Communication Between Cultures

(Sean Pound) #1
may happen in small increments, revolutionary bursts. Historically, in most places
and at most times, culture change has been a relatively slow process. However, the pace of
change has been increasing for the past several hundred years and has become extremely
rapid in the past century.^75
Of course, the preceding quotation refers to those changes relating to the spread of
American capitalism, worldwide population growth, large movements of immigrants,
the proliferation of information technology, wars, and environmental concerns. All of
these cultural incursions, whether from within or without, cause both major and
minor modifications to culture.
When anthropologists speak of change, they are talking about two interrelated
types of change: (1) innovation and (2) diffusion.

Innovation. Innovation refers to the discovery of new practices, inventions, tools, or
concepts that may produce changes in practices and behaviors for a particular culture.
While you might immediately think of technology as the main force driving innova-
tion, it is just one of many forces confronting cultures. Nanda and Warms expand on
this idea when they note,“Although we are likely to think of innovations as technol-
ogy, they are not limited to the material aspects of culture. New art forms and new
ideas can also be considered innovations.”^76

Diffusion. Diffusion is a mechanism of change that is seen by the spread of various
ideas, concepts, institutions, and practices from one culture to another. This change
is often considered a kind of cultural borrowing. Historically, diffusion has been part
of cultural contact for as long as cultures have existed. Whether it be sugar from a
plant (i.e., sugarcane) of New Guinean origin ending up in the New World, China
introducing paper to the world, missionaries introducing God to everyone, baseball
becoming popular in Mexico, or McDonald’s hamburgers being sold throughout the
world, diffusion is a universal way of life. As we have stressed elsewhere, technology
has greatly influenced worldwide diffusion, as it allows for words, sounds, and images
to be sent instantly all over the world simultaneously.
Because cultures want to endure, they usually adopt only those elements that are
compatible with their values and beliefs or that can be modified without causing
major disruption. The assimilation of what is borrowed accelerates when cultures
come into direct contact with each other. For example, as we saw Japan and the
United States engage in more commercial exchanges, we also observed both countries
assimilating the business practices of each other.
We conclude this section on the dynamic nature of culture by linking some ideas
we have been discussing to intercultural communication. First, and perhaps most
importantly, although many aspects of culture are subject to change,the deep structure
of a culture resists major alterations. Most of the changes you observe are likely part of
what is called“popular culture.”This level of culture changes regularly, but that is not
the aspect of culture that concerns us here. Beamer and Varner explain the idea of
levels of culture and change in the following:“Popular culture, which includes con-
sumer products—for example, music, food, hairstyles, clothing, recreational activities
and their equipment, styles of cars, and furnishings—constantly change[s]. But back-
stage culture—the values, attitudes, and cultural dimensions that have been learned
from birth—change[s] very little and very, very slowly.”^77
The changes in dress, music, food, transportation, mass entertainment, and housing
are exterior changes and do not go to the root of the culture. In most instances, they are

Characteristics of Culture 55

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