The concept of ‘cultural process’ has been of interest to anthropologists since the late
19th century. Franz Boas indicated that investigating cultural processes was central to
anthropology, but his failure to define the concept set a disciplinary precedent. Process
has seldom been discussed in theoretical detail because the basic notion is
commonsensical. A.L. Kroeber provided a definition in 1948 and distinguished
between short-term dynamics of how cultures operate and long-term dynamics
resulting in cultural change. Leslie White conflated the two families of processes.
Archaeologists working before 1960 focused on processes resulting in the diachronic
evolution of cultures; many of these involved cultural transmission. Initially, processes
involving the synchronic operation of a culture were conflated with diachronic
evolutionary processes by processual archaeologists. In the late 1960s and early 1970s,
Lewis Binford, David Clarke, and Frank Hole and Robert Heizer all discussed cultural
processes within the framework of systems theory. Simultaneously, growing concern
over the formational processes that created the archaeological record shifted attention
from the original conception of cultural processes. Models of the temporal duration,
scale, and magnitude of cultural processes illustrate their complexity and suggest
avenues for further conceptualization.
[W]e must develop not only better theory for conceptualizing processes but also more
adequate methods for studying them. (E.Z. Vogt, 1960: 28)
Like other fields, archeology is cursed with terms so vague and ambiguous that they
tend to obscure more than they clarify. (K.V. Flannery, 1972: 400)
ANTHROPOLOGICAL THEORY 7(2)
For more than a century, ‘cultural processes’ have been a guiding focus of anthropology
(Bee, 1974). Whether the operation of one or more processes is studied within a particular
culture, or a specific process or two are called upon to explain particular cultural
phenomena, cultural processes are central to the discipline. What, then, might cultural
processes be in a conceptual or theoretical sense? One would think that given their
central role in anthropology, a detailed and nuanced literature addressing this question
would exist. An approximation of such a literature is scattered among journal articles,
book chapters, and monographs, each containing no more than a sentence or two
devoted to the concept. Comprehensive treatments are virtually nonexistent; discussions
of theoretical models and conceptions of cultural process(es) are also scarce. Both Vogt’s
lament of more than 40 years ago and Flannery’s lament of more than 30 years ago in
the epigraph apply to the term ‘cultural process’. Yet, the so-called processual archaeology
of the 1960s and 1970s had as a research focus the study of cultural process(es),
sometimes written in the singular, sometimes in the plural form (Binford, 1968b;
Flannery, 1967; Thompson and Longacre, 1966). I have found only two discussions of
the cultural process concept in the literature of processual archaeology, and they are
short, given the apparent gravity of the concept.
The commonsensical understanding of (cultural) process held by anthropologists and
archaeologists concerns the dynamic of some (cultural) thing developing into some
(other cultural) thing that may be different from the original. A series of stages or events
can be used to illustrate a process but is descriptive rather than explanatory if the cause
or causal mechanism producing the series is unspecified. Common sense understanding
resulted in conflation of two families of cultural processes, a shift in the meaning of
cultural processes to the actions forming the archaeological record, and a muddling of
the dynamic of becoming and the static state of being. This is not to say that the concept
of process has been useless, as evidenced, for example, by the plethora of research
accomplished under the banner of processual archaeology (see articles introduced by
A.L. Johnson  and references therein).
Some argue that terminological clarity is either unnecessary (Salmon, 1982) or
difficult given the evolution of concepts that attends theory development (Hegmon,
2003). Philosopher of archaeology Merilee Salmon (1982: 142) thus advocated a dialectic
between a concept’s definition and how well it assists with building useful explanatory
theory, that is, theory that both constrains (by limiting the field of inquiry to
particular phenomena, questions, or both) and enables (by specifying explanatory
principles, how particular phenomena are thought to relate, and the like) how we understand and make sense of the world. Failure to make clear what a term means in a particular context may, however, lead to confusion, disagreement, and lack of efficiency in the research enterprise; understanding is likely to be commonsensical and thus individualistic.
Further, a term’s meaning can transmogrify imperceptibly over time until
researchers think they are talking about one thing when in fact they are talking about
something else. Thus I believe that we must be concerned about conceptual and terminological ambiguity and seek to remove it (or at least identify it) whenever possible, but I also believe that definitions can and should shift as understanding changes and theories are rewritten.
In this article I do several things. First, I make four points with respect to the term culture/cultural process (both forms occur in the literature). In no particular order, these points are: (1) labels for particular processes often conflate the dynamic of becoming
with the result or state of being, and also conflate process as cause with process as description;
(2) processes concerning the synchronic operation of a culture are sometimes
conflated with those concerning the diachronic evolution of a culture; (3) a list of
processes gleaned from the literature published in the 1940s and 1950s includes nearly
all of those included in a list gleaned from the literature published in the 1970s and
1980s; and (4) in archaeology, the concept of cultural process was subsumed within
formation processes in the 1970s, exacerbating terminological ambiguity.
To make these points, I explore the history of the term ‘cultural process’ to determine
what it is thought to mean. My historical sketch is not exhaustive; such would take a
book-length treatment. Instead, I summarize what is necessary to make the points I have
just listed. I first review how the concept has been used in cultural anthropology, where
my focus is on the pre-1960 literature. This provides a context for discussing the concept
of culture process as it was used in archaeology; processual archaeology first emerged in
North America where archaeologists are trained in departments of anthropology.
Because I am particularly interested in the meaning(s) of the term with respect to processual archaeology, I outline the history of the term in archaeology from the 1930s through the 1980s.
The historical review demonstrates that many who used the term often conflated
two families of processes. I term these the diachronic (historical) evolutionary family
and the synchronic operational family. The former are generally processes of long
duration, result in cultural change, and implicitly indicate that culture is transmitted;
processes include acculturation, enculturation, socialization, and diffusion.
Synchronic operational processes are of relatively short duration and repetitive or
cyclical; the state of a culture might fluctuate as that culture operates over time, but
the culture eventually returns to the state in which it began. One example is a first fruits
ceremony held annually, and another would be a repetitive land-use pattern of seasonal
transhumance. Conflation of the two families was likely caused by common-sense
understanding of the general concept; explicit definitional and theoretical understanding
would likely have precluded such conflation. Common-sense understanding also
seems to underpin the 1970s conflation of culture process with formation process by
As a step toward replacing common sense with explicit models of cultural processes,
I present a formal definition of the concept prior to presenting the historical overview.
This should also help with perception of strengths and weaknesses in anthropological
and archaeological use of the term. Toward the end of the discussion, I consider the
implications of differences in the duration and results of the two families of processes in
detail, and also the scale and magnitude of processes. My intention is not to provide the
final word on the concept. Rather, I present this discussion as a catalyst for additional
conceptualization of cultural process and how that term is used in the future. Archaeologist
Irving Rouse provided an excellent place to start the discussion:
By pattern is meant a configuration discernable in the archaeological [or anthropological]
record and by process, the actions that have produced the pattern. A pattern
is an empirical observation and a process, an explanation of that observation; it tells
us how the pattern came into existence. (1977: 1)
WHAT IS A CULTURAL PROCESS TO AN ANTHROPOLOGIST?
Boas (1896: 905) stated that ‘the object of [anthropological] investigation is to find the
processes by which certain stages of culture have developed’ (emphasis in original). Boas
had in mind historical processes that accounted for why culture traits were found where
they were and in the forms that they were (Bee, 1974; Rohner and Rohner, 1969).
During the first half of the 20th century the major approach to anthropological research
was ‘historical ethnology’ (Radin, 1933) or ‘historical particularism’ (Harris, 1968). This
approach examined the historical development of each individual culture by inferring
the age and distribution route of cultural traits (Lyman and O’Brien, 2003). Names
given to cultural processes indicate that they took place over time (were relatively
diachronic) and the analytical unit used (cultural traits or elements) implied that a
culture consisted of independent, discrete parts. The processes included evolution and
diffusion (Boas, 1924), invention and innovation (Barnett, 1942, 1953; Ogburn, 1930;
Steward, 1929), and convergence (Lowie, 1912). What exactly a cultural process was
conceptually went unremarked. Boas himself never was clear about what one was
(Rohner and Rohner, 1969: xvii), and this set a precedent. It was not until historical
ethnology was nearly dead that discussions of what processes are and definitions of them
began to appear, yet these were brief and did not seek a general theoretical understanding
that could assist future research (Barnett, 1940; Herskovits, 1945, 1948; Redfield,
1934, 1941, 1953).
