Types of claims about culture and cultural phenomena19 min read

A relatively neglected task of cultural analysis (or cultural/culture theory) concerns itself with specifying the nature (and therefore expected properties) of the sorts of entities and processes that can be said to be cultural. Most serious cultural theorists do this, but they are seldom explicit to note that this is precisely what they are doing. In that sense, it is refreshing when a cultural theorist such as Margaret Archer just comes right and says something like “…a Cultural System is constituted by the corpus of existing intelligibilia—by all things capable of being grasped, deciphered, understood or known by someone…by definition the cultural intelligibilia form a system, for all items must be expressed in a common language” (Archer 1996, 104 italics added).

Here the theorist is making a number of claims as to what they think culture (and possibly culture “units”) are, and how they come together. For instance, we learn that the Cultural System is made up of intelligible things, that these things have the inherent property of linking up into larger clumps, that the nature of these things is language-like, and so on. These types of claims are refreshing because even if you disagree with them, at least you know exactly what you are disagreeing with. This addresses one of the key weaknesses of cultural analysis in sociology which is as Steve Vaisey (personal communication) points out, the lack of precise points (and targets of) agreement and disagreement.

In this post, I would like to make headway on this issue by coming up with a more or less systematic catalog of types of claims one can make about cultural entities and cultural processes. One aim is to help cultural analysts be clear about the claims they make and even explicitly flag those claims as one that they are committed to making, thus staking out a clear (or clearer) position(s). Another aim is actually to spur the sort of productive disagreement Steve says is lacking in the field. I borrow from a spate of similar debates that have been going on in cognitive science for the better part of two decades with regard to the nature of the “cognitive” and the types of claims that can be made about “cognitive” phenomena in this field. We will see that some of the distinctions that have been made by philosophers of mind in this area can also be useful (and travel quite easily) to help clarify analogous debates in cultural theory.

The first distinction, borrowing from the philosopher Mark Rowlands (2010: 55-59) is between epistemic and ontic claims about a given (e.g., the “cognitive”) domain. In terms of cultural analysis, an epistemic claim has to do with the best way we have to gain knowledge about a given phenomenon. These claims can be either positive (“the best way to learn about X is via Y”) or negative (“it is not possible to gain adequate knowledge about X via Y”). Where “X” is some kind of cultural phenomenon or process and Y is (usually) some established method of inquiry. Thus, when Jerolmack and Khan (2014) argue that the best way to gain knowledge about situated practices is via direct ethnographic observation and not via interviews, they are making both a positive and a negative (respectively) epistemic claim about situated practices as a type of cultural phenomenon. A lot of recent (productive) disagreement in cultural analysis has been really about epistemic claims, of both the positive and negative kinds, with regard to cultural entities and processes (e.g., Pugh 2013; Vaisey 2013).

Ontic claims, on the other hand, are about the nature or make-up of some kind of cultural entity or process (in the case of processes, ontic claims are ultimately about the nature of the entities, and their properties, participating in the process). Surprisingly, even though these are more controversial, there has been less productive disagreement about them in recent scholarship.

Thus, Archer is making an ontic claim about the “Cultural System” when she tells us that it is “constituted by the corpus of existing intelligibilia.” This is not a claim about the best way to study the Cultural System, but about the sort of entities (and their properties) that make it up. So the first thing to recommend is that debates about the nature of culture (ontic ones) should be kept distinct about debates about the best way to study culture. The reason for this is that epistemic claims about culture may have no (or at least neutral) ontic implications (e.g., Jerolmack and Khan do not tell us much about the nature of situated practices). However, ontic claims about culture usually have epistemic implications. For instance, one may argue that because culture has such and such properties or is this particular type of thing then the best way to learn about it is via a particular method of inquiry.

The second point is that there are different types of ontic claims. In the case of cultural analysis, I think two broad types are of particular relevance: Compositional claims and locational claims.

