What is Transculturation?

Fernando Ortiz, the Cuban anthropologist who coined the term transculturation. Editorial credit: Lena Lir / Shutterstock.com
Fernando Ortiz, the Cuban anthropologist who coined the term transculturation. Editorial credit: Lena Lir / Shutterstock.com

The phrase transculturation was first used in 1947 by Fernando Ortiz, a Cuban anthropologist who used the term to denote the converging and merging of cultures. The term encompasses the progression from one culture to another, the acquiring of another culture, as well as the subsequent emergence of a new cultural phenomenon. Transculturation can result from colonialism, particularly in the post-colonial period where the indigenous people struggle to re-acquire their sense of identity. Ortiz pointed out the destructive result of Spanish colonialism of the native population of Cuba, terming it as a "failed transculturation."

The Scope of Transculturation

Transculturation encompasses multiculturalism, interracial marriage, ethnic conflict and war, racism, culturalism, and other contexts that involve more than one culture. The concept represents one aspect of human events and the global phenomena. History has exhibited that the process of transculturation often starts with conflict. Boundary tensions is a primary trigger for conflict where communities can turn hostile to one another if they encroach close enough to each other. A group of individuals will then seek to bring peaceful resolutions by serving as go-betweens. The resolutions facilitate co-existence which brings about the merging of cultures. The obstacles to ethnoconvergence are not profound as language, being the main issue, can be overcome in one generation. Transculturation has been rendered complex in the age of globalization given the existence of the numerous layers of abstractions which characterize daily experiences. Elizabeth Kath proposes that we can no longer view the process solely in relation to face to face in the global era as we need to consider the multiple layers of abstracted interactions that are entwined through face to face interactions. Kath calls this phenomenon layers of transculturation.

The Phases of Transculturation

Transculturation as a process consists of four phases: capture, compromise, adjustment, and self-assertion. The first phase involves the capture by the oppressor. While illustrating this phase, Ortiz used the example of the white master enslaving black individuals against their will. The white master, who subscribes to ethnocentrism, views the black person's culture as inferior and proceeds to treat them as subjects. The second phase involves compromise. The black subject at this stage makes some adjustments to their ways to avoid punishment while the white master adjusts himself to the new environment. The adjustment period is the third stage. This phase is well illustrated in the second generation of the enslaved people in America. The subject respects the authority of his superiors on the one hand but still resents the oppression meted on him. The subject constantly struggles to find the balance between disdain and respect. The enslaved individuals lacks the freedom to fight the system and so they begin to adopt the customs and language of the white master. The fourth phase is self-assertion where although the black man has adopted other customs, he is proud of his heritage and achieves dignity. Inter-racial cooperation rises even higher although cases of prejudices are still present. Ortiz envisioned a fifth phase called integration where the society was culturally integrated, and racial factors would possess no divisive power.

The Challenges of Ethnoconvergence

Ethnocentrism remains the main obstacle to ethnoconvergence. The concept denotes the process of judging a culture through the lenses of one's own. The individual will more often than not conclude that their culture is superior to other cultures. Religion and custom are some of the ethnocentric dividers. In many regions, ethnic divides involve two distinct groups with each viewing the other as foreign. The assertion has however been challenged by many who view the binary as being the exception whereas the norm is more dynamic. Religion, apart from being highly personal, is an attached aspect of culture although it is not neatly consistent with ethnic identity. Most cosmopolitan societies have religion as political, social, intellectual, and utilitarian aspect of their lives, at least from the point of view of populations of immersed cultures. The very idea of ethnicity and related distinctions is incompatible with their immersed concepts. Languages are regarded as an important component of ethnicity in most societies including Europe. However, Europeans are more often than not polyglots, and they may categorize other people by their ethnicities. The practical ways of distinguishing cultures bear similarities to ethnocentrism tendencies. The cultural and political importance of national and regional languages are sustained since these polyglots use the dominant language of the areas they visit. The tourists thus adhere to the ‘ethnic integrity of the place". There exist numerous examples of the significance of language. Tatar-Mongol colonists occupying the Taiga in pre-Russian Siberia mostly recognized native speakers of Turkic languages as one of their "own people" and viewed other non-Turkic groups as "foreigners." This perception was adhered to despite the native communities having the same level of material culture as well as sharing a lot of a primitive culture with those tribes that were foreign to the Tatar-Mongols who were Muslim-Buddhist.

Modern Day Transculturation

The isolation of cultures has been diminishing in the modern day. Different cultural groups interacted less than they currently do due to factors such as more landmass that was not inhabited, less efficient communication and transportation, and a lesser global population. Transculturation has always taken place in history however in varying degrees. The process occurred in large-scale during colonialization as Europeans asserted their values and traditions to the areas they occupied. Some countries in South America, for example, use Spanish in varying degrees as a result of the Spanish conquest. Christianity also occupies a prominent place in the region due to this conquest. Globalization is currently becoming more prominent and different cultures have never been so economically, socially, and politically intertwined than they have been in the past few years. A current example of transculturation in modern day is the proliferation of American cultural values to other areas of the world in various aspects including language, dress, and music. The media has become the modern agent of transculturation since it transmits cultural information through media such as movies and music.


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