In the earliest explicit definition of which I am aware, Kroeber (1948: 344) defined
‘processes of culture [as] factors which operate either toward the stabilization and preservation of cultures and their parts, or toward growth and change’. This statement refers to both synchronic operational processes and diachronic evolutionary ones, respectively.
Kroeber listed the usual historical processes of diffusion, invention, and the like (e.g.
Murdock, 1955, 1956), and he also observed that cultural processes ‘which in the
abstract seem so neat and distinctive, are found to manifest themselves in associations’
and that ‘conceptually distinct processes tend to come intertwined, and to interact, in
the actual operations and history of culture’ (Kroeber, 1948: 344–5). It will, Kroeber
thought, be difficult to tease apart the complexities of distinct processes.
Moore (1954: 354) considered only diachronic evolution when he wrote that
‘processes of a culture include not only changes in particular categories of the culture
but also changes in the relationships between categories and between individuals
performing the roles suited to the activity associated with each category. Thus cultural
processes involve changes in the parts of a culture and changes in the interrelationships
of the parts’.He, likeMurdock (1955), used ‘cultural dynamics’ as a synonym for cultural
processes (Moore, 1954: 355). Bidney (1953: 126) stated that the ‘cultural process, as
applied to man, differs from other natural processes in that the former is not autonomous
and does not guide itself, but requires constant and deliberate selection and effort on
the part of its actual and potential adherents’.
The culture process is dependent on ‘human intelligence and voluntary effort’; it is the ‘creative inventions and insights’ of humans that are the ‘sources of all cultural processes’ (Bidney, 1953: 137, 138).
The notion that society itself is a process and is continuously becoming was part of
the ‘Chicago school’ of sociology in the 1920s and 1930s (Lerner, 1934), and reflected
the general process of cultural transmission. This process had specific manifestations such as enculturation, socialization, diffusion, borrowing, education, learning, and the
like, and was thought to be the ultimate cause of cultural change and, particularly,
stability (M.W. Willey, 1931). It is apparent in a statement by Mead (1943: 633) that
‘education is the cultural process, the way in which each newborn infant, born with a
potentiality for learning greater than that of any other mammal, is transformed into a
full member of a specific human society, sharing with the other members a specific
human culture’. Herskovits (1943: 737) noted that researchers (including anthropologists
studying primitive societies) had focused on education as a stabilizing force but
they should also study mechanisms that encouraged cultural change.
The International Symposium on Anthropology held in 1952 resulted in a large
volume of papers (Kroeber, 1953a) and a volume of discussions (Tax et al., 1953). Of
the latter’s 20 sections, four include ‘Problems of Process’ as part of their titles. Nadel
consulted a dictionary to determine what a process is (Tax et al., 1953: 156). Linton was
‘struck by the very slight attention paid to what is thought of in the United States as
cultural process, that is, the whole field of diffusion, integration, invention, etc.’ (Tax et
al., 1953: 219). Greenburg noted the concept ‘seems to be of rather strategic importance’
but was basically restricted to language change and ‘historical diachronic’
dynamics, and that many language processes had analogous processes in culture (Tax et
al., 1953: 287–9). In his concluding essay Kroeber (1953b: 367) equated processes to
‘causal factors’. A few years later, evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley defined cultural
process in evolutionary terms: ‘Culture in the anthropological sense is neither an entity
nor a principle; it can only be treated as a type of process. [A culture] constitutes a self reproducing and self-varying process whereby the pattern of human activities is transmitted and transformed in the course of time’ (1958: 437). This echoes the ‘Chicago
school’ of sociology of 20 years earlier.
Spindler and Spindler (1959: 37) equated cultural processes with ‘culture change’.
They noted that prior to the 1940s, the focus was on cultural traits as particles of culture;
groups of people were culturally differentiated and interacted via diffusion. After the
1940s, in Spindler and Spindler’s view (see also Bee, 1974), a culture was an adaptation
such that cultural interaction could involve impact and subsequent (adaptive) adjustment.
The conceptual change arose because of White (1949, 1959) and Steward (1955),
who focused on the adaptational and functional aspects of cultures rather than their
historical transmission. The structural-functionalism of Malinowski and Radcliffe-
Brown also contributed to the shift (Barnard, 2000; Harris, 1968), as did a similar shift
in sociology (Matthews, 1989).
White (1948: 586) was influenced by Boas (Carneiro, 1981) and defined the culture
process as ‘a stream of [culture] elements that are continually interacting with one
another, forming new combinations and syntheses, eliminating some elements from
the stream, and incorporating new ones’. Such a statement was lacking in historical
ethnology. White (1947: 693) indicated that because culture was ‘dependent on the use
of symbols . . . its elements are readily transmitted [and thus] culture becomes a
continuum; it flows down through the ages from one generation to another and laterally
from one people to another’. White (1948: 586) noted that the culture process ‘has its
own principles and its own laws of change and development’. In an expanded discussion,
White (1950: 76) said:
[The culture process is] a stream of interacting cultural elements – of instruments,
beliefs, customs, etc. In this interactive process, each element impinges upon others
and in turn is acted upon by them. The process is a competitive one: instruments,
customs, and beliefs may become obsolete and eliminated from the stream. New
elements are incorporated from time to time. New combinations and syntheses –
inventions and discoveries – of cultural elements are continually being formed.
For White, the culture process not only is transmission (dynamic becoming), it involves
adaptation (as both dynamic becoming and a state of being) and also interaction (a state
White (1959: 16, 17) later reiterated that culture was ‘a stream flowing down through
time [comprising a] process’ and added that the ‘interrelationship of [culture traits] and
their integration into a single, coherent whole comprise the functions, or processes, of
the cultural system’. The operation of a culture involved ‘life-sustaining processes: subsistence,protection from the elements, defense from enemies, combating disease, etc.’
(White, 1959: 19). He used the term process to denote both the diachronic evolution
and the synchronic operation of a culture. Others did likewise (e.g. Hsu, 1959).
Carneiro, a student of White’s (Carneiro, 1981), defined process as a general phenomenon
constituting ‘the interaction through time of the elements of a system as the system
changes from one state to another’ (Carneiro, 1960: 145). Change is ‘determinate [and]
is an expression of underlying natural laws’ (1960: 145). Elements are the structural units
of a system, and they are ‘a conceptually separable class of phenomena’ including such
things as the ‘division of labor, cannibalism, hunting magic, plow agriculture, and crosscousin marriage’ (1960: 146). A system is ‘a set of structurally and functionally related elements articulated into a working whole’ (1960: 146). The ‘essence of process is change of some kind’, and ‘we may think of process as a very rapid succession of synchronic states of a system, each one only slightly modified over the preceding one’ (1960: 147).
Carneiro (1960: 148) argued that ‘We can arbitrarily, but quite justifiably, delimit a
particular segment of the culture process and proceed to investigate it by itself. [One
could] analyze the culture process logically into a number of constituent subprocesses’.
Cultural anthropologists had, he noted, ‘found it convenient to analyze [the culture
process] into such constituent [sub]processes as evolution, invention, diffusion, acculturation,integration, segmentation, and many more’ (Carneiro, 1960: 148).
These are the standard historical processes; all are within the diachronic evolution family.
Steward (1949: 3) argued that to be a science, anthropology had to seek patterns in
cultural data and to ‘ascertain processes that are duplicated independently in cultural
sequences, and to recognize cause and effect in both temporal and functional relationships’.
In his view, recitation of history was not an explanation of process, nor was identifying
which process(es) occurred in a particular case a scientific explanation because
such did not fully account for why that process worked in that particular case. He could
not define specific processes (Steward, 1949: 24) and concluded by quoting Strong
(1943: 41): When sufficient ‘comparative data are in hand the generalizations that will
emerge may well revolutionize our concepts of culture history and culture process over
the millennia’. More research was needed to define particular processes and to discover
as yet unknown ones. Strong (1943: 30) noted that ‘culture process throughout the
world seems to many of us to proceed according to as yet dimly perceived patterns which only hard-won knowledge can clarify’. He was arguing, as did others at the time (e.g.