Let us begin with the first kind. Compositional ontic claims answer the question: “what is this thing (at least partially) made out of?” (a more general way, and therefore less useful, way of asking the question is to say “what is the nature of this thing?”). For instance, Christian Smith’s (2010) “What is a Person?” is a (long) disquisition on the ontic nature of (you guessed it) the social science kind person.

Compositional claims also partially answer the question of the typical properties of things (since they specify components with a given set of properties). So in the case of culture, cultural phenomena, or cultural entities, a compositional claim would tell us what they are made out of, and what is the nature of these parts or components. So, in the quote above, Margaret Archer tells us that culture is composed of entities she refers to as “intelligibilia” and that it is in the nature of these entities to be “capable of being grasped, deciphered, understood or known by someone” (this would be considered a relational property, such as the capability of sugar to dissolve in the presence of water) and to link up to one another via logical implicational chains to form “systems.”

Not all ontic compositional claims need to be seen as proposing highly controvertible (or controversial) proposals (as in the Archer example). Some can be quite mundane. For instance, when it comes to what archeologists and anthropologists call material culture (objects, artifacts, and so on that exist by way of human ingenuity and intervention), the ontic compositional question both straightforward and relatively uncontroversial: Material culture is made out of matter or “physical stuff.”

This non-controversial ontic claim example is important, because a key point of debate in cultural theory since the introduction of various “culture concepts” in early 20th century anthropology by such scholars as Boas, Sapir, Whorf, Mead, Kluckhohn, Kroeber, and others, had to do with the fact that some ontic compositional claims posited that culture (or some realms of culture) was composed of parts that seem to have no clear physical or material status (Bidney 1944), such as “ideas” or “patterns.” In fact, the entire tradition in which culture is seen as being composed of ideas, concepts, and so on, and saw itself as distinct from one that emphasized something empirical or material (such as material artifacts, practices, or the “social heritage”) is based on (only half-defended) ontic claims that you can have a concept of culture in which the main components of culture are somehow non-material (Bidney 1944). The cultural theory developed by Talcott Parsons in the mid-twentieth century from anthropological sources influenced by idealism, was of this sort (Lizardo 2016).

Ontic compositional claims about the components of culture are useful in delineating the divide (or point of productive disagreement) what can be said to be “naturalistic” versus “non-naturalistic” approaches to cultural analysis; while the latter is open to postulating that at least some components of culture do not have to have a material realization in some kind of physical structure or medium, the latter insists that culture must be composed of entities with such a realization (Sperber 1996).

The point to keep in mind is that if you postulate a non-material component of culture (e.g., concepts, ideas and so on) you are making an ontic compositional claim that has to be cashed in somehow. For instance, you will be forced to defend some type of metaphysical “substance” dualism (of the type Rene Descartes ultimately was committed to (Rowlands 2010, 12)), in which in addition to objects having material substance there are also non-material (or spatially non-extended) objects, with the human mind being the most important of these. The problem with such types of substance dualisms are many, and therefore analysts may want to reduce their allegiance to ontic claims that commit them to the postulation of non-material entities (as elimination of metaphysically suspect entities and substances has been the historical trend across all scientific disciplines (Thagard 2014)).

One way in which analysts committed to some form of naturalism, but who also want to “save” some of the core concepts of idealistic theories of culture can proceed is by proposing what philosophers McCauley and Bechtel (2001) refer to as heuristic identities (the philosopher Thagard [2014] refers to them as “explanatory identities”). A heuristic identity (ontic) claim says that this type of thing is identical to this other type for purposes of theorizing and scientific discovery (in this respect heuristic identity claims are ontic claims that are used for epistemic purposes), wherein the first type is the metaphysically suspect kind and the second type is the more respectable naturalistic kind. So the trick for ontic naturalists about culture is simply to say a type of cultural entity that had been conceptualized as “non-material” in the idealist tradition of cultural theory is actually this type of thing that has a relatively non-controversial material basis (even if the details of that basis have not been completely worked out yet).

