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MCAT Content / Culture / Material Vs Symbolic Culture

Material vs. Symbolic Culture

Topic: Culture

Material culture refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations while symbolic (or nonmaterial) culture refers to the ideas, beliefs, values, or norms that shape a society.

Material Culture

In the social sciences, material culture refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations. Material culture consists of physical objects that humans make. These objects inevitably reflect the historical, geographic, and social conditions of their origin. For instance, the clothes that you are wearing might tell researchers of the future about the fashions of today.

People’s relationship to and perception of objects are socially and culturally dependent. Accordingly, social and cultural attitudes can be discussed through the lens of a culture’s relationship to materiality.

Material culture is also a term used by historians, sometimes termed “material history,” which refers to the study of ancient objects and artifacts to understand how a particular culture was organized and functioned over time.

Symbolic Culture

A symbol is an object, typically material, which is meant to represent another (usually abstract) object, even if there is no meaningful relationship. Anthropologists have argued that, through the course of their evolution, human beings evolved a universal human capacity to classify experiences, and encode and communicate them symbolically, such as with written language. Since these symbolic systems were learned and taught, they began to develop independently of biological evolution.

This view of culture argues that people living apart from one another develop unique cultures. Elements of different cultures, however, can easily spread from one group of people to another. The belief that culture is symbolically coded and can, therefore, be taught from one person to another, means that cultures, although bounded, can change. Culture is dynamic and can be taught and learned, making it a potentially rapid form of adaptation to changes in physical conditions.

This view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, varying from place to place, led anthropologists to view different cultures as having distinct patterns of enduring conventional sets of meaning. Anthropologists thus distinguish between material culture and symbolic culture, not only because each reflects different kinds of human activity, but also because they constitute different kinds of data and require different methodologies to study.


Key Points

• Different societies have different cultures; a culture represents the beliefs and practices of a group, while society represents the people who share those beliefs and practices.

• Material culture refers to the objects or belongings of a group of people, such as automobiles, stores, and the physical structures where people worship. Nonmaterial culture, in contrast, consists of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society.

• A symbol is an object, typically material, which is meant to represent another (usually abstract), even if there is no meaningful relationship.

• Culture is based on a shared set of symbols and meanings. Symbolic culture enables human communication and must be taught.


Key Terms

material culture: in the social sciences, material culture is a term, developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, that refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations

symbolic culture: symbolic culture is a concept used by archaeologists, social anthropologists and sociologists to designate the cultural realm constructed and inhabited uniquely by Homo sapiens

culture: can be thought of as all the beliefs, assumptions, objects, behaviors, and processes that make up a shared way of life

anthropologist: is a person engaged in the study of aspects of humans within past and present societies



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