2014 was an interesting year for the concept of culture. Merriam-Webster declared ‘culture’ the most important word of the year, in that more people looked up its definition online than any other. Then, on the website edge.org, the question was posed: what scientific idea should be retired? No less luminaries than Pascal Boyer and John Tooby responded: culture. Hmmm…EB Tylor – author (arguably) of the first true anthropological definition of ‘culture’
I will declare first that I belong to the ‘culture-is-too-important-a-concept-to-be-jettisoned’ wing of anthropology. And, I think a useful concept of culture is well within reach.
My perspective is that the concept of culture ought to do something. Concepts are tools, after all, and a tool needs to be useful. It has work to do. Culture must be put to work in the service of research and explanation. Culture as a concept must function both in a network of theoretical constructs to account for some phenomenon, and in a network of operational constructs that enables us to reach into the world and capture phenomena in observation.
Curiously, though, in much work culture as a term may not appear at either level. Culture often occurs as little more than an orienting construct, indicating to a reader what direction an argument will (or won’t) take. At some level we are all crypto-Tylorians. If culture is ‘that complex whole,’ than we just declare that’s what is important, and then we go on to talk about class, gender, race, or whatever, because it’s all culture (right?).
In 1934 Sapir wrote that a less comprehensive, more focused concept of culture “…will turn out to have a tougher, more vital, importance for social thinking than the tidy tables of contents attached to this or that group which we have been in the habit of calling ‘cultures,’” although he didn’t specify precisely that focused concept.
I propose that five questions must be adequately answered (note ‘adequately,’ not ‘ultimately’) to get the tool I want, and perhaps the ‘tougher, vital’ construct Sapir envisioned. These five questions have bedeviled culture theory since Tylor, although there certainly are others as well. But I think these need answers in order to move our endeavor forward. They are:
(1) What is culture made of? In highfalutin’ terms this is the issue of ontology. Key explanatory terms must reach into the world to latch onto phenomena that are epistemically observer-independent (i.e., knowledge of which does not depend on the mind of a single observer). And, as John Searle argues, an ontological account of culture must be consistent with what we know about the rest of the world (like cognitive neuroscience, language, and human information processing). We don’t get to invent a new order of reality.
(2) Is culture a term that refers to aggregates or individuals? This is the part-whole problem debated in social thought for quite some time, in various guises. Another way to approach this is: what is the locus of culture, the group or the person? I think it is both, but a satisfying account of that must explain how, not merely assert that it is so.
(3) How do we account for variability? This is the issue of ‘intracultural diversity,’ and a description of variability must apply to both the part and the whole.
(4) What is the relationship of culture and behavior? In anthropology culture has been thought to: cause behavior; result from behavior; be abstracted from behavior. This needs to be sorted out systematically (frankly it’s probably ‘all of the above,’ but there has to be an account of that).
(5) What is the relationship of culture and other theoretical constructs—like ‘value,’ ‘belief,’ ‘attitude’—that are thought either to be subsumed by or to compose culture? These social-psychological terms appear prominently in explanations of human behavior, and if culture is a part of those explanations, how does it relate to those other constructs?
A contemporary cognitive theory of culture can adequately address each of these questions. To wit:
(1) Culture is the knowledge we use to function in a given social system. As Searle has shown, that knowledge is of a special kind, generated by a certain class of speech acts. These speech acts, that Searle refers to as ‘constitutive rules,’ literally construct the world around us. And, this is an ontological account consistent with what we know of our biological and evolutionary history.
(2) Cultural consensus theory and its associated formal model have shown that there is indeed an aggregate culture in the sense of a knowledge-set that cannot be found in any single person’s mind. Nor is this a pious pronouncement that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but rather empirically demonstrable. At the same time, each of us carries around versions of that knowledge-set that place us more proximate to, or distal from, the aggregate knowledge-set. In a non-mysterious way, culture is a term that applies to both individuals and aggregates.
(3) Culture is variable within a social group in the sense that there may be multiple models, even in the context of an overall cultural consensus (again, empirically demonstrated). And of course culture is variable in the sense that any subset of people have varying degrees of idiosyncratic biographical influence on their personal configuration of that knowledge.
(4) Culture as a variably shared knowledge-set gets variably translated into behavior. This is what I have called ‘cultural consonance.’ Just because you know something doesn’t mean you get to act on it, and variation in cultural consonance is both systematic and can have profound effects.
(5) This knowledge-set called culture underlies other social-psychological constructs. Your understanding that, for example, the American cultural model of marriage is beginning to extend to same-sex partners doesn’t explain your beliefs, values, or attitudes about that understanding.
This thumbnail sketch of a culture theory that works is just that—a sketch. Fortunately, there is a growing body of empirical studies that demonstrate its utility, and perhaps this culture theory provides both the toughness and vitality that Sapir envisioned.