Steward, 1949) and also later (e.g. Rouse, 1977; Terrell, 1986), that research should
involve documentation of patterns in the archaeological record as prerequisite to discerning cultural processes.
White and Steward, along with Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown (Barnard, 2000;
Harris, 1968), were concerned with cultural processes other than the standard historical
ones of diffusion, invention, and the like, and they influenced numerous individuals
who followed them (Bee, 1974). Discussion of the historical processes did not, however,
disappear after the 1950s. For example, some followed White and Steward and treated
adaptation as a process of becoming (e.g. Kaplan and Manners, 1972) or as a state of
being (e.g. Cohen, 1968).
When theoretically oriented discussions of cultural processes appeared in the 1960s,
there was no guarantee they would clarify matters. Beals et al. (1967: 6) provide one of
the only explicit definitions of process in the general anthropology literature of which I
am aware: ‘A process is a series of [causally, functionally, mechanically] interlinked events
which commences under certain defined conditions and which concludes under certain
defined conditions’. This definition leaves one wondering if the ‘defined conditions’ are
specified by the people whose actions comprise the events or by the anthropologist. Beals
et al. (1967: 258–9) also imply that ‘processual analysis’ in cultural anthropology
involves, first, observing the same process multiple times, keeping track of all variables
that seem to be interlinked, and those that seem to be independent and free to vary.
Second, arranging observations in a temporal series such that ‘acts and circumstances
and variations that occur when the process is repeated’, both within a cultural system
and in multiple cultural systems, facilitates comparative analyses and the building of
abstract models of processes (Beals et al., 1967: 258–9). Whether the model comprised
only a sequence of events, or the sequence plus their interlinkages, or the sequence plus
the interlinkages plus any causal variables is unclear.
Steward (1968: 321) clarified things a bit when he commented that the presentations
at the 1966 Man the Hunter conference indicated a discipline-wide failure to perfect ‘a
methodology for determining cause-and-effect relationships in the evolution of
different kinds of culture’. He noted that the flaw of the comparative method resided in
the presumption that similar cross-cultural patterns denoted similar processes (and
admitted to here contradicting his 1949 discussion). ‘Processes may be considered causes
in one sense, [but] for present purposes [he defined them] as changes set in motion when
more ultimate cultural and environmental factors are utilized by human societies’
(Steward, 1968: 322). Instead of discussing processes per se, Steward (1968) stressed the
distinction between processes and ‘causal factors’. The latter included cultural and
natural variables such as available technology and environmental potentials. Causal
factors constituted the historical contingencies that constrained and channeled the
operation of processes, and thus they helped account for why one process rather than
another operated in a particular case. But what a process was other than a sequence of
interlinked events remained unclear.
Bee (1974: 3) noted that ‘much of the theory and methodology of [cultural] change
studies has not rigorously and consistently dealt with the problem of processes of
change’. He found that processes varied from approach to approach within anthropology.
Bee (1974: 3–4) defined process as ‘the interaction of causal forces so as to produce a given condition. By “change process”, I mean the interaction of causal factors so as to
produce a transformation of one condition into another’. In the first sentence he was
using process to denote the synchronic operation of a culture and in the second sentence
process denotes the diachronic evolution of a culture. Bee, like others, used the terms
process and mechanism as synonyms.
Bohannan (1995: 81) echoed Boas when the former said ‘Discovering the processes
is the goal of every science’. Bohannan’s concern was with both how cultures operate and
how they change. He used more modern terms for some processes – transformation,
turbulence, equilibrium – but also included older terms such as diffusion and innovation.
He mentioned ‘cultural process theory’ (1995: 57), but never defined the term.
Sometimes he contrasted ‘culture process’ and ‘culture change’ (and implied that the
former involved the synchronic operation of a culture; 1995: 83), and other times he
indicated that cultural evolution itself was a process (1995: 131). Bohannan used
‘process’ to denote both the synchronic operation and the diachronic evolution of a
culture. Use of the same term between 1940 and 1990 to denote two distinct families
of dynamics no doubt contributed to the conflation of the two in archaeology. I turn
next to the history of the term in that subfield.
(to be continued)
R. Lee Lyman
University of Missouri-Columbia, USA