Module 2. Our Power & Identity


Among humans, there are universal cultural patterns or elements across groups and societies regardless of racial-ethnic composition. Cultural universals are common to all humans throughout the globe. Some cultural universals include cooking, dancing, ethics, greetings, personal names, and taboos to name a few. Can you identify at least five other cultural universals shared by all humans?

In thinking about cultural universals, you may have noted the variations or differences in the practice of these cultural patterns or elements. Even though humans share several cultural universals, the practice of culture expresses itself in a variety of ways across different social groups and institutions. When different groups identify a shared culture, we often are speaking from generalizations or general characteristics and common principles shared by humans. The description of cultural universals speaks to the generalization of culture such as in the practice of marriage. Different social groups share the institution of marriage but the process, ceremony, and legal commitments are different depending on the culture of the group or society.

Cultural generalities help us understand the similarities and connections all humans have in the way we understand and live even though we may have particular ways of applying them. Some cultural characteristics are unique to a single place, culture, group, or society. These particularities may develop or adapt from social and physical responses to time, geography, ecological changes, group member traits, and composition including power structures or other phenomena.

In further examining the cultural universal of marriage, we may find commonalities in ceremony and celebration but identify differences in the language or presentation of the marriage ceremony and the ways and methods marriage is celebrated. Even though many of us socially relate to understanding the concept of marriage and have seen depictions of it in our own families and the media, it is our differences about marriage that tend to influence our social perceptions, attitudes, and interactions with married couples. For example, interracial couples prompt social attitudes and practices including racial boundaries directly impacting racial-ethnic relations. Interracial couples, because of their racial-ethnic composition, often witness or face racialized responses from people within their own groups and others (Childs, 2005). Needless to say, interracial couples create multiracial families thus changing the racial dynamic of the family as an institution which in itself is the source of hostility for some toward interracial relationships.


Man in hat kissing woman in white dress
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Social & Cultural Bonds

By living together in society, people “learn specific ways of looking at life” (Henslin, 2011, p. 104). Through daily interactions, people construct reality. The construction of reality provides a forum for interpreting experiences in life expressed through culture.

Minimizing the experiences and contributions of African American, Asian American, Latinx American, and Native American communities in the United States communicates that their lives are insignificant to the history and culture of our country (Anderson & Collins, 2010). This ongoing practice of excluding the lives and experiences of people of color from social, political, and historical narratives legitimizes and justifies racial-ethnic conflict including the former enslavement of African Americans, genocide of Native Americans, and laws restricting refugee status to Asian Americans and Latinx American people. Omitting the work and involvement of people of color in the construction of America denies equity and inclusion “as citizens” guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution while further instilling and propagating racial prejudice and discrimination against these groups.

Emile Durkheim (1893, 1960) believed social bonds hold people together. When people live in small, integrated communities that share common values and beliefs, they develop a shared or collective consciousness. Durkheim referred to this type of social integration as mechanical solidarity meaning members of the community are all working parts of the group or work in unity creating a sense of togetherness forming a collective identity. In this example, members of the community think and act alike because they have a shared culture and shared experiences from living in remote, close-knit areas.

As society evolves and communities grow, people become more specialized in the work they do. This specialization leads individuals to work independently in order to contribute to a segment or part of a larger society (Henslin, 2011). Durkheim referred to this type of social unity as organic solidarity meaning each member of the community has a specific task or place in the group in which they contribute to the overall function of the community that is spatial and culturally diverse. In this example, community members do not necessarily think or act alike but participate by fulfilling their role or tasks as part of the larger group. If members fulfill their parts, then everyone is contributing and exchanging labor or production for the community to function as a whole.

Both mechanical and organic solidarity explain how people cooperate to create and sustain social bonds relative to group size and membership even among diverse racial-ethnic groups. Each form of solidarity develops its own culture to hold society together and function. However, when society transitions from mechanical to organic solidarity, there is chaos or normlessness. Durkheim referred to this transition as social anomie meaning “without law” resulting from a lack of a firm collective consciousness. As people transition from social dependence (mechanical solidarity or collective support) to interdependence (organic solidarity or dissociation), they become isolated and alienated from one another until a redeveloped set of shared norms arises. We see examples of this transition when there are changes in social institutions such as employment, marriage, and religion. For example, transitions in employment across America have shown a lack of jobs that pay a living wage; as a result, some people become homeless or turn to criminal behavior to earn a living, both are forms of anomie, as they move from social dependence to interdependence.

Social bonds are only formed through social acceptance and appreciation. How have people of color garnered social acceptance even though their work and contributions have been historically unappreciated, ignored, and rejected by American society? Is it possible to strengthen social bonds and acceptance between people of color and White Americans when human life in America is not equally valued? What happens to society if people continue to perpetuate prejudice and discrimination based on racial-ethnic composition?

