Module 2. Our Power & Identity


People biologically and culturally adapt. Cultural change or evolution is influenced directly (e.g., intentionally), indirectly (e.g., inadvertently), or by force. These changes are a response to fluctuations in the physical or social environment (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Social movements often start in response to shifting circumstances such as an event or issue in an effort to evoke cultural change. People will voluntarily join for collective action to either preserve or alter a cultural base or foundation.

The fight over control of a cultural base has been the central conflict among many civil and human rights movements. On a deeper level, many of these movements are about cultural rights and control over what will be the prevailing or dominant culture. For example, the cancel culture or call-out movement aims to ostracize individuals out of social and professional circles as a form of boycotting or shunning someone who has acted or spoken in an unacceptable manner. Individuals ostracized call out the expression “cancel culture” or “cancelled” to protest their free speech and censorship.

The “call-out” culture developed in 2014 as part of the #MeToo movement and gave victims of sexual abuse and harassment the ability to publicly call out their abusers and be heard particularly for sex crimes committed by powerful individuals. The Black Lives Matter movement applied the same method to call-out police who killed Black men to highlight the racism and discrimination against Black communities by law enforcement. The hashtag “#cancel” was inspired by activist Suey Park when she called out the Twitter account of The Colbert Report for a racist tweet about Asians. The use of the hashtag generated outrage and debate, and the practice became widespread on Black Twitter to stop supporting a person or work. By 2019 the phrase “cancel culture” became popular to recognize accountability for offensive conduct. Recently, political conservatives in the United States have adopted the term to deflect reactions or judgements for using politically incorrect speech.

Changes in culture are either adaptive (better suited for the environment) or maladaptive (inadequate or inappropriate for the environment). During times of distress or disaster such as the COVID-19 pandemic, people made cultural changes to daily norms and practices such as wearing a mask and getting vaccinated for health, safety, and survival. The pandemic forced adaptive cultural changes in medicine (vaccines), healthcare (emergency preparedness), and online sectors and services (videoconferencing and education). However, not all cultural changes were helpful or productive such as social distancing and the lockdowns during COVID. These changes resulted in maladaptive behaviors and financial stress. Many people continue to suffer mental health and substance issues as a result of social isolation during the pandemic and the economy remains in recovery from government, business, and school closures during peak waves of illness. People adjust and learn to cope with cultural changes whether adaptive or maladaptive in an effort to soothe psychological or emotional needs.

Though technology continues to impact changes in society, culture does not always change at the same pace. There is a lag in how rapidly cultural changes occur. Generally, material culture changes before non-material culture. Contact between groups diffuses cultural change among groups, and people are usually open to adapt or try new artifacts or material possessions before modifying their values, beliefs, norms, expressive symbols (i.e., verbal and non-verbal language), or practices. Influencing fashion is easier than altering people’s political or religious beliefs.


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer Copyright © 2022 by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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