Culture Change Research Paper

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What is culture change? In a way, the phrase itself is problematic; after all, culture was formulated as a scientific concept partly for the very reason that customs seemed resistant to change—at least compared with the confusing blur of particular people and events traditionally studied by historians (Tylor, 1871/1924, p. 5). Indeed, some anthropologists have tried to analyze cultures as if they did not change at all; such approaches, however, seem ever less relevant in the rapidly globalizing world of the 20th century.

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In the phrase “culture change,” change has its usual meaning; culture, however, is being used in a sense technical enough to need a bit more discussion here at the outset. Culture, as classically defined by Edward B. Tylor in 1871, refers to “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (1871/1924, p. 1). Once we realize that by the word “art” Tylor meant all the artifacts customarily made and used by a society, we see that this is a broad definition indeed: It includes the customary things with which people surround themselves, the customary ways they interact with one another behaviorally, and the ideas that are more or less shared among them.

There are anthropologists, it should be said, who consider culture to be things that only an individual can acquire by virtue of being a member of society. One problem with this is that it excludes features that inherently characterize groups rather than individuals—some of which certainly would seem to be fundamental features of a society’s way of life, such as economic inequality, an elaborate division of labor, or (group) religious ritual.

Some anthropologists think of culture not only as an acquisition of individuals but also as a particular kind of individual acquisition, namely, mental. Culture, for them, is strictly in our heads. From their standpoint, neither the automobile nor the computer, say, would be part of American culture in the early 21st century; rather, only the underlying ideas of which the things themselves (they maintain) are realizations deserve to be considered culture. This, however, makes culture difficult to study empirically by making it outwardly unobservable.

Defining culture as strictly mental also encourages an oversimplified and misleading conception of culture change. Anthropologists who think of culture as essentially mental tend to think of culture change as essentially due to new ideas. This focus distracts our attention from, if it does not quite deny, three key points about culture change. First, what ideas are “thinkable” depends partly on existing cultural arrangements. Ideas do not really come “out of the blue”; there is cultural wisdom, then, in the scriptural claim that there is “nothing new under the Sun”—nothing totally new at least. Second, new ideas are by no means sufficient in themselves to bring about culture change. The greatest idea in the world must somehow be acted on before it has any chance to change culture. Ideas that remain trapped in their thinkers’ heads, issuing in neither new behaviors nor new artifacts, are of no cultural consequence whatever. Third, behavioral or artifactual consequences are also insufficient for culture change. These consequences must be greeted by significant social acceptance; and this, like the occurrence of the new ideas in the first place, depends to some degree on existing cultural arrangements.

In any case, when the subject is culture change, it seems that anthropologists (and journalists) today usually use—whether they admit it or not—a more general definition along Tylor’s lines; and this appears to have been true in the past as well. For present purposes, then, the constituents of culture are not only ideas about things but also about the things themselves—objectively observable artifacts and behaviors. By artifactual is meant the world around us insofar as it is built or manufactured by humans: T-shirts and tuxedos, furniture and appliances and buildings, cornfields and computers, automobiles and highways, pencils and power plants, cell phones, baseball bats, factories, and baptismal fonts. By behavioral is meant the observable motion of our bodies through space, usually oriented to the artifactual world and/or literally manipulating artifacts. By ideational is meant everything that goes on in our heads: thoughts about artifacts and behaviors (of one another and ourselves), about thoughts (again, of one another and ourselves) and even thought itself, and about the rest of the universe. (Feelings, which also may be said to go on in our heads, are important in social interaction and are influenced by culture; they are not, however, properly considered as themselves constituents of culture.) Because this trichotomy is essential in understanding a current approach to culture change, we shall return to it after examining past approaches.

Past Approaches to Culture Changes

Although its roots naturally lie deeper in the past, anthropology took shape as a scholarly discipline in the 19th century. From the late 15th century on, exploration and colonization—led by Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain—had produced a large and growing body of information about how different were the customs in the various parts of the world. Much of this consisted of reports by explorers and missionaries; systematic anthropological fieldwork was an achievement largely of the 20th century. Not entirely wide of the mark, then, is the image of the so-called 19th-century evolutionists as scholars in their studies poring over fanciful accounts of exotic peoples in faraway places. It sounds a rather far cry from scientists in their laboratories conducting meticulous experiments; indeed, critics later would charge that it in fact had been nothing more than “armchair speculation.” Yet real progress was made. Judicious handling of the material, after all, could go some way in separating truth from falsehood. Tylor pointed out that when two or more visitors independently of each other had reported the same custom in the same place, it was unlikely to be a fabrication—especially if the custom seemed odd.

In terms of theory, Tylor and others found themselves facing degenerationism. Inspired by the biblical book of Genesis, the idea was that all humans had practiced agriculture and achieved a modest level of civilization not too long after creation itself. Then, with the dispersion of people throughout the world, some of them degenerated to lower levels (some forgetting even how to grow food), while others rose to higher levels. Degenerationism, one might say, was the first grand theory of culture change. Foremost among scholars putting it to rest was Edward B. Tylor. Using his extensive knowledge of the anthropological evidence that already had accumulated by around 1865, Tylor showed that “high” cultures quite certainly had originated in a state resembling that of the “low” cultures still observable in some parts of the world and that there was no evidence that any of the latter had come into being by degeneration from a higher condition of culture (Tylor 1865/1964).

