Compositional pluralism, causal history, and the concept of culture19 min read

In previous posts (see here and here) I made the case for the importance of specifying underlying philosophical claims when conceptualizing culture and cultural phenomena. First, I distinguished between what I called epistemic and ontic claims about culture (following the philosopher Mark Rowland’s 2010 similar argument with regard to the domain of the “cognitive”). Epistemic claims are about the best way to go about learning about a given domain, while ontic claims are about the “stuff” that is seen as constitutive of the entities or processes that populate it. In the case of culture, epistemic claims are about the best way to go about studying cultural phenomena, while ontic claims are about the nature of culture, or, what makes cultural kinds distinctive from non-cultural kinds.

Also, I argued that if we inspect the early history of anthropological theory, we can distinguish two broad types of ontic claims about culture. First, there are what I referred to as locational claims. These are claims made by cultural theorists as to where in the world cultural kinds are to be found. For instance, a cultural theorist might say that cultural kinds (e.g., ideas, schemas, beliefs, values) are to be found “in” people (these might be followed by either implicit or explicit theories as to how those things got in there; namely, internalization theories). Alternatively (and not exclusive in relation to the first claim) a theorist might say that cultural kinds are to be found in the world (as institutions, codes, artifacts, and the like). Second, there are what I called compositional claims, which is about the actual stuff of cultural kinds. Thus, a theorist might say, following Kroeber (1917) or Parsons (1951) that culture is primarily ideational or symbolic. This means that it is made out of “ideal” stuff, and the nature of this stuff makes it different from “material” stuff. These theorists might even go so far as to say that given that the nature of culture is “ideal” the notion of “material culture” is a category mistake; the ontic claim here is that cultural kinds are disjunctive from material kinds.

For instance, the anthropologist Leslie White (1959: 238) noted the penchant for “idealist” culture theorists in early anthropology to reach this negative conclusion vis a vis the notion of material culture in a classic paper on the culture concept:

Those who define culture in terms of ideas, or as an abstraction, or as behavior, find themselves obliged logically to declare that material objects are not, and cannot be, culture. “Strictly speaking,” says Hoebel (1956: 176), “material culture is really not culture at all.” Taylor (1948: 102, 98) goes farther: “…the concept of ’material culture’ is fallacious” because “culture is a mental phenomenon.” Beals and Hoijer (1953: 210): ‘…culture is an abstraction from behavior and not to be confused with acts of behavior or with material artifacts, such as tools…”

Along the same lines, Bidney (1968: 130-131) observes,

The idealists…maintain that the cultural heritage consists primarily of ideas or communicated intelligence and symbolic expression since they hold that only ideas or symbols may be communicated and transmitted. For the cultural idealists, therefore, so-called material culture is a contradiction in terms, since for them the real cultural entities, or units, are the conceptual ideas, or norms, not the particular artifacts which exmply or embody them.

Finally, I also discussed two other types of ontic claims that had been proposed to distinguish between cultural and non-cultural kinds. The first one, referred to as property claims, have to do with a special property of cultural things that distinguish them from non-cultural things. The most common version of this property claim, particularly suggestive for social scientists in general and sociologists in particular, is that the property sharedness can be used to distinguish culture from not-culture. In this respect, culture is that which is shared, distributed, or diffused across multiple people, while not-culture is that which is unique to the individual, regardless of composition (for a recent defense of this claim, see Morin 2016).

The second type of ontic claim that has been used to distinguish culture from not-culture is what I referred to as causal history claims. According to this view, what is unique about cultural kinds is that they have a specific “origin story” that is distinct from non-cultural kinds (such as biological kinds). The most common version of this origin story is that they are the product of human ingenuity, invention, or a learning process whether individual or collective. I also argued that these different ontic claims do not necessarily lead to compatible intuitions as to what counts as culture. Since something can meet the criteria for being culture according to the causal history argument but fail to be culture according to the sharedness property argument.

While the previous posts were mostly descriptive and agnostic with regard to this set of distinctions, in this post I take a stance as to what I see as the most productive mixture of ontic claims for a useful culture concept. In terms of the distinctions proposed, I will argue that if we were to arrange ontic claims in terms of the “strength” (and pragmatic usefulness) for determining the boundaries of cultural kinds, causal history claims would come out on top, followed by locational claims. Compositional claims would follow. Surprisingly, the property claim most cherished by sociologists (sharedness) turns out, in my argument, to be the least important.

Why Sharedness is a Weak Demarcation Criterion

First, I begin with negative arguments against making “sharedness” the sine qua non for distinguishing cultural from non-cultural kinds.

One problem with the sharedness criterion is that it is too broad of a distinction and thus ends up confusing important issues that end up being taken up by the other ontic claims in a more effective way. Take, for instance, the categorical distinction between “culture” and ” the individual” that emerges from the sharedness criterion. This distinction actually conflates a property claim with a location claim. So something can be “in” people but not be unique to any one individual. Critics of the notion of personal culture (a locational claim) sometimes dismiss it because they confuse it for a property claim (e.g., how can something be culture if it’s inside the person?).

