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Reviewed by:
  • Cultures in Motion: Mapping Key Contacts and Their Imprints in World History
  • Heather Streets
Cultures in Motion: Mapping Key Contacts and Their Imprints in World History. By Peter N. Stearns. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.

In this brief book, Peter Stearns sets out to chart some of the complex global changes that have resulted from cultural contact since the beginning of civilization. Cultural contact, Stearns argues, is a fitting theme around which to organize world historical developments, for such contact has sparked some of humankind’s most intense moments of drama, and has been an unmatched force for global—as well as local—change. Stearns does not attempt the futile task of being comprehensive. Instead, he has selected examples of cultural contact in which “belief systems (religious or political or consumerist) spread widely.” (5) His purpose is to provide an understanding of processes of contact, as well as responses to them, that can then be applied to any number of specific examples. Thus, his examples illustrate what for Stearns is a foundational assumption about the nature of cultural contact: that while reactions to contact have varied widely over time and space, it has usually inspired both creative adaptation as well as controversy and resistance.

Cultures in Motion is divided into three chronologically-based sections. Part I, “Early Cultural Contacts through the Classical Period,” includes chapters on Middle Eastern and Egyptian contacts with early Greece, the Hellenistic-Indian encounter, the spread of Buddhism, the Jewish diaspora, and the early spread of Christianity. Part II, which looks at the period 450–1750, explores the global ramifications of the spread of Islam, the effects of Christianity on the Americas, the spread of western science, and the African diaspora. Finally, Part III focuses on the period 1750 to the present, and investigates the consequences of such diverse forces as the spread of nationalism, imperialist ideas about women, the diffusion of international art, the effects of Marxism, and the spread of an international consumer culture.

From this wide-ranging geographical and chronological tapestry, several themes emerge. First is Stearns’ concern with the importance of religious ideologies as a major force for both cultural contact and change, especially between the Classical and Early Modern eras. For Stearns, the world’s four major religions provided a key motivation for contact in the form of missionary work, provoked extensive cultural changes, and inspired a variety of creative adaptations that produced syncretic mixtures with indigenous cultures. Second, Cultures in Motion highlights the importance of human movement in cultural contact, whether that movement occurred through forced migration (as in the African diaspora or, in a different context, the Jewish diaspora) or through conquest, colonization, trade, or religious missions. Third, Stearns emphasizes the growing global significance of non-religious belief systems—such as nationalism, science, and Marxism—since 1750, and the increased speed by which these belief systems were able to spread via new industrial and communications technologies. Fourth, Stearns underlines the importance of Western-initiated contacts, whether ideological or physical, in the modern era. At the same time, however, he insists that reactions to such contacts were neither passive nor uniform, and in fact that societies have responded to even the most pervasive recent contacts—international consumer culture, for example—with a mixture of “embrace and recoil.” (75) Finally, Stearns emphasizes the important consequences of cultural contacts between unequally matched civilizations. Imperialism and imperialist discourse, for Stearns, are simply manifestations of cultural contact between unequal powers that have occurred in other forms throughout human history. As such, imperialism belongs firmly within a cultural contact model of world history.

Cultures in Motion is clearly written for a non-specialist, undergraduate audience, or for instructors hoping to use the cultural contact model as a pedagogical tool. Chapters afford a basic understanding of complex issues, and make extensive use of maps that provide visual interpretation of key cultural contacts. While many of Stearns’ examples of cultural contact could be considered part of a standard pantheon, others—the spread of international art, the Hellenistic-Indian encounter, and imperialist ideas about women—are more unusual for introductory texts. Indeed, the fact that gender appears at all as an organizing theme...

Additional Information

ISSN
1532-5768
Launched on MUSE
2003-04-29
Open Access
No
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