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2.7: Culture Change

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    One of the characteristics of culture is that it is dynamic. It is always changing. New objects are added to material culture every day, and they affect nonmaterial culture as well. Cultures change when something new (say, railroads or smartphones) opens up new ways of living and when new ideas enter a culture (say, as a result of travel or globalization). We are living in a world where globalization has increased the speed that our cultures are changing. In addition to globalization, there are three main mechanisms of cultural change: diffusion, independent invention, and acculturation.


    Americans travel overseas and return with a new appreciation of Thai noodles or Italian gelato. Television and the Internet introduce individuals to the lifestyles and values of different cultures around the world. Twitter feeds from public demonstrations in one nation have encouraged political protesters in another. This kind of transfer of material objects and ideas from one culture to another is called diffusion. Diffusion is the borrowing of cultural traits between cultures, either directly or through intermediaries (Kottak 2012). Direct diffusion occurs when two cultural groups interact with each other directly, such as in trade, tourism, and even during times of war. Indirect diffusion is when cultural objects and traits move to one culture to another through a "third-party", with no first-hand contact between the two cultural groups. Finally, forced diffusion is what it sounds like. A dominant cultural group imposes its beliefs and values on another subjugated group, such as colonialism. With all the advances in technology, mass media, and the Internet, must cultural borrowing is the result of indirect diffusion.

    Definition: diffusion

    The borrowing of cultural traits between cultures, either directly or through intermediaries.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Diffusion
    Image 1: Black Lives Matter, Downtown Baltimore, 2016, John Lucia by John Lucia under CC BY 2.0.
    Image 2: Black Lives Matter - Melbourne (Australia) Rally, 2020, by Matt Hrkac under CC BY 2.0.
    Image 3: Black Lives Matter Paris, 2020, by Bastian Greshake Tzovaras under CC BY-SA 2.0.
    Image 4: Political Banner "Black Lives Matter", Berlin, Germany, 2020, by Levin Holtkamp under CC BY-SA 4.0.

    Independent invention is "the process by which humans innovate, creatively finding solutions to problems" (Kottak 2012, p. 34). One famous example is the development of agriculture in both the Middle-East and Mesoamerica. Likewise, we see pyramid-like structures in both the Middle East as well as North, Central, and South America. Remember, culture is an integrated whole, when there is a change in one area it affects other areas within that culture. The development of agriculture caused other changes such as social and political organizations, religions, and economic systems. As discussed earlier in this chapter, independent invention is one reason for cultural generalities when different cultural groups find similar solutions to similar problems.

    Definition: independent invention

    The process by which humans innovate, creatively finding solutions to problems

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Independent Invention
    Image 1: The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, 2006, by Ricardo Liberato under CC BY-SA 2.0.
    Image 2: Teotihuacan, Pyramid of the Moon, 2015, by Arian Zwegers under CC BY 2.0.
    Image 3: Aerial view of Cahokia Mounds State Park under Public Domain.

    Finally, change as a result of an ongoing exchange of cultural traits between groups that have continuous first-hand contact is referred to as acculturation (Kottak 2012). Although both groups may experience change as a part of their contact with each other, they remain two distinct cultural groups. Pidgin, which is a mixed language that results when two cultures have regular interaction is one example. Other examples would be Tex-Mex food, music, dance, clothing, and technology. Acculturation will be discussed more in the chapter on Race and Ethnicity.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): A Mix of Culture
    Image: Tex-Mex Nachos, 2018, by Kurt Kaiser under CC0 1.0.

    Definition: acculturation

    An ongoing exchange of cultural traits between groups that have continuous first-hand contact; both groups experience change while remaining two distinct groups.


    The integration of world markets and technological advances of the last decades have allowed for greater exchange between cultures through the processes of globalization. Beginning in the 1980s, Western governments began to deregulate social services while granting greater liberties to private businesses. As a result, world markets became dominated by multinational companies, a new state of affairs at that time. We have since come to refer to this integration of international trade and finance markets as globalization. Increased communications and air travel have further opened doors for international business relations, facilitating the flow not only of goods but also of information and people as well (Scheuerman 2014). Globalization will be covered in more detail in a later chapter of this book.

    Definition: globalization

    A series of processes that work trans-nationally to promote change in a world in which nations and people are increasingly interlinked and mutually dependent (Kottak 2012 p. 34).


    Though technology continues to impact changes in society, culture does not always change at the same pace. Often there is a delay when integrating a new feature into the rest of the culture. Why? Because often other elements of the culture have to change to meet or maintain the needs of the new cultural trait or feature. The automobile is a good example of an invention that took some time to become a part of the mainstream culture. People had to be persuaded that the automobile was a better form of transportation, roads had to be constructed, a way to procure fuel needed to be developed, mechanics were needed to fix cars, efficient production of cars had to be developed, safety concerns needed to be addressed as well as rules of the road, and numerous other elements had to catch up with the invention of the automobile.

    Material culture tends to be adopted more quickly than nonmaterial culture; technology can spread through society in a matter of months, but it can take generations for the ideas and beliefs of society to change. Sociologist William F. Ogburn coined the term culture lag to refer to this time that elapses between the introduction of a new item of material culture and its acceptance as part of the nonmaterial culture (Ogburn 1957). People are usually open to adapt or try new objects and inventions before modifying their values, beliefs, norms, expressive symbols, or practices. In other words, influencing fashion trends is easier than altering people’s religious beliefs.

    Definition: culture lag

    The time that elapses between the introduction of a new item of material culture and its acceptance as part of the nonmaterial culture.


    Kottak, Conrad P. Mirror for Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. New York, N.Y: McGraw-Hill, 2012.

    Ogburn, William F. “Cultural Lag as Theory.” Sociology & Social Research 41(3):167–174, 1957.

    Scheuerman, William. 2010. “Globalization.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E. N. Revised 2014. Zalta, Summer. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (

    A derivative work from the following sources:

    "Chapter 8: Roots of American National Culture" in Speaking of Culture by Nolan Weil under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    "Levels of Culture" in Beyond Race - Cultural Influences on Human Social Life by Vera Kennedy under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

    "Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change" by OpenStax under CC-BY 4.0. Access for free at

    2.7: Culture Change is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.