HPhoto by Sébastien Goldberg on Unsplash

This page is intended to clarify the anthropological concepts of syncretism, domination, assimilation, and acculturation for students of anthropology.

Imagine that a cultural group “from the North” seeks better weather to avoid extreme winters and starts to travel in a southern direction while a group “from the South” seeks more fertile land for agriculture and begins to travel northward. Imagine that the Northern people are very advanced in medicine but that the Southern group is advanced in weaponry. These groups meet in the middle of their continent. Each may be a threat to the others’ survival and, based on varying circumstances, each would have more power than the other.

Scenario 1. The Southern group realizes that the Northern group has a higher chance of survival and therefore will likely be more successful in establishing their culture in the new land. The Southern group may decide to eliminate the competition for resources by attacking the Northern group using their more advanced weaponry. After a few years of warfare, the Northern group is completely destroyed and their cultural traditions, beliefs, and languages no longer have any survivors to continue them. This would be called “domination.”

Scenario 2. The Southern group realizes that, if they completely eliminate the Northern group, they won’t be able to access their medical knowledge anymore. So, instead of engaging in warfare, the Northern group uses the threat of violence to force the Northern people to make medicine for Southern families for free. Because the Southern families now have access to advanced medicine and advanced weaponry, they become more and more culturally powerful and have no incentive to engage with Northern culture. Northerners are expected to learn the Southern language, religion, and traditions in order to be viewed as “civilized” within the Southern-dominated culture and, over time, the Northerners completely “assimilate” to the Southern society.

Scenario 3. Instead of engaging in warfare, the two groups decide to engage with each other. Because the Southern group has more advanced weapons, they use the threat of force to demand that the Northern group trade their advanced medicine for a very low price. Unequal exchanges occur where many members of the Northern group start working for Southern families causing the Northern culture to adopt a high number of cultural traditions from the Southern group while the Southern group benefits from the Northern’s medicine but otherwise adopts none of their cultural traditions, beliefs, or practices. In this case, we would say that we were seeing “acculturation” within the Northern group.

Scenario 4. When the two groups first meet, they share their knowledge of advanced weaponry and advanced medicine with each other. Both groups maintain their cultural religions, traditions, and languages at first. Because each group has something valuable to offer the other, no one group has more power or influence and members of each group start to marry each other causing the cultural traditions to fuse together. A form of both cultural backgrounds exists in this new community even though both cultural backgrounds adapt and change over time. After many generations, this new group starts to call itself the Central people and their cultures are fused as a result of “syncretism”.

Scenario 5. The Northerners are able to market their advanced medicines to the Southerners as something essential to their survival while simultaneously downplaying the need for weapons. The Northerners start to sell endless amounts of medicine to the Southerners and make huge profits which they then use to create their own cultural clothing in large quantities. Because the clothes are more affordable than their traditional clothing, the Southerners begin wearing Norther-style clothing within a few short years but otherwise do not change their cultural traditions. This would be an example of “acculturation.”

Scenario 6. Upon first meeting the Southerners, the Northerners’ medicine is so advanced that they are better able to survive the new diseases, animal bites, and weather of their new, central climate. Members of the Southern group struggle to survive and must start working for Northern families at a very low wage in order to purchase medicines from them. Over time, the Northerner population grows rapidly and lives to an old age causing them to outnumber the Southern population. Because they are the minority, Southerners are then expected to speak the Northern language and practice the Northern religion in order to be considered “civilized” and they are, ultimately, “assimilated” into the Northern culture.

Scenario 7. The Northern culture perceives the Southern people to be a threat based on their advanced weaponry. In order to prevent the elimination of their own people, the Northerners use their advanced knowledge of medicine to create a sterilization drug that stops Southerners from being able to have children. The Northern government secretly starts to administer this medicine to Southerners and, within two generations, the Southerners due out completely. This would be an example of “domination”.

These 7 scenarios reflect some possible outcomes of an interaction between two cultural groups. Each incorporates events that have occurred throughout human history but should only be referenced as theoretical examples intended to illustrate the anthropological concepts.

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store