What is Directed Cultural Change? - Definition and History

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  • 0:01 A One-Way Conversation
  • 1:32 Mechanisms of Change
  • 2:43 Imperialism
  • 3:51 Resistance and Assimilation
  • 5:09 The Legacy of Imperialism
  • 7:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

This lesson discusses the impact of aiming to change the ways of another human culture. We'll look at the historical background of this topic, as well as how anthropologists tend to view directed cultural change today.

A One-Way Conversation

Have you ever been caught up in a conversation with someone who won't leave you alone until you accept his point of view? Maybe you have a relative or friend who can get passionate or even aggressive about his beliefs? At some point, you realize you're no longer having a conversation where you're exchanging ideas on equal terms. The person just won't agree to disagree.

Or perhaps YOU are that pushy person sometimes. Don't be shy; you can admit it!

Most of us will experience this from time to time, however unpleasant. But an encounter with one other person who is pushy about his ideas is not what this lesson is about. It's about bigger pushes from bigger groups of people.

When one culture makes an effort to change another culture, this is known as directed cultural change. The culture imposing the change can range from one that has good intentions to improve the welfare of the group it aims to change, all the way to the outright conquering of one nation by another through violent force, and everywhere in between. The extremes in this range are somewhat like the differences between a friend who is trying to convince you to quit smoking because she cares what happens to you, to a criminal who robs you at gunpoint.

This lesson looks at what part directed cultural change has played in history and why anthropologists are interested in this topic.

Mechanisms of Change

First, a bit of refresher about a few mechanisms of change, which are the basic ways in which cultures are altered.

Diffusion involves the spread of culture from one group to another. During directed cultural change, culture is diffused and spread out among the people. For instance, if your friend talks with you about the consequences of smoking, and you learn this and pass it along, you are diffusing the information to others.

Directed cultural change can happen through migration, involving the movement of a person from one place to another, but it may also result from an outside culture imposing itself on an existing culture in a particular geographic area.

What happens when one culture loses a part of itself as a result of this process? The loss of cultural traits is known as devolution. You can remember this term by thinking of it as a trait that is destroyed. Devolution can include losses, like the end of traditions, languages, or religions. Devolution could even include the loss of a habit, such as the reduction of smoking in a community. The change can be perceived as positive, negative, or mixed.


Imagine that the pushy person from your conversation wants more than to change your point of view. He wants you to wear different clothing, convert to his religion, spend your time in different ways, and change how you earn money. On top of all that, you're going to have to accept a new government and a new ruler you didn't elect.

Imperialism often imposed this kind of dramatic change on societies. Imperialism is a political policy involving dominating another nation. If you've ever seen Star Wars, you can remember this term by thinking of Darth Vader's Imperial Army. If not, you can remember that imperial forces often put people in danger or peril because of their desire to overtake the other nation.

Throughout history, imperialism was a policy used by most of the world to gain political and economic power and influence. You may even hear about this in the news today, where one nation labels another as imperialist. In today's world, being imperialist is a criticism, implying that a nation is pushing its agenda and way of life onto another group of people.

Resistance and Assimilation

In the case of your conversation with a pushy person, the person probably wasn't going to change your mind on the spot. But imagine if over time he changed the minds of everyone around you or threatened you with force. This would put great pressure on you and make it harder for you to resist.

Another famous science fiction franchise, Star Trek, has a classic quote where some very pushy and powerful aliens are taking over our heroes by force. 'Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.'

Assimilation involves the replacement of one culture with another. You can remember the term by recalling that assimilation makes everyone similar rather than having distinct cultural traits. As more and more people are affected by the directed cultural change, it becomes more likely that assimilation will occur.

Is resistance futile, impossible, and without hope? While many cultures have experienced devolution due to directed cultural change, resistance is also a way that a culture can maintain some aspects of its own identity.

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