Skip to main content

Unit information: Understanding Culture in 2018/19

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Understanding Culture
Unit code SOCIM0014
Credit points 20
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Morgan
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law


This unit aims to introduce students to the various historical and contemporary ways in which ‘culture’ has been defined, and in which sociologists have gone about analysing it. As well as reviewing some of the most influential social theories of culture, we will question whether, in attempting to ‘understand culture’, we are trying to comprehend a discrete sphere of society or something which, to a greater or lesser extent, underlies and penetrates all aspects of social life. We will explore both elitist and democratised understandings, examine it both from the side of production as well as from the side of consumption, and demonstrate the ways in which it might be thought of as both expressing and reproducing symbolic and material structures. We will ask how autonomous culture is from other social spheres and forces, whether it is a hierarchical or horizontal system, and whether it is best conceived as a context within which actors act, or a resource that agents actively produce and deploy. On completion of this unit, students should have a good understanding of some of the main debates over how culture ought to be understood, and be well-equipped to critique and selectively synthesise the various approaches covered in order to perform their own cultural analyses.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the unit, students should be able to:

  • Critically engage with key historical and conceptual approaches in the sociology of culture
  • Demonstrate understanding of the changing nature and social position of culture in contemporary societies
  • Critically evaluate the relationship between culture as an internal and as an external force
  • Understand cultural transformations, and the relationship between culture and the social.

Teaching details

1 x 2 hour seminar per week.

Assessment Details

There will be a) an optional 1500 formative assessment in the form of an essay or equivalent assignment, plus b) summative assessment in the form of a 4000 word essay. These assess all learning outcomes.

Reading and References

Theodor Adorno, 1990, The Culture Industry, London: Routledge.

Jeffrey C. Alexander (2005) The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jean Baudrillard (2001)The Vital Illusion, New York: Columbia University Press.

Mary Douglas (1966) Purity & Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo, London: Routledge.

Clifford Geertz (1983) Local Knowledge': 'Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, New York: Basic Books, pp. 121-146.

Raymond Williams (1963) Culture and Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin.