How Does Culture Affect Our Society?

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Culture, understood as the breadth of human practice, affects our society at nearly every level including politics, sexuality, gender and identity. In short, culture is formed through social practice, and therefore has a nearly totalizing effect upon society.

Academic disciplines ranging from anthropology and psychology to art history and sociology provide different understandings of the complex ways in which culture affects society. One of the most influential theories of the relationship between culture and society is found in the Frankfurt school of Marxist theorists operating between 1940 and 1970.

German philosopher Theodor Adorno, together with fellow Frankfurt school thinker Max Horkheimer, produced a theory of the culture industry which is to this day considered a touchstone. In their 1944 book Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer contended that mass culture—understood as cultural products created for the consumption of the masses such as popular music, magazines, television programs—should be understood as a mechanism that exerts control over society on a massive scale through manipulation. These cultural products of capitalism, Adorno and Horkheimer asserted, reduce individuals to passive consumers who are coerced into submission regardless of their class status.

Aside from theories such as these which link culture and society through a critique of political economy, theorists such as Judith Butler, for example, show the effect culture has on shaping constructions of gender identity and sexuality.