People develop an understanding about their culture, specifically their role and place in society through social interactions. Charles Horton Cooley (1902, 1964) suggested people develop self and identity through interpersonal interactions such as perceptions, expectations, and judgement of others. Cooley referred to this practice as the looking glass self. We imagine how others observe us, and we develop ourselves in response to their observations. The concept develops over three phases of interactions. First, we imagine another’s response to our behavior or appearance, then we envision their judgment, and lastly, we have an emotional response to their judgement influencing our self-image or identity (Griswold, 2013). Interpersonal interactions play a significant role in helping us create social bonds and understand our place in society.


reflection of a woman looking a large piece of broken mirror
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The looking glass self reflects the accepted norms and roles for people to occupy within social contexts. For people of color, the looking glass self establishes the self-consciousness of “two-ness” or a dual identity, one accepted by the dominant group and its culture, and the other embraced by their own native or indigenous culture (DuBois, 1903). It is through this social development that people of color learn code-switching or double consciousness where they anticipate accepted norms and roles based on the social setting and power dynamics of those they will be interacting and change the way they speak, appear, behave, and express themselves. Research shows code-switching generates hostility from in-group members for “acting White,” depletes cognitive resources from performing or trying to avoid true culture, and reduces authentic self-expression (McCluney et al., 2019).

What social image do you visualize when you think of yourself as an American? What social image do people of color have to reference or emulate to develop social bonds with White Americans? What racial-ethnic behaviors, appearances, and interactions are accepted in the dominant culture? Which ones are rejected?



old picture of Guadalupe Capozzi and her twin brother as young childrenThis picture makes me smile. I love my twin brother. Through the challenges of our childhood, it was a blessing to have a twin. Our father is African-American and Italian, and our mother is Mexican. As a result, our racial identity was ambiguous.

Many times, as children, my twin brother and I would be in public together and people would comment on the disparity of our looks. As you can see by the photo, my twin brother is very fair in comparison to me. People would comment, “He is adorable with his curly hair and big eyes, and what happened to her?” To say I felt ugly is an understatement. I hated being dark.

How could a four-year-old already feel this way? Four-year-old children are the cutest and sweetest people walking the planet. I felt that way because I was constantly bombarded with the White America standard of beauty.  A standard that even the Hispanic community adopted- light skin, light eyes, and blond hair, was beautiful.

As a child, I strictly identified with being Mexican as coached by my maternal grandfather and my mother. He would say in a demanding tone, “You are NOT Black, you are Hispanic. Your skin is dark, but there are lots of dark Mexicans, and your hair is not kinky, you have Mexican hair.”  I would adopt this message as my own, and I would not tell people that I was African-American until I developed a deep sense of who I really was.

I left California and went to Alabama A&M University (a Historical Black College) for a year. It was the biggest culture shock of my life, in the most beautiful way. I loved the African American culture: the food, the music, the soul, the faith, and the deep sense of community. The Southern African American culture was very different than my limited experience with the African American community in California. Most of my professors were African-American and my best friend, Bonita, had a sister who is a dentist. It was stunning to see progressive, educated, faith filled, illustrious of people who embraced me as beautiful. According to their standard of beauty, I fit in. My Spanish professor, Senor Goggins, was funny, smart, world traveled, and a kind man.  He was not what I was socialized to believe that African-Americans were, none of my newfound community was.

I found faith at this point in my life. The kind of faith that sees the beauty in all people. I learned how broken people are and how what you see in others reveals so much about who you are.

When I came back to California, my mother could not stand that I had a new identity that included embracing being an African American as well as a Latina. “When did you become Black?” she asked. It would take years before I could answer this question in a way that she could understand.

Today, I identify with being an African-American, Latina. I have a deep love affair with culture of all kinds.  My family is a multi-racial family that embraces every aspect of who we are. We go to church on Sunday and make tamales for the holidays and gumbo for the New Year. We listen to Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Aretha Franklin. I was recently having lunch with a group of girlfriends that I’ve been friends with for over 35 years. We were discussing what we love the most about each other. Then the question became, what physical characteristic do you like about yourself the most? My answer… “My skin.”

This story “When Did You Become Black?” by Guadalupe Capozzi is licensed under CC BY NC ND 4.0

Levels of Culture

There are three recognized levels of culture in society (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). Each level of culture signifies particular cultural traits and patterns within groups. International culture is one level referring to culture that transcends national boundaries. These cultural traits and patterns spread through migration, colonization, and the expansion of multinational organizations (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). Some illustrations are evident in the adoption and use of technology and social media across continents. For example, computers and mobile devices allow people to live and operate across national boundaries enabling them to create and sustain an international culture around a common interest or purpose (e.g., Olympics, United Nations, etc.).

