Sociology of culture

The sociology of culture, and the related cultural sociology, concerns the systematic analysis of culture, usually understood as the ensemble of symbolic codes used by a member of a society, as it is manifested in the society. For Georg Simmel, culture referred to "the cultivation of individuals through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history". Culture in the sociological field is analyzed as the ways of thinking and describing, acting, and the material objects that together shape a group of people's way of life.

Contemporary sociologists' approach to culture is often divided between a "sociology of culture" and "cultural sociology"—the terms are similar, though not interchangeable.[1] The sociology of culture is an older concept, and considers some topics and objects as more or less "cultural" than others. By way of contrast, Jeffrey C. Alexander introduced the term cultural sociology, an approach that sees all, or most, social phenomena as inherently cultural at some level.[2] For instance, a leading proponent of the "strong program" in cultural sociology, Alexander argues: "To believe in the possibility of cultural sociology is to subscribe to the idea that every action, no matter how instrumental, reflexive, or coerced [compared to] its external environment, is embedded to some extent in a horizon of affect and meaning."[3] In terms of analysis, sociology of culture often attempts to explain some discretely cultural phenomena as a product of social processes, while cultural sociology sees culture as a component of explanations of social phenomena.[4] As opposed to the field of cultural studies, cultural sociology does not reduce all human matters to a problem of cultural encoding and decoding. For instance, Pierre Bourdieu's cultural sociology has a "clear recognition of the social and the economic as categories which are interlinked with, but not reducible to, the cultural."[5]


Cultural sociology first emerged in Weimar, Germany, where sociologists such as Alfred Weber used the term Kultursoziologie (cultural sociology). Cultural sociology was then "reinvented" in the English-speaking world as a product of the "cultural turn" of the 1960s, which ushered in structuralist and postmodern approaches to social science. This type of cultural sociology may loosely be regarded as an approach incorporating cultural analysis and critical theory. In the beginning of the cultural turn, sociologists tended to use qualitative methods and hermeneutic approaches to research, focusing on meanings, words, artifacts and symbols. "Culture" has since become an important concept across many branches of sociology, including historically quantitative and model-based subfields, such as social stratification and social network analysis.

Early researchers

The sociology of culture grew from the intersection between sociology, as shaped by early theorists like Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, and anthropology where researchers pioneered ethnographic strategies for describing and analyzing a variety of cultures around the world. Part of the legacy of the early development of the field is still felt in the methods (much of cultural sociological research is qualitative) in the theories (a variety of critical approaches to sociology are central to current research communities) and substantive focus of the field. For instance, relationships between popular culture, political control, and social class were early and lasting concerns in the field.

Karl Marx

As a major contributor to conflict theory, Marx argued that culture served to justify inequality. The ruling class, or the bourgeoisie, produce a culture that promotes their interests, while repressing the interests of the proletariat. His most famous line to this effect is that "Religion is the opium of the people". Marx believed that the "engine of history" was the struggle between groups of people with diverging economic interests and thus the economy determined the cultural superstructure of values and ideologies. For this reason, Marx is a considered a materialist as he believes that the economic (material) produces the cultural (ideal), which "stands Hegel on his head,"[6] who argued the ideal produced the material.

Émile Durkheim

Durkheim held the belief that culture has many relationships to society which include:

  • Logical – Power over individuals belongs to certain cultural categories, and beliefs such as in God.
  • Functional – Certain rites and myths create and build up social order by having more people create strong beliefs. The greater the number of people who believe strongly in these myths more will the social order be strengthened.
  • Historical – Culture had its origins in society, and from those experiences came evolution into things such as classification systems.

Max Weber

Weber innovated the idea of a status group as a certain type of subculture. Status groups are based on things such as: race, ethnicity, religion, region, occupation, gender, sexual preference, etc. These groups live a certain lifestyle based on different values and norms. They are a culture within a culture, hence the label subculture. Weber also purported the idea that people were motivated by their material and ideal interests, which include things such as preventing one from going to hell. Weber also explains that people use symbols to express their spirituality, that symbols are used to express the spiritual side of real events, and that ideal interests are derived from symbols.

Georg Simmel

For Simmel, culture refers to "the cultivation of individuals through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history."[7] Simmel presented his analyses within a context of "form" and "content". Sociological concept and analysis can be viewed.