Unless your society exists on an island which has never been visited by another society (and these places still exist), it has not developed in a vacuum. Almost all societies have changed not just through the dynamics of their own societal forces, but through the influence, and sometimes the domination, of their neighbours, and other societies even further away. Sometimes, these influences may be brought in willingly, in the sense of gifts, or mutual exchange. At other times, it comes in the form of the advancing armies of conquering empires, and the occupying garrisons they leave behind. What this ultimately means is that no matter how isolationist or secluded a society may be, it will nonetheless include the presence of influences from other societies, wanted or unwanted, accepted or disdained.
However, to determine how outside influences shape the culture of a society, it’s first important to have some idea of the initial form of that society’s culture. Generally speaking, societies start extremely localised, and grow larger in population and geography over time. A village becomes a petty kingdom made up of a cluster of villages in the same area, which becomes or is absorbed into a larger polity. To work backwards towards the origins of any society in our own world is a lot like looking an immensely complicated family tree, resulting in a vast profusion of ancestors each providing their own contribution to a modern society.
Of course, a worldbuilder can’t afford to fully replicate the level of complexity which the real world provides, not unless they’d like to spend their entire lives working on the origins of a single society. So, instead of tracking the traditions of every village and every hamlet, we have to generalise, much as the broad cultural identities we think about today are generalisations. In the case of worldbuilding, as we often do in history, we track the cultural developments of broad categories of people, living in roughly the same region, and thus, possessed of similar political systems and similar material cultures while flourishing during the same rough time period. These categorisations are ultimately arbitrary, based on things like certain similarities in handicrafts or long-running trade networks, or even something as as serendipitous as the location and frequency of archaeological finds. However, this arbitrary characterisation is necessary when discussing broad sweeps of societal development – because it’s the commonalities we have to work with, dipping into the specifics only when needed.
So what are the commonalities a creator should focus on? That depends on the kind of story a creator wants to tell and the media that story is being told in. It’s important to remember that worldbuilding is ultimately in service to telling a story, and that a creator ought to prioritise the elements of that world which are most significant to the kind of story being told. For example, a setting for a table-top role-playing game will need a lot more work on aspects like political systems, religious cults, architecture, and the development of weapons and armour. While a story about a chef (or a similar equivalent) would need to go into a lot more detail about agriculture, animal husbandry, the availability of spices, and the development of eating establishments and the classes of society they cater to. While a society is more than what the story focuses on, the aspects most focused on by the narrative will be the ones which will need to stand up to the most scrutiny – which means they should be the ones prioritised.
All right, so once the most important societal aspects for the narrative are determined, how do they change? How do they interact with those same aspects from other societies? How are these influences viewed within a society after they’ve been introduced.
Ultimately, there are only two basic types of ways which one culture influences another: commerce and warfare. However, these are broad categories, and the introduction of outside influences through one means or the other does not necessarily mean they’ll be accepted or shunned, honoured or despised. Our societies are full of examples of cultural influences first introduced by peaceful exchange that are now shunned or vilified. Likewise, some societal aspects introduced at the point of a spear or gun are still valued highly by the descendants of the conquered.
There are a lot of factors that determine why some influences are treated one way, and others are not, but a lot of it boils down to two questions: who had power at the time of the initial exchange – and who has power in the time of the narrative’s present?
Here’s an example from our world: in the society that I live in, heavily dominated by immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, food culture is something which is ultimately a syncretic mix of cuisines from a wide range of different places. However, not all foods are treated the same way. Generally speaking, foods which were brought by the initial dominant cultural groups in the first waves of immigration – which is to say, foods brought by the people who first set up the power structure of society to begin with – have been enshrined as the foundational foods of that society, the ones which that society is most strongly associated with to the point where it might even become part of the way that society identifies with itself.
Likewise, there’s foods which came from later groups of immigrants who were initially low status, but gained power and status through various reasons as time went on. In the West, this status is sometimes referred to as “whiteness”, due to how race was originally used as a classification system to determine those who were expected to have power and those who weren’t. For the cultural groups which eventually did gain this status, their culinary traditions are often incorporated into the “core” of society, but not fully. While they are still appreciated by the host culture within at least some of their cultural context, they are still recognisably categorised as something that came from somewhere else. When that group did not have power, their food might have been considered foreign or “othered” in some other sense, but once they achieve that position of power, their cultural signifiers, like their food, are given the same respect as the other “familiar” foods – while also being respected for their specific roots.
Lastly, there’s foods which come from groups who did not have power when they arrived, and still do not have power – or possess only limited power today. The foods of these groups are still classed as “exotic” or “strange”. Not only are they still distanced from the mainstream of the host culture, but their origins are also not necessarily respected. It’s not uncommon for a group with power to take the food (or other cultural practises) of a group without power to “make it their own” by stripping it of its original history and context, and turning it into something which serves the needs of the group with power, as if they had created such a food themselves. Outside of settler/immigrant societies, this is also a common practise performed by colonial powers: the way the British took Curry from India and made it into a “British” dish, or the way Japanese soldiers took Jiaozi from China and turned it into the “Japanese” gyoza.
This practise applies not just to food, but also clothes, furniture, art, and other cultural practises. The upper classes of Western colonial powers, for example, were infamous for taking cultural aesthetics and designs from their African and Asian colonies, and using them to decorate their homes and “inspire” their literature and other media without any real understanding of what those aesthetics and practises originally meant. This continues to some extent today, where it is sometimes referred to as “Cultural Appropriation”, criticised precisely because it is still the practise of a group with power taking a powerless group’s culture for their own, without regard or respect for its context and history.
Of course, conquering empires don’t just take, they also impose their own way of doing things as well. Most of the time, an imperial conqueror will transplant some of its own culture onto its conquests, sometimes to make their conquered lands easier to exploit, and sometimes out of a genuine belief that they are improving the lives of their new colonial subjects by doing so – after all, from the subjective point of view of the conquerors, their way is the “right” way, which means that imposing their culture on the “wrong” culture of the indigenous peoples (or the descendants of the last wave of conquerors) has to lead to an improvement.
What is curious about this process is that these imposed cultural practises usually persist in some shape or form long after the conqueror has left, or themselves been assimilated by the people they “conquered”. This is mostly because of cultural inertia: practises associated with the conqueror naturally have higher status when the conqueror is in power. A member of a subject people who can speak the language, understand the culture, and willingly navigate the nuances of the overlord’s culture can more easily manoeuvre themselves into a position where they can ally with, or even usurp some of the overlord’s power – and when the overlords are driven out or otherwise fall from their position of power, the power structures they’ve created persevere, often with locals – or conquerors who have come to identify as locals – in charge.
This is how the Catholic Church gained so much power over Europe. In the late days of the Western Roman Empire, Church officials gained more and more power as administrators for the imperial government. When the Western Empire fell, those clergymen-administrators remained, and their network of contacts and structure of authority – originally intended to serve an empire that spanned most of Europe – then continued to keep them in a position of power amongst that empire’s successor societies.
There are, of course, a whole bunch of other ways which power and cultures intersect, but this would be a much longer article than I could possibly write. Hopefully, the examples I’ve given offer some starting points which will prove useful for any one looking to build or flesh out their own fictional societies.
I think we’ve gone enough into the theoretical framework of building societies. I’m sure a lot of you are tired of it (as well as my attempts to turn a lot of theory into something actionable). Next time in this series, I’ll be going over something (comparatively) more concrete: religion, and how it fits into a society.