The 19th Century: Beyond Degeneration’s Defeat

Strictly speaking, the defeat of degenerationism was perhaps more a step in separating science from religion than a step in science itself. Quite different in this respect were the debate over the relative importance of diffusion and independent invention and attempts to characterize the cultural past as a series of stages.

Independent Invention and Diffusion

Tylor and other leading 19th-century evolutionists were united against degenerationism but divided on this question. The issue arose when among the glaring differences between human cultures, striking similarities also appeared. Boomerangs, for example, were reported not only for Australia but also for regions of India and Egypt. How was this distribution to be explained? Had this weapon been invented only once, then spread to the other two regions, or had it been invented independently three times? Those inclined to stress the importance of diffusion would prefer the former explanation, claiming that it is much easier for humans to copy something than to invent it. Those favoring independent invention would prefer the latter explanation, claiming that the human mind is sufficiently alike everywhere (“psychic unity”) that it will tend, when faced with similar problems under similar conditions, to produce similar solutions.

Toward the extremes were two German scholars: Adolf Bastian argued that independent invention should be presumed unless strong evidence for diffusion could be produced, while Henry Balfour argued that diffusion should be presumed until overwhelming evidence for independent invention was put forth (Lowie, 1937). Most of the 19th-century evolutionists were less extreme. In the case of the boomerang, for instance, they would by no means rule out the possibility that it had originated independently in two of the regions and diffused from one of these to the third region.


Associated rather closely with a stress on independent development was the idea that human culture everywhere tended to advance through broadly similar stages. The most famous formulation was Lewis Henry Morgan’s (1877/1985) sequence, savagery, barbarism, civilization. (Morgan subdivided the first two of these stages into lower, middle, and upper for a total of seven stages.) While debates over independent invention versus diffusion often centered on particular cultural features (as in the boomerang example), the concept of a stage involved a vast pattern of cultural features—that is, an entire kind of cultural system. Still, the defining of such stages did require reference to at least some particular features; and Morgan chose, for this purpose, mainly items of material technology. The transition from lower savagery to middle savagery, for example, was marked in part by the use of fire and from upper savagery to lower barbarism by the invention of pottery. Civilization was reached, in Morgan’s view, not with a technological achievement but rather with the development of a phonetic alphabet. His reliance on primarily technological markers helped make the stages more objectively identifiable and was quite convenient for archaeologists, who after all can recover neither behavioral nor ideational evidence but material evidence alone. Though the terms savage and barbarian sound ethnocentric today, anthropology still recognizes general stages through which culture change has tended to pass; and they are not entirely different from Morgan’s. Pottery, for example, being heavy and fragile, is not highly functional for the mobile way of life characteristic of foragers; Morgan’s use of pottery to mark the end of savagery therefore makes this stage broadly comparable to the long period (evidently around 99.8% of our evolutionary past) before settling into villages and growing food— what is today termed the hunting-gathering era, or Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) (Harris, 1968, pp. 185–186).

Some 19th-century evolutionists proposed stage sequences of other kinds. Herbert Spencer (1897) proposed that human political culture had advanced through four progressive stages: simple, compound, doubly compound, and trebly compound. These stages resemble more recent sequences such as band, tribe, chiefdom, and state (Service, 1962) and village, chiefdom, state, and empire (Carneiro, 2003). More important than the specific stages delineated, however, are these two facts stressed by Spencer: First, political evolution does not occur by the simple increase in population of a small society (a band or village) until it has became a large one (a state or empire); rather, it occurs by the combining of smaller societies. Second, this combining is stepwise, with little room for skipping steps. That is, we know of no cases in which bands or villages have combined directly into states or empires; rather, they combine into chiefdoms, which then may (or may not) combine into states. Similarly, chiefdoms do not combine directly into empires but into states, which then may (or may not) combine into empires.

Political evolution thus has a unilinear quality: Any society reaching a later stage will have done so by having passed thorough earlier stages. This assuredly does not mean that all societies at an earlier stage will advance to a later stage! In the human past, there must have been, after all, vastly more bands and villages that never helped compose chiefdoms than those that did, far more chiefdoms that never helped compose states than those that did, and many more states that never helped compose empires than those that did. The unilinearity of political evolution, with respect to a given society, we might well say, is not predictive but retrodictive: Though we cannot be sure a given small society will ever become part of a larger one, we can be sure a large society originally became large by the compounding of smaller ones. Spencer’s picture of political evolution as having progressed by the stepwise unification of units (mainly through military conquest) remains influential today (Carneiro, 2003).

Other stage sequences have not held up so well; their main role proved to be stimulating research that led to their own rejection. The greatest is J. J. Bachoffen’s (Partenheimer, 1861/2007) set of stages based on gender relations. He argued that humans originally lived in a state of unregulated sexual promiscuity. Females, finding themselves too much at the mercy of the physically stronger males, managed somehow to gain control and institute religion and marriage; but the “male principle” ultimately proved even higher and purer, and the stage of matriarchal culture gave way to patriarchal culture. By around 1900, this theory of culture change as an epic three-stage battle between the sexes had proven untenable: It had been based on conflating matrilineality (tracing family lines through females) and matriarchy (sociopolitical rule by females) and on Bachoffen’s having relied heavily on Greco-Roman myths to reconstruct the past. Still, the idea that humans had passed through a matriarchal stage had been embraced by the leading cultural evolutionists of the late 19th century: Edward B. Tylor, Herbert Spencer, and Lewis Henry Morgan.

