Seven Functions of Culture

As you may have noticed I’m quite attached to the idea of lists, so this second “list post” (did you see what I did there?) should come as no surprise. Nor should it be surprising that the list focuses on functions. Again. I can’t really explain why there are so many Functionalist lists. Perhaps they just really like them?

Anyway, if you’re looking at the concept of culture – what Fisher (1997) calls “shared behaviour…that systematises the way people do things, thus avoiding confusion and allowing cooperation so that groups of people can accomplish what no single individual could do alone” – Mazrui (1996) has identified seven functions culture performs for both societies and individuals.

1. Communication: Culture provides the context for the development of human communication systems such as language, both verbal and non-verbal (gestures, for example).

2. Perception: Matsumoto (2007) argues culture gives “meaning to social situations, generating social roles and normative behaviours”; in other words, it shapes how we see and understand the social and natural worlds. Offe (2001), for example, argues Western cultures generally operate under the belief that “the future” is not predetermined, whereas “Some African societies” are characterised by “the notion of a predetermined future not controllable by individuals”.

3. Identity: Culture influences how people see themselves and others, in terms of ideas like gender, age and ethnicity. Durkheim (1912), for example, suggested societies have a functional requirement to develop two things:

a. Social solidarity – the belief we are connected into a larger network of people who share certain beliefs, identities and commitments to each other. For such feelings of solidarity to develop, however, societies must create mechanisms of:

b. Social integration: A feeling of commitment to others, such as family and friends, is needed to create a sense of individual and cultural purpose and cohesion. In a general sense, collective ceremonies (such as royal weddings and funerals in which we can “all share”) and collective identifications (notions of Brit Pop and Brit Art, for example) represent integrating mechanisms.

More specifically, perhaps, schools try to integrate students through things like uniforms and competitive sports against other schools as a way of promoting solidarity through individual identification with the school. Identities are also shaped through things like an understanding of a society’s history, traditions, customs and the like. In Hostede’s (1991) evocative phrase, culture involves the “collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group… from another”.

4. Value systems: Cultural institutions are a source of values and people’s behaviour is, at the very least, conditioned by the cultural values they receive through the socialisation process.

5. Motivation relates to the idea cultural values and norms involve sanctions (rewards and punishments) for particular behaviours. Cultural values also set the behavioural boundaries in terms of maintaining certain standards of behaviour (laws, for example, specify behaviour that is right or wrong, acceptable and unacceptable). A development of this idea relates to Functionalist concepts of:

6. Stratification: All cultures develop ways of differentiating between social groups on the basis of things like social class (economic divisions), social rank (political divisions involving ideas like an aristocracy and peasantry), gender, age and the like. For writers like Lenski (1994) social stratification is “inevitable, necessary and functional” because it generates the “incentive systems” required to motivate and reward “the best qualified people” for occupying the “most important positions” within a cultural system. This is closely-related to the final function:

7. Production and consumption: Culture defines what people “need, use and value” as part of the overall survival mechanism in any society. People need, for example, to be organised and motivated to work, hence the need for a stratification system that offers rewards to those who occupy social roles that, in the words of Davis and Moore (1945), are “more functionally important than others” and encouraged to consume the products of the workplace.


Those of a more visual bent might be interested in this latest video update that lists 10 Functions of Culture (I’ve chucked in 3 bonus Functions to draw you in. You probably will be disappointed) in a brilliantly-condensed 3-minute vid.

This saves you the time and trouble of reading the list of functions.

Unless you already have in order to reach this text.

In which case, I can only say “I’m sorry“.

And while I don’t really mean it, we can problably agree it’s the thought that counts.

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