Many people mistakenly use such phrases as “American culture,” “white culture,” or “Western culture,” as if such large, common, and homogenous cultures exist in the United States today. These people fail to acknowledge the presence of cultural diversity, or the presence of multiple cultures and cultural differences within a society. In reality, many different cultural groups comprise the United States.
Smaller cultural groups that exist within but differ in some way from the prevailing culture interest sociologists. These groups are called subcultures. Examples of some subcultures include “heavy metal” music devotees, body‐piercing and tatoo enthusiasts, motorcycle gang members, and Nazi skinheads. Members of subcultures typically make use of distinctive language, behaviors, and clothing, even though they may still accept many of the values of the dominant culture.
Ethnic groups living in the United States—such as Greek Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans—may also form subcultures. Most of these adjust to mainstream America, but may still retain many of their cultural customs and in some cases their native ethnic language.
A counterculture comes about in opposition to the norms and values of the dominant culture. Members of countercultures—such as hippies and protest groups—are generally teenagers and young adults, because youth is often a time of identity crisis and experimentation. In time many, but not all, members of countercultures eventually adopt the norms and values of the dominant culture.
Assimilation and multiculturalism
Many people see the United States as “a melting pot” comprised of a variety of different cultural, subcultural, and countercultural groups. When the mainstream absorbs these groups, they have undergone assimilation. However, people today increasingly recognize the value of coexisting cultural groups who do not lose their identities.
This perspective of multiculturalism respects cultural variations rather than requiring that the dominant culture assimilate the various cultures. It holds that certain shared cultural tenets are important to society as a whole, but that some cultural differences are important, too. For example, children in schools today are being taught that the United States is not the only culture in the world, and that other viewpoints may have something to offer Americans.
Ethnocentrism involves judging other cultures against the standards of one's own culture. Norms within a culture frequently translate into what is considered “normal,” so that people think their own way of doing things is “natural.” These same people also judge other people's ways of doing things as “unnatural.” In other words, they forget that what may be considered normal in America is not necessarily so in another part of the world.
Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism
A potentially problematic form of ethnocentrism is nationalism, or an overly enthusiastic identification with a particular nation. Nationalism often includes the notion that a particular nation has a God‐given or historical claim to superiority. Such nationalism, for instance, was a special problem in World War II Nazi Germany.
Sociologists strive to avoid ethnocentric judgments. Instead, they generally embrace cultural relativism, or the perspective that a culture should be sociologically evaluated according to its own standards, and not those of any other culture. Thus, sociologists point out that there really are no good or bad cultures. And they are better able to understand the standards of other cultures because they do not assume their own is somehow better.