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.
Resistance was not uncommon in the world of the enslaved in the Southern United States, for example. A particular culture was imposed on the lives of the enslaved, yet elements of resistance persisted in private practices and traditions.
The Legacy of Imperialism
An extremely harsh example of directed cultural change was the colonization of African nations. This happened during a period of history when many countries sought to exploit the resources and people of the continent. War and violence were tactics used to achieve dominance. Each culture saw its own as superior, which was a common way of thinking in that era. Those who acted in an imperialist way often saw themselves as bringing positive cultural traits to the societies they were colonizing. Today, we view these actions as violations and atrocities.
Anthropologists today are interested in the stories of those who are the targets of directed cultural change efforts and how these experiences impact their way of life. They take these stories into account to ensure that old, imperialist patterns are not repeated. When a more powerful nation provides support and resources to a less powerful nation in our current world, such as with development efforts, there can be a fine line between being helpful and imposing cultural change in an unproductive or unjust way.
These scenarios can become quite complex. Imagine, for instance, that a culture has a practice of preventing women from working or speaking out in public. You might view the women of that culture as oppressed and the economy of that nation being stifled by this arrangement. You want to help! Yet what you might think is helpful could easily backfire. Directed cultural change comes from the outside and can feel like an imposition. The people of a particular culture are not likely to accept it without resistance.
Anthropologists are involved in making sure that conversations between cultures involve the mutual exchange of information and ideas, like a two-way street, rather than an imperialist approach. Some play a role in advising international organizations on how to approach the process of supporting a community that is interested in change.
When one culture makes an effort to change another culture, this is known as directed cultural change. This approach involves diffusion, which is the spread of culture from one group to another. During directed cultural change, culture is spread out among the people. Devolution occurs when there is the loss of cultural traits as a result of this contact.
In some cases, the devolution of cultural traits can lead to assimilation. This is the replacement of one culture with another. Resistance often results when a culture is forced to assimilate.
Throughout history, imperialism imposed this kind of dramatic change on societies. Imperialism is a political policy involving dominating another nation. Anthropologists aim to move beyond the legacy of imperialism. Instead, they are focused on bringing cultures into two-way conversations.
After finishing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define directed cultural change
- Describe the three mechanisms of change
- Identify the use of imperialism to alter a culture
- Recall how assimilation works on cultures
- Remember how imperialism leaves a legacy