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Part 2a -Culture and Identity

Updated on November 18, 2009
Talcott Parsons
Talcott Parsons

Sociology: The Scientific Study of Social Life

In “Part 1 – What is Sociology?” I stated that simply put, Sociology is the study of human social behaviour. More accurately however, it is the study of the way people behave in social groups and how different social groups affect the behaviour of individuals. As human beings we are of course members of various social groups simultaneously. For example; our families, our school or workplace, our peer group and our friendship groups. Within each social group we may be required to think about our social world differently and indeed, different social groups will require us to behave differently. 

The largest social group that we all belong to is that of “society” itself. Society is key to our understanding of how social groups affect our views and behaviour because it is something that we all have in common. With only a little thought we can see how the idea of society as a social group affects our behaviour. 

What Is Society? 

For sociological purposes society can be defined in terms of two related concepts. What society involves, and what society does.

In terms of what society involves it has a number of characteristics; firstly a particular geographical area, secondly a common form of governance and thirdly the awareness of its members as having a distinct identity from other groups around them. It may also have a common language and a common set of traditions. 

However this definition of a society is fairly broad in its implications; it could for example describe a small group of people such as a tribal society or extend to include large modern countries with millions of people. 

Therefore, we need to think about what a society does in order to narrow our definition from a physical locale to what the effects of living in a social group like a society might have on individual human behaviour. The following definition of society is therefore a little more complex; a society is a form of organisation involving the co-operation of individuals in order to produce things necessary for survival. Furthermore, a society must meet certain social needs and prevent conflicts from occurring in order to maintain it. 

These two definitions of society provide us with a starting part in our understanding of the concept of society, however in terms of providing us with a concrete answer to what society is, it is lacking! The reason for this is that society is not a thing which has a physical existence. Unlike natural scientists, sociologists are trying to study something which cannot be sensed directly. This has two major consequences for the field of Sociology. 

Primarily, we are unable to point to something solid and say “this is society”. This means that sociologists have developed numerous, differing opinions on the nature of society; the way it is organised and the way it affects individual behaviour. This is further compounded by differences in how society can be studied. 

The second problem is that sociologists are often accused of not being real scientists. Whether or not this matters comes down to how important you consider this status to be. However, it does tend to mean that the value of knowledge regarded as important by sociologists is often disregarded by scientists for the most part it cannot predict the behaviour of human beings in the way that a physicist can predict the actions of gravity for example. 

However, the important thing is not that we are able to see society as a thing, but that we can see its effects such as is the case with gravity. In seeing society as a kind of force (like gravity) we can see how human behaviour is organised in how individuals interact with others to create something called “a society”. This social interaction is of key importance. 

Society as a Structure of Relationships 

In viewing society as a force, we are forced to think about and explain how this force is created. Firstly, whenever we enter into a relationship with another individual either through choice or through necessity we create a kind of invisible bond between each other.

A prime example of this is in calling someone a friend. In doing so there is recognition of a special kind of relationship between yourself and the other person. What is important to note is that your relationship with a friend is different from a relationship you have with a family member or indeed a teacher. What each relationship has in common however, is that they all affect you in some way, shape or form despite there differences. When you look at things this way it is obvious how complex our system of forming relationships is and how each different type of relationship has a different set of behaviours associated with them. For example you’d hug a friend, but hugging your employer would in most circumstances be very odd indeed! 

Furthermore, the relationships that we form are only significant to us because of the meaning we ascribe to them. In the most basic way it’s as if the entire human race is playing an elaborate game where we pretend that the relationships that we form have a real and physical presence. 

To put it another way, a stranger looking at you would have no idea which people surrounding you are family, which are friends and which are teachers. It is only through observing our behaviour towards such people, and our interactions with them that they could make a guess. 

Think about what would happen if you claimed a relationship existed but everyone around denied it existed. For example, if you went up to someone and started acting as if they were your boy or girlfriend when they weren’t aware of the status of the relationship it would cause some serious problems indeed. 

