Why Do Sociologists Often Use the Term “Symbolic Culture” to Refer to Nonmaterial Culture?

Why Do Sociologists Often Use the Term “Symbolic Culture” to Refer to Nonmaterial Culture?

In sociology, culture is a concept that encompasses the beliefs, values, norms, behaviors, and material objects that are shared by a group of people. It is a vital aspect of human society as it shapes individuals’ actions, shapes their perceptions, and provides a framework for understanding the world. Culture can be categorized into two main types: material and nonmaterial culture. Material culture refers to the physical objects and artifacts that are created, used, and valued by a society, such as tools, clothing, and architecture. On the other hand, nonmaterial culture refers to the intangible aspects of culture, including beliefs, values, symbols, language, and norms.

Sociologists often use the term “symbolic culture” to refer to nonmaterial culture because it emphasizes the central role of symbols in shaping and transmitting cultural meaning. Symbols are objects, gestures, signs, or words that carry meaning and represent something else. They can be as simple as a traffic light or as complex as a religious symbol. Symbols are the building blocks of communication and representation, allowing individuals to express and interpret ideas, beliefs, and values. They serve as a shared language that enables people within a culture to communicate and understand each other.

Nonmaterial culture relies heavily on symbols to convey meaning, as it deals with abstract concepts and ideas that cannot be physically touched or seen. For example, the notion of justice is a symbolic concept that varies across different cultures, yet it guides the behavior and interactions of individuals within those societies. Language is also a symbolic system that enables communication and the transmission of cultural knowledge. Through language, individuals can express their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, as well as learn from previous generations.

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Symbols play a crucial role in shaping individuals’ behavior and perceptions. They provide a framework for understanding the world and guide individuals in their decision-making processes. For instance, a national flag is a powerful symbol that represents a country’s identity, history, and values. It can evoke feelings of patriotism and unity among its citizens. Similarly, religious symbols, such as the cross or the crescent, hold deep religious and cultural significance and serve as a unifying force for followers of a particular faith.

In summary, the term “symbolic culture” is used by sociologists to highlight the importance of symbols in nonmaterial culture. Symbols allow individuals to communicate, convey meaning, and shape their behavior and perceptions. They are the invisible threads that bind societies together and enable the transmission of cultural knowledge from one generation to another.


Q: Are symbols the same across all cultures?
A: No, symbols can vary across different cultures. What one symbol represents in one culture may hold a different meaning in another culture. For example, the color white can symbolize purity in Western cultures, while it represents mourning in some Eastern cultures.

Q: Can symbols change or evolve over time?
A: Yes, symbols can change or evolve over time as cultures adapt and transform. For example, the meaning of certain symbols, like the peace sign or the swastika, has shifted over the years due to historical events and changing societal norms.

Q: What role do symbols play in cultural identity?
A: Symbols play a significant role in shaping and expressing cultural identity. They provide individuals with a sense of belonging and help reinforce group cohesion. Symbols can represent shared values, traditions, and beliefs, strengthening the collective identity of a culture or community.

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Q: Can nonmaterial culture exist without symbols?
A: No, nonmaterial culture heavily relies on symbols. Symbols are the means through which nonmaterial culture is transmitted, communicated, and understood. Without symbols, it would be challenging for individuals to share and comprehend abstract concepts and ideas.