Understanding Cultural Transmission in Anthropology

Understanding Cultural Transmission in Anthropology: A Critical Synthesis

Roy Ellen
Stephen J. Lycett
Sarah E. Johns
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 392
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qcsgm
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  • Book Info
    Understanding Cultural Transmission in Anthropology
    Book Description:

    The concept of "cultural transmission" is central to much contemporary anthropological theory, since successful human reproduction through social systems is essential for effective survival and for enhancing the adaptiveness of individual humans and local populations. Yet, what is understood by the phrase and how it might best be studied is highly contested. This book brings together contributions that reflect the current diversity of approaches - from the fields of biology, primatology, palaeoanthropology, psychology, social anthropology, ethnobiology, and archaeology - to examine social and cultural transmission from a range of perspectives and at different scales of generalization. The comprehensive introduction explores some of the problems and connections. Overall, the book provides a timely synthesis of current accounts of cultural transmission in relation to cognitive process, practical action, and local socio-ecological context, while linking these with explanations of longer-term evolutionary trajectories.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-994-7
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. LIST OF FIGURES
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. LIST OF TABLES
    (pp. ix-ix)
  5. PREFACE
    (pp. x-xi)
    Roy Ellen, Stephen J. Lycett and Sarah E. Johns
  6. Introduction: ON THE CONCEPT OF CULTURAL TRANSMISSION
    (pp. 1-54)
    Roy Ellen and Michael D. Fischer

    The renaissance of ‘big issues’ in anthropology (Parkin and Ulijaszek 2007; Allen, Callan, Dunbar and James 2008), and various discussions about how best to integrate theory and approaches across the spectrum of the subject (e.g. Ellen 2010), inevitably draws us towards the notion of cultural transmission. This is because the systems of culturally mediated social relations that anthropologists are evidently so well equipped to study only survive in the long run because they provide the conditions for their own continuity, and more critically, promote biological reproduction and survival. However, although there is increasing interest in the theoretical centrality of cultural...

  7. Chapter 1 WHAT ANIMALS OTHER THAN PRIMATES CAN TELL US ABOUT HUMAN CULTURAL TRANSMISSION
    (pp. 55-79)
    Kevin Laland, Alice Cowie and Tom Morgan

    To most social scientists, human culture is unique, and bears no comparison to the behavioural traditions observed in other animals. To a large extent this position is justified, since our species alone has created technologies that endlessly bring forth new innovations, allowing it to transform environments to unprecedented levels and thereby dominate the planet; not to mention humanity’s extraordinary achievements in the sciences, arts, music and literature. Our success as a species is widely attributed to this capability for culture, through which we share adaptive knowledge, and fashion solutions to life’s challenges (Boyd and Richerson 1985; Plotkin 1997). Yet the...

  8. Chapter 2 CULTURE IN NON-HUMAN PRIMATES: DEFINITIONS AND EVIDENCE
    (pp. 80-101)
    Tatyana Humle and Nicholas E. Newton-Fisher

    The attribution of culture to non-human animals has been controversial and continues to fuel much heated debate (Galef 1992; Kendal 2008). Much of this debate hinges on how culture is defined. In 1952, Kroeber and Kluckhohn compiled a comprehensive review of how the term culture had been used in modern times up until the early 1950s. They collated 168 definitions, all implying a human prerogative, and exemplified by Tyler’s classic definition of culture as ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’ (Tyler 1871:...

  9. Chapter 3 CULTURAL TRANSMISSION THEORY AND FOSSIL HOMININ BEHAVIOUR: A DISCUSSION OF EPISTEMOLOGICAL AND METHODOLOGICAL STRENGTHS
    (pp. 102-130)
    Stephen J. Lycett

    We have in the study of fossil hominin behaviour a most difficult but worthy subject. It involves the study of individuals long since dead, many of whom did not even belong to our own species. Hence, while palaeoanthropology shares many aims with other areas of archaeology and anthropology more generally, it has the added complications of extreme time depth, paucity of preserved evidence, and the possibility of evolving cognitive and biomechanical abilities in hominin populations over time. Here, it is argued that cultural transmission theory provides a rigorous and productive framework in approaching the issue of fossil hominin behaviour, both...

  10. Chapter 4 STUDYING CULTURAL TRANSMISSION WITH IN AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CULTURAL EVOLUTIONARY FRAMEWORK
    (pp. 131-147)
    Alex Mesoudi

    Cultural transmission is the process by which knowledge, beliefs, skills, practices, norms, values and other forms of non-genetic information are passed from individual to individual via social learning mechanisms such as imitation and teaching. This surely places cultural transmission at the heart of pretty much every social science discipline, not just anthropology but also psychology, sociology, linguistics, history, political science and economics. Yet cultural transmission is surprisingly under-appreciated in many of these disciplines. Often, cultural influences on human behaviour are ignored or downplayed in favour of explanations in terms of individual responses to non-social stimuli, with no explicit consideration of...

  11. Chapter 5 DO TRANSMISSION ISOLATING MECHANISMS (TRIMS) INFLUENCE CULTURAL EVOLUTION? EVIDENCE FROM PATTERNS OF TEXTILE DIVERSITY WITHIN AND BETWEEN IRANIAN TRIBAL GROUPS
    (pp. 148-164)
    Jamshid J. Tehrani and Mark Collard

    There are important differences in the ways that genes and cultural traits can be transmitted among human individuals. Whereas genes can only be transmitted ‘vertically’ from parents to children, cultural practices and ideas can be acquired from a variety of sources (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981; Boyd and Richerson 1985). While the ethnographic record demonstrates that many craft skills, subsistence techniques and other important cultural behaviours are vertically transmitted (e.g. Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza 1986; Ohmagari and Berkes 1997; Shennan and Steele 1999; Greenfield et al. 2000; Lozada et al. 2006), it also shows that learners often acquire specialized knowledge from unrelated...

