What is it about?

We transmit culture to our offspring and among each other. The study of cultural transmission is today a fascinating laboratory research topic, but with some deficiencies. It typically emphasizes conversation and single instances of transmission. This paper takes a wider view of transmission that also includes the many diverse mediums that we all recognize, i.e., social media, TV, ritual, formal education, academic research, legal decrees, and others. Second, it focuses not on ‘linear’ transmission, but on repeated or statistical instances of transmission. Finally, it moves out of the laboratory and into the wild. The research takes a complex view of culture as requiring maintenance against depreciation, as hierarchical with different properties at each scale, and as essential to the memory of successful social self-organization. The patterns and processes of cultural transmission are therefore of greatest importance to the world, and their study deserves our careful consideration.

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Why is it important?

Strangely absent from cultural transmission studies, and in research into social learning and cultural evolution more broadly, are studies of the most salient modes of cultural transmission in the contemporary world. Social media, television and entertainment, movies, pop music, academic publications, market reports, ritual, and others are rarely addressed in this research field that emphasizes conversation. This research is a naturalistic field study of the transmission effects of all these scales or mediums of cultural transmission.


Conducting this research was immensely satisfying. It employs a complex theoretical model of communication, cognition, social learning and culture, but it was only in the 'doing' of the experimental research that all facets were tested and exercised, that detailed questions could be asked, and that theory building improved well beyond what was originally imagined.

Thomas Abel
Tzu Chi University

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Cultural Transmission in Cycles: The Production and Maintenance of Cumulative Culture, Journal of Cognition and Culture, November 2015, Brill,
DOI: 10.1163/15685373-12342161.
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