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Chapter 3: Culture

3.3 Cultural Diversity

The cow and pig examples discussed in section 3.2 remind us that material and nonmaterial cultures often make sense only in the context of a given society. If that is true, then it is important for outsiders to become familiar with other societies and to appreciate their cultural differences. These differences are often referred to as . Cultural diversity also occurs within a single society, where subcultures and countercultures can both exist.

A refers to a group that shares the central values and beliefs of the larger culture but still retains certain values, beliefs, and norms that make it distinct from the larger culture. A good example of a U.S. subculture is the Amish, who live primarily in central Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio and shun electricity and other modern conveniences, including cars, tractors, and telephones. Their way of life is increasingly threatened by the expansion of non-Amish businesses and residences into Amish territory (Rifkin, 2009). Since the 1970s, development has cost Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—where many Amish live—thousands of acres of farming land. Some Amish families have moved to other states or left farming to start small businesses, where some do use cell phones and computers. Despite these concessions to modern development, for the most part the Amish live the way they always have. Most still do not drive cars or even ride bikes. The case of the Amish dramatically illustrates the persistence of an old-fashioned subculture and its uneasy fit with the larger, dominant culture.


Watch and Reflect

Watch the video linked below about the Amish and consider the following questions.

A Brief History of the Amish and Their Religious Lifestyle

What cultural characteristics qualify the Amish as part of American culture?

What cultural characteristics of the Amish result in their classification as a subculture?

Interested in Amish communities in Michigan? Check out this site:

The Amish in Michigan


A is a group whose values and beliefs directly oppose those of the larger culture and even reject it. Perhaps the most discussed example of a counterculture is the so-called youth counterculture of the 1960s, often referred to as the hippies but also comprising many other young people who did not fit the “tuned out” image of the hippies and instead were politically engaged against U.S. government policy in Vietnam and elsewhere (Roszak, 1969). A contemporary example of U.S. countercultures are survivalists and militia groups, whose extreme anti-government views and hoarding of weapons fit them into the counterculture category.


Think Like A Sociologist

image of people dressed as furries in a parade

Torsten Maue – Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.0

Furries are people who have interest in anthropomorphic animals, or animals that have human characteristics. Many furries feel deeply connected with animals, and rather than seeing themselves as human, actually view themselves as being a different species of animal (Gerbasi et. al., 2008). Furry identities, known as “fursonas,” are most commonly related to dragons, or canine and feline species, such as wolves, foxes, cheetahs, and the like. Some furries even create new hybrid species by mixing together two species, such as a “cabbit,” which combines a cat and rabbit (Gerbasi et. al., 2008). Furries interact in online communities, meet in person while attending Furry Fandom conventions and hold parades to celebrate their identity, as shown in the photo above.

Given the description above, would you consider furries to be a subculture or a counterculture? Why?


Cultural Relativism and Ethnocentrism

The fact of cultural diversity raises some important but difficult questions of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. refers to the belief that we should not judge any culture as superior or inferior to another culture. In this view, all cultures have their benefits and disadvantages, and we should not automatically assume that our own culture is better and “their” culture is worse. , the opposite view, refers to the tendency to judge another culture by the standards of our own and to the belief that our own culture is indeed superior to another culture. Read the box below reviewing the debate over the legalization of sex work and consider your own reaction to this topic.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

Attitudes about the sex industry vary. The sex industry, especially prostitution, has been judged harshly in many places. Sex workers are seen as easily exploited and people who do work that is base and demeaning. Opponents argue legalizing it only helps pimps and fails to protect the actual workers, most of whom are women, and it leads to other crimes such as human-trafficking. Others oppose sex work on moral and/or religious grounds. Christianity long viewed sex in terms of its role in procreation and defined its pleasurable aspects as sinful. While this Puritanical attitude no longer holds sway, tinges of it remain when it comes to sex work. Its potentially negative effects on family life are also cited as reasons to object to prostitution. As a result, in the United States prostitution is illegal in 49 states.

At the same time, in some places sex work is legal and is regulated to ensure the safety of all participants. In the Netherlands, which has liberal views about sex work, prostitution is a legal, tax-paying profession. In somewhat less regulated Thailand, red-light districts in Bangkok cater to ‘sex tourists,’ where such activities are tacitly allowed (though child prostitution is illegal). In the U.S., prostitution is legal in 20 Nevada brothels, which require all sex workers be tested for sexually transmitted diseases as well as pass an FBI background check. In places with benign views about the sex industry the activities are viewed as healthy expressions of natural behaviors. As long as all parties freely engage and are not coerced, it is a private matter between consenting adults.

Are you more likely to view prostitution from an ethnocentric perspective or a culturally relativistic one? Why?

What has influenced your thoughts on this issue?


If we are exposed to a culture we are not familiar with, it is very possible that we will experience culture shock. is the uncomfortable or bewildered feeling we might have when immersed in a new culture. It is easy to see how quickly one could be ethnocentric about a culture that they are already unfamiliar with. When we see prostitution in the Netherlands, our immediate reaction might be one of discomfort and negative judgement. Similarly, when we think of cow worship in India, it is easy to be amused by it and even to make fun of it. That is why anthropologist Marvin Harris’s analysis discussed earlier was so important, because it suggests that cow worship is in fact very important for the Indian way of life.