Errors such as this rather glaring one, a growing suspicion that delineating evolutionary stages was inherently ethnocentric anyway, the misconception that the evolutionists had argued for a kind of rigid unilinearity in all aspects of culture change, and probably increasing contact between societies thanks to dramatically improved means of transportation and communication were among the forces that moved 20th-century anthropology to approach culture change in new ways.

The Early 20th Century

Dissatisfaction with the 19th-century orientation to culture change appeared earlier in the United States than in Europe. Sometimes, it presented itself as choosing a new battle instead of taking sides in the old one. In a highly influential paper of 1920, Franz Boas wrote as follows:

American scholars are primarily interested in the dynamic phenomena of cultural change, and try to elucidate cultural history by the application of the results of their studies. . . . They relegate the solution of the ultimate question of the relative importance of parallelism of cultural development in distant areas, as against worldwide diffusion . . . to a future time when the actual conditions of cultural change are better known. (p. 314)

This sounds evenhanded enough; but in fact, the concept of independent invention (or as Boas here calls it, parallel development) was intimately bound up with that of cultural evolutionism. Part and parcel of discrediting the latter, then, was a growing stress on contact between societies as key to understanding culture change. Boas (1920) went on in the very same paper to admit this stress; but he carefully ascribed it to methodological considerations rather than to any animosity toward cultural evolutionism: “It is much easier to prove dissemination than to follow up developments due to inner forces, and the data for such a study are obtained with much greater difficulty” (p. 315). Boas seems here to have been thinking of the contrast between directly observing how cultures vary over space and using archaeological evidence—laborious to obtain and relatively fragmentary at best—to try to piece together how a culture has changed over time.

By 1924, Boas seems to have decided that more than methodological considerations were involved. A paper titled “Evolution or Diffusion?” argued in effect that when societies appear to be culturally mixed, intermediate, or transitional, this nearly always should be taken as evidence of diffusion of traits from less culturally mixed societies, not as evidence of evolution from an earlier to a later condition of culture; to exemplify the danger of the evolutionary assumption, he discussed the old—and evidently misguided—interpretation of matrilineal customs as indicating transitionality between supposed matriarchal and patriarchal stages.

The Diversity of Diffusion

As part of the general reaction of the anthropological world against cultural evolutionism, then, culture change came to be thought of by anthropologists as primarily a matter of diffusion. In one of the more famous passages ever penned by an anthropologist, Ralph Linton (1936) wrote of how a typical adult male in the United States (of the 1930s) started his day. The flavor—if not the full effect—of this virtuoso performance can be appreciated from the final paragraph:

When our friend has finished eating he settles back to smoke, an American Indian habit, consuming a plant domesticated in Brazil in either a pipe, derived from the Indians of Virginia, or a cigarette, derived from Mexico. If he is hardy enough he many even attempt a cigar, transmitted to us from the Antilles by way of Spain. While smoking he reads the news of the day, imprinted in characters invented by the ancient Semites upon a material invented in China by a process invented in Germany. As he absorbs the accounts of foreign troubles he will, if he is a good conservative citizen, thank a Hebrew deity in an IndoEuropean language that he is 100 percent American. (p. 327)

It is one thing to think of a culture as a product of diffusion; it is another to think about the process of diffusion itself. One can usefully distinguish four forms: direct contact, immigrant diffusion, intermediate contact, and stimulus diffusion.

Direct contact describes the case in which a cultural feature spreads from one society to adjacent societies and from those to other more distant ones. The basic type of medieval castle (“motte-and-bailey,” in which the structure stands atop a mound [the motte] surrounded by a ditch, surrounded in turn by a palisaded courtyard [the bailey]), for example, originated in northern France in the 10th century and gradually spread through most of western Europe. On a larger geographical scale, paper, having originated centuries before in China, underwent diffusion from the 8th century through the 15th to the Arab world and then to Europe. Three recurrent steps (in this as in other cases where the feature is a commodity) were (1) importation of small amounts as a luxury item, (2) importation of larger amounts as the item became widely used, followed eventually by (3) internal manufacture supplementing or replacing importation.

A particularly important way that diffusion occurs, often overlooked, is along with the expansion or migration of populations. One example of this immigration diffusion is the availability in American cities of “ethnic” options when people are choosing a restaurant. Very often this availability reflects the immigration of people who have opened restaurants serving the cuisine of the nations from which they have come. Another example of immigrant diffusion would be the enormous number of English cultural features—implements, customs, and beliefs (and the language)—that came to North America as a matter of course along with the colonists themselves. Immigrant migration is easily overlooked perhaps because the word “diffusion” conjures up an image of a cultural feature spreading mainly between people rather than mainly with them. In fact, without historical records it is often difficult to tell whether a cultural feature long ago moved across a resident population or simply along with an expanding one; the spread of motte-and-bailey castles, for example, seems to have been more or less closely associated with the geographic expansion of the ethnic group known as the Normans.

