What are the causes of cultural change?

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There are a few major players when it comes to cultural change. The most impactful catalysts of change come from interaction with other cultures. Indeed, societies that remain isolated tend to experience very few changes. However, cross-cultural interactions almost always lead to cultures adopting elements from each other. For example,...

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There are a few major players when it comes to cultural change. The most impactful catalysts of change come from interaction with other cultures. Indeed, societies that remain isolated tend to experience very few changes. However, cross-cultural interactions almost always lead to cultures adopting elements from each other. For example, people who live near international borders are more likely to speak multiple languages and share cultural practices with their neighbors across the border. Similar cultural exchanges are found in port cities and in populations with large numbers of immigrants.

This brings us to another cause of cultural change: migration has a large impact on the cultural practices of a society. If a people are uprooted and move elsewhere, not only might they adopt some of the cultural practices of their new surroundings, they will also likely adapt their own to suit their new climate, economy, and circumstances. For instance, during the California Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century, many immigrants from China settled in California. Unlike in America, there were no cultural proscriptions in China against men doing the laundry. Many Chinese immigrants recognized this as an economic opportunity for them. Consequently, Chinese laundry services became a large part of the Chinese-American cultural landscape and a major source of income for these immigrants and their families.

Invention and technological advances can also lead to cultural change. Suburban America, for example, is the result of the invention of the automobile and light-rail around the turn of the last century. These inventions allowed people who work in cities to live outside of them and develop a suburban culture that defines much of the country today.

Economic changes can also lead to cultural changes. As a society becomes wealthier, its people tend to change their habits to follow suit. They might buy more consumer goods and change their living situations to reflect this new wealth. Likewise, a reverse in financial fortunes might lead to cultural adaptations that permit people to get by on less wealth. For instance, we've seen that more young adults are living with their parents for much longer than they did before the economic recession that occurred during the previous decade.

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In addition to what was outlined in the other answer, wars are important causes of social change. A major war strains the human and material resources of a society. Winning the war can seem imperative, and norms or social structures that usually seem quite important and inviolable in peace can be quickly jettisoned in favor of the more pressing goal of victory.

World War I's effect on Great Britain and the United States would be a good example of a conflict that brought cultural changes. Because of the loss of men to the war effort, in both countries women had to step up to the plate and take on man's jobs. In both countries, the war empowered women. For example, after the war, both nations finally granted women suffrage. Further, restrictions on the movement and dress of women were necessarily relaxed due to the needs of the war effort, and women never returned to the old restrictions.

Wars produce intense pressure to improve technology to gain a strategic advantage, and those technologies often change peacetime cultures. For example, airplane technology improved during World War I, paving the way for commercial air travel.

Further, wars can impose crippling debt burdens on countries, even if they win. England's upper classes had to pay for the costly World War I, as they were the only people with money, and this diminished their power in society, also leading to cultural changes.

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The most common way that cultures change is through contact with other cultures. This change through contact is known as cultural diffusion. Contact between cultures can occur in a number of ways including trade, immigration, or warfare. With the proliferation of digital technology in the last half-century, cultural interactions are more common today than at any point in human history. When cultures come into contact with one another, they share ideas, religion, language, and technologies that inevitably change both cultures in meaningful ways.

Technology, or the tools that people use, also has a great impact on cultural change. An obvious example of how technology can change a culture is the invention and use of the automobile in the 20th Century and how it changed American culture. The automobile had an impact on economic development, communication, social class, and settlement patterns. Computers and the internet are revolutionizing how people live today and are relevant contemporary examples of cultural change through technology.

A change in the environment can effect cultures as well and force them to adapt. This is a modern issue as global warming has already impacted some cultures around the world (see Bangladesh.) As the climate becomes warmer, sea levels rise and cultures will need to adapt in an effort to survive. When Native Americans were challenged with the loss of the bison of the Great Plains, it changed the way they were forced to live in a remarkable way.

Another way that cultures change is through the introduction of new ideas. When cultures are challenged with a new way of seeing things, they are forced to change. I like to use the idea of equal rights for women and minorities in the second half of Twentieth Century America as an example of new ideas and how they change a culture.

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