Hierarchical versus dimensional taxonomies of cultural kinds13 min read

Hierarchies versus Dimensions: Let them Fight!

A new collection of essays on autobiographical memory (Organization and Structure of Autobiographical Memory, edited by John Mace), provides a state of the art overview of the most recent work on this form of memory. Chapters range across the board, including contributions from a Cognitive Social Science perspective emphasizing the role of culture , the self, and ecological context. The book’s key message is that it is impossible to understand autobiographical or “episodic” memory by treating it as a special kind distinct from the other types of memory that have been recognized in the literature. In this respect, the volume also serves as a good introduction to state of the art models of memory in contemporary cognitive social science.

The first substantive chapter by David C. Rubin, entitled “Placing Autobiographical Memory in a General Memory Organization” makes the case for a move from what he refers to “hierarchical” to “dimensional” conceptualizations of memory. According to Rubin moving to a dimensional conception allows us to theorize novel kinds of mnemonic capacities and phenomena not usually considered in the literature while moving the focus from “types” of memory to clusters of distinct mnemonic processes.

In essence, Rubin asks us to compare a standard hierarchical taxonomy of mnemonic kinds of this sort:

To a “dimensional” classification of this type:

The first, hierarchical classification is the classic Squire (2004) typology, which is well-known to anyone familiar with the literature on memory systems. The second dimensional or “continuous” approach, is Rubin’s proposed contribution.

In contrasting hierarchies to dimensions, Rubin makes two points. First, hierarchical classifications disaggregate sub-types of a given kind by noting that they have disjunctive properties. In this respect they emphasize differences and lead to categorical partitions of the memory domain. Dimensional classifications, on the other hand, extend properties across categories, and emphasize continuity and gradation rather than discreteness. Second, by specifying a “property space,” dimensional classifications also make explicit hypotheses about possible kinds, which are logically possible but may have not been considered in the literature (they also may produce empty regions). These novel sub-kinds would be occluded in a strictly hierarchical arrangement.

For instance, the hierarchical model makes a sharp distinction between memories involving events (episodic memory) and those that do not (semantic, procedural), while also maintaining that all episodic memory must be declarative (explicit), Rubin’s dimensional conception allows for memory phenomena with unusual (from the point of view of the Squire taxonomy) combination of properties. This includes implicit event memory (of which deja vu experience are an example) with and without self-reference, and explicit memories about events that lack a reference to the self.

Rubin’s chapter is well-worth reading for the substantive contribution it makes to our understanding of memory processes, and the elegant incorporation of mnemonic phenomena so far ignored in the psychological literature. In the following, I would like to discuss the implications of Rubin’s approach for our classification and understanding of cultural kinds. The link is straightforward, because in a 2017 piece, I explicitly adapted a Squire-style hierarchical classification to differentiate between different forms of culture, as in here:

Rubin’s argument has implications for these types of attempts to classify cultural kinds. In a previous post, Michael Wood noted that hierarchical classifications such as these, can be partially misleading, making us think of cultural kinds as composed of neatly defined “discrete things” (types) rather than as property clusters located along different “poles” of a given dimension. Mike’s point is substantively similar to Rubin’s (and developed independently).

Given the fruitfulness of thinking about parallels between research on memory and culture (which I, along with others such as Harvey Whitehouse and Maurice Bloch, have exploited in the past), the convergence leads us to think about the potential applicability that a switch from hierarchies to dimensions might have for our thinking about existing (and possible) cultural kinds.

A Dimensional Conception of Cultural Kinds

What would moving to a dimensional conception of cultural kinds entail? First, as Rubin’s discussion highlights, the selection of dimensions becomes the most important theoretical task. Some of these are already implicit in hierarchical models, since each “split” in a branch is an implicit dimensional hypothesis.

Accordingly, as Mike noted in his original post, the extent to which a cultural kind relies on declarative or non-declarative memory (on the “personal” side) defines such a dimension. In the olden days the distinction between “implicit” and “explicit” culture (see e.g. Wuthnow and Witten 1988) got at this, which is another one of those links between the culture and memory literatures. Note that a nice advantage of the dimensional approach is that the declarative/non-declarative distinction can be treated as a continuum, with some cultural kinds partaking of quasi-procedural and quasi-declarative aspects, or at least having the property of being potentially “redescribed” from one format (procedural) to the other (declarative) (McDonnell 2014; Karmiloff-Smith 1994).

Another property dimension of cultural kinds, also brought up in Mike’s discussion can be termed “extendedness” or the extent to which a cultural phenomenon relies on purely personal (or “somatic” in Collins’s [2010] terms) resources or is offloaded or “scaffolded” into the world of artifacts, tools, and material arrangements (Lizardo and Strand 2010). Here Mike made the important point that cultural kinds emerge when we consider combinations of the “declarativeness” and “extendedness” dimensions, such as “declarative-scaffolded,” “non-declarative embodied” and so on. This is something that the hierarchical model obscures, but the dimensional model makes clear.

Recent work has noted that the “publicity” dimension of culture can be specified in analytically distinct ways. Such that something like “extendedness” is only one (of the possible) way(s) of thinking about the personal/public distinction. This would make trouble for a hierarchical taxonomy of cultural kinds, but can be readily incorporated into the dimensional approach. In this respect, another advantage of the dimensional approach is that it allows us to see that the personal/public distinction is multidimensional, rather than simply segregating two distinct “types” of culture (as in the hierarchical representation).

