Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development

pp 448-451

Cultural Transmission

  • Matthew J. TaylorAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Missouri-St. Louis Email author 
  • , Candace A. ThothAffiliated withUniversity of Missouri


Acculturation; Cultural learning; Enculturation; Socialization


Cultural transmission is the process through which cultural elements, in the form of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behavioral scripts, are passed onto and taught to individuals and groups.


A Brief Definition of Culture

Culture represents a collection of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behavioral scripts that are generally agreed upon by a group of individuals. It can include everything from language, marriage practices, and governmental configurations, to definitions of family, greeting behaviors, housing structures, and death rituals, to name a few. A primary role of culture is to provide a consistent and stable environment or framework whose goal is to ensure or, at the very least, enhance, the survival of the group. At its broadest level, culture represents mainstream tendencies, but there can be “culture within a culture” whereby smaller segments of the population (i.e., subcultures) have cultural themes that differ from the mainstream. An example would be an ethnic neighborhood in a large urban center where there is the maintenance of the heritage culture; language of origin is often spoken, traditional foods are readily available, and other cultural practices (e.g., multigenerational households) are still followed.

While culture largely represents a group-related venture and construct, it also has a uniquely personal and individual sense to it. There is a great deal of subjectivity in comprehension, interpretation, and incorporation of cultural themes, as individuals vary in their degree of adherence to broader cultural notions. Related is the fact that there is a bi-directional, reciprocal relationship between individuals and culture. On-the-one-hand, we are products of our culture; molded and shaped by its influences. That is, we frequently represent the outward manifestation of our cultural background and experiences. Conversely, individuals have the ability to call for and bring about cultural change, as evident throughout human history (e.g., slavery) where social change has taken place and cultural values have shifted [1].

The Conveyance of Culture: The Processes of Enculturation and Socialization

Cultural elements and themes are not innate to the human experience, but are rather learned and taught. Generally there are three types of cultural transmission: vertical, oblique, and horizontal [2]. Vertical refers to the passing on of cultural knowledge from parents/caregivers to children. Oblique is the more diffuse, intergenerational transmission of culture, whereby unrelated individuals from one generation pass on culture to the next. And horizontal transmission is akin to peer learning, as members of the same generation pass on cultural elements to each other. Regardless of cultural transmission type, there two primary areas of foci: (1) the processes involved; and (2) the entities who utilize these processes. In terms of the former, the two processes through which culture is learned and taught are enculturation and socialization. Enculturation refers to the process through which an individual learns aspects of a culture based on what is (made) available to her [3]. This process is non-deliberate, informal, and indirect, meaning that there is no prescribed set of outcomes to be attained, but simply that an individual learns cultural elements by virtue of being exposed to them. An example of this is language, such that we generally develop our primary capacity for the language that we grow up most exposed to. Another example of this process is where children will often display attitudes, values, and beliefs similar to parents and caregivers, prior to attaining a real in depth understanding of them from their own perspective.

The companion process to enculturation is socialization. It too represents a means though which an individual learns about culture, but with one significant difference: the individual is specifically and intentionally led to develop culturally endorsed attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors. Socialization is a more deliberate, goal oriented process which involves a degree of teaching an individual about culture. Citizenship classes attended by immigrants en route to becoming citizens are one example. Additionally, enrolling children in religious instruction classes is another example of socialization; conversely, having children attend religious services with family is more enculturation. Enculturation and socialization are not always mutually exclusive processes and can take place simultaneously. The aforementioned example of language as enculturation is an example of this, as it can also be related to socialization; given many formal educational settings have a language and grammar component which is linked to deliberate tutelage.

The goals of enculturation and socialization are related. They both: prepare individuals to become successfully functioning members of society; teach culturally desirable behaviors; guarantee that important traditions will be passed to future members of society. In sum, enculturation and socialization are lifelong processes that occur in a wide variety of contexts. They both influence every facet of our lives and contribute to our development across the lifespan.

Variations in Cultural Transmission

While cultural transmission is a universal process, exactly what information is transmitted is more culture specific. Variations in cultural transmission occur because of differences in what is available to be learned and what is deemed necessary for an individual to know. Perhaps most easily seen are the variations that occur between cultures, particularly ones that are viewed as fundamentally dissimilar. Offered as an example are the types of information and knowledge made available and considered as necessary for success within a hunting-gathering tribal culture (e.g., foraging and hunting techniques) compared to an urban-industrialized one (e.g., negotiating the use of public transportation). However, variations in cultural transmission can also occur within cultures, as different groups of people (e.g., families, peer groups) may have variable access to cultural elements, different interpretations of them, or may place a different value on what is viewed as essential for survival. A key element of cultural transmission is that it is, in part, transmitted across generations, or at the very least, between individuals. These sources of cultural information are known as socialization (or socializing) agents. They represent the entities that have the ability to educate and indoctrinate us into the cultural milieu and can include; family, peers, teachers, community elders, and media sources, to name a few.

To further understand the nuances of cultural transmission, one must consider that it occurs within a sociocultural context and this influences and dictates potential outcomes. Two theories that present a framework from which to grasp the length and breadth of the influence of a cultural context with the resultant variations in cultural transmission come from Bronfenbrenner [4] and Super and Harkness [5]. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of human development describes four nested systems of influence, which are arranged like the concentric rings within a tree, and impact the individual, who is found at the centermost point. In order of proximity to the individual and immediacy of influence, they are the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem. Each layer is affected by another and these eventually impact the individual at the core. The layers further away from the individual offer more indirect influences. For the sake of simplicity, we will focus on the micro and macro-systems. The microsystem is the “closest” system to the individual and is comprised of those entities and persons that represent immediate and daily (e.g., face-to-face) interactions, such as family, peers, and school to name a few. The macrosystem, which is the most distant and complex of the systems, is akin to a society’s culture, and is comprised of culturally based values, attitudes, and beliefs. Of note is the interaction that occurs between the micro- and macrosystems and its resultant impact on cultural transmission. At the microsystem level, families may recreate and “pass on” the culturally based messages that are rooted in the macrosystem; and may do so with little alteration of their original meaning. However, another response could be that families or peers alter or counter macrosystem influences and messages, especially if there is the perception that they are potentially negative, not useful, or unnecessary for successful functioning. For example, consider an individual who is female and lives in a gender conservative country (macrosystem), yet whose family (microsystem) does not strongly adhere to this cultural value; as such, they (enculturate) and socialize her in accordance with this microsystem value structure, which differs from mainstream notions.

A similar theory which also provides a means for the conceptualization of sociocultural influences upon cultural transmission is the development niche theory of Super and Harkness [5]. It is comprised of three components or subsystems: setting, customs, and psychological characteristics of the caregiver. Setting refers to the context of influence upon an individual and includes both physical (e.g., climate, available objects – such as toys and technology) and social (e.g., family structure, size of peer group). Customs are defined as culturally determined practices and behaviors. And caretaker psychology refers to the attitudes, beliefs and characteristics (e.g., parenting style) of socializing agents. Not only are each of these domains impacted by broader cultural themes, but they also interact with one other. Variations in cultural transmission could result from any number of changes within each of these components or in their interaction. For example, say a family relocates to a different part of a country, this would represent a change in setting, and within this new location, there may be variations in what broader cultural themes are conveyed from the community. Furthermore, in spite of the influence of this hypothetical community there would still be the influences of caretaker psychology, which would also create variations in what was selected to be transmitted and how.

Acculturation: Cultural Transmission from Outside One’s Own Culture

Up until now we have discussed and framed cultural transmission as taking place within a particular culture and done largely by other members of the same group through enculturation and socialization. However, another means of cultural transmission is acculturation, which is a process by which different cultural groups come into contact with one other and results in a cultural change of either one or both. Most often acculturation is framed in terms of two groups, an acculturating group, such as immigrants, and the dominant culture, that is, the group established in the new location that sets the mainstream cultural tendencies. As a result of this intercultural contact, the transmission of the new (dominant) culture to the acculturating group occurs, whereby the group may shed its original cultural customs and traditions and adopt cultural nuances more similar to the dominant one. Graves [6] suggests that acculturation produces cultural changes on two levels, group and individual, the latter of which is termed psychological acculturation. Group level acculturation involves changes in the overall culture of the group, such as newly acquired political freedoms, biological changes due to an alteration of diet, social changes (e.g., alterations in marrying practices), or economic shifts, to name a few. Psychological acculturation represents the psychological shifts of individuals within acculturating groups and represents the degree to which they participate in the group cultural shifts. It is more related to individual outcomes from the acculturation process and is characterized by changes in individual identity, values, and behaviors. As such, there is a great deal of variation in how individuals within a group respond to acculturation and the impact of another culture.

Within psychological acculturation there are four acculturation strategies, that in some ways could also be viewed as outcomes the acculturation process: integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization [7]. These strategies relate to the degree to which an individual accepts and gravitates toward the new culture, while simultaneously, they shed or unlearn elements of their original culture. These processes involve more than an individual making a conscious effort or attempt toward a specific outcome, but are also influenced by attitudes, values, and beliefs, and behaviors of the dominant culture in relation to the acculturating group. Integration is defined as the circumstance when an individual maintains cultural elements of their original culture and at the same time develops nuances of the dominant culture. Individuals who utilize this acculturation strategies display similar adeptness in cultural competency with both their original culture and the dominant one. The process of assimilation involves little maintenance of original culture and a movement towards or into the dominant culture. Symbolic of this are scenarios where individuals change their names to ones that sound more like those of the dominant culture; or when people intentionally do not speak their native language in lieu of the dominant one. There have been instances of forced assimilation of certain groups by the dominant culture; the American Indian boarding school movement, where children were taken from their families and sent to residential schools to be “Americanized”, is an example of this [8]. The acculturation strategy or outcome of separation occurs when an individual or a group maintain their original culture and make little attempt, if any, to inculcate elements of the dominant culture into their cultural repertoire. Separation is a more viable outcome when individuals have a strong base of their original culture, along with ready access to its features; such as an ethnic enclave or neighborhood nestled in a large urban center (e.g., Chinatown), or another locale culturally distinct from the mainstream (e.g., a military base located within another country). Marginalization, the last potential outcome or acculturation strategy, is when an individual is unable to maintain ties with their culture of origin, perhaps due to enforced cultural loss, and they also do not adopt the ways of, or are not afforded acceptance within, the dominant culture, possibly due to exclusionary attitudes or practices. Regardless of the degree to which individuals and groups acculturate, it is a process inexorably linked to the relationship between non-dominant and dominant cultures and is further influenced sociohistorical and sociopolitical themes.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
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