Academic Minute
5:00 am
Thu March 27, 2014

Dr. Daniel Nettle, Newcastle University – Cultural Shift Across Neighborhoods

The complexity of human culture is highly nuanced.

Dr. Daniel Nettle, professor of behavioral sciences at Newcastle University, observed striking cultural differences even in people living geographically close to one another.

Dr. Daniel Nettle is a professor of behavioral science at Newcastle University's Centre for Behavior and Evolution. His research focuses on evolution, development, and psychological underpinnings of behavior. He received a PhD in biological anthropology from University College London in 1996.

About Dr. Nettle

Dr. Nettle on Twitter

The European Human and Evolution Association

Dr. Daniel Nettle – Cultural Shift Across Neighborhoods

When I trained in anthropology, it was assumed that we would go off to some remote part of the world and return with data showing how differently our study population behaved compared with the folks back home. Perhaps, when you think about it, such findings are not terribly surprising. Villagers in Africa live in completely different ecologies and economies than we do, so it seems obvious that they will do things differently.

Much more striking would be to show that you can find important differences in human behaviour between one neighbourhood of a city and the next-door one. This is what we have been trying to do. For four years, we have been comparing people’s behaviour across urban neighbourhoods that are only a few miles apart and are inhabited by people who speak the same language, are ruled by the same laws, use the same hospitals, and work in the same economy.

The results? We have documented strikingly large differences between neighbourhoods. How often do children cry; How frequently are adults alone; who looks after children; how normal is it to drop litter; how readily will people steal; how readily will they help each other. 

All of these can look as different from one neighbourhood to another as they do from one continent to another. So, to experience a change in culture, you don’t need to get on plane. Just ride the bus a few extra stops. And perhaps most intriguingly, we suspect that if you did this, your behaviour would start to be different too. Because now, we are beginning to ask, what happens when you move from one neighbourhood to another. Do you accommodate or bring your behaviour with you? The most likely answer is that there is a bit of both; the culture of the neighbourhood changes with incomers, but the culture of the incomers changes with the neighbourhood too.

This is what gives human cultural change, especially in cities, its characteristic complexity.

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