Ethnic foods nicely exemplify another important point. Though some food critics may complain about, say, the amount of beef in our “Mexican” food, the sugary sauces in many “Chinese” dishes, or the quantities of sour cream in our “Japanese” sushi, such changes seem to appeal to the American palate (so to speak). And for cultural features to undergo such modification as they become accepted in a new social environment is more the rule than the exception when it comes to diffusion. Of course, this often involves cultural features more important than details of cuisine; a good example here would be the changes undergone by capitalism as it was culturally incorporated by Japan after the Second World War (Okumura, 2000).

Intermediate contact refers to the spread of cultural features by such agents as explorers, sailors, traders, or missionaries. This kind of diffusion reflects the fact that by the time societies have grown large enough to have an elaborate division of labor, some occupational specialties routinely position individuals to serve as diffusers of cultural elements. In the 1500s, for example, sailors, having gotten tobacco (and the practice of smoking it) in the New World, introduced it into the great port cities of Europe. Meanwhile, many European things were being introduced into the New World—notably, horses by Spanish explorers and Christianity by the missionaries. (The first Catholic missionaries arrived within a few years of Columbus’s initial voyage.) Another famous example, very important in the evolution of science and technology, was the diffusion of India’s decimal system (along with “Arabic numerals”) into Europe by way of a small number of books imported from the Middle East. Though written before CE 1000, these books’ influence was not widely felt in Europe— where Roman numerals remained customary—until the advent of the printing press centuries later.

Stimulus diffusion refers to situations in which an idea from outside triggers a society to develop and incorporate something new into its culture. A classic case is the development of writing among the Cherokee stimulated by a man named Sequoya from his observations of Europeans. Though the system used some symbols from the English alphabet, they represented not individual sounds but entire syllables; the writing system, that is, was syllabic rather than alphabetic. A “mere” idea from outside had sufficed to inspire a novel cultural development. But some degree of modification in a new environment is, as we have seen, a common aspect of diffusion; therefore, stimulus diffusion can be understood essentially as taking this aspect to an extreme.

Competition among peoples has given rise to important examples of stimulus diffusion. The ancient Hittites, first to develop iron chariots for war, tried to keep iron smelting a military secret and of course were not about to export iron chariots to surrounding societies; but eventually, the other societies developed (or otherwise acquired) them on their own. Fear of being conquered is a powerful stimulus! Some 4,000 years later, biological weapons, space programs, and nuclear power often have been developed more by stimulus diffusion than by direct diffusion though it seems likely that indirect contact by way of espionage has played no small role as well.

Intrasocietal Diffusion

In anthropology, diffusion traditionally has been thought of as between social groups, especially between entire societies—typically nations. This form of diffusion may be termed intersocietal; as such, it contrasts with intrasocietal diffusion. Intrasocietal diffusion refers to the spread of an innovation within one group rather than from one group to another. Disciplines such as economics and sociology have given more attention to intrasocietal diffusion than have anthropologists. One of the most interesting things to emerge is a characteristic S-shaped curve describing the extent of an innovation’s adoption with respect to time. Some authorities consider this curve to result from innovativeness being a normally distributed trait (that is, a trait fitting the “bell curve”) within human populations. An innovation diffuses slowly at first because early-adopter types are fairly rare, gains “speed” as less atypical people adopt it, and levels off as the later-adopting, relatively rare “laggards” finally adopt it. There is evidence that early adopters tend to be higher in terms of education and income than do later ones (Rogers, 2003). The anthropologist H. G. Barnett (1953) suggested several “ideal types” of innovator or early adopter: the dissident, who is simply a nonconforming kind of individual; the indifferent, who is for some reason—perhaps merely by virtue of still being young—not strongly committed to conventionality; the disaffected, for whom certain experiences have loosened the commitment to conventionality (e.g., leaving home to go to college); and the resentful, embittered by having failed to achieve success in conventional terms. The final three of these would seem somewhat age graded in the sense that young, middle-aged, and older individuals, respectively, would be most likely to fit the description. By reminding us that people of all ages can have reasons for desiring change, Barnett’s typology perhaps helps account for the otherwise surprising failure to find a general tendency for innovators to be relatively young.

The Limits of Diffusionism

While diffusion has been and remains an important process of culture change, it can be overemphasized. Its easy comprehensibility may help explain the popularity, with the public, of fanciful images of lost continents or intercontinental raft voyages. In a somewhat more scholarly vein, the English biologist G. Eliot Smith (1928) tried to show that civilization had originated only once, in ancient Egypt; significant signs of civilization anywhere else in the world he attributed to diffusion from the fertile floodplain of the Nile. The German priest Wilhelm Schmidt (1939) attempted to account for particular cultures as the intermingling of customs resulting from the overlapping of cultural “circles” radiating from a small number of centers. Another feature of diffusionism was its almost studied neglect of the systemic aspect of culture as if a culture were not so much a system of interrelated elements as a mere collection of juxtaposed borrowings—a “thing of shreds and patches” (cf. Harris, 1968, pp. 353–354).

