Greg Urban Arthur Hobson Quinn Professor of Anthropology
Updated: April 2018
The Motion of Culture


Throughout my career, I have been fascinated by the motion of culture — how and why it makes its way through space and time. As early as my late undergraduate and early graduate student days, I began thinking about social transmission processes, at that point coming up with what I regard today as a principle of cultural motion: that culture gets transmitted in proportion to the interaction time between people and the perceptible objects in which the culture is made inter-subjectively accessible — spoken sounds, behaviors, objects. For example, the more we listen to a story, the better we understand it and the more likely we are to be able to transmit it to others in a form that resembles the story as we heard it. Similarly, the more a professional dancer works on a movement, the more likely they will be to accurately reproduce it. My attempt to develop the mathematical side of this interest can be found in "A Method for Measuring the Motion of Culture." My earlier book, Metaculture: How Culture Moves through the World," set the stage for this empirical work. A new paper, "Cultural Replication: The Source of Monological and Dialogical Models of Culture," appeared recently in a volume entitled The Monologic Imagination, edited by Matt Tomlinson and Julian Millie. A related article, part of a tribute to Michael Silverstein, is available now as well: "The Role of Metaforces in Cultural Motion."

Most of my publications deal primarily with the qualitative analysis of cultural motion, with quantitative measures employed to augment the qualitative analysis. In addition to continuing experimental work, my recent research has focused on the ethnography of modern business corporations (see the review article, "Ethnographic Research on Modern Business Corporations, co-authored with Kyung-Nan Koh. My new synthesis of the corporations research has now appeared under the title "Corporations in the Flow of Culture" in the Seattle University Law Review. A little known publication that set the stage for this new work is "'No Carry-Over Parts': Corporations and the Metaculture of Newness." A recent piece is "Symbolic Force: A Corporate Revitalization Video and Its Effects," which draws on Victor Turner's idea of the dominant symbol, but places the corporate symbol in the context of cultural motion. A work that bridges my current research interests in corporations with that in citizenship and constitutions is the volume I edited entitled Corporations and Citizenship. I have two new articles also, "The Magic of Making Money" and "Corporate Compliance as a Problem of Cultural Motion." Another recent short piece is: "Pathways to the Future." Soon to appear in a volume entitled Magical Capitalism, edited by Brian Moeran and Timothy de Waal Malefyt, is a paper on "The Enchantment Effect." The paper explores the semiotic processes underlying the boundary-making that is essential to the modern capitalist system.

I have been accumulating interview data for a project on comparative constitutional discourse, which also involves studying the discourse (words and phrases) in national constitutions, with a focus on circulation — how and why some fragments of discourse catch on and undergo replication in country after country. My article, "The Circulation of Secularism," is an exemple of this work. Cultural motion ideas also inform two conceptual pieces, one on "Citizenship as a Mode of Belonging by Choice," and the other on "Freedom and Culture." A new paper, "A Sentence That Shaped the Modern World," is also now available.

The orientation to cultural motion, especially in the form of discourse circulation, can be seen in virtually all of my early research on South American Indigenous Languages and Cultures, including A Discourse-Centered Approach to Culture: Native South American Myths and Rituals and Metaphysical Community: The Interplay of the Senses and the Intellect. Developed in the early research, and especially in the little-known article, "Repetition and Replication: Three Examples from Shokleng," is the concept of replication, which has been central to my thinking about the motion of culture for as long as I can remember. It continues to be central to me today.





Greg Urban, Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, 325 University Museum, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19104  |  Phone: 215.898.0895  |  Email: