Many social theorists use society as the standard unit for determining the cultural characteristics of a group of people. But what exactly is ‘a’ culture. A simple definition of culture I will use here is learned and shared behavior by a group of people. First off, what is a ‘group’? This could be two individuals, a family, a society, or multiple societies, or even a mix between them. The following equation helps explain how some different cultures can exist:
Each letter represents a group of people who learn and share behaviors with each other. So, if culture ‘A’ interacts with culture ‘B’, and both cultures learn and share a particular behavior while interacting, them both cultures would create a new culture, culture ‘C’, combining cultures “A’ and ‘B’. Therefore, it seems that culture is by nature an abstraction and depends on where you draw the line for a ‘group’. That is, culture can take on multiple forms depending on the particular circumstances of an interaction. The problem with pigeonholing culture is that culture can have many levels, ranging from two individuals to the total global human population. The limitation of using society as the standard unit is that it pigeonholes culture to only one of these levels. The diagram above shows an example of a social theory (structural-functionalism) that utilizes only one these levels of culture. Why is society the standard and not the family, or cross-societies? Both of those levels also have a culture.
By acknowledging the abstractive nature of culture, we can see the limitations of certain social theories. Structural-functionalism did not see conflict as existing in a society because the view was that the culture of societies functioned to produce cultural cohesion. But when we look at cross-societal culture, it is difficult to argue that there has not been conflict between societies. Therefore, it matters how one defines culture in a social theory and that can reveal limitations to the theory itself.