There is at least one respect in which it is instructive to think of culture as a collection or stock of elements. As early as 1877, Lewis Henry Morgan suggested that culture change naturally tends to accelerate over time because any element of “knowledge gained” has the potential to become a “factor in further acquisitions” (1877/1985, p. 38). Innovations, that is, often involve combinations of preexisting elements; therefore, the more cultural “material” there is available, the more innovations there will be. Culture, then, is somewhat like a snowball: The more of it there is, the faster it grows. It is important to remember, however, that this “growth” should not be presumed to constitute progress, at least morally, and that this snowballing tendency does not mean that “culture changes itself ” since the innovations involved in the process are not themselves cultural unless and until they have been incorporated into a group’s way of life.

Acculturationism and Its Limits

Professional anthropologists, of whom there were by now a growing number (due especially to Boas’s efforts at Columbia University), tended to be skeptical of such extremes; they were more bothered by the observable facts that diffusion was not inevitable when cultures came into contact (whether indirect or direct) and that it was, in any case, only one of several possible results of such contact. The emphasis accordingly shifted from diffusion to acculturation, authoritatively defined as “those phenomena which result when groups of individuals giving different cultures come into continuous firsthand contact, with subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups” (Redfield, Linton, & Herskovits, 1936, p. 149).

This broadening of emphasis was to some extent a matter of convenience for American graduate students studying native peoples since these peoples by then had been long subject to the shattering effects of the Euro-American expansion into the New World. But the broadening also redirected attention from cultural elements as such to situations (and even particular events) on the one hand and to groups and individuals and their reactions on the other. Thus, studying acculturation so defined might entail as much attention to history and psychology as to culture!

As a significant example of how the study of acculturation leads to psychological issues, we might begin by observing that people seem in most times and places to have found it easy to assume that their own culture or subculture is somehow essentially better than most or all other ways of life. Since this interpretation places one’s own culture at the center of the moral universe, it is termed ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism ordinarily brings with it judgmental attitudes; sometimes, it even brings feelings of disgust. Presumably, all humans have ethnocentric tendencies, unconscious if not conscious; these perhaps stem from the fact that each of us is necessarily enculturated from infancy on in some particular way of life rather than in all possible ways.

Scientists, including anthropologists, generally agree in defining culture as a social rather than a genetic acquisition; and they generally regard ethnocentrism, whatever else it may be, as a barrier to the successful study of other cultures or subcultures. Arrogance, judgmentalism, and disgust reduce one’s chances of gaining a more accurate and deeper understanding of other ways of life. To counteract their own ethnocentric tendencies, anthropologists adopt the assumption that no culture or subculture is basically better or worse than any other. This assumption is known as cultural relativism. In reference to culture change, ethnocentrism would be expected to create resistance to diffusion. Other things being equal, unfamiliar cultural elements from outside might appear undesirable or threatening simply because they are unfamiliar. There also may be outright hostility toward the out-group itself that would foster a desire to be as different from them culturally as possible. Thus it is that acculturation phenomena include not only diffusion but also intentional resistance to diffusion (Loeb & Devereux, 1943).

Much depends, however, on the attitude of the borrowing society toward the lending one. Although it is common for in-groups to look down on out-groups and their ways, it can happen that an in-group actually looks up to an outgroup. Prestige attaching to an out-group of course would facilitate adoption of its cultural elements by an in-group, thus promoting diffusion.

It is sometimes argued that acculturation studies were ideologically tainted by denying or glossing over the effects of exploitation on indigenous peoples and cultures. It is important to recognize, however, that many anthropologists were not only acutely aware of this danger but also actually engaged in lively, open debate about it; an excellent example is the exchange between Victor Barnouw, Bernard J. James, and Harold Hickerson about Chippewa personality (Barnouw, 1979).

The Mid-20th Century

The limitations of acculturation as a focus for studying culture change were sufficiently grave that by the time the concept was achieving clear formulation, some younger anthropologists already were heading in a different direction—a direction reasserting the importance of focusing on culture itself rather than on psychology or history and on culture as a system of interacting elements. Julian Steward (1955) stressed that a culture’s first order of business, so to speak, was to adapt a human group successfully enough to its environment for the society to survive; he paid special attention to the way in which specific environments called forth specific kinds of cultural adaptations. Leslie A. White (1949) shared Steward’s stress on culture as a survival mechanism but was more interested than Steward in the trajectory of human culture as a whole—a contrast sometimes connoted by “Culture” compared with “cultures.” The notion of a single human culture may seem odd. Yet it seems likely that no human group is or ever has been completely isolated from all others; so if humans are connected, even if only indirectly by patterned interaction, it makes sense to consider us a single social group; in which case, the concept of a or the socially acquired human way of life, no matter how diverse, finds justification. White argued forcibly that the most important innovations in cultural evolution have been those that led to greater control and consumption of energy; indeed, he wrote of culture as being at heart an energy-capturing system. White and Steward often were termed “neoevolutionists” because their work in some respects constituted a return to the search for scientific laws that had inspired the 19th-century evolutionists.

