Identifying Cultural Variation in Thinking12 min read

What does it mean to identify cultural variation in thought? Sociologists routinely identify differences in the way people think or reason about things (e.g., Young 2004), but what does it mean to think differently, and how are differences identified? In this post, I introduce a way of thinking about this question that moves beyond traditional “frame-like” concepts.

The Frame Approach to Thinking about Thinking

Frame-like concepts are often used to denote different ways of thinking, referring to monolithic cognitive objects— “mental fences” (Zerubavel 1997:37)—which “filter” (Small 2004:70) cognition by “[highlighting] certain facts while [excluding] others (Fligstein, Brundage, and Schultz 2017:881).” Frame-like concepts are treated both as durable ways of thinking (Zerubavel 1997) and situationally-variable frames of thought (Goffman 1974), but in either case, they are generally interpreted as mutually exclusive categories, with only one active at any given time.

Frame-like concepts are intuitive but also bring important challenges and limitations. First, frame-like concepts denote differences in thought without explaining what it means to think differently. Frame theory is not so much a theory of how people think as much as an assertion that people think differently. Because of this, frame analysis often lies on shaky ground empirically, with analysts intuiting differences without objective criteria. Person A is said to think about Y using a different frame than Person B because the analyst intuits that their thinking is different. This sounds bad, but is it really? How hard can it be to evaluate differences in thought?

Suppose that we asked two professors for their thoughts about a certain graduate student. The first says “she’s turning out lots of ideas,” and the second says “she’s had a mental breakdown.” These statements are obviously different, yet they are nonetheless instantiations of the same conceptual metaphor—THE MIND IS A MACHINE—identified by Lakoff and Johnson (1999:247). Statements which appear different, even opposite, on the surface may actually be evidence of identical thinking.

And yet, those teachers’ statements are different, which leads to a second major limitation of frame-like concepts—the assumption of monolithicity. Frame-like concepts treat thinking as a unitary process which either is or isn’t the same across persons. More accurately, thinking is a complex cascade of neural activations, such that thinking could be both similar and different across persons, in different ways. For example, persons with different positions on a moral issue and different vocabularies of justification may nonetheless share certain “background” assumptions about the meaning of morality (Abend 2014).

Regarding frame-like concepts, Turner (2018:33–34) notes:

Cognitive science exposes the inadequacy of many of the clichéd extensions of common sense talk about mind used in social theory and elsewhere, notably notions that are useful for interpretation, such as “frame” ideas. Either these can be given an interpretation in terms of actual cognitive mechanisms or they need to be discarded and replaced.

In the next section, I outline an alternative approach for analyzing variation in thought that begins by considering the different cognitive associations responsible for producing observed responses. The primary advantage of this approach is it allows for sameness and difference to coexist in different forms and at different degrees of schematicity. In this way, differences are not established with all-or-nothing catch-all codes like “frames,” but located to particular associations which may have their own distinct causal histories. More generally, this entails rethinking thought as the activation of cascades of associations rather than single “frames.”

Beyond Frames

Moving beyond frame analysis requires a different theory of thinking. When researchers ask participants to perform some cognitive task, they are directing participants to create a response, rather than requesting the delivery of fully-formed ideas:

Our data don’t tell us about the static organization of others’ minds—they tell us about a potentiality that others have that can be used to accomplish certain tasks in certain environments. But that’s fine, since that’s what a mind is—it’s a set of potentialities, and not a cluster of statements, and our questions are tasks that can, if properly designed, evoke these potentials… People don’t necessarily have ready-made opinions. Instead, they often have an inchoate mass of ideas; the question you ask creates a task that requires the respondent to marshal her faculties and thoughts (Martin 2017:78).

These tasks may be understood as evoking bundles of associations. Some associations belong to the general task itself (such as categorization), and others belong to the domain in question (such as “sexuality”). The analytic approach I propose consists of identifying these different associations and observing the similarity or difference for each. Here I identify three kinds of associations common to interviewing tasks—schemas associated with the general task, objects associated with the domain, and object qualities associated with the domain—and discuss each. I use Brekhus’s (1996) findings on sexual identity as a case study.

