Section 2.5: Cultural Change

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford


***Section 2.5: Cultural Change is a DRAFT Version ***

Culture, like a vibrant, ever-changing tapestry, constantly evolves as time passes (Macionis, 2017). This transformation is a result of the ongoing interplay between material and nonmaterial culture. To understand this better, let’s first clarify these two concepts.

Material culture refers to the tangible objects and artifacts that make up a society, such as clothing, technology, and buildings. In contrast, nonmaterial culture encompasses intangible aspects like beliefs, values, norms, and symbols (Crossman, 2021). As new ideas and objects enter a culture, they shape both the material and nonmaterial aspects, creating a dynamic process of change.

One of the primary drivers of cultural change is travel. When individuals traverse the globe, they encounter new cultures, ideas, and perspectives. These experiences can lead to the adoption and adaptation of novel practices, enriching the traveler’s home culture (Murdock, 2021). For instance, when Marco Polo journeyed across Asia, he introduced Europeans to many new customs and products, such as silk and pasta. This exchange significantly impacted European material culture and trade.

Another powerful catalyst for cultural change is globalization. Globalization refers to the increasing interconnectedness of people, ideas, and economies across the world (Scheuerman, 2014). As societies become more interconnected through trade, communication, and technology, they inevitably influence one another’s cultural practices. This cross-cultural exchange leads to the blending and reshaping of both material and nonmaterial aspects of culture.

Globalization has numerous consequences, some of which are positive, while others are negative. On one hand, globalization promotes cultural diversity, fosters innovation, and expands economic opportunities (Macionis, 2017). On the other hand, it can lead to the homogenization of culture, where local customs and traditions are lost or overshadowed by dominant global influences (Scheuerman, 2014).

The rapid pace of technological advancement has been a crucial factor in propelling cultural change. Innovations like the internet, smartphones, and social media have revolutionized the way people communicate, work, and live (Jeon, 2021). These innovations have not only transformed material culture but also impacted nonmaterial culture, as new ideas and values are exchanged instantaneously across vast distances. As a result, the world has become a smaller, more connected place where diverse cultures intermingle and evolve.

However, the fusion of cultures can also give rise to cultural conflicts and tensions as people grapple with new ideas and practices that challenge their traditional beliefs and norms (Macionis, 2017). This process necessitates a delicate balancing act between preserving cultural identity and embracing change.

Cultural change is an intricate dance between material and nonmaterial culture, driven by forces like travel and globalization. As societies continue to evolve and interact, the tapestry of culture will grow richer and more complex. By understanding the dynamics of cultural change, we can appreciate the beauty and diversity of human expression while navigating the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Innovation and Cultural Change

Culture is always evolving, with new ideas and objects shaping both material and nonmaterial aspects of culture (Murdock, 2021). The role of innovation in cultural change cannot be understated, as it encompasses both the discovery of previously unknown aspects of reality and the invention of new objects or concepts that transform the way people live and think.

Discoveries, such as Galileo’s observation of Saturn in 1610, opened up new understandings of the universe and helped shape the scientific revolution. Similarly, when Christopher Columbus encountered the Americas, it brought about significant changes in both European and indigenous cultures. For instance, the introduction of potatoes and tomatoes transformed the European diet, while horses brought from Europe altered the hunting practices of Native American tribes (Storey, 2006).

Inventions play a vital role in shaping cultures as well. The late 1800s and early 1900s witnessed a rapid development of electric appliances, including cars, airplanes, vacuum cleaners, lamps, radios, telephones, and televisions. These inventions changed how people conducted their daily activities and related to one another. The adoption of new technologies often reflects cultural values and may require new norms to accommodate their use (Hall, 1997).

A notable example of invention-driven cultural change is the introduction of modern communication technology, such as mobile phones and smartphones. As these devices became increasingly popular, phone conversations were no longer restricted to private spaces, leading to the need for new social norms governing their use in public places (Ogburn, 1957). The advent of texting provided a quiet, discreet alternative to phone calls, becoming the primary mode of communication for many people in contemporary society.

The rapid pace of innovation can also result in generation gaps. Younger generations often embrace technological gadgets more readily than their older counterparts, leading to cultural divides. Material culture, such as technology, tends to diffuse more quickly than nonmaterial culture, meaning that while new gadgets can spread through society in a matter of months, it can take generations for the ideas and beliefs associated with them to evolve (Ogburn, 1957).