In contrast, cultural traits and patterns shared within a country are national culture. National culture is most easily recognizable in the form of symbols such as flags, logos, and colors as well as sound including national anthems and musical styles. Think about American culture, which values, beliefs, norms, and symbols are common only among people living in the United States? How is national culture developed?  Which social group has the status and power to create and sustain U.S. culture? How does this group maintain its power and influence?

Subcultures, another level of culture, are subgroups of people within the same country (e.g., doctors, lawyers, teachers, athletes, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans, Native Americans, White Americans, etc.). Subcultures have shared experiences and common cultural distinctions, but they blend into the larger society or cultural system. Subcultures have their own set of symbols, meanings, and behavioral norms, which develop by interacting with one another. Subcultures develop their own idioculture or self-culture that has significant meaning to members of the group and creates social boundaries for membership and social acceptance (Griswold, 2013). Think about social cliques whether they be categorized as jocks, nerds, hipsters, punks, or stoners. Each group has a particular subculture from the artifacts they wear to the values and beliefs they exhibit. All groups form a subculture resulting in group cohesion and shared consciousness among its members.


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Groups and Organizations

The term group refers to any collection of at least two people who interact frequently and share identity traits aligned with the group (Griffiths et al., 2015). Groups play different roles in our lives. Primary groups are usually small groups characterized by face-to-face interaction, intimacy, and a strong sense of commitment. Primary groups remain with us throughout our lifetime (Henslin, 2011). Secondary groups are large and impersonal groups that form from sharing a common interest.

Different types of groups influence our interactions, identity, and social status. George Herbert Mead (1934) suggested specific expectations of influential people in a person’s life are conceptualized as “significant” others, and common social expectations by being a member of a group as termed “generalized” others. Mead’s theories explain that primary groups or significant others develop specific expectations or roles for us to learn for social acceptance. Whereas secondary groups define general expectations for acceptance. Someone who identifies as African American may be expected to acknowledge and celebrate Kwanzaa (primary group norm) and Christmas (secondary group norm).

Different types of groups influence our interactions, identity, and social status. Group dynamics focus on how groups influence individuals and how individuals affect groups. The social dynamics between individuals play a significant role in forming group solidarity. Social unity reinforces a collective identity and shared thinking among group members thereby constructing a common culture (Griswold, 2013). Commonalities of group membership are important for mobilizing individual members. When people attempt to create social change or establish a social movement group, solidarity helps facilitate motivation of individuals and framing of their actions. The sense of belonging and trust among the group makes it easier for members to align and recognize the problem, accept a possible solution, take certain actions that are congruent and complementary to the collective identity of the group (Griswold, 2013). People accept the group’s approach based on solidarity and cohesiveness that overall amplifies personal mobilization and commitment to the group and its goals.




To connect socio-cultural identities with uniform characteristics of a geographic region.


The place someone lives influences his or her value system and life. Describe the geographic location you live and the culture of your community. What values and beliefs do the social norms and practices of your neighborhood instill or project among residents? What type of artifacts or possessions (i.e., truck, luxury car, recreational vehicle, fenced yard, swimming pool, etc.) do people living in your community seek out, dismiss, or condone?  Do you conform to the cultural standards where you live or deviate from them? Explain how the place you live influences your personal and social perceptions, choices, and life.


Kennedy, V. (2018). Beyond race: Cultural influences on human social life. West Hills College Lemoore.


An organization refers to a group of people with a collective goal or purpose linked to bureaucratic tendencies including a hierarchy of authority, clear division of labor, explicit rules, and impersonal (Giddens et al., 2013).  Organizations function within existing cultures and produce their own. Formal organizations fall into three categories including normative, coercive, and utilitarian (Etzioni, 1975). People join normative or voluntary organizations based on shared interests (e.g., club or cause). Coercive organizations are groups that people are coerced or forced to join (e.g., addiction rehabilitation program or jail). People join utilitarian organizations to obtain a specific material reward (e.g., private school or college). When we work or live in organizations, there are multiple levels of interaction that effect social unity and operations. On an individual level, people must learn and assimilate into the culture of the organization. All organizations face the problem of motivating its members to work together to achieve common goals (Griswold, 2013). Generally, in organizations small group subcultures develop with their own meaning and practices to help facilitate and safeguard members within the organizational structure. Group members will exercise force (peer pressure and incentives), actively socialize (guide feelings and actions with normative controls), and model behavior (exemplary actors and stories) to build cohesiveness (Griswold, 2013). Small groups play an integral role in managing individual members to maintain the function of the organization. Think about the school or college you attend. There are many subcultures within any educational setting and each group establishes the norms and behaviors members must follow for social acceptance. Can you identify at least two racial-ethnic subcultures on your school campus and speculate how members of these groups are pressured to fit in to the dominant culture?

