What is the difference between social conversion and voluntary conversion according to Jerry H. Bentley?In Jerry H. Bentley's Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in...

What is the difference between social conversion and voluntary conversion according to Jerry H. Bentley?

In Jerry H. Bentley's Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times, I've been having trouble distinguishing these.

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Bentley is a very famous and influential historian, and his contribution was mostly to map out the different kinds of cultural change that took place when peoples came in contact with other civilizations. Basically, in the book, Bentley describes social conversion as the way that "pre-modern people adopted or adapted foreign cultural traditions." In this way, when he says "social conversion," he's thinking about how encounters between peoples changed one group or the other, for example, the spread of Islam into southeast Asia.

Basically, he says there are three main ways that social conversion takes place:

1) Through voluntary association, in other words, one group recognizes that they might be better off adopting some of the practices of the foreigners. Hinduism and Buddhism spread this way, Bentley argues, as locals saw the trade and other benefits of converting to the religion of the more powerful and wealthy foreigners.

2) Through pressure from the foreigners. You might think of this as "forced" conversion. It's pretty easy to find examples of this, and Bentley thinks it's pretty common. Christianity, especially, was spread this way: temples, etc. were destroyed, locals were forced to celebrate Christian feast days, etc.

3) Through assimilation, which happens more slowly, the minority or weaker group simply adopts the cultural practices of the power group as their own, as many conquered peoples in the Roman Empire did.

There's one other very important thing to understand, according to Bentley, and that is that just about all of these cultural conversions occurred with a certain amount of syncretism, which is basically a compromise between two different cultural practices. So while pre-modern peoples adopted the practices of the foreigners, they simultaneously converted them, sometimes very subtly, into practices that were more in keeping with their own traditions. When Buddhism made it's way into China, it took on some aspects of local traditions, like Confucionism. Same with Roman Christianity.

People responded differently to foreign influence, some resisted militarily while others pretty willingly adopted the practices of the foreigners, but a certain degree of syncretism just about always took place.

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