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Catalysing culture changes: What does Semiotics have to do with it?

In last week’s piece, I had identified 7 distinct culture change processes that were activated in the cross-cultural encounter between British/Western classical and South Indian classical music. What was interesting was that these culture change processes are visible in our country even today. So these are indeed enduring patterns of change that emerge from time to time in different contexts and time periods.

The natural corollary is to understand what it was in the cross-cultural encounter that activated or catalysed the change process. More specifically, what was present in the symbolic or semiotic realm by way of representation that played the catalytic role. And are these valid even today? An identification of this, gives us a complete culture change modelling framework. We can now apply this framework to marketing as culture change, in the contemporary context.

Let’s examine the different cultural processes and their catalysts:

1.      The symbolism of Imperial Glory leads to emulation:  The emulative process is catalysed when the object from the alien or outside culture represents imperial glory and greatness. When Indians copy Americans today, they do so because copying the US promises to elevate Indians’ status and place them on par with the great power. America represents the symbolism of imperial glory.

2.      The promise either of personal glory or economic gain leads to adaptation: Social actors embark upon the task of adaptation when the object from the alien or outside culture represents the possibility of personal glory or significant economic gain. When Indian pizza makers adapt the pizza to Indian tastes via the use of Indian flavours, they clearly do so, in the anticipation of making more money by doing so.

3.      The new objects are carriers of distinctive signs and codification systems drawing from a different cultural imaginary and interpretive system. The distinctiveness triggers curiosity among the creatively minded, to explore the possibility of fusions and hybrids and offer new kinds of pleasures to the public at large. Be it Sufi-Rock, Kurti-Jeans or Gulab Jamun-Ice cream, all are fusions and hybrids dreamed up by creative folk – musicians, fashionistas or master chefs.

4.      The new objects from a different culture represent a threat to the identity and familiar ways of life, of the pre-existing culture. This Identity challenge creates a situation of acceptance by some segments and resistance from other segments, resulting in partial assimilation. Western attire / Jeans or dresses face this challenge in India where they do represent a threat to Indian identity when adopted so completely as to edge out the wearing of Indian garments, especially among women.

5.      Perceived threats to Identity and established ways of life are the strongest catalysts of resistance movements. Layered within the Identity threat are also deep-rooted fears of hegemony and domination by the new Imperial Power such that the existing culture is wiped out. This is as much true of the contemporary language wars between Hindi and Tamil / North and South India as it is about accepting cheer leaders as a direct import from American sporting culture.

6.      In contrast to resistance, objects from outside cultures are completely assimilated when the cultural memory is altered. After some time, the public at large ceases to be aware that the object under consideration is an import from a different culture. The object is so ubiquitous and widespread in its usage and familiarity. Alongside, it acquires a set of myths that enable its complete localization. In a sense, there is a complete re-semiotization of meaning of the outsider’s object to become an insider in every sense.

7.      Sometimes, the outsiders’ culture is so alien and different that it cannot be directly absorbed. A new generation or a new group of believers and followers needs to be created so that they can evangelize the new culture as a parallel stream to the established or dominant culture.

Semiotics and symbolism are the catalytic forces that activate change processes in cross-cultural encounters. A very interesting story from Indian history that illustrates this principle can be found in the narrative of the Italian Brahmin of Madurai.