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The Concepts of Culture and of Social System


From: The American Sociological Review 23(1958), 582-3

There seems to have been a good deal of confusion among

anthropologists and sociologists about the concepts of
culture and society (or, social system). A lack of consensus -
between and within disciplines has made for semantic
confusion as to what data are subsumed under these terms;
but, more important, the lack has impeded theoretical
advance as to their interrelation.
There are still some anthropologists and sociologists who
do not even consider the distinction necessary on the ground
that all phenomena of human behavior are sociocultural,
with both societal and cultural aspects at the same time. Bu
even where they recognize the distinction, which can be said
now to be a commonplace, they tend to assume determinative
primacy for the set of phenomena in which they are more
interested. Sociologists tend to see all cultural systems as a
sort of outgrowth or spontaneous development, derivative
from social systems. Anthropologists are more given to being
holistic and therefore often begin with total systems of
culture and then proceed to subsume social structure as
merely a part of culture. ("Social anthropology" perhaps
represents a secession within anthropology that inclines to
prefer the sociological assumption.)
Our objective in the present joint statement is to point out,
so far as methodological primacy is concerned, that, either
[sic should be "each" TW] of these assumptions is a
preferential a priori and cannot be validated in today's state
of knowledge. Separating cultural from societal aspects is not
a classifying of concrete and empirically discrete sets of
phenomena. They are distinct systems in that they abstract
or select two analytically distinct sets of components from
the same concrete phenomena. Statements made about
relationships within a cultural pattern are thus of a different
order from those within a system of societal relationships.
Neither can be directly reduced to terms of the other; that is
to say, the order of relationships within one is independent
from that in the other. Careful attention to this independence
greatly increases the power of analytical precision. In sum,
we feel that the analytical discrimination should be
consistently maintained without prejudice to the question of
which is more "important," "correct," or "fundamental," if
indeed such questions turn out to be meaningful at all.
It is possible to trace historically two successive analytical
distinctions that have increased this analytical precision. It
might be suggested that the first differentiation was a
division of subject-matter broadly along the lines of the
heredity-environment distinction. In English-speaking
countries, at least, the most important reference point is the
biologically oriented thinking of the generation following the
publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species. Here the social
scientists were concerned with defining a sphere of
investigation that could not be treated as simply biological in
the then current meaning of that concept. Tylor's concept of
culture and Spencer's of the social as superorganic were
important attempts to formulate such a sphere. Thus the
organism was assigned to the biological sciences and culture-
society (as yet more or less undifferentiated) assigned to the
sociocultural sciences.
In the formative period of both disciplines, then, culture
and society were used with relatively little difference of
meaning in most works of major influence. In the
anthropological tradition, Tylor and Boas used culture to
designate that aspect of total human social behavior
(including its symbolic and meaningful products) that was
independent of the genetic constitutions and biological
characteristics of organisms. The ideas of continuity,
creation, accumulation, and transmission of culture
independent of biological heredity were the key ones. On the
sociological [p. 583] side, Comte and Spencer, and Weber and
Durkheim spoke of society as meaning essentially the same
thing that Tylor meant by culture.
For a considerable period this condensed concept of
culture-and-society was maintained, with differentiation
between anthropology and sociology being carried out not
conceptually but operationally. Anthropologists tended to
confine their studies to nonliterate societies and sociologists

concerned themselves with literate ones (especially their
own.) It did not seem necessary to go much further. Now we
believe that knowledge and interests have become
sufficiently differentiated so that further distinctions need to
be made and stabilized in the routine usage of the relevant
professional groups. Such a need has been foreshadowed in
the practice of many anthropologists in speaking of social
organization as one major segment or branch of culture, and
of some sociologists in discriminating such categories as
values, ideologies, science, and art from social structure.
In this way a second analytical distinction has taken (or is
taking) shape. We suggest that it is useful to define the
concept culture for most usages more narrowly than has been
generally the case in the American anthropological tradition,
restricting its reference to transmitted and created content
and patterns of values, ideas, and other symbolic-meaningful
systems as factors in the shaping of human behavior and the
artifacts produced through behavior. On the other hand, we
suggest that the term society or more generally, social
system be used to designate the specifically relational
system of interaction among individuals and collectivities. To
speak of a "member of a culture" should be understood as an
ellipsis meaning a "member of the society of culture Y." One
indication of the independence of the two is the existence of
highly organized insect societies with at best a minimal
rudimentary component of culture in our present narrower
Parenthetically we may note that a similar analytical
distinction has begun to emerge with reference to the older
concept of the organism, on the other side of the division
outlined above, by which the social sciences came to be
differentiated from the biological. Where the term organism
was once used to designate both biological and psychological
aspects, it has recently come to be increasingly important to
discriminate a specifically psychological component from the
merely biological. Thus the term personality is being widely
used as an appropriate or favored term expressive of the
To speak, then, of the analytical independence between
culture and social system is, of course, not to say that the two

systems are not related, or that various approaches to the
analysis of the relationship may not be used. It is often
profitable to hold constant either cultural or societal aspects
of the same concrete phenomena while addressing attention
to the other. Provided that the analytical distinction between
them is maintained, it is therefore idle to quarrel over the
rightness of either approach. Important work has been
prosecuted under both of them. It will undoubtedly be most
profitable to develop both lines of thinking and to judge them
by how much each increases understanding. Secondly,
however, building on the more precise knowledge thus
gained, we may in time expect to learn in which area each
type of conceptualization is the more applicable and
productive. By some such procedure, we should improve our
position for increasing understanding of the relations
between the two, so that we will not have to hold either
constant when it is more fruitful not to do so.
We therefore propose a truce to quarreling over whether
culture is best understood from the perspective of society or
society from that of culture. As in the famous case of heredity
"versus" environment, it is no longer a question of how
important each is, but of how each works and how they are
interwoven with each other. The traditional perspectives of
anthropology and sociology should merge into a temporary
condominium leading to a differentiated but ultimately
collaborative attack on problems in intermediate areas with
which both are concerned.