For instance, another way of thinking about the “publicness” dimension of culture is to think of it as referring to the overall prevalence of a given set of cultural understandings (whether declarative or non-declarative). Rinaldo and Guhin’s (2019) recent argument for the importance of “mesolevel” culture can be read as making a dimensional claim along these lines. Although the language of “levels” may invite a hierarchical interpretation, a more straightforward way of thinking about the Rinaldo/Guhin publicity dimension is by switching to a (continuous) distributional lens (Stolz, Taylor and Lizardo, 2019), of which the “mesolevel” is a proposed midpoint of sorts. Some culture is of restricted (narrow) distributional scope in the sense of being limited to a small set of people in a given location, other culture is less restricted and characterizes an entire organizational (or ethnographic) setting (thus “mesolevel” in Rinaldo and Guhin’s terms), while other cultural understandings can be safely assumed to be distributed across a wide swath of the population (e.g., American folk ideas about the value of hard work).

A dimensional conception of culture as discussed so far, linking the declarative/non-declarative distinction with the two notions of cultural “publicity” would yield the following property space:

As Rubin notes, the switch from a hierarchical to a dimensional classification parallels that between Linnean classification systems in biology and the dimensional classification systems used in the chemical table of elements. And advantage of the latter is to postulate “empty” (or presumed empty) areas of the topological space where predicted or novel types of entities should exist, while accommodating the already-acknowledged types.

Thus the figure above accommodates widely-considered cultural “types” (if we discretize the space for pragmatic purposes). Thus, widely distributed, non-declarative, embodied cultural kinds are the Maussian bodily techniques that served as inspiration for Merlau-Pontyian and Bourdieusian ideas of habitus. These have also been isolated as the sort of cultural kinds that are “hard embodied” (Cohen and Leung 2009). These last are different from widely distributed, declarative, embodied cultural kinds, which are closer to the conventionalized metaphorical and analogical mappings and blends of conceptual metaphor theory in cognitive semantics, or the types of culture that Leung and Cohen (2007) see as “soft embodied” (see Lizardo 2019 for further discussion of this distinction).

In the original post, Mike discusses the case of widely distributed, materially scaffolded, non-declarative cultural kinds (e.g, riding a bike). But something like narrative or rhetoric count as (more or less) widely distributed, and relatively scaffolded (in the material artifacts of literate societies) declarative cultural kinds (Hutto 2008). In addition, as pointed out by Rinaldo and Guhin (2019), a lot of sociologists study cultural kinds in the middle (meso) or even more restricted range of the distributional continuum. The declarative and nondeclarative culture, either embodied or scaffolded, of the boxing gym, wildland firefighting, or the modeling runway fall here (see the discussion in Mohr et al 2020, Chapter 2), as are the expert cultural kinds hoarded, produced, and reproduced by functionaries in charge of institutional upkeep and repair (Stoltz et al 2019).


Cohen, Dov, and Angela K-Y Leung. 2009. “The Hard Embodiment of Culture.” European Journal of Social Psychology 39 (7): 1278–89.

Collins, Harry. 2010. Tacit and Explicit Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hutto, Daniel D. 2008. Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding Reasons. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Karmiloff-Smith, Annette. 1995. Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science. MIT Press.

Leung, Angela K-Y, and Dov Cohen. 2007. “The Soft Embodiment of Culture: Camera Angles and Motion through Time and Space.” Psychological Science 18 (9): 824–30.

Lizardo, Omar. 2017. “Improving Cultural Analysis: Considering Personal Culture in Its Declarative and Nondeclarative Modes.” American Sociological Review 82 (1): 88–115.

Lizardo, Omar. 2019. “Pierre Bourdieu as Cognitive Sociologist.” In The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Sociology, edited by Wayne H. Brekhus and Gabe Ignatow, 65–80. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Lizardo, Omar, and Michael Strand. 2010. “Skills, Toolkits, Contexts and Institutions: Clarifying the Relationship between Different Approaches to Cognition in Cultural Sociology.” Poetics 38 (2): 205–28.

McDonnell, Terence E. 2014. “Drawing out Culture: Productive Methods to Measure Cognition and Resonance.” Theory and Society 43 (3-4): 247–74.

Mohr, John W., Christopher A. Bail, Margaret Frye, Jennifer C. Lena, Omar Lizardo, Terence E. McDonnell, Ann Mische, Iddo Tavory, and Frederick F. Wherry. 2020. Measuring Culture. Columbia University Press.

Rinaldo, Rachel, and Jeffrey Guhin. 2019. “How and Why Interviews Work: Ethnographic Interviews and Meso-Level Public Culture.” https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/87n34.

Squire, Larry R. 2004. “Memory Systems of the Brain: A Brief History and Current Perspective.” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 82 (3): 171–77.

Stoltz, Dustin S., Marshall A. Taylor, and Omar Lizardo. 2019. “Functionaries: Institutional Theory without Institutions.” https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/p48ft.

Wuthnow, Robert, and Marsha Witten. 1988. “New Directions in the Study of Culture.” Annual Review of Sociology 14 (1): 49–67.


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