Internalized Cultural Kinds24 min read

Internalization used to be a central concept in cultural theory in sociology, anthropology, psychology, and related fields. It was the theoretical centerpiece of Talcott Parsons’s blend of anthropological culture theory, sociological functionalism, and Freudian psychoanalysis ensuring the “interpenetration” of the cultural, social, and personality systems (Alexander, 2014; Kuper, 2009; Lizardo, 2016). Parsons (e.g., 1958) went on to develop a rather complex neo-Freudian account of the internalization process (thinking that it was the same thing Freud called “introjection”) involving various psychoanalytic concepts in vogue in his intellectual environment at the time, such as identification, object-relations, cathexis, the incest taboo, Oedipus complex, and the like. Through a variegated interplay involving mothers, fathers, schools, and peers (among other “socialization agents”), these processes resulted in the “introjection” (internalization) of values institutionalized in the social system (and other cultural kinds such as conceptual schemes (Parsons, 1952)) into the personality system so that they became motivators and drivers of action in conformity with those values and schemes.

Concern with internalization as a central notion in cultural analysis waned in the 1970s and 1980s, as the status of psychoanalytic thinking and concepts declined in sociology and anthropology in particular and the social and human sciences more generally. Anti-mentalist perspectives restricting culture to observable performances, activities, and symbols took root (Geertz, 1973; Wuthnow, 1989), banishing “culture in persons” from consideration as bona fide cultural kinds (see Strauss & Quinn, 1997, p. 12ff for a synthetic telling of this story). In sociology, approaches to the culture-action linkage downplaying the functionalist proposal that action was driven by “deeply” internalized value commitments, although beginning as heterodox incursions (Swidler, 1986), ultimately became dominant, fitting in with the trend to focus on the external environment at the expense of culture in persons (Swidler, 2001; Vaisey, 2008).

Yet, the problem of internalization (or the status of culture in persons) never disappeared from cultural theory (Shore, 1996; Strauss & Quinn, 1997, p. , Chap. 2). After all, sociologists emphasizing the causal “power” of culture need a way to link cultural kinds to persons, and internalization is the only concept available to forge this linkage (Quinn et al., 2018). Accordingly, we see such cultural theorists as Jeffrey Alexander chiding sociologists for failing to emphasize “…the power of the symbolic to shape interactions from within, as normative precepts or narratives that carry internalized moral force” (Alexander, 2003, p. 16 italics added; see also Pp. 152-153 of the same book on the internalization of cultural codes). In a similar way, the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel notes that

[t]he logic of classification is something we must learn. Socialization involves learning not only a society’s norms but also its distinctive classificatory schemas. Being socialized or acculturated entails knowing not only how to behave, but also how to perceive reality in a socially appropriate way. By the time she is three, a child has already internalized the conventional outlines of the category ‘birthday present’ enough to know that, if someone suggests that she bring lima beans as a present he must be kidding (1999, p. 77, italics added).

Thus, rather than being some sort of ancient holdover from functionalism, a model pretty close to Parsons’s Durkheimian Freudianism continues to be used by contemporary theorists, whenever those theorists wish to make a case for enculturation as a form of mental modification via experience which has lasting consequences for cognition, motivation, and behavior. As such, today, cultural analysts are in a position of needing some account of cultural learning and internalization, but with very few workable ones having come forward to do the job (but see Strauss & Quinn, 1997). This means that the question of internalization is very much alive in cultural theory today.

Criteria for Internalization

When can we say a cultural kind is internalized? Different theorists propose different criteria. The standards proposed depend both on the preferred cultural kind analysts think is subject to the internalization process, and the ontic claims they make about the properties of these kinds. Additionally, different conceptions of internalization are put forward depending on “where” in the actor’s cognitive economy the presumed cultural kind is thought to “reside” after the internalization process is completed. For instance, some theorists might say that internalization entails the uptake of cultural kinds into the explicit mind (or declarative memory), while other theorists might say that internalization also means that some cultural kinds become residents of the “implicit mind” or the (dynamic or cognitive) unconscious.

The one thing that possibly all proposals have in common is that internalization implies some kind of (more or less durable) modification of the person. This modification may (under the more ambitious proposals such as Parsons’s) entail the “transfer” of cultural-kinds previously existing “outside” the person (e.g., values institutionalized in the social system) into the cognitive or motivational economy of the person (values operating as commitments and part of the personality (Parsons, 1968)). This transfer necessarily changes the nature of the cultural kind in question, which means that theories of internalization make assumptions about locational ontic shifts in cultural kinds. In our terms, some theories of internalization conceive it as a process whereby culture initially located in the world, comes to be located in people.

In this last respect, theories of internalization can be thought of as causal stories about the origins of culture in persons (Quinn et al., 2018; Strauss, 2018; Strauss & Quinn, 1997). They answer the question: Where does personal culture come from? Also, all theories of internalization presuppose that there must be some conduit serving as transmission pathways from the world to people. Thus, whatever else it might be, internalization “refers to the process by which cultural representations become part of the individual” (D’Andrade 1995: 227). The nature of the proposed conduits varies, but they are usually (at least in sociology) other people although they could also be impersonal conduits such as books or other communication media (or even abstract impersonal things such as “language” or the “zeitgeist”). As we will see later, the “conduit metaphor” (Reddy, 1979) is a pervasive (but often misleading) part of internalization theories in the social sciences.

