Components of Culture

Contributor: Sarah Lerdal. Lesson ID: 11480

Sometimes, we associate the word "culture" with refined upperclass society. But the word has a broader meaning that encompasses everyone. Learn the five components of culture and how we live them out!


World Cultures

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Take a moment to write down what comes to mind when you hear the word "culture." Are the terms "culture" and "society" synonyms? Read your definition, then discuss your response with your parent or teacher.

Within the social sciences, culture is known as the shared beliefs, customs, and products of a group.

Whereas society refers to people, culture is the human group's way of life.

  • Material culture includes all the physical objects that people use and create. For example, computers, cars, and clothing are all considered material culture.
  • Nonmaterial culture includes beliefs, rules, language, and ideas. For example, a cell phone would be material culture, and knowing how to use it would be nonmaterial culture.
  • Take a minute to write the italicized terms in your notes. Then, make a list of ten of your own examples of material and nonmaterial culture.

Although cultures vary widely throughout space and time, there are five components that all cultures share. These five components enable culture to be more easily learned and shared:

  1. Technology The use of tools to make life easier. Note that technology does not have to be electronic.
  2. Symbol Anything that represents something else. Think about what seeing your country's flag means to you, or consider what a handshake means. Both a flag and a handshake are symbols.
  3. Language The organization of written or spoken symbols into a system. Language can reveal a lot about what is important within a culture. Try this: Take a moment to write down all the words you know that relate to the word "snow." Count your words; did you come up with more than ten? According to anthropologists Franz Boas and Igor Krupnik, the Inuit of certain regions in Canada have 53 words for "snow." What does this tell you about the role of snow in their lives? Discuss this with your teacher or parent.
  4. Values Shared beliefs about what is good and bad, right and wrong. For example, respect for your elders is something many cultures value. Discuss with your parent or teacher some things you think Americans typically value.
  5. Norms Shared rules of conduct. Norms are divided into folkways and mores. Folkways are simple things that tell you how to act but are not serious if broken. The following are folkways: Do not cut in line or put your feet on a table, and shake hands when you meet someone. Have you ever traveled to a different place and unknowingly broken a norm? Mores are more severe, and society's well-being is challenged if they are broken. If you commit fraud or assault, you are breaking mores.

The combination of all these factors defines a given culture. Within the United States, there are multitudes of different subcultures, so it is difficult to talk about "American culture." Subcultures are sometimes organized by various factors, including age, religion, and ethnicity. Some of the smaller cultures within the United States include the Amish, the youth, and the military. However, all of the cultures in the U.S. and throughout the world have technology, symbols, language, values, and norms.

In the Got It? section, you will see if you can identify these five components of culture within a given society.

Elephango's Philosophy

We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.