Leslie White (1949) and Julian Steward (1955) engaged in vigorous debates that tended to enlarge on their differences and minimize their similarities. This situation was to some extent clarified when Marshall Sahlins (1960) proposed calling Steward’s focus “specific cultural evolution” and White’s, “general cultural evolution.” In a highly influential book, The Rise of Anthropological Theory, Marvin Harris (1968) argued convincingly that Steward and White actually had in common what was important and fundamental and new: not that they both believed culture evolved but that they both believed the best way to analyze culture was to begin with the tools and techniques through which people met their everyday survival needs in the environment they inhabited. Changes in (or differences of) environment would mean technological change; technological change would bring change in how people interacted and even in the kinds of groups they lived in; and these changes would trigger changes in how people thought about the world, one another, and themselves. To understand culture change, these materialists taught, we need to acknowledge the primacy of the technological linkage between people and environment; changes in that linkage will be the most potent innovations of all.

Contemporary Approaches to Culture Change

For a time in the years leading up to 1970, it appeared that the anthropological study of culture (and culture change) might be unified under the evolutionist/materialist banner. The approach was especially appealing to archaeologists (Steward had begun his career as one); the artifactual evidence to which they have direct access is material indeed, so according theoretical priority to technology appealed to them. And indeed, the evolutionist-materialist approach, looking at cultures as adaptive systems, has vanished from the anthropological landscape. But something quite different was also astir, especially among cultural and linguistic anthropologists affected by certain countercultural trends of the 1960s. Thus, we may think of two broad contemporary approaches to culture change: the new acculturationism and the continuation of evolutionism/materialism.

The New Acculturationism

Published only a year after The Rise of Anthropological Theory was a very different book indeed: an edited volume titled Reinventing Anthropology (Hymes, 1969). Here was revealed a profound skepticism toward and even indictment of the effort to study human culture scientifically. Science, reason, and anthropology (and anthropologists) were associated not with the liberation of human minds but with the exploitation of colonized populations.

Of special importance for the study of culture change was the idea that cultural anthropologists were mistaken about what they had been studying. Though they thought the hunting-gathering people, the pastoralists, the villagers, or the peasants they observed provided glimpses into more ancient ways of life, what they principally offered, it is proposed, are insights into the effects of colonialism and capitalist exploitation. In a sense, the argument is that we have always been essentially studying acculturation, whether we knew and admitted it or not. In part, this is because the anthropologist herself or himself is—and must to some extent remain—a stranger; and whatever he or she writes is not so much an objective picture of the observed by an observer but a subjective account of an interaction between the two.

We noted that diffusionism was taken to its greatest extremes not by professional anthropologists but by a biologist and a priest; similarly, the extreme of this new acculturationism was reached by a journalist, Patrick Tierney (2000), who argued that it was anthropologists themselves (along with journalists) who were responsible for the devastation—by the outside world—of the Amazon and its native peoples. Anthropologists have argued, more modestly, that in past studies the effects of contact (colonization and exploitation) sometimes have been seriously underestimated (e.g., Ferguson & Whitehead, 1992); and many have been at pains, in their own recent work, to highlight rather than ignore the inequality built into the contact situations they study (and in which they participate). Sherry Ortner (1999), for example, introduces her study of mountain climbers and their Sherpa guides by noting that one group has “more money and power than the other.” She goes on to suggest that whether one is dealing with a colonial, postcolonial, or globalizing context, “what is at issue are the ways in which power and meaning are deployed and negotiated, expressed and transformed, as people confront one another within the frameworks of differing agendas” (p. 17). Greater sensitivity to such issues is an important development. At the same time, declaring that nothing about earlier human cultures can be learned by studying recent band, pastoral, and village peoples seems at least as extreme and implausible as considering them to be perfectly preserved “fossils” of those cultures.


Evolutionism-materialism continues to see cultures as adaptive systems and to see this as the key to understanding culture change. There have been ongoing efforts, however, to demarcate subsytems of the system and to interpret culture change as resulting from interaction of these subsystems.

A system is a set of related parts such that change in one part can bring about change in another part. Is culture a system? Here is an example suggesting that it is. Prior to around 1850, most American families lived on farms. On the farm, children were an economic asset because they enlarged the “work force” for what was essentially a family-owned, family-operated business. Children became economically productive at an early age by doing chores such as gathering eggs and feeding animals and of course became more valuable as they matured. One’s children also provided one’s care in old age. Urban life, however, converted children from economic assets to economic liabilities; to feed, clothe, and educate each one takes a lot of money. Parenting of course has its rewards in urban society, but those rewards do not usually include economic profitability! As a result, large families and therefore large households were far more common 2 centuries ago than they are today. On the farm, children commonly grew up alongside their parents and several siblings and sometimes grandparents, too. Today, households on the average are much smaller. One- or two-children households are common, and indeed, about one fourth of American households contain only one person. Thus, the shift in what people do for a living has brought dramatic changes in how children grow up and in home life more generally. Yet one can think of changes in one part of culture that have little or no apparent effect on other parts of culture. In recent decades, for example, the technology for recording and listening to music has changed rapidly from vinyl records to tapes to compact discs; yet it is difficult to think of significant changes in our way of life that have been triggered by these changes. Another contrast of this kind is the transformative effect that the acquiring of horses famously had on the cultures of the American Great Plains compared with the relatively modest effect that acquiring tobacco had on the cultures of Europe. Such contrasts raise the possibility that there are certain kinds of culture changes that tend to be more potent than other kinds in triggering further cultural changes. In other words, considering a culture as a partially integrated system, are some subsystems more determinative than others of the characteristics of the system as a whole? If so, which one or ones?

