Individual and Society


A culture is a shared, learned way of life of a group of people. It refers to things we have in common with other people in our society, that allow us to understand them.


We are not born knowing how to behave in society, culture has to be learned. The process of learning a culture is called socialisation. See Socialisation. We live in a culture. Other cultures can be very different from our own, as they have different ideas about how to behave. This is called cultural diversity. See Cultural Diversity. Other animals, such as ants, are social animals. However, they know how to behave because of their instincts, and not because they are socialised to do so. On the other hand, humans don't have many instincts, and can only learn ho to behave by being taught to do so.

Unsocialised Children

Very occationally, there are cases where children are not socialised and don't learn a culture. These cases are of great interest to sociologists because they show how humans behave without a culture. Recent well-documented cases show that the children cannot make up for their lack of socialisation later in life. Here is the tragic story of Genie:

Genie was found in California in 1970. She was thirteen when she came to the attention of authorities. From the age of twenty months she had been kept in a small room in her parents' house. She had never been out of the room; she was kept naked and restrained to a kind of potty-chair by a harness her father had designed. She could move only her hands and feet. The psychotic father, who apparently hated children, forbade her almost blind mother to speak to the child. (He had put another child, born earlier, in the garage to avoid hearing her cry, and she died there of pneumonia at two months of age.) Genie was fed only milk and baby food during her thirteen years.

When the girl was found, she weighed only 59 pounds. She could not straighten her arms or legs. She did not know how to chew. She could not control her bladder or bowels. She could not recognize words or speak at all. According to the mother's report - the father killed himself soon after Genie was discovered - Genie appeared to have been a normal baby.

Over the next six years, Genie had plenty of interactions with the world, as well as training and testing by psychologists. She gained some language comprehension and learned to speak at about the level of a 2- or 3-year-old: "want milk," "two hand." She learned to use tools, to draw, and to connect cause-and-effect in some situations. And she could get from one place to another - to the candy counter in the supermarket, for example - proving that she could construct mental maps of space. Her IQ score on nonverbal tests was a low-normal 74 in 1977. But her language did not develop further, and, in fact, she made types of language errors that even normal 2-year-olds never make.


Norms and Values

Norms are unspoken, unwritten rules of everyday life of a group of people. They are the patterns of behaviour that we lern through socialisation. Values are the beliefs that lie behind social norms.
For example, a norm might be that you shouldn't interupt someone when they are speaking. The value that lies behind that norm is that it is important to be polite and respect other people.
Mores (say 'more rays', although you won't need to talk to the exam paper :P) are a stronger form of norms. They contain a moral aspect not always present in norms.

If we find ourselves in new social situations, knowing the values of our society helps us to work our how we are expected to behave in those situations.

Roles and Status

Status is someone's position in society. Ascribed status refers to the status that is determined when a person is born, such as gender or ethnicity. Achieved status however is the status someone reached by their own efforts, such as starting a business.

A lot of norms go with statuses. The set of norms that accompanies one's status is called a role. Everyone has many roles which we switch between depending on the situation.
For example, a girl studying at a university could have the roles:
Sometimes people might get conflicting messages from differnet roles. This is called role conflict.

Cultural Diversity

Cultures are very different in different countries and different at times in history. This is called cultural diversity.

Cultural Universals

Things that all cultures share are called cultural universals. Here are some examples:

Cultural Differences

There are also vast differnces between cultures. For example:


Socialisation is the process by which we learn norms and values. There are 5 main agencies of socialision, who teach us how to behave and how to think.

Primary Socialisation

Primaray socialisation is the process of socialisation in early childhood. It mainly happens at home with the family, and it is when children learn the most basic norms and values and how to behave in society.
For example, a child might learn not to shout at their parents because it is important to repect people of authority.

Secondary Socialisation

Secondary socialisation is carried out by agiences other than the family, secondary agencies of socialistion. Children have learned how to basically behave interact with other people, and now through these agencies, they start to learn other norms and values that can become very influential. The secondary agencies of socialisation are:


Socialisation never stops, and continues throughout an individual's life. A person may encounter many situations where they must decide how to behave. This process of learning new norms and values is called resocialisation.
For example, when a person: starts a new job, gets married, becomes a parent, is sent to prison, gets a divorce, goes to a child's funeral, goes on the run for attempted murder of previous spouse, starts life in a new country, gets into the illegal drug trade, gets raped in prison, escapes from prison, retires and vegetates in a stinking old people's home.

Diversity of Socialisation

The process of socialisation is different in different cultures and has been in different times. Education and the Mass Media have become far more important now than in history, where the family and community shaped much more influcential in shaping the norms and values a person recieved. There has also been a decline in religion's socialisation of people, as less people are relious or follow religion as closely.

Socialisation into Gender Roles

One of our roles is our gender, and we are socialised into our gender roles from a very early age.

The Difference between Sex and Gender

Sex refers to biological differences between men and women. It is decided by the 23rd chromosome in our DNA. Gender is the social role that goes with someone's sex, and is an important aspect of their identity. It is partly affected by biological differences, but there are also gender differences that are shaped by the culture we live in. Because of this, gender roles vary widely between different cultures.

