Persistent Cultural Systems

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Science  19 Nov 1971:
Vol. 174, Issue 4011, pp. 795-800
DOI: 10.1126/science.174.4011.795


I have indicated here some features of a kind of entity which I have called a cultural identity system, and I have focused on a variety of this general type—the persistent system. In general terms it is best described as a system of beliefs and sentiments concerning historical events. I suggest using the term "a people" for the human beings who, at any given time, hold beliefs of this kind. These are phenomena with which we have been long familiar, but they have not been systematically studied by any but a few investigators.

I have emphasized that a persistent system is a cumulative cultural phenomenon, an open-ended system that defines a course of action for the people believing in it. Such peoples are able to maintain continuity in their experience and their conception of themselves in a wide variety of sociocultural environments. I hold that certain kinds of identifiable conditions give rise to this type of cultural system. These may best be summarized as an oppositional process involving the interactions of individuals in the environment of a state or a similar large-scale organization. The oppositional process frequently produces intense collective consciousness and a high degree of internal solidarity. This is accompanied by a motivation for individuals to continue the kind of experience that is "stored" in the identity system in symbolic form.

The persistent identity system is more stable as a cultural structure than are large-scale political organizations. When large-scale states disintegrate, they often appear to decompose into cultural systems of the persistent type. Large-scale organizations also give rise to the kind of environment that can result in the formation of new persistent systems. It is possible that, while being formed, states depend for their impetus on the accumulated energy of persistent peoples. A proposition for consideration is that states tend to dissipate the energy of peoples after transforming that energy into state-level integrations, and then regularly break down in the absence of mechanisms for maintaining human motivations in the large-scale organizations that they generate.