This ends up begging the question for defining culture exclusively in terms of “public” behavior and performances. This was more or less the route taken by Clifford Geertz (with a helping of Rylean anti-Cartesian arguments) in the famous essays from the 1950s and 1960s published as Interpretation of Cultures in 1973. The problem here is that the analyst then immediately conflates a locational ontic claim (culture is that which is public) with an epistemic claim of dubious validity, namely, that culture has to be public because we can only study that which we have access to and we only have access to public stuff and not to “inside the head stuff” (see Smith 2016 for a deft criticism of this view).

Second, the criterion for sharing is arbitrary. This is clear if we follow White (1959) and ask the naive question: How many people need to share something in order for that something to cross the invisible boundary and go from “not culture” to “culture”?

…[I]f expression by one person is not enough to qualify an act as a cultural element, how many persons will be required? Linton (1936:274) says that “as soon as this new thing has been transmitted to and is shared by even one other individual in the society, it must be reckoned as a part of culture.” Osgood (1951:208) requires “two or more.” Durkheim (1938:lvi) needs “several individuals, at the very least.” Wissler (1929:358) says that an item does not rise to the level of a culture trait until a standardized procedure is established in the group. And Malinowski (1941:73) states that a “cultural fact starts when an individual interest becomes transformed into public, common, and transferable systems of organized endeavor.”

Singularity/plurality is a weak ontic demarcation criterion because it is implausible to suggest that the nature of an entity is radically transformed by gaining the (relational) property of being a duplicate or being shared across multiple people. And artifact remains an artifact whether it is unique or doubled and so does an idea, belief, representation, skill, and so on.

As the anthropologist Gerald Weiss (1973) once sardonically remarked:

Since there is no difference in kind between, for example, an idea held by one man [sic] and the same idea held by two or more, we are justified in stipulating that any human nongenetic phenomenon, shared or not, is a cultural phenomenon. The “group fallacy” that [for] culture to be culture [it] must be shared has only one thing to say for itself: it is widely shared (1401).

Beyond purely conceptual issues, the sharedness criterion faces insurmountable empirical difficulties. Take for instance, the only empirical program for the study and measurement of culture that came out of the mid-twentieth century functionalist theory of culture emphasizing sharedness, namely, the cross-national (survey-based) study of “values,” as pursued in the work of Milton Rokeah (1973), Geert Hofstede (2001) and Shalom Schwartz (2012). The basic idea here is that you could differentiate “cultures” (by which the authors mean “groups” of people, usually operationalized as nations or countries) by looking at shared values.

For a long time, this empirical program slogged on assuming “groups” shared cultures (because you could compute mean differences across countries, but actually never checking to see if the variance between countries was smaller or larger than the variance within. When analysts checked (e.g., Fischer and Schwartz 2011), they found (not surprisingly) that countries predicted a meager shared of the variance of values across individuals (using aggregated cross-national surveys) and there was much more consensus across a variety of values across countries than there was dissensus (except for values signaling “conformity”).

This led the authors to conclude:

Our results pose challenges for cross-cultural researchers who view culture as a meaning system shared by most members of a group. How can they justify comparing cultures on values that exhibit little within-society consensus or between-society difference? Our findings suggest that the “shared meaning” conception of culture applies at most to the internalized functional value system that regulates individuals’ conformity to social norms and expectations. Internalized values that regulate other domains of life and about which there is little within-society consensus do not fit this conception of culture. Other views of the value component of culture may therefore merit more attention (1140).

In a follow-up piece Schwartz (2014) reiterates the point that this empirical finding strikes a death-knell for approaches that build in the “sharedness” criterion into their conceptual definition of culture. Schwartz also (correctly) points out that this calls into question the use of “group” (usually country) averages to characterize this alleged sharedness, given the fact that it is actually non-existent. Yet, rather unexpectedly, Schwartz goes on to conclude that while we can reject the notion of sharedness, “there is no need to abandon the empirical side of this approach” and it is still OK to compute group means to characterize “cultures.” Schwartz does this by proposing an equally bizarre and speculative concept of culture.

According to Schwartz (2014), “societal” culture is (1) “a latent, hypothetical construct,” that “cannot be observed directly but can be inferred from its manifestations,” (2) “external to the individual. It is not a psychological variable. The normative value system that is the core of societal culture influences the minds of individuals but it is not located in their minds,” (3) “expressed in the functioning of societal institutions, in their organization, practices, and policies” (6). In other words, it seems that the only way to “save” the sharedness criterion from empirical discomfirmation is to make a radical move in cultural ontology.