Following the heuristic identity trick, we can, for instance, say that something like “concepts” or “ideas” are (type) identical to patterns of connectivity and activation across populations of neurons in the human brain (Blouw et al. 2016). This makes ideas physically realizable, and would then lend specificity to the ontic claim that culture, in this “idealist” sense, is composed of ideas or concepts (and would make culture a “collection of collections” (D’andrade 2001), or the distribution of patterns of connectivity and activation across populations of neurons in the brains of human populations [Sperber 1996]). Note that heuristic identity claims are both heuristic (they are tools for theorizing and discovery) and provisional (open to revision in light of new scientific evidence or theoretical advances).

Behavioral conceptions of culture (as distributions of activities and practices in human populations) also make implicit ontic claims as to the nature of cultural objects, although these are less problematic (from a naturalistic perspective) than those made in idealist theories. The reason for this is that practices and enacted behaviors have a more or less non-controversial grounding in the human body and are readily observable. Thus, the ontic claim here is that culture is composed of behavioral units or linked systems of such units (possibly along with the material or artifactual complements of those practices). A more restrictive version of this practice approach would make the ontic claim that culture is actually composed of distributions of procedural knowledge (Cohen and Bacdayan 1994), in which case culture would also have to be grounded in patterns of connectivity and activation in the (e.g., motor) neurons in the human brain (partly) responsible for the generation of those practices (Lizardo 2007).

Now to the second type of ontic claim. Locational claims are the type of ontic claims that answer the question “where is culture?” Everybody who makes an ontic claim about culture makes an implicit locational claim, because entities, even non-material or non-extended ones, have to have a location (Rowlands 2010, 11–13), and the nature of the entity usually determines their typical locations (e.g., standard material objects are located in physical space). For instance, Margaret Archer, in the quote above goes on to specify that given the fact that the Cultural System is made up of intelligibilia, then the Cultural System is located in what Karl Popper referred to as “World Three” (this is similar to Descartes’ claim that even though the mind had no physical extension, it had a physical location near the pineal gland). In this respect, ontic locational claims are analytically distinct from ontic compositional claims.

I have argued elsewhere, that much progress can be made in cultural analysis by being specific about locational claims. For instance, key distinctions among different types of culture, such as the distinction between “personal” and “public” culture first developed in cognitive anthropology are primarily of a locational type. We know that personal culture is “in” people, while public culture is “in” the world and this is an important analytic point to make. We can make these claims even if the more controversial ontic claims about composition have yet to be worked out. We don’t have to agree about the underlying nature of culture in the world, but we can agree that it is in the world.

The same thing goes with culture in persons; we don’t have to agree about the way that culture is internalized by people and the underlying form it takes in this state (e.g., cognitive, neural, ideational, conceptual, etc.) but we can agree that culture does get internalized by people, even if we have yet to work out a full theory of how this internalization happens (Quinn, Sirota, and Stromberg 2018), such that a person can carry some sort of cultural knowledge when they move around the world and this is different from the type of cultural knowledge embedded in material objects, artifacts and other recording technologies (inclusive of Archer’s ontologically ambiguous “intelligibilia”). Note that even anti-cognitive cultural analysts who say that there is no such thing as personal culture (because all of culture is “outside the head” (Wuthnow 1989)) are making an (negative or eliminationist) ontic claim in this respect.

To sum up, I have argued that if we are to have productive disagreements in cultural analysis of the sort Steve Vaisey craves, we must get clearer about the sort of claims we are making so that we know what exactly we are disagreeing about. I have proposed that there are at least two broad types of claims we can make about a given domain (such as culture). We may make claims about the best way to gain knowledge about it (epistemic) or the best way to think about its underlying nature (ontic). Cultural analysts, therefore, may have two broad points of productive disagreement. Much recent productive disagreement in cultural analysis has centered on epistemic claims. Surprisingly little has been about ontic claims, although the first generation of cultural theorists in early and mid-20th century American anthropology mainly argued about these (Bidney 1944). The recent “culture and cognition” turn in cultural analysis provides an opportunity, I believe, to not only disagree about methods but also about different ontic conceptions of what cultural phenomena and cultural processes are.


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