All cultures change through time.  No culture is static.  However, most cultures are basically conservative in that they tend to resist change.  Some resist more than others by enacting laws for the preservation and protection of traditional cultural patterns while putting up barriers to alien ideas and things.  For example, the French government has forbidden the commercial use of English words for which there are French equivalencies.  This is a reaction particularly to the widespread use and popularity of terms such as "sandwich" and "computer" among young people.  More recently, Starbucks has found it very difficult to become established in France despite the fact that it is becoming successful elsewhere in Europe.  In contrast, some cultures are extremely open to some kinds of change.  Over the last two decades, the Peoples Republic of China has been rapidly adopting western technology and culture in everyday life.  This can be seen in their wide acceptance of everything from cell phones to American television shows and fast food.  McDonald's has already established 560 of their restaurants in China and soon will be adding 100 more.  KFC fried chicken franchises have been even more popular.  There are 1000 KFC outlets throughout the country with more than 100 in Beijing alone.  Taco Bell, A & W, and Pizza Hut are not far behind.  In 2003, the Chinese government made the decision to require all children in their country, beginning with the 3rd grade of elementary school, to learn English.  This will very likely accelerate westernization. 

China is far from being unique in experiencing a revolutionary rate of change.  It is now abundantly clear that we are in an accelerating culture change period all around the world regardless of whether we try to resist it or not.  It is driven by the expansion of international commerce and especially mass media.  Ultimately, what is driving it is our massive human population explosion.  The number of people in the world now doubles in less than half a century.

What Actually Changes When Cultures Change?

  drawing of a 20th century jack that uses the lever and screw principles

    21st century jack based on principles
    of physics known to the ancient Greeks

When analyzing the transformation of a culture, it is clear that different understandings are gained depending on the focus.  Anthropology began its study of this phenomenon, during the late 19th century, largely from the perspective of trying to understand how manufactured things, such as tools, are invented and modified in design over time.  It became apparent that there rarely are entirely new inventions.   Most often, only the function, form, or principle is new, but not all three.   For instance, our modern jack, used for lifting up the side of a car, is usually based on the principles of the lever and/or the screw.  Those principles were well known to the ancient Greeks more than 2,000 years ago.

  diagram of the interdependence of cultural institutions

By the 1940's, anthropologists began to realize that ideas, tools, and other artifacts generally are not invented or changed in isolation.  They are the product of particular cultural settings.  Cultures are organic wholes consisting of interdependent components.  Inventions often occur in response to other cultural changes.               

Likewise, inventions potentially can affect all cultural institutions.  Beginning in the 1950's, for instance, televisions in American homes affected how and when members of families interacted with each other.   Less time was available for direct conversation.  The size of houses in more affluent areas of the U.S. are now usually 2-3 times larger than they were in the 1950's.  As a consequence, family members often have their own rooms and become even more isolated from each other.

photo of a North American father showing his son how to ride a bicycle  
Parents with few children
can give more personal
attention to each of them

Similarly, the introduction of new, effective birth control measures, mostly beginning in the early 1960's, allowed people to easily limit the number of children they had and to space their births.  This affected the relationships of children with their parents and siblings.  When there are fewer children, parents can give more attention to each one.  Likewise, more money per child is available for clothes, entertainment, gifts, and education.   Potentially, there is also more money and leisure time for parents when there are fewer children in their family.

  photo of a North American father in a non-traditional role--diapering his baby

North American father
in a non-traditional role:
caring for his child while
his wife works elsewhere

The interrelated nature of cultural institutions can also be seen in the effects of changing roles for American women since the mid-20th century.  As they have increasingly moved into the work force outside of the home, it has given them financial independence and has altered traditional roles within the family.  Men are less essential as bread winners and less accepted as patriarchs.  They have begun to take on more child rearing and other domestic household responsibilities previously defined as "women's work."  Divorce has become an economically viable alternative for women in unhappy marriages.  There also has been a marked decrease in the frequency of mother-child interaction. American children have increasingly been raised by non-family members in child care centers and schools.

diagram illustrating that culture is an interdependent component of the natural environment  
Culture and the natural
environment are interrelated
in complex ways

By the early 1960's, it was evident to some anthropologists that cultures do not exist in isolation.  When cultures change, they can have major impacts on the environment.  Similarly, when the environment changes, there are likely to be impacts on culture.  For example, global warming at the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, very likely was a major contributing factor leading to the invention of agriculture.  This technological innovation allowed for such immense increases in human populations that we began to rapidly alter the environment by depleting resources.  In the vicinity of ancient cities, forests often were cut down for construction materials and fuel and wild animals were hunted to near extinction for food.

Since 1985, the average number of people living together in a household has been dropping in the 76 richest nations due to increased affluence and other social changes.  Extended and joint family households are less popular.  Divorce rates have gone up usually resulting in the establishment of new households by one or both former marriage partners.  There also are larger numbers of unmarried adults who establish their own households.   For a quarter century there has been a demand for housing that is significantly over what would be expected from the population growth in these nations.  As a result, the need for lumber and other construction materials has caused a dramatic increase in the exploitation of forests.  This in turn makes it increasingly more difficult to maintain global biological diversity.

The interrelationship between culture and environment also can be seen in our depletion of energy resources and forced adoption of new energy sources.  As wood became relatively scarce by the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, it was replaced by coal to fuel factories and heat homes.  In turn, coal began to be replaced by oil and natural gas during the early 20th century.  The increasing costs associated with petroleum products have now caused it to begin to be replaced by nuclear, solar, and other energy sources.

Human economies change as necessity forces us to alter our relationship with the environment.  As our economies change, the rest of culture changes in response.  We are now facing potential major global cultural changes over the next century as a result of the greenhouse effect that is presumably being caused or aggravated by the accelerated burning of fossil fuels and forest products.  The result likely will be progressive global warming, shifting climates, and flooded coastal regions.  Entire island nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans may disappear below the sea.  Actually, this process of people changing the global climate may have begun much earlier than the beginning of the Industrial Revolution as it has been commonly thought.  William Ruddiman of the University of Virginia has evidence indicating that the rise of global temperatures began about 8,000 years ago with the early spread of agriculture.  He suggests that the massive clearance of forests in Europe and Asia for farming beginning at that time released huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  In his estimation, this was enough warming to put off an impending ice age.

It is now clear that culture change is very complex.  It has far ranging causes and effects.  In order to understand all of the manifestations of change, we must take a holistic click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced approach to studying cultures and the environments in which they exist.  In other words, we must assume that human existence can be understood only as a multifaceted whole.  Only then can we hope to understand the phenomena of culture change.


  Return to Menu 

  Practice Quiz  

  Next Topic 

This page was last updated on Thursday, July 13, 2006.
Copyright 1997-2006 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
Illustration credits