Sociologist William F. Ogburn introduced the concept of culture lag to describe the time that elapses between the introduction of a new item of material culture and its acceptance as part of the nonmaterial culture (Ogburn, 1957). This culture lag can cause tangible problems, as evident in the outdated infrastructure of the United States. Built over a century ago, this infrastructure struggles to support the demands of today’s more densely populated and fast-paced society. Although awareness of the consequences of overusing resources is growing, it takes time to develop and implement solutions to address these issues (Storey, 2006).

In summary, innovation plays a crucial role in shaping culture through the discovery of new aspects of reality and the invention of objects or concepts that change the way people live and interact. These innovations can lead to generation gaps and culture lags, as the material aspects of culture often diffuse more quickly than the nonmaterial aspects. As societies continue to evolve, it is essential to recognize the role of innovation in driving cultural change and addressing the challenges it may pose (Hall, 1997).

Diffusion and Globalization

The ever-changing cultural landscape is profoundly influenced by the processes of diffusion and globalization. The integration of world markets has accelerated in recent decades, transforming how people across the globe interact, trade, and communicate (Murdock, 2021).

The deregulation of social services in the 1980s allowed for greater liberties in private businesses and contributed to the rise of multinational companies. Western governments began relaxing restrictions and granting more freedom to private enterprises, resulting in a new state of affairs where international trade and finance markets became more closely integrated than ever before (Gans, 1979). This phenomenon, known as globalization, has had far-reaching effects on societies and cultures worldwide.

One of the most significant outcomes of globalization is the expansion of international business relations. As countries opened their markets to foreign investments and collaborations, the flow of goods, information, and people across borders increased dramatically (Storey, 2006). Companies in developed countries, such as the United States, started setting up offices in other nations where resources and labor were cheaper. Consequently, customer service representatives working for an American company might be located in a different country altogether.

In addition to globalization, another critical process shaping modern culture is diffusion, which refers to the spread of material and nonmaterial culture across nations (Hall, 1997). While globalization focuses on the integration of markets, diffusion is concerned with the integration of international cultures. The pervasive influence of media and technology has enabled the rapid dissemination of cultural elements, such as fashion, music, and food, around the world.

Today, people in various countries can access television shows, movies, and news from other nations through the internet, exposing them to diverse lifestyles and values. Social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, facilitate communication among individuals from different cultural backgrounds, further promoting cultural exchange (Jeon, 2021).

Travel and tourism also contribute to the diffusion of culture as people venture to foreign lands and experience new customs and traditions firsthand (Storey, 2006). Middle-class Americans, for example, might fly to Thailand and return home with a newfound appreciation for Thai cuisine or Italian gelato. Conversely, tourists visiting the United States may adopt elements of American culture and introduce them to their home countries.

In conclusion, diffusion and globalization are two interconnected processes that have significantly impacted the evolution of culture in the contemporary world. The integration of world markets, driven by the deregulation of social services and the rise of multinational companies, has fostered international business relations and the flow of goods, information, and people across borders (Gans, 1979). Simultaneously, the diffusion of culture through media, technology, travel, and communication has resulted in a more interconnected global society. As these processes continue to shape and transform cultures worldwide, it is crucial to recognize their implications and develop a deeper understanding of the diverse cultural landscape that characterizes our world today (Hall, 1997).

Impacts of Cultural Change, Diffusion, and Globalization

Cultural change, diffusion, and globalization are transformative forces that reshape societies across the world. Their impacts can be both positive and negative, presenting unique challenges and opportunities. Globalization promotes the exchange of ideas, traditions, and values among diverse cultures, fostering greater cultural diversity and awareness (Appadurai, 1996). This exchange can enhance creativity and enrich societies as the sharing of artistic, culinary, and linguistic traditions creates a more vibrant and inclusive world (Vertovec, 2009).

Globalization also encourages the spread of technology and innovation across borders (Friedman, 2005). As countries collaborate and share knowledge, they can develop groundbreaking technologies that improve living standards, increase productivity, and address global challenges such as climate change and disease. Furthermore, globalization has led to increased trade, investment, and economic growth for many countries (Stiglitz, 2002). As economies become more interconnected, countries can cooperate on global issues and develop mutually beneficial relationships.

