Lecture 4  (not edited, material in italic bold not actually discussed in class)

Culture Change


Culture Change links:

http://www.partal.com/ciemen/ethnic.html A good resource site on ethnic nationalism the world over.

http://daphne.palomar.edu/change/default.htm A very good short tutorial on culture change, dealing with much the same material in the lectures, (including some detail on the Cherokee writing system)



We will focus on several distinct concepts, all of which are illustrated in the film Trobriand Cricket:

  1. Diffusion
  2. Stimulus diffusion
  3. cultural focus
  4. reinterpretation
  5. syncretism
  6. "Romer’s rule"

Diffusion, Basically refers to the transfer or borrowing of culture traits from one culture to another. Diffusion is a constant and on going process and it would not be incorrect to say that perhaps 90% of any given culture is borrowed from somewhere else. The direction of the diffusion from the donor culture to the recipient culture depends on the prestige of the donor culture with repeat to the trait being borrowed. Thus , we tend to borrow furniture from the Scandinavians, women’s high style dress from the French, men’s high style dress from the English and the Italians. On the other hand pop music (as a result of the development of Jazz) is much more like to move from our culture to the rest of the world.           Religion, with the partial exception of Mormonism and some evangelical Christianity more likely to be diffused in.    Sometimes items which originated in an area  of innovation will disappear in that area, but be retained on the periphery – these are marginal survivals ( trivial example: wearing your baseball cap backwards.)

Anyway, most cultures consist of borrowed elements. Few of us realize the amount that Europeans have borrowed from the Chinese: windmills, gunpowder, locks for canals, planting seeds in rows rather than just broadcast seeding, and some really important stuff like equal temperament in music (basis of entire Western system since the early 18th century), perhaps the idea of the novel, and lots of other stuff.

(at this point a passage by Ralph Linton "one hundred percent American was read).

("one Hundred percent American" -- a witty, if somewhat outdated illustration of the importance of diffusion in culture change)


Our solid American citizen awakens in a bed built on a pattern which originated in the Near East but which was modified in Northern Europe before it was transmitted to America. He throws back covers made from cotton, domesticated in India, or linen, domesticated in the Near East, or wool from sheep, also domesticated in the Near East, or silk, the use of which was discovered in China. All of these materials have been spun and woven by processes invented in the Near East. He slips into his moccasins, invented by the Indians of the Eastern woodlands, and goes to the bathroom, whose fixtures are a mixture of European and American inventions, both of recent date. He takes off his pajamas, a garment invented in India, and washes with soap invented by the ancient Gauls. He then shaves, a masochistic rite either Sumer or ancient Egypt.

Returning to the bedroom, he removes his clothes from a chair of southern European type and proceeds to dress. He puts on garments whose form originally derived from the skin clothing of the nomads of the Asiatic steppes, puts on shoes made from skins tanned by a process invented in ancient Egypt and cut to a pattern derived from the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean, and ties around his neck a strip of bright-colored cloth which is a vestigial survival of the shoulder shawls worn by the seventeenth-century Croatians. Before going out for breakfast he glances through the window, made of glass invented in Egypt, and if it is raining puts on overshoes made of rubber discovered by the Central American Indians and takes an umbrella, invented in southeastern Asia. Upon his head he puts a hat made of felt, a material invented in the Asiatic steppes.

On his way to breakfast he stops to buy a paper, paying for it with coins, an ancient Lydian invention. At the restaurant a whole new series of borrowed elements confronts him. His plate is made of a form of pottery invented in China. His knife is of steel, an alloy first made in southern India, his fork a medieval Italian invention, and his spoon a derivative of a Roman original. He begins breakfast with an orange, from the eastern Mediterranean, a cantaloupe from Persia, or perhaps a piece of African watermelon. With this he has coffee, an Abyssinian plant, with cream and sugar. Both the domestication of cows and the idea of milking them originated in the Near East, while sugar was first made in India. After his fruit and first coffee he goes on to waffles, cakes made by a Scandinavian technique from wheat domesticated in Asia Minor. Over these he pours maple syrup, invented by the Indians of the Eastern woodlands. As a side dish he may have the egg of a species of bird domesticated in Indo-China, or thin strips of the flesh of an animal domesticated in Eastern Asia which have been salted and smoked by a process developed in northern Europe. 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 may 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 Indo-European language that he is 100 per cent American.

