What are the Elements of a Culture

This article defines what culture is and proceeds to answer the question: What are the Elements of a Culture. It also discusses the key features of culture and the Symbolic Element of Culture.

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What is Culture?

Culture is defined as the symbols, language, beliefs, values, and artifacts that are part of any society. As this definition suggests, there are two basic components of culture: ideas and symbols on the one hand and artifacts (material objects) on the other.

The first type, called nonmaterial culture, includes the values, beliefs, symbols, and language that define a society.

The second type, called material culture, includes all the society’s physical objects, such as its tools and technology, clothing, eating utensils, and means of transportation.

These elements of culture are discussed next.

What are the Elements of a Culture?

  1. Language
  2. Norms
  3. Beliefs
  4. Symbols
  5. Values
  6. Cognitive Elements


Every culture has a particular language which is passed by the person who belongs to that particular culture to the next generation and the following generation also has to learn the language.

The language can be defined, in a very precise manner, and can be compared, in the best way, with a vehicle. Language is a medium or an instrument that is used to express one’s view and to keep forward one’s opinion.

Language is the most basic and most important element in culture. For example, a person who speaks Greek can be judged to be a citizen of Greece.

A person who speaks Hindi and has an accent like that of Indians can be recognized easily, that is a citizen of India and likewise person speaking other languages can be recognized to which culture he/she belongs.

In the United States, some people consider a common language so important that they advocate making English the official language of certain cities or states or even the whole country and banning bilingual education in public schools (Ray, 2007).

Critics acknowledge the importance of English but allege that this movement smacks of anti-immigrant prejudice and would help destroy ethnic subcultures. In 2009, voters in Nashville, Tennessee, rejected a proposal that would have made English the city’s official language and required all city workers to speak in English rather than their native language (R. Brown, 2009).

Language, of course, can be spoken or written. One of the most important developments in the evolution of society was the creation of written language. Some of the preindustrial societies that anthropologists have studied have written language, while others do not, and in the remaining societies, the “written” language consists mainly of pictures, not words.

To what extent does language influence how we think and how we perceive the social and physical worlds? The famous but controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, named after two linguistic anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, argues that people cannot easily understand concepts and objects unless their language contains words for these items (Whorf, 1956).

Language thus influences how we understand the world around us. For example, people in a country such as the United States that has many terms for different types of kisses (e.g. buss, peck, smack, smooch, and soul) are better able to appreciate these different types than people in a country such as Japan, which, as we saw earlier, only fairly recently developed the word kissu for kiss.

Another illustration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is seen in sexist language, in which the use of male nouns and pronouns shapes how we think about the world (Miles, 2008).

In older children’s books, words like fireman and mailman are common, along with pictures of men in these jobs, and critics say they send a message to children that these are male jobs, not female jobs.

If a teacher tells a second-grade class, “Every student should put his books under his desk,” the teacher obviously means students of both sexes but may be sending a subtle message that boys matter more than girls. 

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The very important element of a culture is these norms. This decides the rules and regulations of society.

Norms are often divided into two types, formal norms, and informal norms. Formal norms, also called mores and laws, refer to the standards of behavior considered the most important in any society.

Examples in the United States include traffic laws, criminal codes, and, in a college context, student behavior codes addressing such things as cheating and hate speech.

Informal norms, also called folkways and customs, refer to standards of behavior that are considered less important but still influence how we behave. Table manners are a common example of informal norms, as are such everyday behaviors as how we interact with a cashier and how we ride in an elevator.

Many norms differ dramatically from one culture to the next. Some of the best evidence for cultural variation in norms comes from the study of sexual behavior (Edgerton, 1976).

Among the Pokot of East Africa, for example, women are expected to enjoy sex, while among the Gusii a few hundred miles away, women who enjoy sex are considered deviant.

In Inis Beag, a small island off the coast of Ireland, sex is considered embarrassing and even disgusting; men feel that intercourse drains their strength, while women consider it a burden. Even nudity is considered terrible, and people on Inis Beag keep their clothes on while they bathe.

The situation is quite different in Mangaia, a small island in the South Pacific. Here sex is considered very enjoyable, and it is the major subject of songs and stories.

Other evidence for cultural variation in norms comes from the study of how men and women are expected to behave in various societies. For example, many traditional societies are simple hunting-and-gathering societies. In most of these, men tend to hunt and women tend to gather.

Many observers attribute this gender difference to at least two biological differences between the sexes.

First, men tend to be bigger and stronger than women and are thus better suited for hunting. Second, women become pregnant and bear children and are less able to hunt.

