Prominent cultural anthropologist Leslie A. White’s posthumously published book, The Concept of Cultural Systems (1975), compared to his other works, flies below the radar in academic and laymen circles.  The first time I came across this publication, nearly twenty years ago, my impression was exactly the same as I hold today.  The book is an excellent primer for understanding how and why humans as carriers of culture participate in cultural systems and participate in the process of cultural evolution.

Understanding cultural systems is essential in studying geography of conflict.  It allows researchers to better develop conceptual foundation around their topic of study, and to more efficiently analyze cultural phenomena and culture change.  

Culture, Vectors, Systems

Culture is a uniquely human behavior dependent upon abstract thought and communication.  This ability allows humans to create culture traits, that is, to produce material and non-material manifestations of cultural behavior.  Such creations and their use, in turn, contribute to the process of cultural evolution in chronological (history) and spatial (geography) directions through humans as their biological carriers. 

Distinction must be made between culture and cultural traits.  Culture per se, White advocated, is a superorganic entity that exists independently from individual members of human society, is essentially devoid of function, and it has its own direction [1].  In his earlier works White supported the idea of culture having an actual function and purpose, which is “to make life secure and enduring for the human species (White 1959, 8) [2] ”.  Toward the end of his career he retracted that notion (as many results of possessing culture were found to be devastating and destructive, rather than making life secure and enduring), resulting in his drastic modification of views he had held for years.  Culture is simply what makes us humans, yet it is important to remember that:

As a biological datum, man lies outside the cultural process; he enters it as a human being, but as a human being he is a constellation of cultural elements, a capsule of culture.  The belief that man can control his culture, like other illusions, is made possible and nourished by a profound and comprehensive ignorance of the nature, structure, and behavior of cultural systems (1975,9).  

Cultural traits, on the other hand, do have a function because they exist as structural parts of cultural systems.  Although cultural traits originate with humans, our individual role is only to serve as their carriers in this process, he finally added.  The superorganic idea of culture—that it exists as its own entity—has intrigued cultural anthropologists throughout the twentieth century [3].  “Culture traits act and react among themselves in accordance with the principle of cause and effect,” [4] which meant culture and culture change must be explained only in terms of culture that exists as a superorganic entity functioning through cultural systems.  Not surprisingly this concept still remains one of the most difficult philosophical concepts to define and has generated countless discourses among cultural anthropologists.   The function of culture can be explained through the concept of cultural systems, White believed, because “system,” by definition, is something whose purpose is to execute acts and processes.

‘What is the function of the earth?’ for example, ‘the function of the solar system?’ ‘What is the function of man?’ I would not know how to answer these questions.  But if we ask ‘What are the functions of this or that system?’ we know how to proceed with an answer….The function, or functions, of a system are the acts performed, the processes executed, by the system (White 1975, 13).

Systems, however, do not exist independently from each other; rather, they are interconnected through the space in which they operate. Cultural evolution as the entire process is then the product of interaction among competing cultural systems.  Systems are formed, exist through time, and diminish or transform.  Cultural vectors—structures that compose cultural systems—define the internal strength and form of a particular system.  Their interaction within a cultural system, through their own process of competition and adaptation, results in balance and relative stability of a particular system.  Stability, however, is often disturbed because people individually have no control over their cultural system.  When competition between vectors accelerates, it leads to the elimination of weak vectors, leading to change in evolutionary path and cultural transformation of a particular human group. 

White listed tribes, states, nations, or different branches of government, as examples of cultural systems that radically influence the cultural evolution of people who share similar lifestyles.  Stone Age-like communities of indigenous tribes resided for centuries in a cultural system that changed little.  A clearly determined way of life through a clear set of rules (cultural system’s vectors) allowed Eskimo’s (Inuit) to thrive for a long time in their own environment.  Unable to prevent the sudden introduction and diffusion of firearms and alcohol, two powerful vectors of our own system, they experienced rapid crumbling of centuries-old values and set of rules, for which they are still paying the price.  The only way to prevent demise of such proportion would be to integrate changes gradually, but cultural systems do not operate in a gentlemanly manner.     

Cultural systems have a clear goal: survival, increase in strength, increase in power, and increase in size.  All of these goals are achievable only if the system has the ability to defend itself from external as well as internal harm.  Chances for continuing existence, while experiencing the traditional way-of-life, is rather slim as is illustrated in the example of Eskimos. 

Strong systems are composed of vectors that are secure from outside influences and are not threatened by other systems.  Weak systems, on the other hand, are endangered any time interaction takes place.  This does not mean that the internal structure of a weak cultural system is weak in terms of a relationship between its own vectors, but only when a particular system’s vectors are interacting with the external factors.  Given that systems do not exist in a cultural vacuum and isolation, as illustrated in geography by concepts of cultural diffusion and interaction, this kind of struggle perpetually continues, without the possibility of permanent or long term equilibrium.

Folk and Popular Culture Systems

Tribal systems indeed serve as an excellent example of cultural systems (Figure 1).  As long as they exist in relative cultural isolation, they strongly preserve the status quo.  Isolation is essential to the tribe’s continuing cultural existence.  That is to say, avoidance of access from outside of the system is perceived as what a tribal cultural system exactly needs to survive.  This is the classic situation existing in relationship between (socially or physically isolated) folk cultures and (contemporary, mainstream) popular cultures.  In such conditions, strong vectors control a system’s evolutionary directions as rules are strictly defined and enforced and structural changes are not allowed.  Change is deemed to be threatening, resulting in deliberate preservation of the status quo.

Folk culture is our past, while popular culture is the present and future of human society.  Today only a few isolated groups retain and live in genuine folk culture.  They are indigenous groups in remote areas of the globe, regions such as the tropical rainforest of Brazil, Africa, and Asia.  All other cultural groups are fully popular or undergoing the often painful transition from folk to popular culture. 

In ethnological tradition the main characteristics of folk culture are homogeneity, social cohesiveness, and reluctance to change.  Folk culture systems rely on “traditional values” because the set of well-known norms, or “the way we always lived,” preserves the status quo, therefore protecting the system from outside interference.  A higher degree of cultural isolation creates less internal competition between vectors, that is, cultural systems may remain unchanged during a longer temporal context.  Members of pure folk culture live in a rural setting involved in non- commercial, self-reliant activities, and without the need for literacy and formal education.  New generations are enculturated (brought into a culture) into an already existing set of norms, an essential aspect for the group’s survival.

Diametrically opposed to this cultural setting is popular culture, which thrives on the continuous process of change.  There, vectors of cultural systems transform rapidly and often, because of the intense internal competition between vectors.  Indeed, in literate and commercial society the term change represents a hallmark.  Commercialism, or in colloquial terms cash economy, and literacy as formal education, are both fundamental aspects of the popular culture system.  Orientation toward growth and progress contributes to continuous economic development.  The Industrial Revolution and resulting urbanization, which affected the world during the last two centuries, are good examples.  Social heterogeneity and diversity is another product of a popular culture system.

Figure 1. Contrasts between folk and popular cultural systems.

Source: C.F. Gritzner (2004), personal communication.

The contemporary world’s reality, however, is not black and white.  One may assume that the global culture [5] image is painted gray.  Perpetual evolutionary motion contributes to the creation of different evolutionary stages in different cultures.  Some are not fully popular or fully folk.  In fact, many groups are in the process of transformation from folk to popular culture.  How far from being a full folk or popular culture a particular group is depends on the degree of integration of popular culture traits. 

During early evolutionary stages few traits are integrated, while many are rejected. Initially accepted traits are mainly material, because of their practical value.  They can contribute to the change in a system, but the system has the ability to adjust without feeling the threat of severe damage.  Such changes can ultimately expand the system’s strength.  Rifles and jewelry, to name a few material traits, received instant acceptance among members of even the most geographically isolated folk cultures.   

Non-material traits, on the other hand, are less likely to be accepted during early stages.  It takes time for outside ideas, beliefs, and customs to be integrated because in order to do so an existing system must fundamentally change.  Non-material culture represents the core of each system, thus in order to accept such traits (vectors) the system’s core requires essential transformation.  The process of acceptance and integration of non-material culture is extremely slow.  People do not change their culture rapidly. 

Replacement of someone’s basic cultural beliefs requires time.  When we talk about “cultural values” entrenched in our lifestyle, we are actually referring to the strongest vectors of our cultural system.  Once vectors lose control over the system the “cultural values” fade out and are replaced by others.  This is how the popular culture lifestyle is replacing contemporary folk culture lifestyle.

Systems, Individuals, and Conflicts

Allegiance to clan and tribe through unwritten rules passed down for millennia is more deeply rooted in some traditional societies than is religion (which so often is integrated into an already existing system to serve a system’s function, rather than vice versa).  These rules need not be written, because they represent a group’s raison d’etre and without them neither that group nor its cultural system exists, which is why the system functions for collective benefit instead for the individual.  The magnitude of an individual’s power expands only if it contributes to the system’s expansion in power.

Humans, as mentioned earlier, are only carriers of cultural system’s commands.  Individual decisions are always the product of cultural systems.  Individuals cannot modify the system unless the system allows it for its own benefit.  If conditions for modification of a particular system are not serving the system’s purpose, an individual decision against the system will be unproductive, because the system’s purpose is to serve a cultural group’s common goal, whatever that might be at the moment (often self-destructive). 

Great men of history, according to White, do not exist [6].  They are simply products of cultural systems or what we often refer to as “historical circumstances.”  Simply stated, without war, there are no great generals. These circumstances are nationalism, kinship, tribal loyalty, honor, fear of terrorism, the concept of motherland, and any other superorganic elements of collective behavior directing individual decisions of ordinary people.  Instead of trying to solve problems by relying on local individuals to resolve conflicts, the world peace brokers need a holistic, systemic, methodology in preventing problems [7]. 

Ethnic conflicts throughout the globe grow out of basic differences between folk and popular culture systems.  Mainly, such conflicts are between two “most compact, the best integrated, the most viable and durable social organisms that cultural evolution has produced” [8]: tribe and state.

Folk culture traits form the backbone of tribal cultural systems. The magnitude of the tribal cultural systems’ resistance to integration into popular culture (state) depends on their strength at the beginning of integration process.  If at the initial stage a particular tribal system has a weak structure, if its vectors’ magnitudes are minimal, then a rapid and less antagonistic process of integration takes place.  If not then the conflicting systems will experience much more drastic forms of antagonism, various types of serious internal strife, and often an open warfare as the last option.  If the folk system is initially strong, with deeply seated tribal organization, it has more to lose.  Thus, it will do everything to prevent the end of its existence and the advancement of the popular culture system. 

When strong folk and weak popular culture systems collide, the process of conflict will be bloodier, longer lasting, and more damaging to both sides than if one or both systems are weak.  The final result, nevertheless, is simply unavoidable; folk culture systems, regardless of how much they fight or how strong they are now, eventually lose their battle.

Direction and Prediction             

If we analyze the structure of a particular folk system as it is today, and identify the internal relationship between dominant and inferior vectors, we can predict a group’s collective future behavior and a system’s direction with a high level of certainty.  The philosophical concept of cultural systems serves then as a useful empirical tool for the study of collective behaviors. 

Geographers are well suited to benefit from adding the concept of cultural systems into their methodology and analysis.  Competition within and between the systems for their increase in size and power, is a main factor in creating conflicts and possesses an inherited spatial dimension.  As every cultural system has its own purpose, a geographer can analyze and articulate a scope of that system’s spatial manifestation.  In turn, other scientific disciplines can greatly benefit from geographical analysis of cultural systems’ spatial behavior and their impact in particular areas or regions, leading toward an increase in proactive (prediction) analysis of conflicts.    

Definition of terms:

Concept of cultural systems: An idea that (superorganic) culture functions as a whole of many cultural systems whose interactions, i.e. competition for dominance, are ultimately determining the direction in which culture will evolve.

Cultural geography:  Applications of the concept of culture to all aspects of human behavior, including the human imprint on the Earth’s surface, in a spatial context; study of the geographic manifestations of culture.

Superorganic:  The premise that culture is a separate entity that exists independently from individuals in society.

Cultural system’s vectors:  The variety of structures of which a cultural system is composed; organizations or groups with their own magnitude and an objective. A vector competes against other vectors, with an increase in importance being its ultimate goal. Vectors with higher importance have more power in the process of shaping the structure and direction of cultural system.


[1] In this context global culture is defined as the set of cultures, or cumulative expressions of many groups of people who share identical lifestyles, rather than culture as a concept

[2] White 1975.

[3] White (1987, 290) defined the relationship between the individual and culture: “To be sure, culture is dependent upon the human species and could not exist without it. It is true also that the human species is composed of discrete physical entities that we call individuals. But the scholars that we have just quoted are doing more than to give utterance to these obvious and trite commonplaces. They are asserting that the individual is a prime mover, a determinant; that he is the cause, culture the effect; that it is the individual who “is responsible” for change in the culture process; and that, therefore, an explanation of “the larger configuration” of culture must lie in consideration of the individual. And it is this proposition that we reject—and reverse: it is the individual who is explained in terms of his culture, not the other way around.”

[4] White 1975, 173.

[5] Many consider Kroeber’s (1917) article as the pivotal initiative for the discussion on culture as superorganic that led to series of publications and wide discourse in regard to this topic. 

[6]  White 1975, 6.

[7] White, L.A. 1975. The Concept of Cultural Systems. New York: Columbia University Press.

[8] White, L.A. 1959. Evolution of Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Cultural Systems and Conflicts