Taking your first steps into higher education
Taking your first steps into higher education

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Taking your first steps into higher education

2.1 Cultural and group identities and belonging to groups

Society is made up of countless numbers of different social groups. The members of each social group share something that marks them out as a member of that group. This ‘something’ also highlights differences with other groups. ‘Culture’ is a frequently encountered word in social science and is used as a way to describing shared:

  • behaviours
  • attitudes
  • values
  • ways of understanding the world
  • tastes in things such as food, entertainment and art.

Differences in ‘culture’ show themselves in all sorts of ways, including how people behave if they bump into each other.

It’s worth noticing how the word culture is being used in a social science way here. Culture has a huge range of often quite vague everyday meanings. But when social scientists use the word they will try to make it clear what they mean.

A nice example of cultural differences is how people greet one another.

Watch this short video in which these cultural differences are approached from an American perspective:

The etiquette of social kissing
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Getting the greeting culturally ‘wrong’ can cause embarrassment so people try to get them right and it is helpful to have some idea of what cultural norms are. These norms are sometimes formalised as etiquette which was originally a list of how people were supposed to behave in the French royal court of the eighteenth century.

From an American point of view when French (or even British) people meet, they often kiss acquaintances on the cheek. In contrast, Americans are more likely to shake hands. These different behaviours are considered appropriate depending on which group you belong to and the culture of that group. So some French person may not kiss anyone and some Americans may insist on hugging strangers, but you will probably agree that some behaviours are more common within a group or culture.

In social science terms this means that:

  • belonging to a group will shape how we act, and even how we think
  • but not everyone who belongs to a group is the same.
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