From The American Sociological Review 23(1958), 582-3


A. L. Kroeber and Talcott Parsons

There seems to have been a good deal of confusion among anthropologists and sociologists about the concepts of culture and society ( or, social system). A lack of consensus - between and within disciplines — has made for semantic confusion as to what data are subsumed under these terms; but, more important, the lack has impeded theoretical advance as to their interrelation,

There are still some anthropologists and sociologists who do not even consider the distinction necessary on the ground that all phenomena of human behavior are sociocultural, with both societal and cultural aspects at the same time. Bu even where they recognize the distinction, which can be said now to be a commonplace, they tend to assume determinative primacy for the set of phenomena in which they are more interested. Sociologists tend to see all cultural systems as a sort of outgrowth or spontaneous development, derivative from social systems. Anthropologists are more given to being holistic and therefore often begin with total systems of culture and then proceed to subsume social structure as merely a part of culture. ("Social anthropology" perhaps represents a secession within anthropology that inclines to prefer the sociological assumption.)

Our objective in the present joint statement is to point out, so far as methodological primacy is concerned, that, either [sic — should be "each" — TW] of these assumptions is a preferential a priori and cannot be validated in today's state of knowledge. Separating cultural from societal aspects is not a classifying of concrete and empirically discrete sets of phenomena. They are distinct systems in that they abstract or select two analytically distinct sets of components from the same concrete phenomena. Statements made about relationships within a cultural pattern are thus of a different order from those within a system of societal relationships. Neither can be directly reduced to terms of the other; that is to say, the order of relationships within one is independent from that in the other. Careful attention to this independence greatly increases the power of analytical precision. In sum, we feel that the analytical discrimination should be consistently maintained without prejudice to the question of which is more "important," "correct," or "fundamental," if indeed such questions turn out to be meaningful at all.

It is possible to trace historically two successive analytical distinctions that have increased this analytical precision. It might be suggested that the first differentiation was a division of subject-matter broadly along the lines of the heredity-environment distinction. In English-speaking countries, at least, the most important reference point is the biologically oriented thinking of the generation following the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species. Here the social scientists were concerned with defining a sphere of investigation that could not be treated as simply biological in the then current meaning of that concept. Tylor's concept of culture and Spencer's of the social as superorganic were important attempts to formulate such a sphere. Thus the organism was assigned to the biological sciences and culture-society (as yet more or less undifferentiated) assigned to the sociocultural sciences.

In the formative period of both disciplines, then, culture and society were used with relatively little difference of meaning in most works of major influence. In the anthropological tradition, Tylor and Boas used culture to designate that aspect of total human social behavior (including its symbolic and meaningful products) that was independent of the genetic constitutions and biological characteristics of organisms. The ideas of continuity, creation, accumulation, and transmission of culture independent of biological heredity were the key ones. On the sociological [p. 583] side, Comte and Spencer, and Weber and Durkheim spoke of society as meaning essentially the same thing that Tylor meant by culture.

For a considerable period this condensed concept of culture-and-society was maintained, with differentiation between anthropology and sociology being carried out not conceptually but operationally. Anthropologists tended to confine their studies to nonliterate societies and sociologists concerned themselves with literate ones (especially their own.) It did not seem necessary to go much further. Now we believe that knowledge and interests have become sufficiently differentiated so that further distinctions need to be made and stabilized in the routine usage of the relevant professional groups. Such a need has been foreshadowed in the practice of many anthropologists in speaking of social organization as one major segment or branch of culture, and of some sociologists in discriminating such categories as values, ideologies, science, and art from social structure.

In this way a second analytical distinction has taken (or is taking) shape. We suggest that it is useful to define the concept culture for most usages more narrowly than has been generally the case in the American anthropological tradition, restricting its reference to transmitted and created content and patterns of values, ideas, and other symbolic-meaningful systems as factors in the shaping of human behavior and the artifacts produced through behavior. On the other hand, we suggest that the term society — or more generally, social system — be used to designate the specifically relational system of interaction among individuals and collectivities. To speak of a "member of a culture" should be understood as an ellipsis meaning a "member of the society of culture Y." One indication of the independence of the two is the existence of highly organized insect societies with at best a minimal rudimentary component of culture in our present narrower sense.

Parenthetically we may note that a similar analytical distinction has begun to emerge with reference to the older concept of the organism, on the other side of the division outlined above, by which the social sciences came to be differentiated from the biological. Where the term organism was once used to designate both biological and psychological aspects, it has recently come to be increasingly important to discriminate a specifically psychological component from the merely biological. Thus the term personality is being widely used as an appropriate or favored term expressive of the distinction.

To speak, then, of the analytical independence between culture and social system is, of course, not to say that the two systems are not related, or that various approaches to the analysis of the relationship may not be used. It is often profitable to hold constant either cultural or societal aspects of the same concrete phenomena while addressing attention to the other. Provided that the analytical distinction between them is maintained, it is therefore idle to quarrel over the rightness of either approach. Important work has been prosecuted under both of them. It will undoubtedly be most profitable to develop both lines of thinking and to judge them by how much each increases understanding. Secondly, however, building on the more precise knowledge thus gained, we may in time expect to learn in which area each type of conceptualization is the more applicable and productive. By some such procedure, we should improve our position for increasing understanding of the relations between the two, so that we will not have to hold either constant when it is more fruitful not to do so.

We therefore propose a truce to quarreling over whether culture is best understood from the perspective of society or society from that of culture. As in the famous case of heredity "versus" environment, it is no longer a question of how important each is, but of how each works and how they are interwoven with each other. The traditional perspectives of anthropology and sociology should merge into a temporary condominium leading to a differentiated but ultimately collaborative attack on problems in intermediate areas with which both are concerned.