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SOC 101 Week 4: Culture


Welcome to our fourth online lecture in the Fall 2015 Introduction to Sociology course.  After a review of previous weeks’ work and a consideration of some areas for improvement, we’ll strike onward, tackling the meaty subject of culture. What are the elements of culture? How are they visible to us in our daily lives, and more importantly, how can they seem invisible to us unless we step above the personal level? How do cultural artifacts of our lives signify social location and social history? How can we study culture more systematically, more structurally? How does culture signify our moral beliefs, our beliefs about the way the world is, and the daily practice of our lives?

Culture is Not Actual, but it is Real: Looking at Rockland

It may be tempting to simply consider the culture we live in as reflective of the way things are (or, to quote the sign welcoming visitors to Maine from New Hampshire reads, “The Way Life Should Be”) (Lewis 1993).  Other cultures, we might think, are strange or even distasteful for not seeing things for how they actually are.  This temptation should be avoided, because the way we look at our communities can be demonstrably at odds with the way our communities actually are.

The Jewel of the Maine Coast and the Discovery Map for Rockland, MaineTo demonstrate this point, I’ve taken a look at the city of Rockland, Maine — and then taken a look again.  The Jewel of the Maine Coast is a publication put out by the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce.  The promotional company Discovery Map has offers a free, colorful map of Rockland to visitors (paying for the map with advertisements).  Both are promotional items, telling a story about Rockland and showcasing what Rockland thinks is most emblematic of itself.  How do these two visual depictions of Rockland square with a literal vision?

I can’t fully reproduce the Discovery Map of Rockland on this page due to copyright restrictions, but I have traced its outline and the placement of major roads on the map to give you an idea of the dimensions of Rockland as Discovery Map imagines them:

Outline of a tourist map of Rockland, with placement of roads

Compare that to the tax map of Rockland devised by the city from aerial photography, professional surveys and other literal sources:

Tax Map of the city of Rockland, Maine

Some differences are immediately apparent.  The Rockland Breakwater is thickened considerably for the tourist map, making it seem more physically prominent than it actually is.  Discovery Map cuts away all of Rockland west of Old County Road, as the residents of Bog Road and Mountain Street might be chagrined to learn.  Finally, the relative size of downtown is magnified.

In its section dedicated to Rockland, meanwhile, The Jewel of the Maine Coast features — you guessed it — a picture of the Rockland Breakwater and a picture of downtown — “a classic Main Street,” as The Jewel puts it.  The cultural depiction of Rockland, fit for purposes of consumption, is at odds with the actual visual reality of Rockland.  To demonstrate this, I divided the tax map you see above into a grid, gave boxes in the grid numbers, and used a random number generator to select Rockland locations for photographs.  When the locations I selected were on private property, I found the nearest public road and took a photograph from there.  I generated another random number on a 360-degree scale for each of the locations I visited to determine which direction I’d point, and then I snapped each of the pictures you see below holding a camera at chest height.

The result is a random sample of what the city of Rockland actually looks like.  I took 12 photographs, one for each month, because I thought I could sell a calendar with one photo per month.  Let’s call the calendar Random Rockland.  Click on a picture to see it in its full size:

Location 1 Location 2 Location 3 Location 4 Location 5 Location 6 Location 7 Location 8 Location 9 Location 10 Location 11 Location 12

Do you think that my calendar could sell a lot of copies?  Probably not.  Why?  Those photographs are “awful”!  But let’s stop and think about what an “awful” photo is: it doesn’t compose the scene with an interesting subject arranged in the proper spot.  It may be facing the sun.  It doesn’t tell a compelling story.  All of these criticisms against a photograph highlight what a “good” photograph should be: a wildly inaccurate, biased representation of its subject.  That’s what culture does.  To use a term from semiotic sociology (Gottdiener 1985), culture “signifies” what is important for us to look at, learn from and cherish — and what we should ignore, avoid and even disdain.  Elements of culture are like traffic signs for those who live in it.

More than One Way Signs

It may be that Rockland’s promotional cultural image of itself is not in accord with an actual visual sample of Rockland, but that cultural image is nonetheless real.  You may remember that at the beginning of the semester we discussed the idea that a phenomenon can be understood as “real” if it has consistent, observable consequences.  Although the elements of our culture may not accurately reflect the day-to-day details of our lives, those cultural stories we tell about ourselves can have a real impact on us.  For nearly a century, the Thomas Theorem has been one of the most famous precepts in sociology: “If men [or women] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Merton 1995: 380).  If we treat a cultural belief about the world as if it were real, the actions we take in response to that belief can have a real, observable impact on our lives.  The “witches” of Salem may have actually been ordinary people, but they died because in the culture of the time people believed witches to exist (Miller 1955).  Halloween candy may not actually be dangerous (Best 2013), but some people believe strongly enough in the idea of unsafe candy that they organize alternative “Trunk or Treat” events, changing the experience of the day for children in their neighborhoods.  Culture is not actual, but culture is real.

Signifying Cultural Origins

Cultural elements don’t need to be physical (material culture) in order to signify what’s socially important.  Our own words can identify us as cultural insiders or outsiders.

Where are you from?  A cultural “app” published by the New York Times asks participants to describe the words they use to describe certain places or things, and also asks them to describe how they pronounce those words.  On the basis of those choices, the interactive quiz generates a map predicting the place where you grew up.  I took the quiz (25 easy questions), and here are my results:

My Dialect Map is Spot-on: I grew up in the area of Rochester, New York

You probably already knew this, because you’re a cultural expert in picking up on significations, but this map confirms it: I’m not from Maine.  The culturally generated map also confirms an: I grew up just a bit to the East of Rochester, New York.  Try the quiz yourself: does it nail down your cultural origins?

The Elements of Culture (Review)

Chapter 3 of Dalton Conley’s You May Ask Yourself does a pretty good job of covering the basics of cultural sociology, but it’s always good to do a bit of review from a slightly different point of view, and I put together the following video for that reason.  Toward the end of the video, I touch base on the value of cultural relativism and look for more culture in the state of Maine:


Best, Joel. 2013. “Halloween Sadism: The Evidence.”  Accessed January 25, 2015 at http://www.udel.edu/soc/faculty/best/site/halloween.html.

Gottdiener, Mark. 1985. “Hegemony and Mass Culture: A Semiotic Approach.” American Journal of Sociology 90(5): 979-1001.

Lewis, George H. 1993. “The Maine that Never Was: The Construction of Popular Myth in Regional Culture.” Journal of American Culture 16 (2): 91-100.

Merton, Robert K. 1995. “The Thomas Theorem and the Matthew Effect.” Social forces 74(2): 379-422.

Miller, Arthur. 1995. The Crucible. New York: The Penguin Group.

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