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Tuesday 14 February 2012

Culture Change

Culture change is both a process underway in all societies and a field of study in anthropology which has undergone complex development and several important transformations.


The cultural evolutionists of the late nineteenth century, such as Edward B. TYLOR (1881) and Lewis Henry MORGAN (1877), regarded non-Western cultures as relatively static (see EVOLUTION). For them societies could be ranked hierarchically on a single scale from the savage to the civilized, with the peoples at the bottom being less intelligent than those at the top. Therefore, on utilitarian grounds, the institutions of lower societies were less worthy, and non-Western peoples were seen as comparatively unreflective, their customs as tightly binding, and change as very slow. By contrast, civilized peoples were conceived of not only as more intelligent, but as less bound by the fetters of tradition and more amenable to progressive change. Combined with these notions was the view that there is an overall pattern to cultural change in which all societies are moving in the same direction, and that as a consequence, even the most savage societies will over time become more and more like the Western peoples who are at the top of the scale. The mechanism behind this development is the intellect: as savages apply their minds, they replicate the same, superior institutions that were invented by higher societies long ago.

The notion of a hierarchy of societies was widely criticized by anthropologists (most notably Franz BOAS) before the turn of this century, and it had been generally discredited by the 1920s. A variety of new ideas about cultural change then emerged in this context. Theories of DIFFUSION, according to which a key process in cultural change is cultural borrowing, or the diffusion of cultural traits (such as design motifs, folktales, and values) from one society to the next, became important in the first few decades of this century among North American anthropologists. An element of CULTURAL RELATIVISM was inherent in the diffusion concept, because the borrowing of traits implied that the cultures or institutions of a society reflected not the level of the people's intelligence, but their position on the map. Even European cultures were now conceived of as unique concatenations of cultural traits, most of which had diffused from elsewhere, particularly the Middle East and Asia. The course of human history (and the overall direction of cultural change) became less a matter of progressive development and more a product of historical accident.


A particular kind of cultural change that the American anthropologists were interested in was ACCULTURATION, by which was usually meant the changes that come about when Western and non-Western societies come into long-term contact, and especially the effects that dominant societies have had on indigenous peoples. In British anthropology, on the other hand, theorists of SOCIAL CHANGE looked at similar problems but from a different perspective.

Another important approach to cultural change in North American anthropology was that of cultural ecology, which was first articulated by Julian STEWARD (1955) and became very influential in the 1960s (Service 1971). Steward was critical of diffusionism, with its implication that change can be explained primarily as a product of historical accident, or the chance occurrences of contact among cultures. Rather, Steward sought to demonstrate that cultural change can be explained largely in terms of the progressive adaptation of a particular culture to its environment, with the result that the direction of change is predictable: given the subsistence base of a society, it should be possible, in principle, to predict how that society will change over time as a response to certain environmental conditions.

A strong alternative to cultural ecology soon emerged in cultural anthropology (Frake 1962b). The cultural ecologists tended to assume that all peoples will respond the same way under the same circumstances, and that such features as cultural values and beliefs do not play a significant role in influencing cultural change. The alternative view is that the environment is culturally mediated: people do not experience the world directly, but through cultural systems of thought, with the result that peoples with different conceptions of the world will respond to it in different ways. Thus, by this view, the cultural ecologists were mistaken when they failed to take cultural systems of thought into account in their analyses of cultural change.

In Britain a different approach to cultural change held sway from the 1920s through the 1950s. This was FUNCTIONALISM, which was associated with both RADCLIFFE-BROWN and MALINOWSKI. Functionalism took a conservative approach to change, since it assumed that societies and cultures are relatively well integrated and stable. By this view, if a culture undergoes change, then typically it is the result of outside influences. The functionalists were not oriented toward the study of change; their main interest was the functional interrelationships of cultural and social systems, not how they were transformed.

In the early 1970s the interest in cultural change took yet another important turn, a large majority of the work from that time has focused less on the problem of indigenous changes in culture or on how "traditional" cultures came to be the way they are independently of the West and more on understanding them in terms of the larger economic and political developments of the world. Particularly influential in this regard was WORLD-SYSTEM THEORY, which is associated with Immanuel Wallerstein (1974). Similarly, Eric Wolf (1982) and others have argued that the changes in local, indigenous cultures around the world are to be seen to a large extent in relation to several centuries of confrontation with and domination by Europeans. Consequently cultural change in non-Western societies is seen as an extension of the history of the West.