Yet a different pattern emerges in some hunting-and-gathering societies. Among a group of Australian aborigines called the Tiwi and a tribal society in the Philippines called the Agta, both sexes hunt.

After becoming pregnant, Agta women continue to hunt for most of their pregnancy and resume hunting after their child is born (Brettell & Sargent, 2009).

Some of the most interesting norms that differ by culture govern how people stand apart when they talk with each other (Hall & Hall, 2007).

In the United States, people who are not intimates usually stand about three to four feet apart when they talk. If someone stands more closely to us, especially if we are of northern European heritage, we feel uncomfortable.

Yet people in other countries—especially Italy, France, Spain, and many of the nations of Latin America and the Middle East—would feel uncomfortable if they were standing three to four feet apart.

To them, this distance is too great and indicates that the people talking dislike each other. If a U.S. native of British or Scandinavian heritage were talking with a member of one of these societies, they might well have trouble interacting, because at least one of them will be uncomfortable with the physical distance separating them.


Before the creation of any culture by society, society decides their source of motivation, which they considered appropriate.

For example god Shiva to Hindus, Sikhs wear a bangle in one hand, bear a long beard, keeping a dagger.  Cross for Christians and a necklace or a cotton thread around the neck.

Graduation ceremonies in colleges and universities are familiar examples of time-honored rituals. In many societies, rituals help signify one’s gender identity.

For example, girls around the world undergo various types of initiation ceremonies to mark their transition to adulthood.

Among the Bemba of Zambia, girls undergo a month-long initiation ceremony called the chisungu, in which girls learn songs, dances, and secret terms that only women know (Maybury-Lewis, 1998).

In some cultures, special ceremonies also mark a girl’s first menstrual period. Such ceremonies are largely absent in the United States, where a girl’s first period is a private matter.

But in other cultures, the first period is a cause for a celebration involving gifts, music, and food (Hathaway, 1997).


The importance of Symbols may differ for different people, belonging to different cultures.

For example sign of the cross means nothing for Hindus but for Christians, this is a symbol of Lord Christ.

Some symbols are actually types of nonverbal communication, while other symbols are in fact material objects.

Let’s look at nonverbal symbols first. A common one is shaking hands, which is done in some societies but not in others.

It commonly conveys friendship and is used as a sign of both greeting and departure. Probably all societies have nonverbal symbols we call gestures, movements of the hands, arms, or other parts of the body that are meant to convey certain ideas or emotions.

However, the same gesture can mean one thing in one society and something quite different in another society (Axtell, 1998). In the United States, for example, if we nod our head up and down, we mean yes, and if we shake it back and forth, we mean no.

In Bulgaria, however, nodding means no, while shaking our heads back and forth means yes! In the United States, if we make an “O” by putting our thumb and forefinger together, we mean “OK,” but the same gesture in certain parts of Europe signifies an obscenity.

“Thumbs up” in the United States means “great” or “wonderful,” but in Australia,, it means the same thing as extending the middle finger in the United States.

Certain parts of the Middle East and Asia would be offended if they saw you using your left hand to eat because they use their left hand for bathroom hygiene.

Some of our most important symbols are objects. Here the U.S. flag is a prime example.

For most Americans, the flag is not just a piece of cloth with red and white stripes and white stars against a field of blue. Instead, it is a symbol of freedom, democracy, and other American values and, accordingly, inspires pride and patriotism.

During the Vietnam War, however, the flag became to many Americans a symbol of war and imperialism. Some burned the flag in protest, prompting angry attacks by bystanders and negative coverage by the news media.

Other objects have symbolic value for religious reasons. Three of the most familiar religious symbols in many nations are the cross, the Star of David, and the crescent moon, which are widely understood to represent Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, respectively.

Whereas many cultures attach no religious significance to these shapes, for many people across the world they evoke very strong feelings of religious faith. Recognizing this, hate groups have often desecrated these symbols.

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What are the Elements of a Culture
What are the Elements of a Culture


Anything or any material when collected important in our daily life it starts having value.

Value of some materials, sometimes, are received and taught by parents to their children. Some values are explained by society, in this way values of a particular society get accumulated and move forward from generation to generation.

A culture’s values shape its norms. In Japan, for example, a central value is group harmony. The Japanese place great emphasis on harmonious social relationships and dislike interpersonal conflict.

Individuals are fairly unassertive by American standards, lest they be perceived as trying to force their will on others (Schneider & Silverman, 2010).

