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Worldbuilding Like an Anthropologist – Part 1

As I am currently still in the research and worldbuilding faze of my own work, many of the posts here will focus on worldbuilding. Today’s topic stems from some things I do not always see in worldbuilding articles or the occasional book on the subject. I have my BA in Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology and often find myself asking questions around worldbuilding that have been easier to answer through my academic studies.

My goal is not to make these too long and instead focus on a single area of study. Today, I want to tackle the spread of technology. This is especially helpful when creating a fantasy/sci-fi world. There are three basic observable ways that technology is spread and shared within a culture as well as with other cultures. Two occur within a culture, while the other is an interaction between cultures. They are innovation, invention, and diffusion.

Innovation and Invention

These two avenues are interconnected. Invention, being a new combination of existing cultural features, and innovation bringing about an entirely new object or concept out of invention.

Gutenberg’s printing press is a great example of an invention that brought about innovation. His was not the first printing press, but it did have a new feature the others did not. In China, carved wooden blocks had already been used since around the 9th century, and Korea had been using movable metal cast type set a century prior to Gutenberg. The innovation of his device, “which employed a screw-type wine press to squeeze down evenly on the inked metal type,” introduced the ability to mass produce the written word in ways it never had previously. In an age of handwritten books, Gutenberg was able to print 200 copies of the Bible over 3 years. That sounds quite slow, however, according to Martyn Lyons in his Books: A Living History, it took a scribe 15 months to hand write a single copy of the Bible. It would take a single scribe 250 years to produce 200 copies. Gutenberg’s press innovated the ability to mass produce books and get them into the hands of the literate populace faster than ever.

There are literally thousands of cultural material we could study to better understand innovation and invention, but that would be counter to my goal of some brevity. In the case of worldbuilding, when you wish to introduce an item to your world, you want to consider where it came from. Where did the idea for it first come to light for the people of your world? What was the driving force in your world to bring about this item? Have fun with these steps as the needs of your people are often different that those in our own real world.

Diffusion

During my studies, diffusion was one of my favorite topics of cultural exchange. Observing the transmission of ideas, norms, and technology between cultures can be amazing as they do not always transmit in the same way. Also, when it comes to technology, some tech can be skipped entirely.

Skipping tech can be an interesting idea in the sci-fi realm as it is more likely to find differences in technology than in atypical fantasy. Many Sub-Sahara African nations bypassed the wide range use of landline telephones. As shown through this Pew Research study, the proliferation of cell phone usage, as well as how it is used, is quite significant. The study is not suggesting that landlines were never present, just that in the aftermath of European Imperialism, Africa never saw the mass telecommunication infrastructure we saw in 20th century Europe and North America.

If your world has groups that are technologically behind others, this can be a great area to explore. Finding ways the dominant culture has influenced or exercised control over the other cultures can lead to some interesting dynamics in the development of your world.

Diffusion of cultural norms and ideas are pretty easy to introduce in worldbuilding. The hard part will be deciding which culture will be influencing the other, while also figuring out how the cultures will interact after the fact.

Lets use the southern US border for example. A lot of Mexican culture has influenced and spread into the US. Focusing for the moment on food, the types seen along the border are quite diverse. Mexican food here in California is not the same as that found in Texas, New Mexico or even Arizona. The diversity of what is considered Mexican food in the US can be attributed to diversity in indigenous peoples already present within present day Mexico with the arrival of the Spanish. These already diverse groups had their own cultural identities and ways of doing things. As Spanish culture was diffused in their regions, they adjusted or tweaked them to fit their own needs. This can be seen along the current border and the interactions over the last two centuries.

Consider the dichotomy of the popularity of Mexican food in the US with the large section of the American populace having a negative view towards immigrants at the southern border. The influence a culture has can be accepted while its participants may not be. This can be a very intriguing concept to tackle regarding a conflict between neighbors in your world and can be quite hyperbolic

Semi-Conclusion

This is by no means an in-depth analysis of innovation, invention and cultural diffusion. My purpose was only to highlight a couple examples to show how they can be used to dig deeper in your worldbuilding and generate a conversation. Comments and questions are always welcome. Feel free to reach out on Twitter for a faster response. Links are in the menu.

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