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Cultural Transmission: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:00 Definition of Cultural…
  • 1:32 Cultural Transmission Theories
  • 2:56 Cultural Variations…
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn how to define cultural transmission and gain insight into the theoretical foundation and importance of the concept. When you are through with the lesson, you can test your new knowledge with a short quiz.

What Is Cultural Transmission?

Have you ever wondered why you believe the things that you believe or know the things that you know? For example, at some point it probably occurred to you that, unless you want to work for the rest of your life, you need to save money for retirement. And there's a good chance you know that you're supposed to tip your server when you go to a restaurant. Of course, someone probably did mention these things to you during your lifetime, but they are also concepts that you learned by simply participating in your culture.

This type of learning is what is known as cultural transmission (sometimes referred to as 'cultural learning'), which is the process of learning new information through socialization and engagement with those around you. The cultural transmission of knowledge is a broad concept, and it refers to knowledge that is gained through non-biological means.

For example, if you're walking down the street and would like to cross the road, you know that you can't simply step into the road without looking because there is a chance that you'll get hit by a car. You don't instinctively know this; rather, it was passed on to you from a parent or other adult early in your life and reinforced through cultural transmission.

As a means of communication, cultural transmission is a one-way system in which culture is passed onto a person through certain channels. The process of receiving information about your culture or society is what is known as enculturation.

Cultural Transmission Theories

While cultural transmission is a broad concept, it is not a catch-all for all knowledge acquired through a person's lifetime. In fact, some of the knowledge that we possess is gained through experience - like a kind of trial-and-error process. For example, no one needs to tell you not to stand outside and spend hours staring directly into the sun because you would probably learn fairly quickly that this is not a good idea. This trial-and-error process is what is known as experiential learning.

Unlike experiential learning, the theoretical basis of cultural transmission is that throughout our development, we acquire a considerable amount of knowledge simply by being present in our culture.

For example, if you live in the United States, you know that spooky decorations during October are one of the ways that people celebrate Halloween. Likewise, you probably also know that there are certain conservative religions that discourage these decorations or celebrating the holiday in general.

For someone who is not from a Western culture or familiar with such traditions, these Halloween decorations might seem like a strange custom because that person was not enculturated in Western society and therefore does not possess this cultural information. Similarly, the fact that some people would object to decorating for or celebrating Halloween might seem strange for that same reason.

Cultural Variations and Evolution

As a means of sharing concepts or information, cultural transmission is heavily influenced by, among other things, the environment, social structure, or political systems. If you lived in a country where there was a national religion, for example, this would affect the way that you receive information about other religions and would likely also affect the amount of information that you are given.

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