(Ralph Linton The Study of Man Appleton 1936)

Stimulus Diffusion

This is basically the diffusion of just the idea of something, rather than its specific form. Every culture trait has at least three parts to it:

  1. form – the outward appearance or structure of the trait
  2. use or function – what the item is used for
  3. meaning – what kinds of symbolic associations are connected with the trait


Now it is possible for just one part of the trait to diffuse, say just the abstract idea itself.

Example: Cherokee (formerly in the Carolinas and Georgia) innovator by name of Sequoia knew that the whites had the possibility of putting their language down on paper in the form of squiggly lines( writing), but he did not actually know how the system worked (he did not read English). But he decided that the Cherokee needed a writing system so he went about to invent one. He didn’t know that each letter referred to a distinct sound (alphabet), but he independently came up with the idea of making each symbol refer to an important syllable in the Cherokee language. Eventually some books were written in Cherokee. In this case what diffused was not the specific form and structure of the writing system we use, but only the idea that one could have a writing system at all!


Cultural focus

Cultural Focus refers to the fact that in any culture interests tend to concentrate in certain parts of the culture rather than in others. People only have so much attention, as it were, and if you put a lot of attention into one area of your life, then there is less left over for other things. This applies to individuals, of course, but it also applies to whole cultures. The anthropological literature if full of colorful examples of culture which have decidedly dominant sets of interests, or a distinct cultural focus:

On a micro level we can talk about “cultural interests”.

1.       Flowers in American culture are “interesting” apart from utility.  American Indians completely indifferent to flowers.

2.     The Comanche had both dogs and horses as domestic animals.  Horses were of extreme economic importance: pack animals as pack animals, hunting, even food.  But they regarded horse somewhat like we regard machines.  They had no names, no place in ceremonial life.  They never appeared in visions or dreams,  and we one of the very few animals that were not capable of giving supernatural power.  Dogs had individual names and what might be called  social personalities.  The gift of a pet dog was on a very different emotional plane that the gift of a horse.  Dogs figured in visions.  Thus although the horse outranked the dog in economic importance, the dog far outranked the horse in interest rating.


One note:  cultural interests certainly overlap what a culture considers “good” or “bad” but is somewhat different.  Thus a culture may take an interest in witchcraft without necessarily considering that witchcraft is good.

Cultural Focus:  where there are a number of different converging interest.  Not all culture necessarily have a distinct focus, but many do.

  1. Trobriands - material accumulation leading to prestige, personal display and the achievement of power over others through magic, accumulation, and display.
  2. Todas (an aboriginal people of India) --- water buffalo, and every pertaining thereto
  3. Nuer – (E Africa) cattle
  4. Balinese -- arts and particularly music.
  5. Tausug – law and politics
  6. Americans - technology (automobiles, gizmos, gadgets, the internets and computers, etc.)
  7. Pueblos (such as Hopi and Zuni) -- distrust of individualism, marked preference for the good of the group over the individual, no excess in individual experience, individual does not try to stand apart from the group, minimal competition, no ecstatic religious experiences, the whole culture described as "Apollonian" after the Greek God, representing perfect form, beauty, no excess.
  8. Plains Indians (Comanche, Cheyenne, Apache) Individual initiative valued, craving for all forms of violent experience, emphasis in the religion on achieving ecstatic visions through self-torture and mutilation, competitive individualism, self reliance, emphasis on warfare which was almost a kind of free enterprise system. Emphasis on individual; valor which led to status based on military exploits, boasting behavior.


In general historians have also tended to characterize whole societies in terms of broad themes, so called "spirit of the time" zeitgeist in German.

  1. We characterize Egypt as being a society in which political-religious themes, particularly around the afterlife, predominated
  2. Classical Athens – democratic society with a quest for truth and a balanced view of the universe
  3. Rome – legal, military and political focus
  4. Middle ages – other world, religious
  5. Renaissance – emphasis on secular matters, learning, and the arts
  6. Industrial Revolution – initiated a period fascinated with the technological and economic aspects of life .

In complex societies with special interest groups based or segregation based on age or gender there may be distinctive age or gender based. Thus in our society innovation and a focal concern with pop music is more highly developed among adolescents and young adults, in general.

