A General Theory of Culture and Cultural Dynamics

I have argued in “A General Theory of Personality” that personality can be seen as an adaptation to a social environment with traits that were both socially and sexually selected because they were highly advantageous in that environment. In a simplified model, I assume three different survival and subsistence strategies with two major roles for each: a providing (most frequently males) and a caregiving (most frequently females). The resulting six profiles represent the extreme points (maxima) in the HEXACO model:

A community with individuals adapted to a specific environment represents a culture that can be shifted more towards providing or caregiving. A specific culture is determined by the specific makeup of the group members and in particular the dominant forces within it. Forager (hunter-gatherer cultures) are usually highly egalitarian and loose (in Michele Gelfand’s terminology), whereas farmer cultures are usually hierarchical and tight. The higher the collaborative effort (e.g. irrigation farming) and the higher the external threat (e.g. raiders, natural disasters and pathogens) the higher the levels of in-groupishness, conformity, authoritarianism and psychological need for security.

We can plot the three/six cultural tendencies onto Shlomo Schwarz’s value map and we get a perfect match:

Farmers types/cultures value safety, high in-group loyalty (conformism), rules and closedness, whereas the opposite hunter types value self-direction(individualism), universalism and openness. The individualist-collectivist distinction does not completely coincide with the loose-tight axes. As hunter types are somewhat closer to individualist herder types and gatherer (caregiving/prosocial) types share collectivist tendencies with farmer types. If we project the Inglehart-Welzel cultural map of the world onto this map we get another good match for different countries/cultures in the world:

Early civilizations often show a tripartite class division; NB: not merely a hierarchy, but classes defined by hierarchy and endogamy. The ruling/dominant classes were mostly farmer types, the middle class was made up by pastoralist artisans, traders and worriers and the lowest class was made up by foragers who were neither adapted to a farmer nor herder culture. Nomadic pastoralists aren’t adapted to the sedentary farmer lifestyle (routine work) and therefore made natural soldiers and traders. The connection with artisans is less obvious, however, historically metallurgy is closely tied to pastoralist people (e.g. in the Pontic Steppe) as well as the spread of Bronze Age cultures.

From a cultural theoretic point of view we can now postulate the following principles:

The more homogeneous a culture is,

The more inhomogeneous a culture is,

The main driver of cultural change is therefore diversity. This is exactly what farmer types dislike most as conformity was the way to survive. The farmer position, therefore, represents the conservative force of a culture. Hunter-gatherers who value freedom would be most open to diversity and therefore make up the most progressive force inside each culture.

Hunter-gatherer types are least adapted to a farmer lifestyle (routine 9–5 jobs, hard physical work, hierarchy, etc.), therefore change will be most likely initiated by hunter-gatherer types in any mixed culture. Revolutions (the French and American revolutions, for example) are therefore typically started by hunter-gatherer types. The motto of the French Revolution was

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Clearly hunter-gatherer values, freedom, equality and solidarity. It is fraternity that is stressed where farmer types would stress the benefits of the patriarchy (safety, protection, rules), as siblings represent a more horizontal (egalitarian) level of organization rather than a vertical (hierarchical) one that parents and elders represent.

As farmer culture tends to be conservative, the direction of change is also typically: hunter-gatherer > pastoralist > farmer.

As farmer types conform to the new culture the new culture finally becomes the norm. However, farmer types would slowly work on changing the new culture so that it fits their evolved needs, i.e. making it safer, more hierarchical, more structured and certainly more normative. Centuries may pass before another hunter-gatherer revolution may take place.

Here we can find another principle of a cultural theory:

The change from forager space to farmer space is typically top-down driven (by authorities).

The change from forager to farmer space is typically bottom-up driven (by the people).

These cultural constellations and dynamics are equally applicable to

My model provides the tools to analyse a culture according to its values and traits (e.g. risk-taking, conservative, egalitarian), to locate it on the cultural map and to trace its changes.

Christianity is a good example. Early Christianity was very much an egalitarian gatherer movement with a shallow hierarchy and a lot of hunter-gatherer liberalism (cf. Jesus Christ’s attitude towards work, money, inequality, children’s rights, capital punishment and prostitution). Catholicism increasingly “farmerized” (deep hierarchy) Christianity and the Reformation can be seen as a hunter-gatherer revolution. One of its basic tenets: back to the Christianity described in the Bible. As evangelical Protestantism is itself now associated with conservative values, we can see a change from hunter-space into farmer space.

A modern company like Red Bull may serve as yet another example. Its values are fun, novelty, adventure and risk-taking (they sponsor a lot of extreme sports). It is clearly located in herder space. Its consumers are mostly pastoralist types, as is founder and CEO Dietrich Mattheschitz. Due to this homogeneous grouping and firm location on the culture map, Red Bull is unlikely to change significantly. However, they do experiment with new flavours (novelty seeking) a lot.

A culture is therefore not like an atom, but like a molecule, with attracting and opposing forces, which tends to be more or less stable. In our Western World we are moving increasingly towards instability after a long period of stability.

Check out my latest book for more background information:


Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on November 20, 2021.



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