However, globalization also has its drawbacks. The influx of foreign cultures and values may dilute or displace local customs, leading to a loss of cultural heritage and identity (Tomlinson, 2003). Additionally, globalization has not benefited everyone equally, with the wealth generated by global trade and investment often concentrated in the hands of a few, exacerbating income inequality (Stiglitz, 2002). Multinational corporations may exploit cheap labor and resources in developing countries, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and dependence.

The spread of Western culture and values through globalization can lead to cultural homogenization (Tomlinson, 2003). This process can marginalize or suppress local cultures, fostering resentment and resistance among those who feel their traditions are under threat. To mitigate the negative consequences of globalization, it is essential to promote cultural preservation and respect (UNESCO, 2001). This can involve supporting cultural institutions, encouraging the study of diverse traditions, and fostering cultural exchange programs that celebrate diversity.

Governments, NGOs, and citizens must work together to address the economic disparities arising from globalization (Stiglitz, 2002). Strategies may include implementing fair trade practices, providing aid to developing countries, and promoting sustainable development. Building a more equitable and harmonious global society requires fostering cross-cultural understanding and collaboration (Appiah, 2006). By promoting dialogue, education, and empathy among diverse cultures, we can create a more inclusive world that celebrates both our common humanity and our unique cultural traditions.


Culture constantly evolves, influenced by the interplay between material and nonmaterial aspects. Travel and globalization drive change by introducing new ideas and objects. While cultural exchange promotes diversity and innovation, it can also cause tensions and homogenization. Balancing cultural preservation and change is crucial in an increasingly interconnected world.

Innovation shapes culture through discoveries and inventions, altering both material and nonmaterial aspects. Rapid innovation can lead to generation gaps and culture lags, as material culture diffuses faster than nonmaterial culture. Recognizing innovation’s role in cultural change is crucial for addressing related challenges.

The cultural landscape is continuously shaped by diffusion and globalization. The integration of world markets, accelerated by the deregulation of social services, led to the rise of multinational companies and expanded international business relations. The flow of goods, information, and people across borders increased dramatically. Diffusion, the spread of material and nonmaterial culture across nations, is facilitated by media, technology, travel, and communication. Recognizing the implications of these processes is crucial for understanding the diverse cultural landscape that defines today’s global society.

Cultural change, diffusion, and globalization reshape societies worldwide, bringing both challenges and opportunities. Globalization encourages the exchange of ideas, traditions, and values, fostering cultural diversity and promoting the spread of technology and innovation. However, it can also lead to cultural homogenization, income inequality, and exploitation. To address these issues, it is essential to promote cultural preservation and respect, implement fair trade practices, and encourage cross-cultural understanding and collaboration, creating a more inclusive and equitable global society.

Word Count:   2,302

Key Terms

cultural change, material culture, nonmaterial culture, travel, globalization, innovation, discovery, invention, generation gaps, culture lag, diffusion, integration, world markets, deregulation, multinational companies, international business relations, flow of goods, information exchange, media influence, technology, cultural exchange, cultural conflicts, cultural preservation, cultural identity

References and Further Reading 

Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. University of Minnesota Press.

Appiah, K. A. (2006). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. W. W. Norton & Company.

Crossman, A. (2021). The sociology of culture. ThoughtCo. 

Friedman, T. L. (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Jeon, Y. (2021). Symbolic interactionism. In Ritzer, G. & Rojek, C. (Eds.), Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (2nd ed.). Wiley Blackwell.

Macionis, J. J. (2017). Sociology (16th ed.). Pearson.

Murdock, G. (2021). Cultural hegemony. In Ritzer, G., & Rojek, C. (Eds.), Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (2nd ed.). Wiley Blackwell.

Ogburn, W. F. (1957). Cultural lag as theory. Sociology & Social Research, 41(3), 167-174.

Scheuerman, W. (2014). Globalization. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). 

Stiglitz, J. E. (2002). Globalization and Its Discontents. W. W. Norton & Company.

Tomlinson, J. (2003). Globalization and Cultural Identity. Polity.

UNESCO. (2001). Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. UNESCO.

Vertovec, S. (2009). Transnationalism. Routledge.


Modification History

File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  05/07/2023

[Back | Contents | Next]

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Doc's Things and Stuff uses Accessibility Checker to monitor our website's accessibility.