In general, the greatest variation in form and interest in innovation will occur in the focal aspects of a culture. Much innovation and experimentation. Much discussion and innovation encouraged, and a suggestion for change in an area of life which is not focal and taken for granted is more likely to be resisted. It is the focal aspects of a culture which give it its distinctive tone or style.

Example: In the early years of the settlement of Palestine by Jews, Jews borrowed much more from the Palestinians - dress, food ,living patterns, etc. After more European Jews arrived, the diffusion went the other way, with Palestinians more and more adopting European patterns. But an interesting difference is that in Arab culture agriculture is generally low value and not an object of much interest, for the Jews there was from the beginning an emphasis on agriculture and great receptivity to agricultural pursuits and achievements, and much incentive to innovate.



Reinterpretation refers to taking old forms and giving them new meanings, or taking new forms and giving them old meanings ("new wine in old bottles"). It is a constantly ongoing process. For example, teens in our culture have always had one or a few very "stylish" words which express a generic superlative. The specific word seems to change with each cohort of teenagers, but the essential meaning is pretty much the same: cool, heavy, groovy, A-OK, swell, bitchin, awesome, totally, or totally awesome, etc,

Reinterpretation occurs both internal, as between generations, or externally, as when a borrowed item of culture is given new meaning as it is integrated in the new culture --- ie, Trobriand cricket.

          In the late l9th century Japanese systematically borrowed many features of Western culture. They were very organized about the way they did it, taking what they regarded as the best from the various foreigners -- they got their science from the Dutch and later Germans, their postal system from the British, their legal system from the Germans, their industrial management system from the US, and their police from the French. But they changed or reinterpreted it all in ways not too obvious to outsiders.

          Thus, the French police system was in Paris based on wide boulevards which enabled centralized barracks. Tokyo had no wide boulevards [it was a castle town laid out like a maze to deter siege] so the Japanese developed the unique adaptation of putting each policeman in a little booth which served a few blocks. Tokyo police know everybody and everybody’s business within their mini-district ( to a degree I doubt many Americans would tolerate). Furthermore , the Japanese police were recruited from the unemployed Samurai class, and adopted many traditional Samurai virtues [no drinking, self-control and self discipline, Zen Buddhism, etc] which persist today. Thus, in spite of a superficial resemblance to the Paris police, the Tokyo Samurai cops are actually quite different underneath.



a highly specific reinterpretation where two sets of culture items, one internal and one external, exist side by side, and are known by the member of the culture to be equivalent. Many Trobrianders know the rules of English cricket as such, but specifically can refer to each rule in relation to the equivalent Trobriand rule.

Another classic example is the specific and conscious associations of specific West African deities with specific catholic saints in Afro American Catholicism. Eg. Legba (Yoruban and Dahomean trickster God) is is equivalent to St. Anthony in Cuba and elsewhere, Dambala ( river serpent in Dahomey) is St. Patrick, etc.




Culture is constantly changing. In general the problem is not to explain change, but why things do not change People ordinarily do not discard customs easily, even when it seems silly not to.

          e.g. -- Puerto Rican deli near my house where you can buy Quaker Oats in cans made in San Juan at five times the cost of the same brand of oatmeal in Star market. Why buy it? Presumably there is some subtle taste difference which is discernable to buyers -- nostalgic symbolism of childhood, Puerto Rico, etc.


So culture has a pronounced tendency to be persistent, and one of the most basic reasons for this persistence is that once you have chosen to do something one way rather than another, and gone through the trouble of learning it, you must have very powerful reasons to change. You get on a track, and just keep going. One of the most significant facts about human beings is that although we are born with the capacity to live thousands of different kinds of lives, we all end up having lived only one.

One reason for this is that having learned one way of doing things often inhibits our ability to learn new ways. It is not that "you can't teach old dogs new tricks [you can!]" but that with a human you have got to first convince him that it is worth the additional effort!

          Example: motor habits very persistent. Tausug peel fruit away from the body, American toward the body. Every time I tried to peel a mango, my Tausug friends were horrified for my safety, convinced I was about to impale myself on the knife. Western carpenter pushes plane away from body, Japanese pulls plane into body.