Some scholars think cultural relativism is an absolute, that we should never judge another culture’s beliefs and practices as inferior to our own. Other scholars think cultural relativism makes sense up to a point, but that there are some practices that should be condemned, even if they are an important part of another culture, because they violate the most basic standards of humanity. For example, a common practice in areas of India and Pakistan is dowry deaths, where a husband and his relatives murder the husband’s wife because her family has not provided the dowry they promised when the couple got married (Kethineni & Srinivasan, 2009). Often, they burn the wife in her kitchen with cooking oil or gasoline and make it look like an accident. The number of such dowry deaths is estimated to be at least several hundred every year and perhaps as many as several thousand. Should we practice cultural relativism and not disapprove of dowry deaths? Or is it fair to condemn this practice, even if it is one that many people in those nations accept?

image of older woman kneading some dough

Dowry deaths are relatively common in certain parts of India and Pakistan. Should we practice cultural relativism and not disapprove of dowry deaths? Or is it fair to condemn this practice, even if it is one that many people in these nations accept? Owen Young – Bishnoi grandmother – CC BY 2.0

Because dowry death is so horrible, you might be sure we should not practice cultural relativism for this example. However, other cultural practices such as cow worship might sound odd to you but are not harmful, and you would probably agree we should accept these practices on their own terms. Other practices lie between these two extremes. Consider the eating of dog meat. In some societies dog meat is considered a delicacy, and people sometimes kill dogs to eat them (Dunlop, 2008). As one observer provocatively asked about eating dog meat, “For a Westerner, eating it can feel a little strange, but is it morally different from eating, say, pork? The dogs brought to table are not people’s pets, but are raised as food, like pigs. And pigs, of course, are also intelligent and friendly” (Dunlop, 2008).

By turning this debate on its head, we might answer questions about ethnocentrism and cultural relativism differently when it comes to our own culture being judged. There are many cultural practices in the U.S. that are perceived ethnocentrically by people in other societies, such as the placement of elders into nursing homes, the practice of capital punishment, the easy availability and wide proliferation of guns and even the the right to free speech. In Germany for instance, it is illegal to display Nazi symbols such as the swastika, and anyone caught doing so can be sentenced up to three years in jail. Nazi salutes and statements such as “heil Hitler” are also publicly banned and punishable by law. In the U.S., the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that language and symbols that would qualify as hate speech in other societies, such as Germany, are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Germans, upon witnessing the use of such symbols and language in the U.S. may view this practice ethnocentrically, judging Americans negatively for their use of these symbols of hate. Cultural relativism and ethnocentrism certainly raise difficult issues in today’s increasingly globalized world.

Test Yourself


Section 3.3 References

Dunlop, F. (2008, August 4). It’s too hot for dog on the menu. The New York Times, p. A19.

Gerbasi, Kathleen, Penny Bernstein, Samuel Conway, Laura Scaletta, Adam Privitera, Nicholas Paolone and Justin Higner.  (2008). Furries from A to Z (Anthropomorphism to Zoomorphism). Society and Animals, 16 (3): 197-222. 

Kethineni, S.,  and M. Srinivasan. (2009). Police handling of domestic violence cases in Tamil Nadu, India. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 25, 202–213.

Michigan Amish. Amish America Michigan Amish Comments. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://amishamerica.com/michigan-amish/.

Rifkin, G. (2009, January 8). The Amish flock from farms to small businesses. The New York Times, p. B3.

Roszak, T. (1969). The making of a counterculture. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

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A Brief History of the Amish and their Religious Lifestyle.  Provided by Jessica Parrett.  Located at:  https://youtu.be/1b0DBQMHvfI.  License:  Other.  License Terms:  Standard YouTube License. 

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Barr, Scott, Sarah Hoiland, Shailaja Menon, Cathay Matresse, Florencia Silverira and Rebecca Vonderhaar.  (n.d.) Introduction to sociology. Introduction to Sociology | Simple Book Production. Lumen Learning.  License: CC BY 4.0. License Terms:  Access for free at https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-introductiontosociology/.

Conerly, Tonja, Kathleen Holmes, Asha Lal Tamang, Jennifer Hensley, Jennifer L. Trost, Pamela Alcasey, Kate McGonigal, Heather Griffiths, Nathan Keirns, Eric Strayer, Tommy Sadler, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones. (2021).  Introduction to Sociology 3E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/1-introduction.

Griffiths, Heather, Nathan Keirns, Eric Stayer, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Tommy Sadler, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones.  (2015).  Introduction to Sociology 2E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-2e/pages/1-introduction-to-sociology.

Saylor Foundation.  (2015). Social Problems: Continuity and Change. License:  CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://saylordotorg.github.io/text_social-problems-continuity-and-change/.


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