On a group level, symbolic power matters in recruiting members and sustaining the culture of a group within the larger social culture (Hallet, 2003). Symbolic power is the power of constructing reality to guide people in understanding their place in the organizational hierarchy (Bourdieu, 1991). This power occurs in everyday interactions through unconscious cultural and social domination. Like in society, the dominant group of an organization influences the prevailing culture and provides its function in communications forcing all groups or subcultures to define themselves by their distance from the dominant culture (Bourdieu, 1991). The instrument of symbolic power is the instrument of domination in the organization by creating the ideological systems of its goals, purpose, and operations. Symbolic power not only governs the culture of the organization but also manages solidarity and division between groups. We see examples of symbolic power in U.S. institutions (i.e., banks, schools, prisons, military, etc.), and each has a hierarchy of authority where administrators serve as the dominate group and are responsible for the prevailing culture. Each institution socializes members according to their position within the organization to sustain the establishment and fulfill collective goals and maintain functions.


five people in the office discussing a project
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There are external factors that influence organizational culture. The context and atmosphere of a nation shapes an organization. When an organization’s culture aligns with national ideology, they can receive special attention or privileges in the way of financial incentives or policy changes (Griswold 2013). In contrast, organizations opposing national culture may face suppression, marginalization, or be denied government and economic support. Organizations must also operate across a multiplicity of cultures (Griswold, 2013). Culture differences between organizations may affect their operations and achievement of goals. To be successful, organizations must be able to operate in a variety of contexts and cultures. Griswold (2013) suggested one way to work across cultural contexts is to maintain an overarching organizational mission but be willing to adapt to insignificant or minor issues. Financial and banking institutions use this approach. Depending on the region and demographic composition, banks offer different cultural incentives for opening an account or obtaining a loan. In the state of Michigan, affluent homeowners may acquire a low interest property improvement loan, while low-income homeowners are restricted to grants for repairing, improving, or modernizing their homes to remove health and safety hazards.

Working across organizational cultures also requires some dimension of trust. Organizational leaders must model forms and symbols of trust between organizations, groups, and individuals (Mizrachi et al., 2007). This means authority figures must draw on the organization’s internal and external diversity of cultures to show its ability to adapt and work in a variety of cultural and political settings and climates. Organizations often focus on internal allegiance forgetting that shared meaning across the marketplace, sector, or industry is what moves understanding of the overall system and each organization’s place in it (Griswold, 2013). The lack of cultural coordination and understanding undermines many organizations and has significant consequences for accomplishing their goals and ability to sustain themselves.

Doing Culture

All people are cultured. You have culture. Social scientists argue all people have culture comprised of values, beliefs, norms, expressive symbols or language, practices, and artifacts. This viewpoint transcends the humanities perspective that suggests someone must project refined tastes, manners, and have a good education as those exhibited by the elite class to have culture. The perspective of social scientists reinforces the ideology that culture is an integrated and patterned system and not simply desired characteristics of the ruling or dominant group.


woman laying on couch and playing with a baby while man sits on the floor holding a small coffee cup and working on a laptop
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Cultural patterns are a set of integrated traits transmitted by communication or social interactions (Kottak and Kozaitis, 2012). Consider the cultural patterns associated with housing. Each cultural group or society maintains a housing system comprised of particular cultural traits including kitchen, sofa, bed, toilet, etc. The cultural traits or each individual cultural item is part of the home or accepted cultural pattern for housing.

Not only do people share cultural traits, but they may also share personality traits. These traits are actions, attitudes, and behaviors (e.g., honesty, loyalty, courage, etc.). Shared personality traits develop through social interactions from core values within groups and societies (Kottak and Kozaitis, 2012). Core values are formally (legally or recognized) and informally (unofficial) emphasized to develop a shared meaning and social expectations. The use of positive (reward) and negative (punishment) sanctions helps in controlling desired and undesired personality traits. For example, if we want to instill courage, we might highlight people and moments depicting bravery with verbal praise or accepting awards. To prevent cowardness, we could show a deserter or run-away to depict weakness and social isolation.

Doing culture is not always an expression of ideal culture. People’s practices and behaviors do not always abide or fit into the ideal ethos we intend or expect. The Christmas holiday is one example where ideal culture does not match the real culture people live and convey. Christmas traditionally represents an annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ; however, many individuals and families do not worship Christ or attend church on Christmas day but instead exchange gifts and eat meals together. The ideal or public definition of Christmas does not match the real or individual practices people express on the holiday. Throughout history, there have always been differences between what people value (ideal culture) and how they actually live their lives (real culture) regardless of racial-ethnic background.


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer Copyright © 2022 by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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