior benefits to the group overall remain. For example: public education is now the norm because the long-term benefits outweigh the costs. Public education has a manifest purpose (give everyone the same opportunity to develop their intellect) but there are also latent functions (public education provides day care and allows both parents to work, if so desired).

The conflict perspective says that group structures exist to allow elites to maintain control over scarce and limited resources. The conflict perspective requires a zero-sum game – for every winner, there has to be a loser. For the person using the conflict perspective, public education exists to pre-sort the winners and the losers, to identify future potential elites.

Interactionists care about how the group structure impacts each individual in that group and changes their behavior and perception of reality. A famous experiment that fascinates interactionist is the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. Student volunteers were randomly assigned roles of “guard” or “prisoner”. Within hours, the role of “guard” had so changed the students that they began to systematically abuse the students assigned the role of prisoners. This perspective has significant overlaps with psychology and even philosophy.

“Groups” need 2 or more people who share expectations (goals) about what they hope to gain through group membership. Group members must be able to regularly interact with one another. Finally, the group members must share common identities – they must share common traits, behaviors and norms. Note that this class right now is probably an aggregate more than it is a group. If some natural disaster were to befall the class and we worked together to overcome our problems, then we would have a better chance of being a “group”. The common struggle would give us common goals and increase the chance we formed a common identity.

We finally come to a definition for culture and cultural norms or traits. We learn the cultural traits of our parents during childhood. As adults, we can adapt to new cultures but the process is not quick nor is it easy (it is often referred to as “culture shock”). These shared behaviors and beliefs that come with culture allow for groups to become very large – and large groups have better outcomes than small ones.

Asian toilets are often of the “squat” variety. Squatting does improve the efficiency of evacuating our bowels but yet, most Westerners recoil at the thought of squatting to defecate. System II would dictate that all toilets, for the sake of efficiency, should be of the squat variety.

Human geographers enjoy ranking thinks in a hierarchy – a top to bottom order. Here, the smallest unit of culture is the “trait”. A trait can be a tool (artifact), an idea or a belief. “Norm” is often used interchangeably for trait but norms are beliefs, norms usually involve a value judgment. For example, a fisherman may prefer a certain type of fish-hook. The preference for the type of hook is a norm, while the hook itself is an artifact or trait.

Cultural region or cultural realm are the largest categories and and the top of the hierarchy. The two terms are often used interchangeably. You can see that language and religion are the determining factor at the level of the realm. Also recall that the more we generalize within a model, the less useful it becomes.

We can also look at culture by analyzing it component parts. Cultures are made up of shared ideas, technologies and social organizations. The wedding bands pictured here contain all three – the idea that we mark our unions through rings; the technology involved in making the rings and finally, the monogamous lifetime mating bond the rings represent.

Possibilism is an important perspective in human geography. The possibilist would say that humans act upon the environment and that the combination of human culture with the physical environment creates the cultural landscape. Pictured here is Capetown South Africa in which European culture has transformed the African environment to create a unique cultural landscape. Possibilism differs from environmental determinism in that the direction of causality is reversed. Possibilists would say humans change their environment; a strict determinist would say that the physical environment changes human culture. Both perspectives are valid. You could say that humans change their environment within certain boundaries or constraints dictated by physical conditions.

A collection of both positive and negative impacts humans have had upon their physical environment. In each example, causality runs from humans to the environment, strengthening the possibilist position.


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Culture Basics Day 1: Resources

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