Perspectives explaining culture change:

1) Materialistic perspectives (materialistic factors are usually economic production and technology)

Marxist perspective: economic production, economic classes form the basic anatomy of society, and everything else arises in relationship to them

Other materialistic perspectives: Cultural lag theory (W. Ogburn) technological causes of change, material culture (technology) changes more quickly than nonmaterial culture (values, ideas, norms, ideologies), i.e. there is a period of maladjustment (a lag time) during which nonmaterial culture is still adapting to new material conditions

Technology causes change in 3 ways:

- increases alternatives available to society, creates new opportunities

- alters interaction patterns among people, changes structures of human groups

- creates new problems

2) Idealistic perspectives (idealistic factors/ideational aspects are values, beliefs and ideologies)

Weber’s perspective: in essence, values and beliefs, both religious and secular, have decisive impact on shaping social change, as well as other factors such as those outlined by Marx:

Protestanism: He argued that values of Protestanism, esp. Calvinism and related, produced a cultural ethic which sanctified work and worldly achievement, encouraged frugality and discouraged consumption. Unintended consequences of this religious worldview, this-worldly asceticism, encouraged development of large pools of capital through encouraging work, savings and non-frivolous consumption, and encouraged rational reinvestment and economic growth. Work was a religiously sanctioned calling. Each man is a moral free agent, accountable only to God. Suspicious of material consumption beyond bare necessities believing it led to moral corruption.

In Catholicism, work is merely mundane activity to keep one alive, encouraging other-worldly asceticism where highest form of activity was devotion to God, men were accountable to the Church which sought to regulate the operation of the economy and other secular aspects of society in terms of religious values. No reason in values to ban consumption.

Discussed China and India, whose faiths, Confucianism & Taoism and Hinduism respectively, also weren’t favorable to the development of capitalism.

Other ideational perspectives: Lewy focused on role of religion in social change citing examples of Puritan revolt in England, Islamic renaissance in Sudan in 1800s, Taiping & Boxer Rebellion in China, Islamic fundamentalism in Iran.

Cultural ideas, values, and ideologies that have broadly shaped directions of social change in modern world:

freedom and self-determination

material growth and security

nationalism, e.g. French & English Canadians, English & Irish, Germans & French, Palestinians, Kurdish, Basque separatists and Spanish

capitalism: not only type of economic system but also ideology, connected set of values and ideas emphasizing positive benefits of pursuing one’s private economic interests, competition and free marketS


Ideas and values can cause change or be barriers to change, can be barriers at one time or promote change at another time. Ideational culture can cause change by:

legitimizing a desired direction of change, e.g. promoting further equality and democracy

providing a basis for social solidarity necessary to promote change, i.e. integrative mechanisms, neutralizing the conflicting strains found in society, e.g. mobilizing force during war

highlighting contradictions and problems, e.g. US cultural value of equality of opportunity have highlighted racism and sexism

Not all anthropological research on cultural change today looks to world-systems theory for its inspiration, but nearly all of it is strongly influenced by the idea of the global society, or the view that a variety of transnational processes are critical for understanding cultural change among all peoples. The world is viewed as increasingly integrated economically, politically, socially, and culturally.

Major Factors and processes of Culture Change:


Acculturation is the process of culture change set in motion by the meeting of two autonomous cultural systems, resulting in an increase of similarity of each to the other. It always involves a complex interaction with attendant social processes, the parameters of which were most carefully laid out in two important memoranda commissioned by the Social Science Research Council (Redfield et al. 1936; Broom et al. 1954). In such conjunctions the donor culture may not present the full range of its cultural elements, and the recipient culture's own value system may act to screen out or modify certain elements. Acculturation may also be sharply socially structured, as in the case of conquest or other situations of social or political inequality, which channel the flow of cultural elements. Acculturation subsumes a number of different processes including DIFFUSION, reactive ADAPTATION, various kinds of social and cultural reorganization subsequent to contact, and "deculturation" or cultural disintegration. The range of adjustments that results includes the retention of substantial cultural autonomy ("stabilized pluralism") or, more typically, the assimilation of a weaker by a stronger contacting group, and (though rarely) cultural fusion, whereby two cultures may exchange enough elements to produce a distinctive successor culture.

Inasmuch as acculturation involves the interaction of two or more distinct groups, social interaction among them strongly conditions the outcome. The extreme social pressure attendant upon conquest, for example, may prove effective in breaking down the mechanisms by which the conquered group has maintained its culture. In other cases, a high degree of enclosure may preserve a politically weak culture in spite of seemingly overwhelming odds. Furthermore, the lessening of culture distance (acculturation) may not be accompanied by a symmetrical lessening of social distance (assimilation) if, for whatever reason, one group refuses to validate the other's acculturation.