Brekhus (1996) finds that Americans mark sexual identity along six dimensions: (1) quantity of sex, (2) timing of sex, (3) level of perceived enjoyment, (4) degree of consent, (5) orientation, and (6) the social value of the agents. Brekhus (1997) is primarily interested in identifying general dimensions of sexual identity and understanding the process by which these are constructed, but suppose we are interested in variation in thinking about sexual identities? To this end, we can identify the different kinds of associations activated when marking sexual identities.

Brekhus’s six dimensions of sexual identity are specific combinations of schemas, objects, and object qualities. Each of these three things may vary independently of the others, though they may be associated to a certain extent.

1. Schemas associated with the task

Marking sexual identity is a common kind of task, in that all marking entails assigning an object to a category. In terms of cognitive linguistics, this involves the activation of the CONTAINER image schema (Boot and Pecher 2011). Whether we are talking about identities, classification (Bowker and Star 2000), or boundaries (Lamont and Molnár 2002), we are referring to the same general schematic process—putting things in containers. At this level, we would expect no variation.

The task of marking sexual identity (and classification more generally) may simply involve putting someone within a container (e.g. “gay”), but it may also involve putting someone on a SCALE (Johnson 1987:122). For example, Brekhus notes that sexual identities are marked by quantity, degree of consent, level of perceived enjoyment, the timing of sex, and social value of the agents. Each of these is an instantiation of the SCALE schema. Thus, we may observe variation in the marking of sexual identity based on differences in the schema associated with the task. This variation is not the result of possessing or lacking SCALE and CONTAINER schemas, which are universal but result from a habitual association between a schema and the thing being marked (Casasanto 2017).

2. Objects associated with the domain

Brekhus’s (1996) dimensions of sexuality focus on three kinds of objects: the agent (e.g. their age, history, and social value), the agent’s partner (e.g. their gender relative to the agent), and the interactions between them (e.g. the duration of their relationship and degree of consent). Marking sexual identity may vary in by focusing on one or more of these objects rather than the other, but for this domain, these are the primary objects. If we were talking about some other domain of identity, the associated objects might be different.

3. Object qualities associated with the domain

Brekhus’s (1996) dimensions of sexual identity are based on specific qualities of the different associated objects. For example, an agent’s identity is marked based on how much they enjoy sex, or how much sex they’ve had. There is more room for variation here, and we can imagine even other potential object-qualities. For example, sexual identity could be marked based on the LOCATION of sex, whether it happens in the bedroom, or in a public space (e.g. “exhibitionist”). LOCATION, in this case, is a quality of the people engaging in sexual acts (“a person in this kind of space”).

Additionally, we can imagine new object-qualities by applying the SCALE schema in new places. For example, Brekhus discusses orientation in terms of CONTAINERS—what kind of person or thing you are attracted to—but orientation can also be marked in terms of quantity—how many kinds of persons are you attracted to? (e.g. pansexual). Similarly, sexual identity could be marked not only by the kind of partner in the relationship but the number of partners in the relationship (e.g. polyamorous).

Concluding Remarks

Taken together, this short exercise suggests the following:

  • Thinking tasks, like marking identities, activate multiple kinds of associations which may be analyzed as distinct processes working together.
  • Similarity and difference in thinking may occur in different ways (e.g. at the level of schemas, objects, and object qualities).
  • Similarity and difference may coexist. Responses that appear different may nonetheless be manifestations of the same basic structure (e.g. all instantiated by the same schemas and focusing on the same objects).
  • Cognitive difference may be established either by introducing new associations from other domains or recombining associations in new or different ways.

In addition to pinpointing where there is more or less similarity in thought, analyzing thinking in this way opens new questions for analysis. For example, If certain schemas are dominant for a certain task, why, and to what extent does this vary across persons? Why are certain schemas, such as SCALE, more commonly associated with certain objects over others? How does a person’s individual experience influence which bundles of associations are activated when ascribing sexual identities? The takeaway is that thinking does not happen via filtering frames, but the activation of multiple associations working together, and that by recognizing this fact and incorporating it into the analysis, we get a better understanding of culture and thinking and are better prepared to think about how thinking varies across persons, times, and situations.


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