What's the difference between "society" and "culture"?
September 24, 2006 4:40 PM   Subscribe

What's the difference between "society" and "culture"?

Being in a field related to anthropology, I talk/write/read about "culture" constantly but rarely use/come across the word "society." I've been reading some sociology texts that use both "culture" and "society" without really defining either one (e.g. "We can therefore define globalization as: A social process in which the constraints of geography on economic, political, social and cultural arrangements recede, in which people become increasingly aware that they are receding and in which people act accordingly." Waters. Globalization, p. 5. [emphasis mine])

Of course, each term can have multiple definitions depending on the conext. In the example above, it seems "society" has more to do with institutions and organizations that are created by a group of people while "culture" has more to do with practices, beliefs, etc.? Maybe this is how the difference is generally understood. I am still baffled by the difference between "social and cultural arrangements." All/any thoughts appreciated.
posted by imposster to Society & Culture (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I was taught in my undergraduate work that a "society" is a group of people who live within defined territorial borders and participate in a common culture, whereas a "culture" has more to do with those peoples' ways of life, consisting of material objects as well as the patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, that is passed from generation to generation among members of a society.

In other words, whereas the people living in the slums of New York City live in the same "society" as those living in the Hamptons (that society being New York, or the United States), they have markedly different "cultures" due to their differing lifestyles.
posted by mikespez at 4:49 PM on September 24, 2006

A great book on this subject is New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (here's the amazon link) The book has 142 essays that define words like society and culture.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 5:07 PM on September 24, 2006

Best answer: Well, you might already realize a lot of people make their living teaching undergrads these sort of distinctions, and also write papers and books expounding on the topic. For example, just search on "differences between culture and society" OR "differences between society and culture" site:.edu and you'll see several study guide related works stating your question word-for-word.

But I won't regurgitate a ripe result from one cheesy Google search for you here. Nossir! No such shortcuts on my watch. Instead, I'll point you to a PDF titled "BASIC CONCEPTS from Sociology and Anthropology - Tools to think with", a result that took three or four searches to properly track down. And actually, as far as an educated layman's (woman's, person's) definition of what you're interested in, it's pretty darn good. From the OpenCourseWare site of MIT, the 3-page PDF simply defines society, culture, and several interrelated concepts, with several cites if you're of a mind to dig deeper. It includes a short discussion of social structures and arrangments in the context of culture too. Not a deep discussion, obviously, but dead on topic. Hope it's sufficient at least as a starting point.

All hail MIT.
posted by mdevore at 5:15 PM on September 24, 2006 [3 favorites]

"Culture" is a collective body of knowledge (including norms and attitudes). "Society" is the resultant behavior of the people who know that body of knowledge.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:28 PM on September 24, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the input everyone. mdevore's link really helps. I've never had any luck using the OCW site, but this renews my interest.
posted by imposster at 5:48 PM on September 24, 2006

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