Cultural adaptation:

Cultural adaptation is a relatively new concept used to define the specific capacity of human beings and human societies to overcome changes of their natural and social environment by modifications to their culture. The scale of culture changes depends on the extent of habitat changes and could vary from slight modifications in livelihood systems (productive and procurement activity, mode of life, dwellings and settlements characteristics, exchange systems, clothing, and so on) to principal transformation of the whole cultural system, including its social, ethnic, psychological, and ideological spheres.


Diffusion is the transmission of elements from one culture to another. Such elements are transmitted by agents using identifiable media and are subject to different barrier or filter effects. It is one of the processes of accuturation but may lack the close contact between peoples that acculturation presupposes. Diffusionism refers to any learned hypothesis that posits an exogenous origin for most elements of a specific culture or cultural subset. An example is the proposition advanced by some nineteenth-century folklorists that most popular European story frames had been transmitted to Europe by Gypsies from India. Robert Lowie emphasizes on the association of diffusion and historicism, independent invention, and evolutionism (Harris 1968: 173 6).


Assimilation refers to that result of culture change whereby the members of one society modify their behavior and values to become very similar to, or identical with, those of another society possessing a different culture. It is to be distinguished from the potentially rapid processes of culture change due to internal innovation and invention and external borrowing through intermittent diffusion of culture elements from outside the society, and the very gradual process by the absence of exact replication by a younger generation of the beliefs and behavior of an older generation. Innovation and diffusion are ongoing features of human life, and their effects are usually gradual (over many generations), limited to distinct subsets of a cultural system, and, more important, typically greatly modified in turn to mesh with the existing culture. The process of change giving rise to assimilation, however, is acculturation. Acculturation is the complex and dynamic set of processes resulting from close, prolonged contact between two societies, one of them dominant. This imbalance of power is necessary for assimilative change, since the drastic and total character of assimilation requires that the dominant society monopolize prestige, resources, and force and possess an ideology that rewards and/or demands corresponding change in the subordinate society. There are modifications to both societies in the acculturative situation, the dominant as well as the subordinate.


Modernisation is a process of economic, social, and cultural development that is expected to lead to a level of organization and production, along with belief systems, similar to those already achieved by INDUSTRIAL SOCIETIES, primarily based on examples from the West. Consistent with a general Western idea of progress according to which human knowledge and rationality increasingly triumph over ignorance and adversity and improve the conditions of human life, it was generally assumed that modernization was inevitable and global. But as former colonial societies in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and the Caribbean became independent nations following World War II, much concern was expressed over how, or even if, this modernization process would occur. This concern was also directed at Latin America, which was similarly regarded as "underdeveloped."

Demographic factors:

A population change is itself a social change but also becomes a casual factor in further social and cultural changes. When a thinly settled frontier fills up with people the hospitality pattern fades away, secondary group relations multiply, institutional structures grow more elaborate and many other changes follow. A stable population may be able to resist change but a rapidly growing population must migrate, improve its productivity or starve. Great historic migrations and conquests of the Huns, Vikings and many others have arisen from the pressure of a growing population upon limited resources. Migration encourages further change for it brings a group into a new environment subjects it to new social contacts and confronts it with new problems. No major population change leaves the culture unchanged.

Technological factors:

The technological factors represent the conditions created by man which have a profound influence on his life. In the attempt to satisfy his wants, fulfill his needs and to make his life more comfortable man creates civilization. Technology is a byproduct of civilization .When the scientific knowledge is applied to the problems in life it becomes technology. Technology is a systematic knowledge which is put into practice that is to use tools and run machines to serve human purpose. Science and technology go together. In utilizing the products of technology man brings social change. The social effects of technology are far-reaching. According to Karl Marx even the formation of social relations and mental conceptions and attitudes are dependent upon technology. He has regarded technology as a sole explanation of social change. W.F Ogburn says technology changes society by changing our environment to which we in turn adapt. These changes are usually in the material environment and the adjustment that we make with these changes often modifies customs and social institutions. A single invention may have innumerable social effects. The development of mass media, from Radio to internet for example have made a rapid change and global cultural integration possible.

Policy factors:

The government policies especially the economic policies which makes it possible to communicate, use and see other cultural products accelerates culture change. The opening up of national boundaries especially after the adoption of neo-liberal policies worldwide have made significant impact on previously existing power relations and people’s commodity procurement and usage pattern. The social policies, promoting particular behavior, for example in India the Total Sanitation Programme, Sarva Sikhsha Mission, etc. help making significant change in the society.

Books used:

Barfield, T. (Ed. 1997). The Dictionary of Anthropology. Massachusetts: Blackwell

Birx, H. J. (Ed. 2006). Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Thousand Oaks: Sage

Bernerd, R and Spencer, J. (2002). Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: Routledge