When interpersonal disputes do arise, the Japanese do their best to minimize conflict by trying to resolve the disputes amicably.

Lawsuits are thus uncommon; in one case involving disease and death from a mercury-polluted river, some Japanese who dared to sue the company responsible for the mercury poisoning were considered bad citizens (Upham, 1976).

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Cognitive elements

Cognitive elements are that element of culture that deals with the management of difficult times or natural calamities.

Cognitive elements of culture are those through which an individual learns how to cope with an existing situation whether natural or social.

These qualities are learned by children and taught, to them, by their parents, so that their son/daughter can live with peace in a particular situation

Key Features of Culture

  1. Culture is learned
  2. Culture is social
  3. Culture is shared
  4. Culture is transmitted
  5. Culture is continuous
  6. Culture is accumulative
  7. Culture is integrate
  8. Culture is changing
  9. Culture varies from society to society 

Role of Cultural Cognition in Cultural Differences

When cultural norms are instilled in very young children, they become cultural values.

Cultural beliefs about what things mean are first transmitted by parents, teachers, and other adults when cultural norms exist.

Once cultural values become associated with particular beliefs in a society, people can infer cultural values from cultural beliefs.

Values and norms are related to cultural cognition because cultural cognition is based on both cultural values and cultural norms. 

For this very reason, the cultural difference often goes unnoticed even though people may be acting differently because of their different cultural beliefs (ex: example about a man who wore shorts to the office).

Cultural differences will not become cultural cognition unless cultural beliefs are an element of cultural norms.

The cultural beliefs within a culture can be based on either cultural values or cultural norms (ex: eating beef is seen as natural and healthy in India but unnatural and unhealthy in the U.S.).

The cultural difference happens when people from cultural groups have cultural beliefs about something classified into cultural categories.  These cultural beliefs may, in turn, lead to cultural differences between those cultural groups (ex: age).

Cultural Cognition is the process by which values and norms combine with cultural beliefs to form cultural differences. 

Three steps must happen for the cultural difference to come about: cultural cognition, cultural beliefs, and cultural norms.  Cultural cognitions will not occur unless cultural beliefs are an element of cultural norms within a culture or society (ex: wearing shorts to the office). 

These differences can be detected in two ways: first, by non-cultural means such as observation of cultural behavior or cultural artifacts (ex: cultural clothing); second, cultural beliefs can be measured through direct questioning.

What is the Symbolic Element of Culture?

The elements of culture that can be used to identify a specific culture are often referred to as symbolic elements. 

These symbols are categorized into four different categories which are material, nonverbal, verbal, and cognitive.

Material Elements

The material aspect of a culture is the physical objects associated with a certain culture. 

For example, if you were to look at the material aspect of a Native American tribe, it would include things like tee-pees, tomahawks, and buffalo hides.  These things are symbolic in that they represent the culture and its traditions.

Nonverbal Elements

Nonverbal elements of culture often include gestures or facial expressions that convey a specific message in a certain culture.

An example of this includes the “V sign” used by Brits, which is considered a positive symbol, but it has been an insult in other countries, like Italy.

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What are the Elements of a Culture
What are the Elements of a Culture

Verbal Elements

Any language or dialect spoken by a group of people can be considered part of their verbal culture. 

This includes the way that words are used, pronounced, and structured.  It also includes the use of non-verbal communication, as previously mentioned.

Cognitive Elements

This category deals with how people think or cognitive processes such as reasoning and problem-solving. 

For example, Buddhism has different religious beliefs than Christianity. They use different reasoning patterns and reasoning to determine problem-solving.

Related FAQs

1. What are the elements of Culture in sociology?

The major elements of culture are symbols, language, norms, values, and artifacts. Language makes effective social interaction possible and influences how people conceive of concepts and objects. Major values that distinguish the United States include individualism, competition, and a commitment to the work ethic.

2. What are some common elements that make up individual cultures?

Lesson Summary. In summary, some of the common elements that make up individual cultures are symbols, language, values, and norms. A symbol is anything that is used to stand for something else. People who share a culture often attach a specific meaning to an object, gesture, sound, or image.

3. What are the 18 elements of Culture?

18 Major Elements of Culture (Explained for Students!) Elements of culture include our norms, languages, rituals, holidays, food and diet, art, and architecture. It’s often hard to picture what a culture will look like.

4. What are the elements of material culture?

The second type, called material culture, includes all the society’s physical objects, such as its tools and technology, clothing, eating utensils, and means of transportation. These elements of culture are discussed next.

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