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Cultural and Social
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Definitions for Key Terms
for Social and Cultural
There are many definitions of culture, one
of which is from Levine, who defined
culture as “a shared organization of ideas
that includes the intellectual, moral, and
aesthetic standards prevalent in a
community and the meanings of
Cultures develop in response to the historical
circumstances, environmental conditions, and
resources available to various members of a
society at particular points in time.
All cultures are dynamic, but the rate and
degree of change varies among them.
A person learns how to function within a
specific society through his or her culture.
An individual’s personality features and
longstanding dynamics of thinking, feeling,
and behaving are formed through association
with particular groups over time.
These groups may be the family; a racial or
ethnic group; a social class group; a group
based on sexual orientation, political
perspective, or religion; or another cultural
Because each person belongs to many
different groups, each individual’s culture is
unique. However, many characteristics are
shared with members of the groups to which
Socialization is the process of learning to
function as a member of society by observing
and acquiring social and occupational roles.
Enculturation is the process of acquiring the
characteristics of one’s culture.
Stereotypes are rigid preconceptions held
about all members of a particular group.
All people hold stereotypes, both positive and
negative, about cultural groups.
People generally base their initial opinions of
others on stereotypes.
According to Arredondo and Glauner, all
individuals can be described through means of
certain fixed characteristics, including age,
culture, ethnicity, gender, language, physical
makeup, race, sexual orientation, and social
Because these characteristics are relatively
visible, they readily engender stereotyping.
Arredondo and Glauner further described a
series of variables that place all persons in
historical, political, sociocultural, and economic
military experience, and
Cultural encapsulation, or ethnocentrism,
can be defined as adherence to a universal
notion of truth that disregards cultural
When a person is unable to accept the attitudes, beliefs, or practices other than those
in the person’s own culture, that person is
said to be culturally encapsulated or
operating from an ethnocentric viewpoint.
Cultural relativism is the attempt to understand another cultural system, not in terms of
personal cultural beliefs, but in its own terms.
Cultural racism asserts the superiority of
certain characteristics of one culture
(language, educational practices, religion,
morality, laws, aesthetics) over those of
Segregation is the physical isolation of a
cultural group from mainstream society.
Race may be defined as a family, tribe, or
people belonging to the same genetic pool.
Many individuals today claim biracial or
Ethnicity refers to large groups of people
classified according to common racial,
national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or
Racial, ethnic, or cultural identity is an
individual’s sense of belonging to a racial,
ethnic, or cultural group and the part of the
individual’s personality that is attributable to
association with the group.
Individuals may prefer to self-identify in racial
terms, in terms of historical and geographical
origins (ethnicity), by country of origin
(nationality), or by culture.
A minority group is a group of people who
consider themselves objects of collective
discrimination and differential treatment in
society for reasons of physical or cultural
Multiculturalism refers to matters having a
focus on ethnicity, race, and culture.
Diversity means variety in regard to
individual differences such as age, gender,
sexual orientation, religion, or physical ability
through which individuals define themselves.
Multicultural counseling refers to
preparation and practices that integrate
multicultural and culture-specific awareness,
knowledge, and skills into counseling
The United States macroculture, sometimes
referred to as the dominant culture, is the
national culture shared by most of its citizens.
In this dominant
Mass media, education, and communication are “ways of life;”
Individualism takes precedence over
Time is the organizing principle for life’s
Large, complex organizations employ the
majority of workers;
People are expected to be active and
engage in productive, purposeful work;
Necessities of life are purchased rather
Success and achievement are measured
by quantity and expense of goods
Significant social relationships are
Tradition is transmitted through writing
and mass communication;
“Modern science” is trusted to explain
social phenomena, solve human problems, and master the environment;
Religious beliefs are concerned with
Social relations are characterized by
informality and equality;
Cleanliness is an absolute value;
Humanitarianism is impersonal and
Things new and modern are considered
superior to things old and traditional;
Every individual is thought to be entitled
to equitable access to political, economic,
and social structures;
All individuals are thought to be equal
(i.e., by nature, neither better nor worse
Individuals are thought to exercise control over their destinies and advance
according to their own efforts;
The nuclear family is thought to be the
basic unit of kinship;
Values tend to be absolute rather than
ranging along a continuum or varying
Youth is valued over age.
One prevalent myth in the macro-culture is that
the ablest, most ambitious, and hard-working
individuals will attain positions of wealth and
This theory of meritocracy has three tenets:
(1) the individual takes precedence over the
(2) the society stresses differences rather
(3) internal characteristics (personal
attributes) are more influential than
external characteristics (social,
educational, or financial standing, race,
Although the belief that persons reap riches
in proportion to their characterological
endowments is prevalent in the macroculture,
research indicates that family background
accounts for a large portion of the variance in
educational and occupational attainment.
Individuals born into wealthier, more educated
families, regardless of race or ethnicity, are
likely to attain wealth and education
Microcultures are cultural groups
composed of members who share values
and beliefs that bind them together.
The degree to which a person shares the
beliefs of the national macroculture
depends on the microcultures to which the
person belongs and the amount of
interaction the person has with the
institutions of the macroculture.
The counseling profession can be said to
possess its own culture.
Based on principles originally espoused by
men of European descent, counseling
promotes self sufficiency, openness, verbal
expression, individualism, and internal locus
Many psychological measurement tools and
classification systems (such as the DSM-IV)
carry this Eurocentric cultural bias.
Members of U.S. microcultures may view
counseling as a political tool of oppression.
If counseling is forced, unresponsive to
needs, or culturally insensitive, it may be
Throughout life, a person develops a multidimensional racial and cultural identity, or as
it is sometimes known, a worldview.