Several divisions of cultural systems into subsystems have been suggested; especially important and illuminating has been a division into three subsystems designated most simply as technology, social organization, and ideology. Karl Marx (1867/1906), who usually distinguished only two subsystems called base and superstructure, suggested this one in a footnote to Chapter 15 of Capital:

Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them. (p. 406, note 2)

Note that “technology” here does not refer to everything to which we might commonly apply the term such as the latest leisure devices for watching movies or listening to music but to artifacts and processes more essential to our survival: the technology involved in “dealing with Nature” so as to sustain the lives of human beings—that is, the means by which food is produced and by which raw materials are extracted and made into the things we need and want. Especially fundamental is the tapping of energy sources: getting food to fuel our own bodies, gathering and burning firewood, domesticating plants and animals, mining and burning coal, drilling and burning oil, trapping sun or wind, and even the controlled splitting of atoms (White, 1949).

Note that this seminal sentence not only suggests three subsystems but also places technology in the “driver’s seat” or in the role of what is sometimes called, in analogy to energy production, the “prime mover.” This idea, that how people use the physical environment in order to survive is basic to understanding entire cultural systems, is often known as the principle of infrastructural primacy as suggested by Marvin Harris in his extensive writings on the subject.

But technology includes also the means we use for literally moving ourselves from place to place physically and for staying in touch; thus, there are technologies of transportation and communication. Technology includes, too, some of the means we apply directly to ourselves as physical beings to foster health and control reproduction; there is, then, such a thing as medical technology. And of course when societies pursue their own interests—at least as defined by leaders—as over against those of other societies, they may resort to the weapons of war and hence the importance of military technology.

We might be tempted to think of technology as essentially artifactual; but note that technology here refers not only to the kinds of artifacts employed as societies go about the business of surviving but also to the behavior patterns required for making and using the artifacts involved: it was not only just stone tools long ago, for example, but also the ways of making and using them; not only just the food—then or now—but also the ways of finding or growing it; not only just the oil drills but also the ways of finding, drilling, and refining the oil.

A complementary point must be stressed regarding social organization: Though we might be tempted to think of it as entirely behavioral (consisting of the patterned ways people interact with one another), “social organization” nearly always takes place in a more or less humanaltered (artifactual) environment and often directly involves artifacts, whether a frisbee thrown between friends, the money exchanged in a cash transaction, or the paraphernalia used in a church service. Admittedly, we might say that technology has a kind of artifactual “focus,” social organization a behavioral one; but as cultural subsystems, both technology and social organization are simultaneously artifactual and behavioral.

The situation is different with ideology. Widely shared ideas and beliefs can be associated to a certain extent with artifacts in the form of such documents as constitutions or holy books; but so long as we are thinking of behavior in physical rather than mental terms, the ideological subsystem is inherently nonbehavioral. This subsystem is best thought of as essentially neither artifactual nor behavioral but ideational—though it certainly includes ideas about artifacts and behaviors. (The idea that cars have four wheels is an obvious example of the former, that people should treat others as they would like to be treated of the latter.) It is important to remember, however, that as a subsystem of culture, it includes not any and all ideas but only those we would be willing to say have become part of a way of life—that is, that have undergone cultural incorporation.

At first glance, then, the trichotomy of technology, social organization, and ideology sounds rather like that of artifacts, behaviors, and ideas; it turns out, however, that the trichotomy of artifacts, behaviors, and ideas, helpful as it is for thinking about innovations and about the kinds of things that constitute culture, differs quite significantly from this new trichotomy. We are thinking now not so much about the kinds of elements that compose a system as about the kinds of subsystems whose interaction constitutes the functioning of the system. A biochemical analogy may he helpful: The constituents of a single-celled organism are atoms and molecules, but understanding the organism as a functioning system requires identification of major subsystems, such as the cell wall, the nucleus, and the cytoplasm. Serving different purposes, the classifications are complementary rather than contradictory. (The terms technology, social organization, and ideology as used largely this way are from Gerhard Lenski [1970], which closely resemble Leslie A. White’s [1949] technological, sociological, and ideological systems; Marvin Harris [1979] coined infrastructure-structure-superstructure while I and my coauthors have offered interfaces-interactions-interpretations [Graber, Skelton, Rowlett, Kephart, & Brown, 2000].)

Among the various contexts in which customary social organization expresses itself (e.g., economic, political, domestic, and ritual), political organization holds a place of special interest with regard to culture change. For one thing, political leaders in large societies can legislate— and have legislated—programs aimed at making individuals or groups who differ culturally from the wider society “fit in.” Such programs, often involving reservations and/or missions and schools for educating children and young people on a nonvoluntary basis, may be termed “forced assimilation”; it cannot be said they have a very proud history.

