From “types of culture” to “poles of cultural phenomena”10 min read

Recent sociological theorizing on culture has made a distinction between “personal culture” and “public culture”
(Cerulo 2018; Lizardo 2017; Patterson 2014; Wood et al. 2018). Precise usage of the concepts varies somewhat, but generally speaking, personal culture refers to culture stored in declarative and nondeclarative memory, and public culture refers to everything else “out there.” What is allowed to exist “out there” varies; stricter approaches restrict public culture to material objects and assemblages (Wood et al. 2018), while more open approaches refer to things like “institutions” or “public codes” as forms of public culture as well (Cerulo 2018; Lizardo 2017).  

Theoretical distinctions about “personal” and “public” culture can take different forms. The common approach is to refer to distinct “types” of culture, such that the “personal” and “public” labels are used to refer to discrete things. An alternative is to distinguish “poles” of a given cultural phenomenon. Here, an observed phenomenon—such as symbolic meaning, a practice, or an institution—is understood as emerging from the relation between a person and the world. This latter approach, which I advocate here, opens up fruitful avenues of empirical research and gives new insight to theoretical dilemmas, such as the old “individual-vs-situation” chestnut.

Personal and public poles of symbolic meaning

Symbolic meaning emerges from a bipolar structure, pairing an external vehicle with semantic content to produce meaning (Lizardo 2016). Symbols have a “public” pole—the external vehicle— and a “personal” pole—the semantic content, stored in declarative memory. Because the meaning of the symbol relies on this bipolar structure, change in either pole affects the meaning produced. On the personal pole, this can be caused by routine human experiences, such as forgetting or gaining new experiences. On the public pole, this can be caused by changes in the material qualities of an object, such as plain old decay (McDonnell 2016)

Personal and public poles of practices

Though often overlooked, this same bipolar structure exists for practices as well. The “personal” pole consists of nondeclarative memory, such as procedural know-how, and the “public” pole consists of material “handles” that afford and/or activate the execution of know-how (Foster 2018:148). When a person is able to go about their world unproblematically, it is because of this “ontological complicity” (Fogle and Theiner 2018) between the personal and public poles of practice.

“The relationship to the social world is not the mechanical causality that is often assumed between a “milieu” and a consciousness, but rather a sort of ontological complicity. When the same history inhabits both habitus and habitat, both dispositions and position, the king and his court, the employer and his form, the bishop and his see, history in a sense communicates with itself, is reflected in its own image.” (Bourdieu 1981, p. 306)

To give an example, if you are like me, you think you know how to ride a bike. However, more precisely, you and I know how to ride bikes that respond to our bodies in particular ways. We can probably ride mountain bikes and road bikes and beach cruisers all the same, because these are all roughly equivalent. Pedal to go forward, and if you want to go right, turn the handlebars to the right. There might be small differences (single gears vs geared bikes, for instance), but the basic concept is the same for nearly all bikes. However, what if we encountered a bike that behaved inversely to our training? Some welders created a bike that did just that, and you can watch the results in this video:

The bike in the video has inverted steering, such that turning the handlebars to the right turns the front tire to the right, and vice versa. The result is that, despite all your experience riding bicycles, as the narrator boldly declares, “you cannot ride this bike.” It’s a fascinating video and worth watching. The point is that the successful execution of a practice relies on stability between personal and public poles—procedural memory and the material world.

Creating and maintaining stability between poles

Drawing out the bipolar continuities between symbolic meaning and practice, while acknowledging their grounding in distinct memory systems, allows for theoretical continuity in the way we think about how meanings and practices are formed, maintained, or updated. In a recent paper, Taylor, Stoltz, and McDonnell (2019) propose that whenever people encounter a new cultural object, the brain responds either by “indexicalizing” the object as an instantiation of a known type, or by “innovating” a new type. This process is known as neural binding, or “binding significance to form.” Taylor, Stoltz, and McDonnell limit their analysis to the bipolar structure of symbolic meaning, but the same process could be extended to understand how practices are maintained. When people encounter a new instrument, it either makes use of existing procedural memory, or instigates the development of new procedural memory. While the actual cognitive processes of neural binding would vary according to whether it is a matter of Type I or Type II learning (Lizardo et al. 2016:293–295), there is a homology when considering cognitive updating more generally as a result of the interplay between public and personal “poles” of cultural phenomena. 

On the other end, people can also stabilize pairing between personal and public poles of meanings and practices by “making the world in their own image,” so to speak, for example, via sophisticated conservation practices in the case of meaning (Domínguez Rubio 2014), or changing our environment to better suit our abilities (or lack of abilities [1]), in the case of practice.

Rethinking individuals and situations

The “two poles” framework offers a new way of thinking about whether an observed practice is explained by an individual’s entrenched dispositions or the situation in which they are presently located [2]. Within the current framework, because a practice is understood as emerging from enculturated dispositions and a corresponding material arrangement (e.g. knowing how to ride a bike, and a “normal” bike), the question about situations becomes a question of the flexibility of the person-world relation. While certain practices may depend on very specific handles, others may be executed unproblematically with a wide range of material configurations [3]. Figuring out the limits of a given handle for a practice (e.g. “when does a bike become unrideable?”) is a productive empirical exercise [4].

Final thoughts

This conceptual move from “types” to “poles” has implications for the way we think about and study cultural phenomena. It suggests that any analysis of one pole in isolation is necessarily incomplete, or at least myopic. Institutions, practices, public codes, symbolic meaning—all of these emergent cultural phenomena emerge via a bipolar pairing between one or more forms of memory and the material world. They are neither “public culture” nor “personal culture,” but they do all have personal and public components. Thorough understanding demands attention to both. 

[1] “I don’t know which fork you use for what, and I can’t tell a salad fork from a dessert fork, but I do know that one is supposed to start with the implements farthest from the plate and work inward. The environment is set up so that I can follow the arbitrary norms without actually knowing them” (Martin 2015:242)

[2] See Dustin’s blog post for more on this topic

[3] For example, see Martin (2015:236–242) on how people unproblematically figure out door-opening, no matter the situation.

[4] See Aliza Luft (2015) on an especially important application of this idea.


Cerulo, Karen A. 2018. “Scents and Sensibility: Olfaction, Sense-Making, and Meaning Attribution.” American Sociological Review 83(2):361–89.

Domínguez Rubio, Fernando. 2014. “Preserving the Unpreservable: Docile and Unruly Objects at MoMA.” Theory and Society 43(6):617–45.

Fogle, Nikolaus and Georg Theiner. 2018. “The ‘Ontological Complicity’ of Habitus and Field: Bourdieu as an Externalist.” in Socially Extended Epistemology, edited by J. Adam Carter, Andy Clark, Jesper Kallestrup, S. Orestis Palermos, and Duncan Pritchard.

Foster, Jacob G. 2018. “Culture and Computation: Steps to a Probably Approximately Correct Theory of Culture.” Poetics  68:144–54.

Lizardo, O. 2017. “Improving Cultural Analysis: Considering Personal Culture in Its Declarative and Nondeclarative Modes.” American Sociological Review.

Lizardo, Omar. 2016. “Cultural Symbols and Cultural Power.” Qualitative Sociology 39(2):199–204.

Lizardo, O., R. Mowry, B. Sepulvado, M. Taylor, D. Stoltz, and M. Wood. 2016. “What Are Dual Process Models? Implications for Cultural Analysis in Sociology.” Sociological.

Luft, Aliza. 2015. “Toward a Dynamic Theory of Action at the Micro Level of Genocide: Killing, Desistance, and Saving in 1994 Rwanda.” Sociological Theory 33(2):148–72.

Martin, John Levi. 2015. Thinking through Theory. WW Norton, Incorporated.

McDonnell, Terence E. 2016. Best Laid Plans: Cultural Entropy and the Unraveling of AIDS Media Campaigns. University of Chicago Press.

Patterson, Orlando. 2014. “Making Sense of Culture.” Annual Review of Sociology 40(1):1–30.

Taylor, Marshall A., Dustin S. Stoltz, and Terence E. McDonnell. 2019. “Binding Significance to Form: Cultural Objects, Neural Binding, and Cultural Change.” Poetics .

Wood, Michael Lee, Dustin S. Stoltz, Justin Van Ness, and Marshall A. Taylor. 2018. “Schemas and Frames.” Sociological Theory 36(3):244–61.


  1. Pingback: Three Types of Ontic Distinctions About Culture – Culture, Cognition, and Action (culturecog)

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