          These motor habits persist because each technique is a good as any other: there is no reward in changing, and some initial disadvantage. So why change?


Now one might think that the persistence of a cultural trait is directly related to the emotional commitment people have to it: the stronger the affect or emotion connected with something, the more resistant people would be to change. Well, this is sometimes true, but it is more often not. The persistence of a cultural trait is often more closely connected to the degree of integration it has with other cultural traits.

          Example: Mortuary customs. We can certainly assume that the method of disposing of a corpse is not something affectively neutral. People are never indifferent to the way you dispose of a loved one! It is usually a source of very strong feelings indeed. But mortuary customs are sometimes very persistent [they scarcely changed at all from Old Kingdom Egypt to the end of Roman times], and sometimes very labile [Protestant America].

          But funeral customs in Egypt were very closely tied to all sorts of other things: worldview, religion, economics, art, the status of the priesthood, political ideology. To change funeral customs was to be forced to change almost everything else. It would be almost as if Americans all of a sudden decided to get rid of the fork, and adopt the chopstick. The result of this simple change would be totally revolutionary -- everything about our cuisine could have to change as a result. We would have to cut everything in small pieces, for one. No more steaks and chops, and forget about the baked potato!

          Example: Sino-Japanese writing is the only logographic system which has not been displaced by the far more efficient alphabetic system. The advantages of reform are obvious: an enormous savings in man-hours spent learning the system and more widespread literacy. Less complicated typesetting and printing. Better adaptability to computers and word processing. More efficient electronic communication, etc. The primary Japanese writing system is so complicated that it requires a secondary system of "sidewriting" to explain it. Blind children in Japan complete the standard secondary school curriculum in about a year less because they do not have to learn this system, but operate in [phonetic] Braille.


          Example: resistance to metric system in US. We almost went metric in l9th century, and it would have been easier then. All sorts of ingrained habits would have to be changed.

Cultural inertia: once patterns are established they tend -- all other things being equal -- to take on a life of their own and endure. But vested interests are just as important. 

Patterns once established tend not only to persist, but -- more importantly -- they may also influence the changes which come later. We can call this “cultural crystallization” based on the analogy of the way a crystal once formed begins to grow larger by incorporating.

       Example: A very large percentage of the Hispanic cultural traits found in Latin America [in architecture, tools, agricultural techniques, dress, food, holidays, festivals, dialects of Spanish, all sorts of customs] come from S Spain, particularly Andulusia and Extremadura. But the majority of migrants came rather from North and central Spain. Why? Because the first migrants were from the south, and they established the initial patterns that the later migrants had to deal with.

       Example: Similar thing in establishment of cultural patterns in New England -- the first migrants set the pattern.


Romer's Rule

The apparent tension between adaptive change and the conservative tendency for things to persist once established is somewhat reconciled when we consider Romer's Rule (RR). RR was developed by paleontologist Alfred Romer to account for certain processes in evolutionary biology [which we cannot go into here]. Basically, it says that the purpose of evolutionary change is always initially conservative. That is, paradoxically, the goal of stability is the major impetus for change. Animals will evolve to changed circumstances just as far as it is necessary for them to do so to maintain the way of life they had before changing circumstances forced them to change. [Specifically, according to Romer, fish developed legs not because they "wanted" to walk on land, but because under increasing conditions of desiccation legs better enabled them to make it from one drying up pond to another. They changed just so much as necessary to enable them to remain fish]. In the long run, of course, these small changes add up to major shifts.

In general, this is often true in culture as well. (But remember that this is only an analogy of a biological principle to culture) Cultures often change just enough to maintain what they have. Just so far as you absolutely have too, maintaining the stability of the past as much as possible. Thus, US has not adopted the metric system writ large [too upsetting] but we have, faced with international competition, made metric innovations where we must: some auto manufacturing, liquid measurements and bottles, and in totally new industries like computers which depend heavily on imported parts.

          Revolutions: try to change everything very quickly in name of efficiency -- but soon find that when the dust settles people return to old habits. Revolutions almost always run against Romer's Rule.



The Class saw the film Trobriand Cricket ,(detailing the way the Trobrianders adapted British cricket to their own culture) which illustrates all of the concepts discussed. Students should consider how the concepts presented are illustrated in this film.