Three Types of Ontic Distinctions About Culture19 min read

Following up on a previous discussion, in this post, I argue that it is useful to differentiate between three types of ontic claims about culture that have typically been made in the history of cultural theory. Typically, these ontic claims are made with the goal of isolating the “nature” of culture, or coming up with a criterion for the “mark of the cultural.” Typically the analyst is not only interested in coming up with a way to define what culture is, but also is attempting to establish what “culture is not” (Reed 2017). This then leads to typical binaries juxtaposing the positive ontic claim against the negative one (e.g., culture versus individual, culture versus economy, culture versus biology, etc.).

The three types of ontic claims culture I would like to focus on here are: 1) ontic claims about the “stuff” of culture (what I referred to before as compositional claims), ontic claims about the properties that make something cultural, and ontic claims about the causal history of cultural things. The first type of ontic claim tells us what type of thing culture is, the second type of ontic claim is concerned with the typical properties of things we call cultural, and the third set of ontic claims is concerned with the type of generative or historical processes (e.g., typical causal histories) that yield the things we call culture. I will not discuss locational ontic claims because these are less relevant for establishing the nature of cultural kinds or demarcating culture from not culture (instead, they are useful for distinguish subtypes within the overarching category of culture). Different ontic claims about culture pertain to these different ontic categories, although as we will see some locational claims emerge from ontic claims via the binaries they give rise to.

Surprisingly, we will see that depending on which type of ontic claim we focus on, an entity can be “culture” according to one criterion (causal history criterion) and not “culture” according to another (property). In addition, as Reed (2017) has argued, a number of ontic claims about culture are negative ontic claims. That is, their analytic force depends on telling us the kinds of things that culture is not while being somewhat coy as to what culture actually is. In this respect, it is also useful to keep these last type of claim (e.g., “culture is not individual”) distinct from the positive ones, as it is easier to make a negative ontic claim than to defend a positive one against alternatives. This is because a negative ontic claim (e.g., “culture is not biology”) is compatible with a number of potentially mutually exclusive positive claims.

The Types of Things that are Culture

In terms of ontic claims about the “stuff” of culture, the big division in traditional cultural theory concerned itself with differentiating between culture as ideas versus culture as empirical; Bidney (1968, 24) refers to the latter as a “realist” conception of culture (with the former being an “idealistic” conception). However, the “realist” term is misleading, especially given the wide variety of connotations that the term “realism” has acquired in recent philosophy of social science and social theory (Archer 1996; Elder-Vass 2012). It is possible, for instance to be a realist about ideas (a Platonic idealism or Popperian propositional realism), like Margaret Archer, and therefore to think of culture as both “real” and ideal. So the analyst’s stance as to whether culture is “real,” needs to be decoupled from the more basic ontic claim, which is about what the stuff of culture is. Obviously, being a non-realist about culture, is a kind of (limiting) negative ontic claim, essentially saying that the term culture fails to refer to anything at all.

So what Bidney calls realism (and which I call the “empirical” ontic claim) is based first on saying that culture as “not ideal” (a negative ontic claim), and thus has a concrete (observable) empirical reality. But what are the positive ontic claims made by those who think of culture as non-ideal and empirical? There are two broad perspectives here. We can differentiate those who make the ontic claim that culture is a material (or artifactual) thing (and thus think of culture as material culture), from those who see culture as a behavioral or practical thing. That is culture as an empirical thing can manifest itself either as artifacts or as the sum total of acquired “customs, habits, and institutions” of a people (David Bidney 1968, 24). Definitions of culture pointing to customs, tradition, the “social heritage” and the like (such as Boas’s) belong to the empirical tradition (combining artifactual and behavioral conceptions), while Alfred Kroeber’s (1917) definition of culture as an ideational “superorganic” (but still real) entity was the most influential idealist rendering in early anthropology.

Both idealist and empirical ontic claims leave open the possibility that culture can be organized as a “system” (or in weaker senses as an organized collection) of ideal entities, material artifacts, or behaviors (Archer 1996; David Bidney 1968; Sewell 2005). Any type of systemic or “plural” conception of culture (e.g., culture as a complex object composed of a set of interconnected or inter-related “culture units”) necessarily invites the counter-position of culture as a system versus the individual (David Bidney 1968; Norton 2019). That is, since what is culture is what is replicated, communicated, and ultimately shared across people, then if something is a unique individual idiosyncrasy then it is ipso facto not cultural. This means individuals can stand opposed to culture as an overarching system of ideas (as they did in the mid-twentieth century functionalist conception of Parsons or in Kroeber’s (1917) early theory of culture as an idealist “superorganic” realm) or they can stand against culture as the aggregated (artifactual or behavioral) “social heritage” as they did in Boasian conceptions of culture (Bidney 1968).

The Properties of Culture

This takes us to the second type of ontic claim, here what makes something culture is not the “stuff” it is made of (e.g. ideal, artifact, or practice) but a key property of each token cultural unit or slice of cultural stuff. As noted, the most common version of this type of property ontic claim fixates on sharedness as the focal property. Accordingly, something is cultural when it is not a unique individual entity, but when it is instead shared or replicated across people (Sperber 1985). The property ontic claim is analytically distinct from the “typical stuff” ontic claim and therefore can crosscut it. Thus, we can have shared ideas, shared artifacts, shared behaviors, shared practices and so on, all of which count as culture because they are shared. “Sharedness” (under this property ontic conception), and not the typical constitutive stuff, is the “mark of the cultural.”

Note that this positive ontic claim comes with an implicit negative claim culture is not what is unique to the individual. So an idea that occurs to a single person, a “private language” (for Wittengenstein a logical impossibility), an artifact that only one person knows how to use, or a norm only one person follows, are not cultural under this conception. This property intuition sometimes clashes against the related (locational) ontic intuition that culture can be “in” or “internalized” by people, so that we can speak of such a thing as “personal” culture. Rinaldo and Guhin (2019), in a forthcoming SMR piece, make this point explicitly:

“…[T]he idea of a wholly “personal” culture is something of an oxymoron, in a sense similar to Wittgenstein’s denial of the possibility of a private language…Personal declarative culture and nondeclarative culture are those elements of the culture contained within a person, whether their memories or future plans, their speech or thoughts, their bodily activities or bodies themselves. Yet actual culture —whether practiced declaratively or nondeclaratively—is necessarily at once public and personal; otherwise it is hard to recognize it as culture, for, despite its multitudinous definitions, “culture” is nearly always understood as something with a social basis” (3).

By a “social basis” I presume that Rinaldo and Guhin are using a “sharing” criterion, although they are also making a “hybrid location” ontic claim of the type discussed by Mike Wood in a previous post.

The Provenance of Culture

The final type of ontic claim about culture is not about the stuff that it is made of, nor about a special criterial property of this stuff; instead whether something is cultural or not depends on its causal history. In classical anthropological theory, proponents of this conception made the (negative) that culture was not nature (this distinction was central for the work of Levi-Strauss (1966) who saw the nature/culture distinction as fundamental). Thus if something came into existence (e.g., in evolutionary or geological time) without the aid of human intervention (such as mountains, rivers, or tigers), then it wasn’t culture. By the same token, if the existence of something depended on and could historically be traced (whether in historical or ontogenetic time) to human intervention (like a house, a plow, or a writing system) then it was culture.

This ontic approach to isolating the nature of culture brings with it a new set of distinctions, in particular the biology/culture binary. Biological kinds are a subset of natural kinds and are thus ipso facto not cultural. The same goes for standard physical kinds such as gold or electron. These last differ from artifactual kinds such as chair or symphony, which because they wouldn’t exist without the aid of human ingenuity, count as culture. Like any binary, there are of course “in between” cases that contravene it. Take the (natural?) kind dog. Insofar as they are a biological kind, dogs don’t count as a cultural kind. However, insofar as dogs as we find them today, with the particular properties they have, only have those properties because of human intervention (selective breeding), then by the causal history criterion, count as a cultural kind.

Note that like the property ontic claim, the causal history ontic claim also cuts across ontic “types of stuff” conceptions. Thus, an idea that occurs to a person, or a house built by a person, or a new system of billing and accounting devised by a person, or a new style of dancing devised by a person, all count as cultural, even though here we are mixing compositional ontic types (ideas, artifacts, institutions, practices). What counts is not the stuff, but the history of how the stuff came about. If something emerges out of a human-led creative process and not a natural process of biological maturation or physical change then that something is cultural.

Note also that human properties and abilities are a special (self-referential) version of this last causal history ontic claim. A human ability or trait is biological (and thus not cultural) if its existence and causal history do not depend on human intervention (e.g., the trait arises due to genes or biological maturation), and a human ability is cultural if its existence (and thus causal history) involves people (whether the self or others), such as explicit teachers, self-training, or a model serving as a source to imitate. Thus, the ability to perform the Hopi Snake Dance is culture, but the ability to see using a normally developed visual system is not culture. Like before, in-between cases emerge as theoretically suggestive. For instance, while the general ability to see three-dimensional objects is not cultural, a specifically trained ability to see certain objects in particular ways (Baxandall 1988) is cultural because it meets the causal history criterion (and possibly the shared property criterion).

Note finally that the last example suggests that the causal history claim is not necessarily yoked to any type of property claim, although a positive argument can be made linking property and causal history claims. This means that causal history claims can lead to different intuitions than property claims with regard to what counts as culture. The reason for this is that a “unique” cultural token can meet the causal history criterion of being the product of human ingenuity and/or a learning process (while a lot of learning is collective, some subset of learning is individual). Thus, a paranoid schizophrenic may develop a mapping between lexical items and referents that only they can decode (a private language). In spite of the fact that this private language will fail the sharedness criterion by definition, it will count as cultural because it is the product of an individual creative process (D. Bidney 1947).

In a (now classic) non-human case, when the macaque monkey named Imo started washing sandy potatoes at the river in the small Japanese island of Koshima (Kawai 1965), the practice was cultural (according to the causal history criterion) even before other monkeys imitated her, because it was a product of non-human animal ingenuity (e.g., Imo was not compelled to do it because of her genes). However, according to the shared property criterion, monkey potato washing only became cultural until some critical mass of other conspecifics beyond Imo also began to engage in the practice.

Concluding Thoughts

That different ontic claims give us different intuitions as to what counts as culture should not be a cause for despair. This is actually a widespread issue across a number of kinds in the physical, biological, cognitive, and social sciences (Taylor and Vickers 2017). Instead, clashing intuitions further support the recommendation of making ontic claims explicit so that we at least know what we are disagreeing about. As noted before, and in Mike’s previous post, some progress has been made with respect to locational claims, but people are a bit more coy when it comes to compositional, property, and causal history claims.

Another reason why being ontically explicit pays off is that it can help us identify existing blind spots in cultural theory. For instance, property claims with regard to sharedness, are sometimes assumed rather than demonstrated in spite of the fact that sharedness can be problematic for some of the things we’d like to call culture (e.g., practices or implicit presuppositions) without proposing a mechanism that leads to such sharedness (Turner 2001). As intimated before, this implies that some ontic claims can be linked. For instance, the property claim that culture is that which is “shared” can be linked to the causal history claim by proposing a mechanism(s): culture is that which is learned from others via instruction or imitation.

Finally, differentiating between different types of ontic claims allows us to organize the various culture/not-culture binaries in a more comprehensive framework. So, as we have seen, while the juxtaposition culture/individual makes sense from a property (shared/not shared or public/private) perspective, it doesn’t make sense from a causal history perspective. From this last point of view, something can be cultural and be the product of an individual creative process (Bidney 1968), or known only to a single person in the world. In the same way, while the culture/biology or culture/nature opposition doesn’t make sense from a property perspective (something can be shared because it is fixed by biology, like the fact that we have two eyes), it makes sense from a causal history approach. Finally, compositional distinctions such as the, increasingly obsolete, ideal culture/material culture binary makes sense from a “stuff” approach, it cross-cuts the other distinctions.


Archer, M. S. 1996. Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory. Cambridge University Press.

Baxandall, Michael. 1988. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bidney, D. 1947. “Human Nature and the Cultural Process.” American Anthropologist 49 (3): 375–99.

Bidney, David. 1968. Theoretical Anthropology. Transaction Publishers.

Elder-Vass, Dave. 2012. The Reality of Social Construction. Cambridge University Press.

Kawai, Masao. 1965. “Newly-Acquired Pre-Cultural Behavior of the Natural Troop of Japanese Monkeys on Koshima Islet.” Primates; Journal of Primatology 6 (1): 1–30.

Kroeber, A. L. 1917. “THE SUPERORGANIC.” American Anthropologist 19 (2): 163–213.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Norton, Matthew. 2019. “Meaning on the Move: Synthesizing Cognitive and Systems Concepts of Culture.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology.

Reed, Isaac Ariail. 2017. “On the Very Idea of Cultural Sociology.” In Social Theory Now, edited by Claudio E. Benzecry, Monika Krause, Isaac Ariail Reed, 18–41. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rinaldo, Rachel, and Jeffrey Guhin. 2019. “How and Why Interviews Work: Ethnographic Interviews and Meso-Level Public Culture.”

Sewell, William H., Jr. 2005. “The Concept (s) of Culture.” Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing after the Linguistic Turn, 76–95.

Sperber, Dan. 1985. “Anthropology and Psychology: Towards an Epidemiology of Representations.” Man 20 (1): 73–89.

Taylor, Henry, and Peter Vickers. 2017. “Conceptual Fragmentation and the Rise of Eliminativism.” European Journal for Philosophy of Science 7 (1): 17–40.

Turner, S. 2001. “Throwing out the Tacit Rule Book: Learning and Practices.” The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory.


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