Rethinking Cultural Depth13 min read

The issue of whether some culture is “deep” versus “shallow” has been a thorny one in both classical and contemporary theory. The basic argument is that for some piece of culture to have the requisite effects (e.g., direct action) then it must be incorporated at some requisite level of depth. “Shallow culture” can’t have deep effects. Thus, according to Parsons, values had to be deeply internalized in order to serve as guiding principles for action.

Postulating cultural objects always found at a “deep” level begs for the development of a theory that tells us how this happens in the first place. That is: we require a theory about how the same cultural “object” can go from (1) being outside the person, to (2) being inside the person, and (3) once inside from being shallowly internalized to being deeply internalized. For instance, a value commitment may begin at a very shallow level (a person can report being familiar with that value) but by some (mysterious) “internalization” process it can become “deep culture” (when the value is now held unconditionally and motivates action via affective and other unconscious mechanisms; the value is now “part” of the actor).

Depth After Structuration

One thing that is not often noted is that the discussion of “cultural depth” in the post-Parsonian period (especially post-Giddens) is not the same sort of discussion that Parsons was having. This is one of those instances where we retain the same set of lexical terms—e.g. “deep” versus “shallow” culture—but change the conceptual parameters of the argument (a common occurrence in the history of cultural theory). In contrast to Parsons, for post-Giddensian theorists, the main issue is not whether the same type of cultural element can have different levels of “depth” (or travel across levels via a socialization process). The point is that different cultural elements have (because of some inherent quality) exist necessarily at a requisite level of “depth” because of their inherent properties.

These are very different claims. The first way of looking at things is technically “Parsonian”; that is Parsons really thought that “culture patterns are [for an actor] frequently objects of orientation in the same sense as other [run of the mill] objects…Under certain circumstances, however, the manner of his [sic] involvement with a cultural pattern as an object is altered, and what was once an [external] object becomes a constitutive part of the actor” (Parsons and Shils 1951:8 italics mine). So here we have the same object starting at a shallow level and then “sinking” (to stretch the depth metaphor to death) into the actor, so that ultimately it becomes part of their “personality.”

Contrast this formulation to the cultural depth story proposed by Sewell (1992), who writes that

…structures consist of intersubjectively available procedures or schemas capable of being actualized or put into practice in a range of different circumstances. Such schemas should be thought of as operating at widely varying levels of depth, from Levi-Straussian deep structures to relatively superficial rules of etiquette.

(1992: 8-9)

Sewell (1992: 22-26), in contrast to Parsons, decouples the depth from the causal power dimension of culture. Thus, we can find cultural schemas that are “deep but not powerful” (rules of grammar) and schemas that are powerful but not deep (political institutions). Sewell’s proposal is clearly not Parsonian; it is instead (post)structuralist: there are certain things (like a grammar) that have to be necessarily deep, while other things (like the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate) are naturally encountered in the surface, and can never sink to the level of deep culture.

Swidler (circa 1986) inherited the Parsonian, not the post-structuralist problematic (because at that stage in American sociology that would have been an anachronism). Swidler’s point was that for the thing that mattered to Parsons the most (valuation standards) there weren’t different levels of depth, or more accurately, they didn’t need to have the depth property to do the things that they were supposed to do (guide action).

Recent work incorporating dual-process models of moral judgment and motivation, I think, is aimed to revive a modified version of the Parsonian argument (Vaisey 2009). That is, in order to direct behavior the point is that some culture needs to be “deeply internalized” (as moral intuitions/dispositions). To make matters even more complicated, we have to consider with the fact that by the time we get to Swidler (2001) the conversation has changed even further, mainly because Bourdieu and practice theory happened in the interim. This means that Swidler’s original argument has also changed accordingly. In Talk of Love, Swidler ingeniously proposes that what Parsons (following the Weberian/Germanic tradition) called “ideas” can now be split into “practices + discourses.” Practices are “embodied” (and thus “deep” in the post-structuralist sense) and discourses are “external” (and thus shallow in the neo-pragmatist sense).

Does Bourdieu Fit?

This leads to the issue of how Bourdieu (1990) fits into the post(Parsonian/structuralist) conversation on cultural depth. We can at least be sure of one thing: the Parsonian “deep internalization” story is not Bourdieu’s version (even though Bourdieu (1990: 55) used the term “internalization” in Logic of Practice). The reason for this is that habitus is not the sort of thing that was designed to give an explanation for why people learn to have attitudes (orientations) towards “cultural objects,” much less to internalize these “objects” so that they become constitutive of the “personality.”

