Here I've asked about overarching social structure at an interplanetary/interstellar scale. One of the answers has me wondering about something a bit different, a couple of my favourite stories (Frank Herbert's Seed Stock and Larry Niven's Destiny's Road) deal with the changing nature of human culture as colonists spread across extra-solar worlds but both deal with small, isolated colonies that have already lost, or are rapidly losing, their technical capabilities pushing them back onto industrial revolution or earlier technology. Both colonies undergo "fragmentation", in Destiny's Road one group breaks into several distinct cultural units largely divided by geography. Seed Stock's colonists are divided even before they arrive and are splitting more as their environment destroys their technical capabilities.

So the question is two fold; at what point are two cultures recognisably different? And how do they get that way? Specifically I'm wondering how a global society that shares an established cultural base (the same beliefs, language, and material technologies) and that has communications systems as good as, or better than, the modern communications web would undergo enough local divergence in customs that distinct regional cultures, either physical or virtual in spacial distinction, are recognisable.

An extreme example, that I hope demonstrates my area of interest; if I took one person and copied their synaptic map, and thus their identity, onto four billion artificial bodies and spread them reasonably uniformly across a fresh world with at least modern communications, what factors would have the largest impact on the initially uniform social identity in terms of causing it to diverge to the point where there are multiple recognisably different cultural groups on world in question? Obviously no initial colony is actually this uniform but I'm hoping this will give people a starting point for thinking about the problem in the right light.

I'm using a really basic 100-level Anthropology definition for "culture" here; a set of beliefs, practices, and material trappings. I'm concerned with the break up of a global culture that is recognisably uniform into subsets that are recognisably distinct, on the scale of a world not across various worlds as divergence on that scale is all but inevitable.

  • $\begingroup$ There are many doctoral thesis on how culture is affected. this is an incredibly huge question simply because of using the word culture ambiguously. No answer can possibly be concrete . $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 19:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Olga Nope that's the point, it doesn't matter what the starting point looks like, I want to know what needs to happen to any globally integrated group to get sufficient divergence that they no longer recognisably share a culture. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Sep 17, 2017 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash, you need to define your terms (no need to describe your setting, just give definitions... like in a dictionary) if you want more specific answers. As it is now, the answer is 'time'. $\endgroup$
    – Olga
    Commented Sep 17, 2017 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Olga Cool, how much time, what's the recognition cut-off, and what effect does time have that causes the collapse/divergence that you're recognising? $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Sep 17, 2017 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash, this discussion is meaningless without you providing specifics in a form of definitions. I am not a mindreader and I have no idea what you mean by collapse/divergence. Moreover, you do not explain what culture is. You provide a link to the Wikipedia page about agricultural monocultures... $\endgroup$
    – Olga
    Commented Sep 17, 2017 at 12:44

3 Answers 3


It all starts with subcultures

There are a lot of opinions regarding the nature and definition of subcultures. I think that for this particular question the most suitable criteria of a developed subculture would be self-identification as a member of a subculture within a bigger culture. This subculture must be perceived as different from the mainstream culture in some meaningful and distinct way. This difference can be rather small but it should be important enough for an individual to base their identity on it.

As the time goes by, subcultures might become mainstream in a certain region or within a certain social group. The differences also accumulate over time. The identification with subculture becomes stronger, while identification with previously mainstream culture is less pronounced or disappears completely. At this stage, we can talk about diverged cultures rather than just subcultures.

Developed and fast mass communications might slow down the process of diverging, especially if there is a well-working propaganda machine. In this case, the mainstream culture will evolve to accommodate new technology, social norms, etc. and to continue to dominate. The subcultures will evolve as well, but will not become fully dominant. They would also be likely to share many core values of the main culture. Of course, there can be countercultures, but they rarely have many members.

Modern communications also can speed up the formation of new cultures by spreading and reinforcing stereotypes, norms, and attitudes associated with subcultures. If regional stations work on strengthening local identities and highlight differences from other regions, the local subculture might quickly become dominant.

The timeframe is hard to predict since a lot depends on the original culture, cultural policies, media behaviour, and population mobility.

Why cultures might start to diverge?


Different environments create different lifestyles which lead to different cultures. Geographical location, population density, climate conditions, etc. will all contribute to changes in behaviour, attitudes, cultural symbols and meanings, preferences in food and clothing. For example, in tropics, it makes no sense to wear thick sweaters; in the early afternoon, the temperature is too high for being outside; the food spoils faster; there are more parasites. People living in these conditions would wear lightweight clothes, rest while it is hot, leave no food leftovers, and be especially accurate to avoid parasite infection.

'Us' vs 'Them'

Other changes will be associated with the development of a group identity. Groups can be based on location, occupation, ethnicity, religion, or whatever suits your story. Humans love to divide the world into 'us' and 'them'. And when they do it they come up with distinctive differences (whether they are real or imaginary). Some of the groups can actively cultivate and promote these differences. This process is similar to existing nationalistic movements. Moreover, these tendencies to intensify in response to globalisation and attempts of cultural homogenization.

Interestingly, modern astronauts often develop this distinction between 'us' (in space) and 'them' (the Command Centre) despite the rotations and relatively short time in space. Since our space technology is still in early development, this greatly increases the dangers.

Regional specialisation

Specialisation of a region is another important contributing factor. Mining, agricultural, and research communities differ in their lifestyles and mindsets. Miners might be more focused on technology, while farmers might be more attuned to natural cycles and weather. An agricultural community will also structure its life and cultural activities around crops (the same as in agricultural societies on Earth). A research community might be more meritocratic and open to novel ideas and practices.

A real-life example is differences between Californian urban and farming populations. While they live in the same climate and uphold many of the core American values, they are quite distant culturally.

Pre-existing cultural biases

Your original culture might have some biases that would lead to marginalisation of some groups. These groups will start to develop their own identities and subcultures. Often these subcultures will start as countercultures that aim to diminish the psychological impact of marginalisation on group members.

Pre-existing subcultures

It is also important to note that 'monocultures' are not truly monolithic. There are subcultures within them. There is no guarantee that the balance among subcultures will be the same in all regions, especially if they specialise in some activity. Some aspects of these subcultures might become a part of the core values of one group of people but not the other.

There are plenty of other reasons for developing local cultures. In fact, it would be almost impossible to keep the original culture as mainstream without establishing a totalitarian regime. The colonists have to be moved around a lot and often to prevent local identities from forming. The state propaganda should be widespread and very persuasive. Local deviations must be suppressed at all costs. The conditions of living must be controlled in all areas, so they do not differ too much (consider differences in suburban and inner-city cultures in the USA). All education must be provided and regulated by the government to ensure appropriate socialisation and transfer of cultural norms, ideals, expectations, and taboo.


I think I get the gist of what you are saying, here are the variables:

First, culture doesnt really collapse, it changes.

But to understand how it would change you have to understand what drives culture:

  • Technology: technology both absences and advancements has driven cultural changes since man walked the planet. Rock and role, wouldnt exist without the electric guitar.

  • Sex: mating is necessary for any species to survive and always has some bearing on culture, what is acceptable what is not. Even the abscence of the need for mating would certainly affect culture.

  • Government: A government that advocates personal freedoms veruses self-sacrifice for the common good. Would both be influenced by culture and in turn influence culture.

  • Religion: the effects of religion on culture as a diverse as religions themselves. It can also serve as cultural backup file in the case of a disaster.

  • Prosperity: this is most important, the only way culture truly dies is if the absence of prosperity negates the desire to propagate social cultural norms. If you are starving maybe treating strangers to food isnt a priority. Inversely too much prosperity can inspire more selfish cultural traits.

  • Current Events: linked to prosperity but current events drive culture as well. Wouldnt have had the 60's hippie culture without the threat of nuclear war and the political climate of the times.

  • ETC: plenty of other factors even climate affects dress and thus culture.

The greater the physical size of cultural region the greater chance for isolated cultural change/ fracturing within that region. What prevents this fraturing is speedy transmission. If everyone is quickly exposed to the same factors listed above then cultural homogenization continues. This is why TV and the internet have done more to homogenize modern cultures than any force in history.

To answer the question:

If a monoculture was somehow miraculously created, a mono culture wouldn't collapse as long as everyone's conditions were kept and updated roughly the same. But once you throw events like famines or dramatic temperature differences or losses in communications into the mix. fracturing is sure to occur.

  • $\begingroup$ So basically the only way to break up a global culture, in your estimation, would be due to geographical distributed strain caused by environmental stressors? $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ No that only plays 1 or 2 of the variables i mentioned. I listed other variables that could be played with. An Amish rockstar who refuses to be recorded and thus transmitted could change the culture of a small region within his influence and aid in the fracturing of the monoculture. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ No you listed a whole lot of variables that you then said were irrelevant by using the phase "to answer the question" and including only environmental factors in the answer, so which is it? $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ So if you actually bothered to read my answer, i talked about what keeps a culture together is speedy transmission of cultural events. I even bolded the word transmission. Because once you disrupt transmission then cultural fracturing occurs. I listed a few ways because of the sheer enormity of this topic. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ But really, culture is such an enormously broad topic to begin with. There are literally doctoral theses that span 1000s of pages when exploring and even defining it. There is no way anyone can achieve a concise 100% accurate answer without glossing over some important aspects. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 14:00

There is no such thing as a totally homogeneous human culture. In the most homogeneous human culture you will have men and you will have women, you will have older people who prefer stability above all else and you will have young people who prefer change above all else, you will have sophisticated rich people who like to listen to classical music and poor boorish people who like to watch gladiators fight. In some parts of the world you will have cold winters and long nights, in other parts of the world you will have warm climates and luxuriant jungles; you will have industrial districts and agricultural districts, you will have places of higher learning and dens of depravity. And you cannot not have them: because you need all kinds of people to make a world.

And then a disrupting factor emerges. It may be in the splendiferous capital or in a sleepy town in a farway province; but it will happen. A pure blooded aristocrat like Julius Caesar who organizes the lower layers of society into a revolutionary force; a cultured member of the upper class like Paul of Tarsus who takes the inane ideas of a marginal sect and reshapes them into a doctrine with universal appeal; a fiery prophet like Mohammed who promises the heavens to his followers; a deep thinker like Karl Marx who imagines a better world; a natural born organizer like Lenin who uses Marx's utopia as a pretext to launch a revolt; a tainted saint like Gandhi who is speaks to the hearts of the people; or, for that matter, a science-fiction writer like L. Ron Hubbard who in a moment of boredom wagers that he can sucker enough people to get a new religion started.

The world will not react homogeneously to the disrupting factor. Interconnectedness will simply help spread the disruption. Some will join the disruption, some won't, some will oppose it. Look at our interconnected world and try to find the universally agreed principles: you won't find any, except maybe in engineering, and even engineering is subject to cultural variations.

In a real world there will be many many disruptive factors active simultaneously at any given moment. Most of them will fade into the noise, but every once in a while one such factor will grow and grow, and the one true civilization will split into believers and infidels, revolutionaries and reactionaries, altruistic dreamers and pragmatist authoritarians. All empires fall, all civilizations die. If your world is lucky, out of the death of the civilization will be born new civilizations; if unlucky, only the crmubling bones of the once resplendent culture will remain.


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