A very different effect of political organization on culture change occurs when a revolutionary government seeks not to adapt individuals to the prevailing culture but to bring dramatic change to the prevailing culture itself. In the 20th century, for example, several peasant societies underwent rapid industrialization in what may well be termed, after the Chinese case, “cultural revolutions” (Wolf, 1969). This reminds us that culture, though by definition relatively resistant to change, not only does change but also can even do so quite rapidly.

The Course of Culture Change

When we turn to consider the overall course followed by the development of human culture, we find that both the evolutionist-materialist and acculturationist approaches are illuminating.

The earliest solid evidence of human culture consists of simple stone tools dating back to between 2 and 3 million years ago. Our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, exhibit elementary cultures; but their artifacts are fashioned of perishable materials and therefore would not be archaeologically recognizable. It seems quite likely, then, that culture itself is even older than the stone tools left to us by our early ancestors.

Between 2 million and 1 million years ago, early humans expanded from the tropics of Africa into the rest of the Old World. Because this expansion was chiefly into colder environments, it must have been greatly facilitated by the control of fire, which probably had been attained by half a million years ago and possibly had been attained much earlier. Judging from fire’s centrality— literally as well as figuratively in terms of domestic interaction—in the culture of recent hunting-gathering peoples, we can imagine that the acquisition of fire was of enormous significance.

Although our ancestors all remained hunter-gatherers for over 99% of the time since the appearance of the first stone tools, they expanded into many different environments. This expansion was made possible not only by control over fire but also by the development, probably generally over many generations of trial and error, of different kinds of tools suited to gathering, hunting, and fishing whatever the local physical environment offered. The considerable extent to which culture change was driven by radiation of humans into new environments—achieved, among other life-forms, overwhelmingly by biological rather than by cultural change—goes far to vindicate the evolutionistmaterialist view of culture as essentially an adaptive system. (Further vindications come from the fact that anthropologists, when they write descriptions not only of bands but also of pastoralists and village peoples, nearly always deem it most enlightening to begin with the physical environment and how the people interface with it to survive; then, they proceed to describe how people interact with one another and only then to focus on how the people interpret reality—their religious and philosophical conceptions. Ethnographically, it works better, as a Marxian metaphor puts it, to ascend from the earth to the heavens than to descend from the heavens to the earth.)

Between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, populations had grown sufficiently dense in some parts of the world that people had begun settling into villages and growing food in addition to hunting and gathering it. In some places, the natural environment created population “pressure cookers” in which competition for ever scarcer farmland led to warfare between societies, followed by the displacement, destruction, or subjugation of the vanquished. Culture then not only had to accommodate the physical environment but also had to allow for the existence of human groups large enough and well coordinated enough to compete successfully with surrounding groups (Carneiro, 1970). Thus began the process of transforming a large number of small societies into a small number of large ones (Carneiro, 1978; Graber, 1995). With this growth in the size of societies came the complex division of labor and the stratification into rich and poor, powerful and powerless that still characterize human culture today.

By 500 years ago, a few societies had grown large and technologically advanced enough to cross oceans. What we know as the modern system of nations began taking shape. Soon, the steam engine was powering the Industrial Revolution. Transportation and communication accelerated, bringing people together even more than did the increasing density of the population itself; and increased trade made a society’s culture less and less dependent on its own physical environment. Spurred by warfare and the threat of war, science and technology advanced so rapidly that nuclear war, and perhaps other threats of which we are not even aware, confront us with the possibility of selfextinction; and recently, we have learned that centuries of burning hydrocarbons have contributed to depleting earth’s ozone layer and are significantly altering the climate. Fortunately, we also have much greater (and constantly growing) knowledge of our effects on the physical environment, of how the ever more integrated global economy works, and of how societies and cultures have affected—and continue to affect—one another, reflected in the greater sophistication and sensitivity of the new acculturationism. If this growing knowledge (perhaps aided by good luck) allows us to avoid disaster, we bid passage to continue on the path to becoming a single world society (Carneiro, 1978; Graber, 2006).

Stone tools, agriculture, the steam engine and industrialization, nuclear power—these changes in the technological subsystem of human culture have triggered vast changes throughout all three subsystems. Already making their mark are computers and genetic engineering; on the horizon are, for example, developments including nanotechnology and controlled nuclear fusion. For better or worse, technology seems destined to play a major role in future culture change; but—as Leslie White (1949) observed— whether as hero or villain, we do not know.


To sum up, then, by definition (1) culture resists change; but in fact, (2) it does change; indeed, (3) it can even change rapidly; (4) its overall rate of change appears to have increased; and (5) it differentiated as humans expanded into and exploited different environments and then began integrating as global population density increased; (6) integration continues to dominate the culturechange picture as we enter the 21st century as a major dimension of “globalization.”

Will cultural integration eventually eradicate all cultural differences? This seems unlikely. After all, different households even of the same social class and in a single neighborhood acquire rather different ways of going about the business of everyday life—differences that become quite clear when, say, schoolmates visit each other’s homes; even greater is this impression when new roommates or couples first attempt setting up a new household of their own! The deep similarities of human beings placed limits on the cultural differentiation that allowed our ancestors to occupy our planet; our persisting individual differences place limits on the cultural integration that will allow us, we hope, to live together on it for a long time to come.


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