Cultural transmission refers to the idea that culture is passed down from one generation to the next. The concept is widely used in archaeology, sociology, and criminology studies.
Cultural transmission can happen through means such as language transmission, religion, or art. Learning from your environment and society helps shape your values, sense of self, and what you internalize as acceptable behavior.
- Direct transmission: This is when culture is passed down from parents to children through direct teaching. For example, a parent may teach their child how to perform a traditional dance or make a specific type of craft.
- Indirect transmission: This occurs when culture is absorbed indirectly, without any specific intention to do so. An example of this would be a child picking up the habits and mannerisms of their parents simply by observing them on a daily basis.
- Observational learning: This happens when people learn by observing others around them, even if they are not directly instructed to do so. An example of this would be someone who learns how to make a traditional dish by watching someone else prepare it.
- Imitation: This occurs when people copy the behavior of others around them. An example of this would be a child who begins to speak with the same accent as their friends or family members.
Examples of cultural transmission include:
- Transition of culture in media: Watching television and movies teaches us about our culture.
- Transition of culture in schools: Schools enforce culture both explicitly (through the curriculum) and implicitly (through the hidden curriculum)
- Transition of culture in the family: Families are the first place where children learn about their culture and values.
- Transition of culture among peer groups: Children’s games and conversations involve transmitting, repeating, and practicing cultural values.
One of the most common ways that cultural transmission occurs is through parents teaching their children. This can happen in a formal setting, such as a school, or informally, at home.
Children learn about their culture from their parents, and this shapes the way they see the world.
Another way that cultural transmission happens is through peer groups. Friends and classmates can have a big influence on the way we think and behave. We learn about what is important to our peers, and we adopt their way of thinking.
Mass media also plays a role in cultural transmission. TV, movies, music, and the internet all expose us to new ideas and ways of life. We can learn about other people through these channels, and they can shape our own views and behavior.
- Vertical transmission occurs when culture is passed down from parents to children. This is the most common form of cultural transmission, as it is the easiest way for culture to be passed on.
- Horizontal transmission occurs when culture is passed between peers, such as friends or classmates.
- Oblique transmission occurs when culture is passed from an individual to someone who is not part of their immediate social group, such as a teacher or mentor.
Cultural transmission plays a vital role in human socialization and in the development of human societies. It is through cultural transmission that we learn the beliefs and behaviors that are important to our cultures and that enable us to participate in our society.
Cultural transmission also allows us to pass on our accumulated knowledge and wisdom to future generations. It is through cultural transmission that we transmit our history, our art, our literature, and our science. It is essential to the survival and vitality of civilizations.
Cultural transmission is a key concept in sociology, as it gives us cultural information to better understand generations, the environment and society. The process helps to explain why some aspects of cultures are more resistant to change than others.
Intercultural competence is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people from other civilizations. It involves understanding cultural differences and being able to adapt one’s communication style to suit the other culture. Intercultural competence is important in today’s globalized world.
Theoretical Offshoots in Criminology
Criminologists use the phrase “cultural transmission theory” in a very specific context. They use it to refer to the ways in which distinct subcultural groups in distinct regions and neighborhoods pass on deviant behaviors.
Therefore, when speaking in a criminology context, remember that cultural transmission generally refers to the cultural transmission of deviance. It explains how neighborhoods pass on culturally deviant behaviors through cultural transmission.
Cohen – the famous Strain Theorist – is often cited as the father of this concept in criminology. For Cohen, subcultural groups act as their own ecosystems that reward deviant behaviors.
It explains why, for example, high-crime neighborhoods maintain their high crime rates across generations. Within those neighborhoods, delinquent behaviors are passed on in a self-reinforcing ecosystem.
This leads to the conclusion that the best way for an individual to break the cycle of delinquent behavior is to move out of the ecosystem in which that behavior is rewarded – in other words, to physically move.
Key Concepts Related to Cultural Transmission
Cultural learning is the process by which individuals acquire the customs, beliefs, and knowledge of society over the course of their lifetime. It occurs through a variety of mechanisms, such as imitation, observation, and reinforcement.
One of the most important aspects of cultural learning is that it is often unconscious; we absorb the standard and values of our culture without being aware of it. This is why it can be so difficult to change our behavior, even when we want to.
A person may have grown up in a family that valued thriftiness and hard work. Even if that person now lives in a different place that has different values, they may still find themselves thinking and behaving in ways that reflect their early training.
We imitate those around us from an early age; parents and other caregivers are usually our first teachers. A person learns not only how to perform certain actions but also how to think and feel about them.
For example, if a person sees their mother express anger in a particular way, they are likely to learn that it is acceptable to express anger in that way as well.
Observation is another important example or process of learning about your culture. A person learns by watching others and taking note of what they do and say.
This can be an active process, as when we deliberately try to learn from someone we admire, or it can be passive, as when we simply pick up information from our surroundings without really thinking.
Cultural evolution is the process by which cultures change and adapt over time. This can be due to various factors, such as contact with other cultures, technological change, or population growth.
The concept of cultural evolution was first proposed by 19th-century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. One of the key aspects of cultural evolution is cultural transmission. There are three main types of cultural transmission.
Enculturation is the process by which individuals learn the norms and values of their culture. This process begins in childhood and continues throughout an individual’s lifetime.
One of the most essential aspects of enculturation is language acquisition, and it’s a critical tool for transmitting culture. It allows individuals to communicate their ideas and beliefs to others.
Other important cultural aspects transmitted through social learning include knowledge and skills.
For example, parents often teach their children how to cook traditional meals or use traditional medicines. In addition, parents may instil in their children certain moral principles, such as the importance of education or respect for elders.
Overall, it is clear that theories around cultural transmission have a lot to offer in terms of explaining to a person how and why certain civilizations develop.
It also addresses cultural deficits and gives a person knowledge of foreign cultures. The role of women in society and families has been transferred to this century, bringing along with it the standard and acceptable gender roles.
The cultural transmission process is constantly occurring as people converse with each other, picking up cultural cues from one another.
From a social science perspective, cultural transmission is a means of learning information in a one-directional way. Its influenced by social structure, the environment and political means.
Champion, J. (2005). The American Dictionary of Criminal Justice. Oxford: Roxbury Publishing.
Cohen, D. & Kitayama, S. (2020). Handbook of Cultural Psychology, Second Edition. Manchester: Guilford Publications.
Patterson, O. (2018). The mechanisms of cultural reproduction: explaining the puzzle of persistence. In Routledge Handbook of Cultural Sociology (pp. 122-132). Routledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.