There is a way to tell the cultural depth story in a Bourdieusian way without falling into the trap of having to make a cultural object a “constituent” of the actor but this would require de-Parsonizing the “cultural depth” discussion. There is one problem: the more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that, insofar as the cultural depth discussion is a pseudo-Parsonian rehash, there might not that much leftover after this type of conceptual repositioning. More specifically, the cultural depth discussion might be a red herring because it still retains the (Parsonian) “internalization” language, and internalization makes it seem as if something that was initially subsisting outside of the person now comes to reside inside the person (as if for instance, “I disagree with women going to work and leaving their children in daycare” was a sentence stored in long term memory to which a “value” is attached.

This is a nice Parsonian folk cognitive model (shared by most public opinion researchers). But it is clear that if, we follow dual-process models of memory and information processing, that what resides in the person is not a bunch of sentences to which they have an orientation; instead the sentence lives in the outside world (of the GSS questionnaire) and what resides “inside” (what has been internalized) is a multi-track disposition to react (negatively, positively) to that sentence when I read it, understand it and (technically if we follow Barsalou (1999)) perceptually simulate its meaning (which actually involve running through multimodal scenarios of women going to work and leaving either content or miserable children behind). This disposition is also presumably one that can highly overlap with others governing affective-intuitive reactions to other sorts of items designed to measure my “attitude” towards related things. I can even forget the particular sentence (but keep the disposition) so that when somebody or some event (I drive past the local daycare center) reminds me of it I still reproduce the same morally tinged reaction.

Note that the depth imagery disappears under this formulation, and this is for good reason. If we call “dispositions to produce moral-affective judgments when exposed to certain scenarios or statements in a consistent way through time” deep, so be it. But that is not because there exist some other set of things that are the same as dispositions except that they lack “depth.” Dispositions either exist in this “deep” form or they don’t exist at all (dispositions, are the sorts of things that in the post-Giddensian sense are inherently deep). No journey has been undertaken by some sort of ontologically mysterious cultural entity to an equally ontologically spurious realm called “the personality.” A “shallow disposition” is a contradiction in terms, which then makes any recommendation to “make cultural depth a variable” somewhat misleading, as long as that recommendation is made within the old Parsonian framework. The reason why this is misleading is that this piece of advice relies on the imagery of sentences with contents located at “different levels” of the mind traveling from the shallow realm to the deep realm and transforming their causal powers in the process.


If we follow the practice-theoretical formulation more faithfully, the discussion moves from “making cultural depth a variable” to “reconfiguring the underlying notional imagery so that what was previously conceptualized in these terms is now understood in somewhat better terms.” This implies giving up on the misleading metaphor of depth and the misleading model of a journey from shallow-land to depth-land via some sort of internalization mechanism.

Thus, there are things to which I have dispositions to react, endowed with all of the qualities that “depth” is supposed to provide such as consistency and stability, in a certain (e.g. morally and emotionally tinged) distinct way towards (Vaisey and Lizardo 2016). We can call this “deep culture” but note that the depth property does not add anything substantive to this characterization. In addition, there are things towards which I (literally) have no disposition whatever, so I form online (shallow?) judgments about these things because this suit-wearing-in-July interviewer with NORC credentials over here apparently wants me to do so. But this (literally confabulated) “attitude” is like a leaf in the wind and it goes this or that way depending on what’s in my head that day (or more likely as shown by Zaller (1992), depending on what was on the news last night). Is this the difference between “shallow” and “deep” culture? Maybe, but that’s where the (Parsonian version of the) internalization language reaches its conceptual limits.

Thus, we come to a place where a dual process argument becomes tightly linked to what was previously being thought of under the misleading “shallow culture/deep culture” metaphor in a substantive way. I think this will keep anybody who wants to talk about cultural depth from becoming ensnared in the Parsonian trap because we can instead say “deep= things that trigger consistent dispositions or intuitions” and “shallow=attitudes formed by conscious, on-the-fly confabulation.” Note that, conceptually, this is the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (in this case the survey item) (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as a resultant of the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g., the cognitive meaning of a proposition or statement).


Barsalou, L. W. 1999. “Perceptual Symbol Systems.” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22(4):577–609; discussion 610–60.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford University Press.

Parsons, Talcott and Edward A. Shils. 1951. Toward a General Theory of Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sewell, William H. 1992. “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation.” The American Journal of Sociology 98(1):1–29.

Swidler, Ann. 2001. Talk of Love: How Culture Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual-Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

Vaisey, Stephen and Omar Lizardo. 2016. “Cultural Fragmentation or Acquired Dispositions? A New Approach to Accounting for Patterns of Cultural Change.” Socius 2:2378023116669726.

Zaller, John. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Public Opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Thick and Thin Belief – Culture, Cognition, and Action (culturecog)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top
%d bloggers like this: