Beyond the Framework Model7 min read

Most work in cultural analysis in sociology is committed to a “framework” model of culture and language. According to the framework model, persons need culture, because without culture (which usually takes the form of global templates that the person is not aware of possessing) they would not be able to “make sense” of their “raw” perceptual experience. Under this model, culture serves to “organize” the world into predictable categories. Cognition thus reduces to the “typing” of concrete particulars (experientially available via perception) into cultural constituted generalities.

The basic model of cognition here is thus sequential: First the world is made available in raw (particular) form, then it is “filtered” via the (culturally acquired) lenses and then it emerges as a “sensible,” categorically ordered world. This model accounts for the historical and spatial diversity of culture even while acknowledging that at the level of “raw” experience we all inhabit the same world. The only problem is, as Kant understood and as post-Kantians always despaired, that this “raw” universal world does not make sense to anybody! The only world that makes sense is the culturally constituted world. In this sense the price that we pay to have a world that “makes sense” is the donning of conceptual glasses through which we must filter the world; the cost of making sense of the world is not being aware of the cultural means through which that sense is made.

The framework model is pervasive in cultural analysis. However, a consideration of work in the modern cognitive science of perception leads us to question its core tenets.

One major weakness is that the framework model has to rely on a theoretical construction that has a shaky scientific status: This is the counterfactual existence of “raw” (pre-cultural, pre-cognitive) experience. However, it is hard to find a conceivable time-scale at which we could say that there is the possibility that there is a “raw” experience for somebody.

In contrast to the “sequential” model, an alternative way to think of this is that experience qua experience is inherently specified and thus meaningful. That is when persons experience the world that world is always already a world for them and therefore as directly meaningful. It is true that at a slower time scales, after a person experiences a world that is for them, they may also activate conventional representations in which other “meanings” (namely semantic information on objects, events, settings, and persons activated from so-called “long-term” memory) may slow themselves enough to modify their initial meaningful uptake of the world. But none of these meanings are necessary to “constitute” the world of objects, persons and events as meaningful if by meaningful we (minimally) mean capable of being understood and integrated into our everyday practical projects (Gallese & Metzinger, 2003).

The framework model erred because it took a high-level cognitive task (namely classification or in Berger and Luckmann’s mid-twentieth century phenomenological language “typification”) that is not the right kind of task for how the world of perception becomes meaningful to us. Classification is just too slow a task; perception happens much faster than that (Noë, 2004). Because of this, classification is way too flimsy a foundation to build the required model of how persons make a meaningful world. In this respect, cultural analysis in sociology has been hampered by a piece of conceptual metaphor working behind the back of the theorist. The (unconscious) inference that comes from mapping the experiential affordances of the usual things that serve as frameworks or lenses (which included durability and solidity) into the abstract target domain of perception and experience.

Work in the psychology of classification shows that as hard as we may try to search for them, the “hard” lenses and classificatory “structures” dreamed up by contemporary cultural analysis do not exist (Barsalou, 1987). Instead, most classification is shown to be (mystifyingly from the perspective of framework models) fluid and context-sensitive, with the classification shifting even if we change the most minute and seemingly irrelevant thing about the classificatory context (Barsalou, 2005). Thus, at the level of experience, culture surely cannot take the form of (conscious or unconscious) “frameworks” because these frameworks are just nowhere to be found (Turner, 1994).

How can we think of perception if we are not to use the framework model? Here is one alternative. Perception, at its most basic level, is simply identification, and identification is specification. And specification is the production of a relation. That is, a world opens up for an organism when the organism is able to specify, and thus make “contact,” with that world in relation to itself. This kind of specification is an inherent organism-centric activity. A world is always a world for somebody. In this respect, this analysis is less “generic” than traditional cultural analysis, which tends to speak of meaningful worlds in relation to abstract representative (shall we say “collective”?) agents. But meaning is always personal and organism-centered.

This insight implies not the impossibility of impersonal or even collective meaning, but its complexity and difficulty. Modern cultural analysis, by essentially taking the products of collective meaning-making as its starting point (and the mechanisms that produce their status as shared for granted) actually sidestep some of the hardest questions in favor of relatively easy questions (the interpretation of collective symbols for generic subjects). But most symbols are symbols for concrete, embodied subjects who have nothing generic about them. Surprisingly enough the first lesson that the emerging sciences of meaning construction have for contemporary cultural analysis, is that the basic way in which cultural analysts go about “analyzing” meaning is actually too abstract and not quite as concrete (or “personal”) as one would wish.


Barsalou, L. W. (1987). The instability of graded structure: Implications for the nature of concepts. Concepts and Conceptual Development: Ecological and Intellectual Factors in Categorization, 10139. Retrieved from

Barsalou, L. W. (2005). Situated conceptualization. Handbook of Categorization in Cognitive Science, 619, 650.

Gallese, V., & Metzinger, T. (2003). Motor ontology: the representational reality of goals, actions and selves. Philosophical Psychology, 16(3), 365–388.

Noë, A. (2004). Action in Perception. Bradford book.

Turner, S. P. (1994). The Social Theory of Practices: Tradition, Tacit Knowledge, and Presuppositions. University of Chicago Press.

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