An important point to note here is that social relationships only really exist for as long as people believe they exist; a society without people, for example, is impossible. On the other hand, people without society are also impossible. 

The idea of social relationships and the meaning they have for us is key because we can use the idea to suggest a theoretical solution to the problem of explaining a massive contradiction between how we are all unique, free thinking individuals and how Human behaviour as a whole is highly organised and generally predictable, involving a great deal of similarity.

The Nature of Social Organisation

The suggestion that human behaviour is organised is backed up by the observing the social world and establishing patterns of behaviour. If we agree that all humans are individual and unique then it follows that something must cause these patterns of behaviour to occur.

There are numerous theories we could use to explain this situation. The non-sociological theory is that of instinct; that we are innately programmed to behave in certain ways. This is an attractive theory as it explains why human beings generally behave in predictable ways. However, the sociological theory is that of culture and socialisation. This is the idea that we are born into a society which has rules of behaviour (culture) and that we learn these rules through a system of teaching called socialisation.

Learning to become Human

One of the primary tenants of sociology is that people are not born with an innate knowledge of how to behave. Behaviour is something that must be taught and learned. In investigating this idea we can look at two basic forms of human development that is the physical and the psychological.

Unlike the vast majority of animals the human infant is not only totally helpless at birth; it is also physically dependant upon other human beings for a number of years in order to survive. If neglected from birth, a human baby will die. Therefore, one of the most important relationships we ever form is that between us and those whole help us develop physically until the stage can fed for ourselves.

Caring for a baby’s physical needs however, doesn’t ensure it develops into what we recognise as a human being. A child who is neglected psychologically will not develop into a recognisable member of society because they are not mentally equipped to do so. For example, they may have no language skills to allow them to communicate.

Of course, someone people would still argue that innate instinct can still explain everything that sociologists account for with socialisation. From the point of view of instinct human beings are genetically programmed to act in certain ways. For example, while a human baby is physically helpless at birth, the child’s parents having been responsible for bringing it into the world instinctively care for their child. Another example of instincts that is claimed to exist is in knowing the difference between right and wrong.

While sociologists do not deny that instincts exist, they do not believe that they are genetically programmed into us. Instead they are the products of socialisation and the internalisation of norms and values. Therefore as sociologists we argue that such genetic, innate instincts do not exist and we justify the argument in the following way:

An instinct can be defined in terms of two things. Primarily it is a behaviour that is genetically programmed from birth, it is not a behaviour that we could choose not to do. For example, at a certain time of the year a blue tit will instinctively start to build a nest, an individual blue tit cannot choose not to do so.

Secondly, not only does an instinct tell an animal what to do at a certain time, but also it tells the animal how to do it. Therefore a blue tit is not only forced to build a nest but its instincts tell the bird how to build a certain nest. Individually the blue tit has no choice in the design.

In applying this explanation of instinct to humans we can note a number of things. Primarily, that people always have a choice of how to behave; a woman can choose not to care for a child, no one is forced to commit a crime there is always a choice.

Another idea that favours a cultural rather than genetic approach to understanding patterns of human behaviour is that the way we do things have variety (unlike the blue tits nest building). A prime example of this is that in our society monogamy is normal, while in other societies polygamy is considered normal.

One way of experimentally testing how behaviour is learnt and not instinctive would be to isolate a human child at birth and keep it away from human contact. We could then observe the child over time and see what the effects of such isolation would be. Would the child have recognisable human behaviour? Would it be able to take it place in society and lead a normal life?

Clearly such an experiment would never be conducted due to the ethical issues involved and as such this theoretical study has been named “The Forbidden Experiment”. However, we can take advantage of natural experiments, or case studies of events which occur in a non-experimental setting:

It is reported that Akbar, who was an emperor in India from1542 to 1602, ordered that a group of children be brought up without any instruction in language to test the belief that they would eventually speak Hebrew, the language of God. The children were raised by deaf mutes. They developed no spoken language and communicated solely by gestures.

On January 9th 1800 a strange creature emerged from woods near the village of Saint-Serin in southern France. In spite of walking erect, he looked more animal than human, although he was soon identified as a boy of about 11 or 12. He spoke only in shrill, strange-sounding cries. The boy apparently had no sense of personal hygiene and relieved himself where and when he chose. He refused to wear clothes, tearing them off as soon as they were put on him. No parents ever came forward to claim him. The child was subjected to a thorough medical examination, which turned up no abnormalities of a major kind. Later the boy was moved to Paris. He was toilet-trained, accepted wearing clothes and learned to dress himself. Yet he was uninterested in toys and games and was never able to master more than a few words.” (Giddens "Sociology".)

Such examples might be considered dubious given how long ago they reportedly occurred. However:

"In 1978 a girl of about 5 years of age was discovered on a farm in the United States. Since birth she had been completely isolated...This was done because she was illegitimate and the grandparents were ashamed. When discovered she could not walk, talk or feed herself and had no control over her bladder or bowels. She had great difficulty in understanding anything that was explained to her or done for her. After being taken from the farm and looked after, she made some progress, learning to feed herself, to speak a few sentences and to dress herself." (Kingsley Davis “Human Society”)

On the basis of the above evidence it seems clear that humans do not have instincts on the same level that we understand some animals, birds and insects to have as genetic programming. It is evident however, that like any other living thing we do have certain biological drives which differ from instincts as they are biologically desirable or necessary for survival such as eating and sleeping. Such actions however are regulated and we have a measure of choice about how and when we do them

The Culture of Society

From the above we can see that sociologists focus on the ideas of culture and learned behaviour. However, as we reject the idea of instinct as the basis for human social organisation then this leave us with the problem of explaining how cultures develop and why they develop in particular ways.

The American sociologists Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) argued that all societies are faced with four problems if they are to exist and survive over time.

First there is the economic problem of producing things that are necessary for survival to which his solution is that society has to organise people into economic relationships to produce food and shelter etc.

Secondly, there is the political problem or how to ensure that society is orderly and stable; in short the need to enforce rules of acceptable behaviour. The solution to this is that society has to develop ways of governance and control such as the government, the police and the judicial system.

Thirdly, there is the family problem, of ensuring that children are born and looked after in a way which allows them to grow into functioning adult members of society. The solution to which is ensuring that children learn the culture of the society into which they are born from their parents.

Finally there is the cultural problem of how to make people feel that they have things in common with other people and in ensuring that they feel like they belong to common culture and a society. The solution to this is in developing and encouraging of cultural relationships through things like religion, education, the mass media etc.

Parsons’ used the term social system instead of society to symbolise that human behaviour is organised in terms of a system of relationships. The four problems he identified he called sub-systems to signify that each played a part in the construction of an overall social system. Put simply, he states that we can recognise an overall system because it contains the four sub-systems of economics, politics, family and culture.

Parsons further argued that for a society to develop and grow a solution to each of the four sub-systems must exist. Thus if a solution is not found to any or all of the problems then the society will not develop and will not persist


The main argument here has been that sociologists reject the idea that human social organisation is based on instinct. Rather, that the concept of culture and learned behaviour is much more plausible for two main reasons. Primarily, it can be easily demonstrated and tested, and secondly, it provides a much more flexible explanation that allows us to account for both cultural similarities and cultural differences.

Oxana Malaya ( ) (born November 1983) was found as an 8-year-old feral child in Ukraine in 1991, having lived most of her life in the company of dogs. She picked up a number of dog-like habits and found it difficult to master language. Oxanas alcohol
Oxana Malaya ( ) (born November 1983) was found as an 8-year-old feral child in Ukraine in 1991, having lived most of her life in the company of dogs. She picked up a number of dog-like habits and found it difficult to master language. Oxanas alcohol


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