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Definition: Culture from Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies

The sum of those characteristics that identify and differentiate human societies – a complex interweave of many factors. The culture of a nation is made up of its language, history, traditions, climate, geography, arts, social, economic and political norms, and its system of values; and such a nation's size, its neighbours and its current prosperity condition the nature of its culture.

There are cultures within cultures. Thus reference is made to working-class culture or middle-class culture. Organizations and institutions can have their own cultures (see organization cultures). We refer to cultural epochs resulting from developments – social, political, industrial, technological – that create cultural change. Mass production and the mass media have contributed immensely to cultural change, giving rise to what critics have termed ‘mass culture’ and disapprovingly portrayed as manufactured, manipulated, force-fed, marketed like soap powder and, because of its unique access to vast audiences, open to abuse of the mass by the powerful. Alan Swingewood in The Myth of Mass Culture (Macmillan, 1977) argued that there ‘is no mass culture, or mass society; but there is an ideology of mass culture and mass society’. The ideology is real enough, but the thing itself he described as myth.

Culture is transmitted through socialization to new members of a social group or society. The media play an important role in this process. A central concern of culturalist studies of the media is the degree to which the media's output may both reflect and communicate the culture of the more powerful social groups in that society at the expense of the less powerful. By asserting one culture against others, the media help to nurture a dominant culture and relegate rival cultures to the realms of deviance.

Today's cultures have to be examined through the lens of the ‘network society’, which has brought about profound shifts in terms of the nature of communications. In the world of blogs (see blogosphere), the rise and rise of the smart phone and its multitude of applications (see mobilization), in a cyberspace populated by facebook and youtube, the traditional dominance of the mass media – their power to define, legitimize and lead culture – is in rapid transition.

  • James Curran; David Morley, Media and Cultural Theory (Routledge, 2005);.
  • Lewis, Jeff , Cultural Studies (Sage, 2nd edition, 2008);.
  • Curran, James , ed., Media and Society (5th edition, Bloomsbury Academic, 2010);.
  • Turner, Graeme , Ordinary People and the Media: The Demotic Turn (Routledge, 2010);.
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Summary Article: World Cultures from Encyclopedia of Global Studies

The term world cultures often refers to a heuristic plurality of several individual cultures that have or have had global influence. The term is similar to the concept of dominant or lead cultures and overlaps with the concepts of world religion and civilization. The elaboration and historical derivation of distinct cultural circles draws on Karl Jaspers's work on the origins and aims of history (800-200 BCE), Max Weber's work on world religions, Norbert Elias's notion of civilization as process, the discussion of the multiple modernities in the work of Shmuel Eisenstadt, and the shifts in the distinct value patterns among values as suggested by Ronald Inglehart.

Current approaches in globalization debates address divergence and convergence of cultures. Samuel Huntington's work on “the clash of civilizations” suggests a growing tension between these cultural circles and assumes disharmony between them. Thus cultural rather than political matters are seen to be future hot spots in global controversies. In contrast, opposing theoretical frameworks observe instead convergent outcomes of globalization processes and refer to a holistic view of world society. Sociologist Niklas Luhmann, for example, considers the existence of a world society as fact because of the possibility and accessibility of communication. As all societies communicate with each other, and increasingly so, they form one overarching society, even though some parts may be more integrated than others that are more marginal in terms of communication flows and patterns.

Another set of theories is based on the notion of a unique world culture, in a way, one world culture within many world cultures. This particular approach to world culture as an expanding expression of a particular world culture, known as world society theory, has been developed primarily by sociologist John W. Meyer, together with several fellow researchers. By applying insights of neo-institutional theory in sociology to global phenomena, Meyer observed that globalization processes seem to reveal isomorphic trends, especially considering the shape and the behavior of nation-states but also concerning specific organizational forms such as education and science or individual values like individualism. World culture becomes a meta-phenomenon composed mainly of Western, and especially Protestant, principles that has spread globally. The concept of culture within world society theory is broadly conceived, encompassing a heterogeneous set of institutionalized rules, models, and beliefs. World culture stresses the importance of formal structures and goals such as the belief in development and progress and highlights apparently universal principles such as human rights or rationalized science as well as organizational forms and patterns.

In a way, world culture is an advancement of Weber's theory of rationalization and bureaucratization, together with a particular implementation of standards. Examples of such cultural standards include school curricula, standard operating procedures in the field of technology, rules of military engagements, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and accounting rules in business. Thus, empirical studies based on the world society theory highlight the impact of international political actors (especially UN agencies, transnational corporations, and civil society actors like nongovernmental organizations) in fostering world culture and the associated and transported global legitimacy of those models. The term culture is used here because the values that support and legitimate some organizational forms and not others, and some social activities and not others, are in fact cultural values.

World society theory offers several advantages for researchers in the globalization context. Hypotheses on global development can be derived and empirically tested because the particular components can be deduced from the institutional perspective. Additionally, as world society theory provides a concrete base, subsequent case studies can trace historical changes and anomalies as well as allow for verification of expressions of world culture.

Yet there are also shortcomings when adopting the world society theory with its proclamation of a world culture. Meyer and colleagues acknowledge that the ongoing diffusion processes of global models often lead to different results in different contexts, for example, Islamic banking practices or vocational training. Others have noted that the mechanisms of institutionalizing world cultural elements do not always proceed as easily and peacefully as assumed. The neo-institutionalist view tends to overlook the elements of power and coercion in explaining the outcomes of the process. In other words, the world society approach is useful for explaining converging developments but not diverging ones, particularly when value conflicts are involved.

At present, no approach manages to explain all the complex features of cultural globalization. Jan Nederveen Pieterse suggests that there are three possible responses to cultural globalization: convergence, divergence, or hybridization. World society theory at least attempts to explain the origins of the convergence response, but not its outcomes. Nevertheless, for applied research, the theory constitutes a promising starting point. Its merit is to focus on and advocate cultural matters in globalization, even if the broad conception of culture, its impact, and change will have to be better clarified.

See also:

Americanization, Cosmopolitan Identity, Cosmopolitanism, Cultural Hybridity, Culture, Notions of, Globalization, Phenomenon of, Hegemonic Power, Identities, Traditional, Identities in Global Societies, Knowledge Production Systems, McDonaldization, McWorld, Opinion, World

Further Readings
  • Anheier, H. K., &Isar, R. Y. (Eds.). Cultures and globalization: Vol. 1. Tensions and conflicts. London: Sage.
  • Drori, G. S., &Krücken, G. (Eds.).(2009) World society: The writings of John W. Meyer. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Eisenstadt, S. N. (Ed.). (1986) The origins and diversity of axial age civilizations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Finnemore, M. Norms, culture and world politics: Insights from sociological neoinstitutionalism. International Organization, 50 : 325-347, .
  • Huntington, S. P.(1996) The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Jaspers, K.(1949) Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte [On the origin and aim of history]. München, Germany: Piper.
  • Lechner, F. J.Boli, J.(2005) World culture: Origins and consequences. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Luhmann, N. Die Weltgesellschaft [The world society]. Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie, 57 : 1-34, .
  • Meyer, J. W.; Boli, J.; Thomas, G. M.; Ramirez, F. O. World society and the nation-state. American Journal of Sociology, 103 : 144-181, .
  • Nederveen Pieterse, J.(2003) Globalization and culture: Global mélange. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Anheier, Helmut K.
    and and
    Hölz, Martin
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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