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Complexity and transmission: the propagation of cultural features

Where cultures meet, each brings along a particular set of features in a variety of domains. Whether or not the features of one culture are taken over by the other culture(s) depends not only on properties intrinsic to the feature under consideration, but also on a wide variety of social factors, the exact interaction between which is only partly understood.


The effects of contact between cultures can take a wide range of forms. One set of features in one culture may completely wipe out a corresponding set in another. This happened, for instance, when rifles were introduced in certain indigenous communities and took over the function of blowpipes. Under different social circumstances, features of one culture may be taken over only partially in another, the result being a mix of features from those available in the social context. A case in point is the influence early pop music exerted on local musical traditions. Yet another scenario is when the effect of contact between two cultures leads to a completely new set of features, not present in any of them. This happens, for instance, when new languages arise in situations of intense contact.

This theme group aims at uncovering the ways in which cultural features are propagated and the social circumstances that favour the different types of outcome of these processes. In order to be able to arrive at broad and solid generalizations, cultural features from different domains are studied. These include language, material culture, music, and religion. The project furthermore studies the social conditions that may lead to the different types of transmission. In order to be able to objectively assess the history of contact, the genetic profiles of populations are also taken into consideration. Through computational modelling hypotheses developed in the group receive further testing and validation. The project currently studies these questions focusing on the outcomes of contact between Arabic, Berber, and Spanish cultures in (Southern) Spain.

Scientific Lead

Prof. dr. P.C. (Kees) Hengeveld

Faculty of Humanities

Capaciteitsgroep Taalwetenschap

UvA researchers

Prof. dr. P.P.G. (Paul) Boersma

Faculty of Humanities

Capaciteitsgroep Taalwetenschap

Dr. J.A. (Ashley) Burgoyne

Faculty of Humanities

Capaciteitsgroep Muziekwetenschap

Prof. H.J. (Henkjan) Honing

Faculty of Humanities

Faculty of Science

Prof. dr. J.J.E. (Julia) Kursell

Faculty of Humanities

Capaciteitsgroep Muziekwetenschap

Prof. dr. J.C. (Jan) Rath

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Political Sociology: Power, Place and Difference

Prof. dr. V.V. (Vladimir) Stissi

Faculty of Humanities

Capaciteitsgroep Archeologie

Prof. dr. F.P. (Fred) Weerman

Executive Staff


Prof. dr. G.A. (Gerard) Wiegers

Faculty of Humanities

Capaciteitsgroep Geschiedenis

Affiliated external researchers

Dr. Guy Jacobs

Complexity Institute, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Research field: Genetics