Gender Roles from the Family

The socialisation into different gender roles begins at the home, as parents usually treat boys and girls quite differently. The sociologist Ann Oakley postulated four ways in which gender socialisation occurs in the primary agency of socialisation:

The Agencies of Secondary Socialisation

People are also socialised into gender roles by the secondary agencies of socialisation.

Social Control

A society needs to have a way of making people conform to its norms and values, as knowing them does not necessarily mean that people will follow them. A system of sanctions has developed to do this. These santions may either be rewards for conforming of punnishments for disobeying social rules, or deviance.

Sanctions may be formal sanctions, applied by official institutions; or informal sanctions, where everyday people apply sanctions to others, for example, a dissaproving look from a friend when you stomp all over their work with your great big dirty feet.

Agencies of Social Control

All the agencies of socialisation are themselves also agencies of social control, as they enforce sanctions on those who are socialised by them. Different sociologists have differnt opinions about this. While functionalists argue that this is a good thing and necessary for society to function, others, such as Marxists and Feminists state that social control can make people behave in ways that are not beneficial to them, and only benefit those who control, not those who are controlled.


If all the other metheds of social control have failed, societies have even more powerful methods of social control - they may use organised force. The police force institution are set up explicitly for social control, and have a range of sanctions at their disposal to make people conform, including complete exlcusion from society by imprisonment or even death.

Nature and Nurture

There is a debate amoung biologists, sociologists and other scientists as to what extent human behaviour is shaped by our genes and biological differences (Nature), and to what extent it is shaped by the society we live in and other humans around us (Nurture).

Sociologists often see gender as more important than sex differences, for example (see Sex and Gender). They say that differences in the way men and women behave can mainly be explained by socialised gender ideas, rather than 'natural' biological dispositions.

Genetic Determinism

Some scientists argue that human behaviour is predetermined (at least in part) by inheritance of genes, called genetic determinism.
For example, a girl who's parents are both shy is more likely to be shy because she might have inherited the genes for shyness.
In the past, ideas about biological shaping of human behaviour did not focus on genes as the vehicle for determinism, as they hadn't been discovered. Some believed in the existence of different races, and Cesare Lombroso thought that criminals might be a form of primitive human. However, these days, with the advance of biological science and the study of the human geonome, some scientists have found correlations between genes and various human traits, for example violence of homosexuality.

Socio-biologists argue that many forms of human behaviour can be explained by genetic determinism and 'hard-wired' biological differences. They point out that many things that humans do are also seen in animals, who's behavioural differences are believed by most people to also be caused by biological differnces.

Evidence for 'Nurture'

Many sociologists argue that the fact that there are very large differences between cultures and the way their members behave, both around the world and through history, suggests that human is in fact learned, as genetic determinism cannot account for such diversisty.

Some also point to cases of unsocialised children. These show that without socilaisation, children do not learn how to behave like other humans, which strongly supports the argument that human behaviour is learned from others.


In reality, it is most likely that in fact a combination of nature and nuture affect human behaviour.
For example, a girl who's parents are both shy is more likely to be shy because her genes have predisposed her to more likely be shy, but also because she has grown up in a household where shyness is viewed as being normal.
However, in sociology, we only study learned differences.

Consensus and Conflict

The main theoretical perspectives of sociology are based around either consensus or conflict. According to consensus theories, most people will accept the norms and values they are socialised with and this will make society predictable and orderly. However, according conflict theories of society, the norms and values we learn are against our interests and are created to benefit those with power. Therefore society can be seen a conflict between those wis power, and those wisout.

Concensus - Functionalism

Functionalist sociological theories see each part of society with its own function, but all essential for the whole to work correctly. If every part and every member follows the role given to them, society will remain an orderly and predictable. It can be compared with an organic analogy, with each part of society as an organ all working together to ensure the body can keep going.
For example, schools can be seen as providing the skills needed for people to work and in futher socialising them.

Conflict - Marxism

Marxist theories see society as being devided by class, where the working class (prolariat) is in constant battle with the ruling class (bourgeoisie). The ruling class possess almost all the power and exploit the working class. This conflict of interest can lead to things such as protests, or even revolution.

The agencies of social control can be seen as methods employed by the ruling class to keep the working class in their place. For example:
Schools teach children obedience and respect for authority and the mass media brainwash people into be interested in gossip and sport, disguising what's really going on.

Conflict - Feminism

Feminists see society as a conflict not between classes, but between the sexes. The men are seen to have all the power in social situations and institutions. This is called patriarchy.

Individuals and Identities

Your identity is composed of several things that you identify with, like football teams of punk music. The aspects of your identity come with the society you live in but there is usually a certain degree of 'choice'. Identities allow us to share something with others and feel like we are part of a group.
Examples of aspects of someone's identity are:

Changing Identities

Identities are changing all the time, and are probably less fixed than they used to be.


Interactionism is a theoretical perspective of society, like Marxism and Functionalism, that looks at how society shapes our behaviour. However, it is more concerned with individuals and start with people rather than society as a whole when attempting to explain why people act as they do.