Following are the primary dimensions
typically considered in a racial/cultural
identity or worldview.
Some cultures, such as the U.S. macroculture,
maintain a mastery orientation to the peoplenature relationship.
Environmental and personal problems are
considered to be solvable through confrontation, active intervention, and control.
Some other cultures accept difficulties as fate
or acts of God, and promote harmony, loyalty,
balance, and resistance to change.
In the U.S. macroculture time is a
commodity, measured in minutes or hours,
In some other cultures, time is a dynamic
process, and the passage of time is measured
through the occurrence of events.
Members of those cultures demonstrate a
present time orientation by seeking
immediate, practical solutions to everyday
Individual vs Group Orientation
In the U.S. macroculture, the individual is the
basic unit of society. Independence from the
family, development of autonomy, and an
internal locus of control are encouraged at an
In many other cultures, the family is the basic
unit of society; nepotism is expected; families
sanction wayward members; and external locus
of control is promoted.
In the U.S. macroculture, action, or doing, is of
primary importance; individuals are expected
to master concepts and tasks.
In this pragmatic, utilitarian approach to life,
worth is linked to activity.
In some cultures, being or becoming is a way of
life. Contentment, serenity, dignity, and
spirituality characterize the individual, group,
and society. Action is often ritualized or
relegated to an inferior position.
In the U.S. macroculture, relationships tend to
be determined by the parties involved;
individuals take responsibility for the number
and nature of their relationships.
In some other cultures, relationships tend to
be linear, vertical, and hierarchical. A
person’s relationships in society are determined by the person’s place in a hierarchy;
and persons are grouped by caste, place in
the social order, or birth order.
In some other societies, relationships are
collateral; membership in a group of friends
and family, for example, constitutes
relationship of equals.
In the U.S. macroculture, people are
considered at core to be both good and bad.
In some other cultures, people are considered
evil (fallen) and can only be saved from
destruction by the deity.
In still other cultures, people are considered
to be neither good nor bad; disease and
difficulty are thought to be environmental
Relationship to Nature
In the U.S. macroculture, taming the natural
environment is considered to be an important
challenge for humankind. A primary function
of science and technology is to overcome
environmental barriers such as disease,
weather, distance, and geography.
In other cultures, harmony with nature and
acceptance of environmental barriers is the
Intercultural misunderstanding occurs even
when no language barrier exists, and large
segments of the macroculture are shared by the
people involved, largely because one group is
ignorant of the cultural specifics of the other.
Assimilation is the process by which
subordinate groups (i.e., microcultures)
adopt aspects of the dominant culture.
A subordinate group progresses toward
assimilation through the following steps:
The group’s cultural patterns change to
mimic those of the dominant culture.
The subordinate group develops large
scale primary group relations with the
Members of the groups intermarry
The groups lose their sense of
Members of the microculture encounter
no discrimination or prejudice.
Members of the groups do not engage
in intergroup power or values conflicts.
Cultural, sometimes known as behavioral,
assimilation occurs when the subordinate
group mimics cultural attributes of the
Structural assimilation occurs when two
cultural groups begin to share the same
social groups (e.g., attend the same
Cultural assimilation occurs before
In the U. S., cultural assimilation may be
initiated by individuals from either group, but
structural assimilation is determined solely by
the dominant group.
Only Western European immigrants have
achieved full structural assimilation in the U.S.
Other microcultural groups have achieved
only limited structural assimilation.
Healthy and meaningful functioning in a
multicultural context may require living
with cultural dissonance (i.e., maintaining
multiple conflicting roles attributable to
Public policy in the U. S. historically has been
driven by Anglo-Conformity Theory, which
holds that all groups are expected to renounce
their ancestry and culture and assume
characteristics of the national macroculture.
The Melting Pot Theory holds that amalgamation of various groups produces a stronger,
more diverse society.
Historically, however, many laws prevented
amalgamation by restricting participation of
some groups in certain societal institutions and
The Salad Bowl Theory holds that many
cultural groups can coexist and retain their
uniqueness within the macroculture.
Institutional racism is the combination of
social, economic, educational, and political
policies that give preferential treatment to
members of one group over another and foster
Behavior and Attitudes
Many nonverbal behaviors have culture-specific
Proxemics is the study of a person’s perception
and use of personal and interpersonal space.
Kinesics is the study of body movements and
positions, including facial expression, posture,
gestures, and eye contact.
Paralanguage refers to vocal cues that
communicate the age, gender, emotional
response, and race of an individual.
These cues include loudness, rate of
speech, use of silence, hesitation, and
Low context communication demands
lengthy verbal explanations.
High context communication relies on nonverbal cues and collapsed meanings
understood by members of a group.
Proxemics, kinesics, and paralanguage are
all culturally conditioned.
Sociopolitical thought is culture bound;
specific cultural groups tend to espouse
Attitudes regarding work, job involvement,
activity preferences, monetary compensation,
and success are in large part culturally
Cultural groups hold differing views on
topics such as child rearing practices,
gender roles, marriage, aging, violence,
drug use, suicide, authority, and beauty.
The term diverse populations usually refers
to non-racial/ethnic groups such as
homosexuals, persons having physical or
mental disabilities, or elderly persons.
In regard to cultural differences, within
group differences are greater than between
Among members of any cultural group,
there are wide variations in particular
In the context of counselor preparation, the
term multicultural usually refers to five
major cultural groups in the United States
and its territories: African/Black, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Caucasian/European,
Hispanic/Latino, and Native American/Indigenous.
This concludes Part 1 of the
Cultural and Social