  12. Chapter 6 CO-EVOLUTION BETWEEN BENTWOOD BOX TRADITIONS AND LANGUAGES ON THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST COAST
    (pp. 165-190)
    Sean O’Neill

    If culture is largely a system of inheritance, then it is reasonable to attempt to understand long-term patterns and processes of cultural transmission through the paradigm of neo-Darwinian evolution (Durham 1976; Dunnell 1978). In the past two decades especially, efforts in this direction have borne explanatory fruit. The innovative importation of methods of analysis from evolutionary biology and population genetics into anthropology (Mace and Pagel 1994) and archaeology (Neiman 1995; O’Brien and Lyman 2003) have aided us in gaining a more detailed understanding of ‘what happened in history’, helping us to answer old questions, and frame some new ones. This...

  13. Chapter 7 THE TRANSMISSION OF ETHNOBOTANICAL KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS AMONG TSIMANE’ IN THE BOLIVIAN AMAZON
    (pp. 191-212)
    Victoria Reyes-García, James Broesch and TAPS Bolivian Study Team

    Cultural transmission refers to the process of social reproduction in which the technology, knowledge, behaviour, language and beliefs of a human population are communicated and acquired (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981; Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza 1986). Researchers have hypothesized that, unlike biological traits, largely transmitted by a vertical path through genes, cultural traits can be transmitted through at least three distinct – but not mutually exclusive – paths: (1) from parent to child (vertical transmission), (2) between any two individuals of the same generation (horizontal transmission), and (3) from non-parental individuals of the parental generation to members of the filial generation (oblique transmission) (Cavalli-Sforza...

  14. Chapter 8 PROCESSUAL PERSPECTIVES ON TRADITIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL KNOWLEDGE: CONTINUITY, EROSION, TRANSFORMATION, INNOVATION
    (pp. 213-265)
    Stanford Zent

    Questions as to how and why traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) evolves were neglected issues in ethnoecological research until two decades ago. Since then, there has been a prodigious expansion of studies focusing on the dynamic properties of TEK systems from a processual perspective: their origins, transmission, transformation, diffusion, hybridization, erosion, extinction, resilience and revitalization (Ohmagari and Berkes 1997; Hunn 1999; Zent 1999; Ellen et al. 2000; Brodt 2002; Ross 2002; Zarger 2002; Zarger and Stepp 2004; Carlson and Maffi 2004; Butler 2006; Alexiades 2009; Heckler 2009b). This paradigm shift can be linked to a wider public discourse that portrays TEK...

  15. Chapter 9 TRANSMITTING PENAN BASKETRY KNOWLEDGE AND PRACTICE
    (pp. 266-299)
    Rajindra K. Puri

    Basketry is an important handicraft industry for poor forest-dependent peoples. It requires a vast array of knowledge – of plants, dyes, tools – and laborious practical tasks and skills, such as harvesting, processing and weaving. Where baskets are used for domestic purposes, for carrying and storage, they may be quickly substituted with store-bought manufactured cloth and plastic products. If basket production survives it is often only as an art form or as souvenirs for tourists, so the number of basket makers may shrink together with the knowledge and skills required for its continuity. Thus, it is claimed that global capitalism and a...

  16. Chapter 10 PLANT EXCHANGE AND SOCIAL PERFORMANCE: IMPLICATIONS FOR KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER IN BRITISH ALLOTMENTS
    (pp. 300-319)
    Simon Platten

    The exchange of plant material is ubiquitous amongst allotment plot holders and the social networks of which they are a part. On almost any British allotment site it is possible to identify many of the various kinds of exchange that have received attention in the anthropological literature, and also some of the distinctive social features of exchange systems that motivate material transfers, such as the recounting of the exchange histories of particular plant varieties, and the presence of pivotal individuals at the centre of redistributive and micro-political networks (Ellen and Platten 2011). While it is clearly beyond the remit of...

  17. Chapter 11 THINKING LIKE A CHEESE: TOWARDS AN ECOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE REPRODUCTION OF KNOWLEDGE IN CONTEMPORARY ARTISAN CHEESE MAKING
    (pp. 320-345)
    Harry G. West

    My observations on the way in which knowledge is reproduced among contemporary artisan cheese makers start with reflections on the artisan category and its constituent other, industrial cheese makers. These two categories shade into one another, but a fundamental difference of philosophy distinguishes them as abstract types. I find Aldo Leopold’s famous essay, ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’ (Leopold [1949] 1987), apropos to this philosophical difference. Leopold tells the story of the elimination of wolves from the American prairie landscape that he inhabited in the 1930s. To dairy farmers, whose herds these animals sometimes preyed upon, the only good wolf was...

  18. Chapter 12 LINEAGES OF CULTURAL TRANSMISSION
    (pp. 346-360)
    Stephen Shennan

    Over the last thirty years the idea that the processes producing cultural stability and change are analogous in important respects to those of biological evolution has become increasingly popular. According to this view, just as biological evolution is characterized by changing frequencies of genes in populations through time as a result of such processes as natural selection, so cultural evolution refers to the changing distributions of cultural attributes in populations, likewise affected by processes such as natural selection, but also by others that have no analogue in genetic evolution. The key impetus for this trend has been theoretical developments in...

  19. NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
    (pp. 361-366)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 367-380)