In essence, Schwartz recommends adopting a non-empirical, purely externalist (non-cognitive) conception of culture, that at the same time is seen as having powers of (efficient?) causation on individuals, just to keep the methodological procedure that is licensed by the sharedness criterion. This is a conceptually retrogressive move, as these types of non-substantial but also causally powerful “culture concepts” in anthropology were precisely the core targets of more analytically perspicacious writers such as Bidney and White. I will not repeat all that is wrong with this approach (for one, it is ontologically incoherent for a non-empirical thing to exert causal power on empirical things), other than saying that if this is the theoretical price to pay to keep the criterion of sharedness as definitional of cultural kinds, it is better to reject it and move on to more plausible alternatives.

Why Causal History is a Better Demarcation Criterion

Causal history is a better demarcation criterion to distinguish cultural from non-cultural kinds. This is for at least three reasons.

First, the causal history of a thing has a stronger link to the nature of the thing than does the (ancillary) fact that it is a singularity or it is part of a plurality. That something belongs to the (biological) kind polar bear is much more informatively given by its causal history than by the fact that it is the last individual representative of its kind (e.g., due to extinction by climate change). The same for cultural kinds. That something emerges via a human creative process (for human culture) and that that something is then transmitted and learned by others is much more informative about the nature of the thing and much more useful in distinguishing it from other kinds of things than knowing whether it is held by one, two, three or fifty people.

Post-Chomskyan debates as to the status of language are useful here. When Chomsky defined “I-language” as an encapsulated, biological module in the brain that was inborn and simply matured during development without much input from the environment, he was ipso facto using a causal history criterion that removed human language from being a cultural kind. Instead, for Chomsky, language is a biological kind (Chomsky 2009). This means that Chomskyan I-language in spite of being “shared” by the human species does not count as culture by this definition. The Revival of domain-general conceptions of the origins of language and syntax that use refurbished conceptions of the learning process (e.g. Tomasello 2009), in effect, are attempts to reclaim language as a cultural kind. Note that what matters here is causal history (for Chomsky language emerging out of a biological module from a maturational process; for Tomasello emerging as a multifaceted capacity from a domain-general social learning process) not sharedness. That language ends up being “shared” in both of these (incompatible) stories, tells us that this criterion is more of an after-effect than definitional.

Second, the causal history criterion sidesteps the problematic individual/culture distinction in favor of (more tractable) binaries, such as culture/biology; see Weiss 1973: 1382ff). The problem with the individual/culture distinction is that it brings back all kinds of irresolvable dilemmas from the social theory tradition revolving around the Durkheimian individual/society partition and resultant “agency/structure” problem (in post-Giddensian parlance). These are less than helpful debates that don’t need to be recapitulated in cultural theory (Martin 2015, chap 2). Counterposing the individual to culture leads to problems related to the alleged effects of “culture” as a (possibly spurious) external ontological “thing” on individuals. This gets worse when the “sharedness” property gets linked to the “system” property so that now culture as an organized external system is counterposed to individuals, who are now faced with the task of using, internalizing, or even being completely transformed by this external system thing. The causal history criterion, by putting the genesis of cultural things in individual and collective creative activity at the forefront, avoids this issue.

Finally, the causal history criterion is compositionally pluralist. By compositional pluralism, I mean that it admits that culture can be made up of things that seem to be of different kinds. That is, a skill, a practice, an idea, a schema, a symbol, and a material artifact count as culture because they share comparable causal histories: All of these are the product of human invention, ingenuity, and tinkering, and all can be differentiated from those human capacities that have a biological or genetic history (Weiss 1973). In addition, the use of all of these can be learned and transmitted by people (in some cases, but not all, leading to the incidental property of being shared). The causal history criterion thus avoids the silly position that some compositional monists are forced to take, like for instance, denying the obvious fact that material (artifactual) culture is a kind of culture while also accommodating the “motley” nature of cultural kinds.


Bidney, D. (1968). Theoretical anthropology. Transaction Publishers.

Chomsky, N. (2009). Cartesian linguistics. Cambridge University Press.

Fischer, Ronald, and Shalom Schwartz. 2011. “Whence Differences in Value Priorities?: Individual, Cultural, or Artifactual Sources.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 42 (7): 1127–44.

Hofstede, Geert. 2001. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations. SAGE Publications.

Martin, J. L. (2015). Thinking through theory. WW Norton.

Morin, O. (2016). How traditions live and die. Oxford University Press.

Rokeach, Milton. 1973. The Nature of Human Values. New York, NY, US: Free Press.

Rowlands, M. (2010). The new science of the mind. MIT Press.

Schwartz, Shalom H. 2012. “An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values.” Online Readings in Psychology and Culture 2 (1): 11.

Schwartz, Shalom H. 2014. “Rethinking the Concept and Measurement of Societal Culture in Light of Empirical Findings.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 45 (1): 5–13.

Tomasello, M. (2009). Constructing a language. Harvard university press.

Weiss, G. (1973). A scientific concept of culture. American Anthropologist75(5), 1376-1413.

White, L. A. (1959). The concept of culture. American Anthropologist61(2), 227-251.

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