Cultural adaptation is a relatively new concept used to define the specific capacity of human beings and human societies to overcome changes of their natural and social environment by modifications to their culture. The scale of culture changes depends on the extent of habitat changes and could vary from slight modifications in livelihood systems (productive and procurement activity, mode of life, dwellings and settlements characteristics, exchange systems, clothing, and so on) to principal transformation of the whole cultural system, including its social, ethnic, psychological, and ideological spheres.
History of the Idea
The origin of the concept of cultural adaptation and dissemination in contemporary anthropological literature is connected with the concept of cultural systems that, to a certain extent, fit the living conditions of their transmitters. The theoretical background of such an approach was created at the end of the 19th century in the American school of possibilism led by Franz Boas. Possibilists regarded nature as a basis from which a great number of different versions of cultural communities could arise and develop. Bronislaw Malinowski, the founder of the functional approach to the interpretation of culture, understood culture as the specific answer to the challenges of nature. Representatives of the New York school of culture studies, led by Ashley Montagu, regarded culture as an adaptive dimension of human society.
Western European anthropologists in the 1950s and 1960s—in line with a reconsideration of the fundamental basis of theoretical reflection in the humanities—took the next step. Julian Steward put forward the idea that we should regard the natural environment as one of many factors of cultural change. About the same time, Leslie White proposed the view that human culture was an extrasomatic system of adaptation with three basic directions: technological, social, and ideological.
With this theoretical background, a social direction was formed for investigations in the fields of cultural and social anthropology, cultural geography, ecology, psychology, and archaeology. Its proponents see their primary task as the detection of the ecological function of culture. In the mid-1990s, we could distinguish two basic approaches within this framework: the phenomenological approach, which paid special attention to the active character of primitive populations’ engagement with their environments, and the cognitive approach, which tried to classify mental representations of the environment. As a result, western European and American science now thinks of cultural systems and societies as autonomous but mutually interdependent units in which complicated mechanisms of adaptation to living conditions are elaborated and realized. In this process, cultural systems act as determinants of social trajectory, and society is an indispensable component of this trajectory.
In Marxist Soviet and post-Soviet science, the analysis of natural geographic factors in the genesis of culture and detection of culture’s ecological function is connected with the ethnographic direction of interpreting culture from an actional approach. The movement’s most prominent founder and promoter, E. Markaryan, regarded culture as a system of extrabiological mechanisms, through which the whole cycle of human activity is realized, primarily in all of its specific manifestations: stimulation, programming, regulation, fulfillment, maintenance, and reproduction. The adaptive effect here could be achieved as a result of the plurality of a culture system’s potentialities. At the same time, the majority of actionalism’s proponents don’t deny that the specific mode of adaptation to living conditions is elaborated in human society. There, the cultural system no longer acts as an adaptive unit but only as a universal mechanism of adaptation.
The concept of the ecological function of culture has been further developed in recent studies by Russian ethnologist Sergei Arutyunov. According to Arutyunov, we should regard culture as a set of different ways of institutionalizing human activity. Culture’s principal functions are the formation and transformation of the environment, on one hand, and of human beings with their spiritual and physical characteristics, on the other. The formation of a cultural system is a process of adaptation to specific niches, at first only natural ones, but niches that, in the course of time, become more social. To be able to realize its adaptive function, culture should not only be capable of responding to a minimum of environmental requirements, but also have at its disposal the potential necessary for the achievement of its adaptive effect in new conditions.
Main Notions and Theories of Cultural Adaptation
In recent decades, the concept of cultural adaptation has become an integral part of many fields of behavioral studies, such as behavioral psychology, behavioral archaeology, behavioral anthropology, and others. Their principal subject of investigation is behavioral systems, which are regarded as a model of connections between human activity and components of natural environment. In the second half of the 1990s, such notions as behavioral selection, behavioral flow, behavioral repertoire and others contributed to the rise in popularity of a cultural adaptation concept.
Series of theories, notions, and concepts have been elaborated on in connection with the concept of cultural adaptation, among them, adaptive level, adaptive policies and processes, and accommodation and assimilation. Most are subjects of sharp discussions. At the present, the concept of optimum adaptive level appears to be the only one that does not invoke substantial opposition. The idea of optimum adaptive level is that the human group always tries to minimize the changes necessary for achieving an adaptive effect. We can trace the roots of this idea to physics in the 18th century. Lagrange formulated for the first time the principle of least action. In the first half of the 20th century, this theory in different variations was explored by Losch in economic geography and by Zipf in social sciences. It plays an important role in systems analysis (as in the concept of minimum potential energy) and in operational analysis (the route of optimum transfer or geodesic line). Environmental psychologists have also adapted it.
In applying the concept of cultural adaption, there are several acute problems, including the gradation of adaptive levels for each adaptive policy. During the past 40 years, anthropologists have discussed a broad spectrum of variation in parameters. Among them, we can discern criteria that can be defined rather precisely, such as the concrete scoring of the net efficiency of food acquisition, alongside absolute abstract notions, such as happiness.
- Arutyunov, S. (1993). Adaptivnoie znachenie kulturnogo polimorfizma [Adaptive meaning of cultural polymorphism]. Etnograficheskoe obozrenie 3, 41-56.
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- Markaryan, E. S. (1975). K ponimaniyu specifiki chelovecheskogo obschestva kak adaptivnoi sistemy [To the understanding of specificity of human society as adaptive system]. In A. D. Lebedev (Ed), Geograficheskie aspekty ecologii cheloveka [Geographic aspects of human ecology] (pp. 139-149). Moscow: Institut geografii AN SSSR.
- Steward, J. H. (1955). Theory of culture change. Urbana, IL: Urbana University Press.
- White, L. (1959). The Evolution of culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.