Society and Culture
Societies are formed of our social groupings at varied levels, from small towns, through countries, to broader cultural groupings such as a Western society. Within such societies people tend to form particular cultures, formed of the ideas, customs, and social behaviours that make one society distinct from another.
Oxford Reference provides over 44,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on many aspects of human society and culture. Our coverage comprises authoritative, highly accessible information that covers the very latest terminology, concepts, theories, and organizations relating to society and culture—from mythology, media, sexuality, and cultural traditions, to food and drink, art, and sports. Written by trusted experts for researchers at every level, entries are complemented by illustrative line drawings and images wherever useful.
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A timeline of society: from 2.2 million years ago, when creatures of the genus Homo, classified as early modern humans, lived in east Africa, to the financial crisis of 2007–2008
The introduction to A Dictionary of Creation Myths
A biography of Rodolphe Lindt from The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets
In your opinion, which is the most fascinating entry in your Companion and why?
Had you asked this of the late Alan Davidson, the original author and editor of the Oxford Companion to Food, he would have said his favourite entry was ‘washing up’. I recommend it for its light touch, breadth of reference, shades of humour and successful provocation of the reader's thoughtfulness and speculation. Coming, as I do, late to the party, I concentrated my own thoughts on those entries that have been added to the second and third editions and would like to propose the short article ‘leftovers’. The subject somehow underlines that not all food consists of prime ingredients, raw materials imported from distant continents, or dishes cooked by master chefs. The topic of food is all-embracing: just as Alan's favourite entry touched on the consequences of eating, and brought into the fold of acquisition and consumption the necessary process of clearing up, so ‘leftovers’ reminds us readers that everything is possible in the kitchen: food travels through various stages, and may be as delicious and (its first purpose) nourishing in its final recension as in its first. I also enjoy the article, short though it is, for touching on a number of related points which only serve to underline the way in which 'food studies' is a great connector of human behaviours in vast series of activities, so in a couple of hundred years we visit ancient Greece, medieval Europe, 19th-century haute cuisine, the poor of Paris and the modern cook in the normal household. I confess the entry is open to criticism for not extending its remit to other cultures than the West, for example not touching on doniburi in Japan, but this perversely reinforces my affection for the piece as it indicates just how infinitely extensible the Companion format can be and how from small beginnings giant castles can arise.
What do you think is the most commonly held misconception in your subject area?
My response to this is that there are two allied misconceptions: in the first place that the best, or even the only, cooking worth talking about is French haute cuisine and its supporting act cuisine bourgeoise, and in the second that gastronomy (meant as a shorthand word for fat or portly people sitting seriously round an expensive table tasting and commenting on very expensive food) is the most significant touchstone for people interested in food and cookery. The Companion is not too sympathetic to the gastronomic viewpoint. Alan Davidson was healthily sceptical of any hint of pomposity or self-importance and remained open to influence by many cultures while studiously avoiding any false hierarchy of the senses, on the one hand, or of culinary worth. If it was eaten, it had its own value, whatever it might be. The time when we shared a perception of cookery as a top-down activity: the elite disseminating its tastes and values to the masses, is now long past and I think the Companion has played its part in this broadening of appreciation (although notwithstanding it has been occasionally criticised for excessive attention to Western affairs). Foodways and food culture are subjects worth studying for their own sake, without interposing an arbitrary point of view such as that with pays constant homage to France. That country's culinary heritage may have been accorded UNESCO protection, but it is only one amongst many that deserve our attention.
Which figure in your subject’s history would you most like to invite to a dinner party? What would you ask him/her?
I would be intrigued to ask the 18th-century English cookery writer Hannah Glasse to dine with me. Her career is a revelation, one greatly enhanced by the preservation of manuscript correspondence from her early years. She was born illegitimate, struck out on her own but married a ne'er-do-well, laboured unceasingly to preserve her financial head above water (together with her 11 children, six of whom died in infancy, and one more died later on at sea), was declared a bankrupt and lost all rights to her brilliant book (which although lifting hundreds of recipes from other authors – the norm in those days – was truly epochal), but never gave up: turning her hand to selling clothes, marketing a patent medicine, as well as writing other books. If you read the letters she herself wrote to her family in Northumberland, they reveal someone whose education was by no means complete, and yet she turned to literary endeavour to make her mark, writing in a no-nonsense style that would be accessible to the servant classes who she felt would benefit most from her recipes. Dr Johnson averred that the book (which was at first issued anonymously) could not possibly have been written by a woman: how she showed him! It was perhaps the most successful of all Georgian recipe books. Were I to subject her to interrogation, I would not harp on her borrowing from other authors (I don't think she would have felt this to be particularly reprehensible), but I would ask her how it felt to be a woman in a man's world and how close to the edge she must have constantly been in a society that had no safety net for failures beyond the debtors' prison. Hannah Glasse also had a gravamen against French cooking, thinking it over elaborate and spendthift, so I might have referred her back to our previous question to extract her personal take on the matter.
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