Internalization: The Straight Story

As stated in the foregoing, internalization seems to be a complex and multifaceted affair; but it need not be. Let us begin with the simplest case, which is the internalization of a paradigmatic cultural kind such as “belief” (Rydgren, 2011). Theorists who say that beliefs are the type of cultural kinds that can be internalized (e.g., Strauss, 2018), are making a relatively straightforward (at least by the standards of cultural theory) statement. They are saying something like the belief “immigrants are good for America” first existed in the world (e.g., was held by other people, or printed in a book or newspaper) and at some point was internalized by the focal person; after this, it became their belief.

The process can be decomposed as follows: First, the person (a) becomes exposed to the belief in some way (presumably in oral or written form), (b) examines it with regard to content, (c) decides that it is valid (they “agree” with it), and (d) adds it to the set of beliefs they hold as their “own” (Gawronski et al., 2008). Some theorists take this last step very literally and say something like “it was added to their belief box” (Schwitzgebel, 2013). The internalization of “third-order beliefs”, namely, beliefs about what others believe, or, the “general climate” of opinion, is similar to this except that it skips step (c) and substitutes step (d) with “added to the set of beliefs they know exist but are not necessarily their own” (perhaps a separate belief box).

We need not be concerned with whether this, very much “Descartian,” belief formation story is factually right, or whether belief boxes actually exist (because they almost certainly do not), but only that when we say “people internalize beliefs” we are not making a particularly complex or obscure ontic claim about this cultural kind. In fact, an alternative “Spinozan” belief formation story (Huebner, 2009; Mandelbaum, 2014), is even simpler than the Descartian one. According to this account, there is only one step to internalization in the case of belief: Exposure. Once exposed to a belief (in whatever form) people automatically believe it, and it is only disbelieving (de-internalization?) that requires a number of multiple, explicit, and laborious steps (obviously the Spinozan account explodes the first versus third-order belief distinction). Note that regardless of their (gigantic) differences, Descartian and Spinozan belief-formation stories agree in making the ontic property claim that beliefs are the sorts of cultural kinds that can be internalized (via some process).

The belief internalization example is also clear with regard to what we can refer to as the property-preservation assumption that many internalization accounts of cultural kinds share. This is, theories of internalization usually presume that, if (a) someone internalizes a cultural kind, then (b) that kind retains whatever properties it possessed previous to internalization after it is internalized by people. The properties of the kind become properties (or capacities) of people.

For instance, the paradigmatic property attributed to beliefs as a cultural kind is that beliefs represent (picture) the world in some form or another (Strand & Lizardo, 2015). In the example above, the object “immigrants” are pictured as “good for America.” The property-preservation assumption thus says that once internalized, the belief continues to have this property (and perform that representational function) for people. A person that internalizes a belief then comes to represent or picture the world in the way stated by the belief. Another way of putting it is that the person uses the internalized belief in order to represent the world in such and such a way.

Non-Internalization: An Equally Straight Story

Note also that a negative ontic claim with respect to internalization is also a relatively simple story. For instance, we can make the ontic property claim that artifactual cultural kinds cannot be internalized. Thus, the statement that people cannot internalize screwdrivers is fairly uncontroversial; screwdrivers have a (fixed) ontic location in the world and cannot really exist qua screwdrivers “internalized” in people.

This negative ontic claim may be simple, but it is important; for instance, a key assumption in cultural theory is that there are some special cultural kinds that do have the internalization property (e.g., beliefs, norms, values) and some that do not (screwdrivers, hammers, computers). This was particularly pivotal to compositional monists in classic anthropological theory who saw this contrast as opening up an unbridgeable gulf between what they called “ideal” and “material” culture.

Complicating the Straight Story

Let us complicate the straight story. The complication comes in the following form: Prior to internalization what is the ontic status of the belief “immigrants are good for America”? In the foregoing example, we noted that the person can come to be exposed to the belief either via other people or via some printed or other forms of media (which can be considered an “indirect” way of being exposed to the belief via other people). However, these are two distinct kinds of cultural kinds. When held by another person, the belief exists as a cultural-cognitive kind. When printed in a newspaper or book, the belief exists as a public cultural kind. At the end of the day (after internalization) the belief “ends up” existing as another cultural cognitive kind in the focal person.

Thus, the example seems to have fudged two ways in which we can be exposed to beliefs prior to internalization. We can interact with other people and acquire their beliefs when they communicate with us. In this case, it seems like there is “transfer” via a “conduit” such that one person’s token cultural-cognitive kind, namely, the belief “immigrants are good for America,” becomes a token “replica” in the person who internalizes it. In the second case, there also seems to be a transfer, but in this case, it is from the belief existing as an artifactual kind (printed in the physical newspaper or as a pattern of illumination across pixels on a computer screen) “into” the person, ending up as a similar token cultural cognitive kind (Carley, 1995). In this latter case, there is both “transfer” via a “conduit” and transubstantiation between ontic kinds (from public to cultural-cognitive). Both versions of internalization now seem a bit more obscure, involving ill-understood processes of transmission via conduits and even magical ontic changes of status.

The two variants of the example also controvert the property-preservation assumption, which holds in the person-to-person transmission case (e.g., beliefs held by people have representational properties) but not in the second artifact-to-person case, since it would be odd to say that a belief printed as words in a newspaper as representational status qua public object (although it may become a representation once internalized by the person). So in this last case, it seems that the ontic change in status post-internalization (from public to cultural-cognitive kind) also brings the emergence of new properties via unclear mechanisms.

Straightening the Story Again

But are the two examples really as different as portrayed? The answer is no. In fact, the presumption that person-to-person communication is a different type of process than newspaper-to-person communication rests on misleading inferences resulting from what Reddy (1979) refers to as the “conduit” metaphor of how language and communication work. This is the idea that internalization results from a (non-material?) cultural-cognitive kind such as a belief acquiring mysterious object status being placed on some kind of (equally mysterious) “channel” serving as a conduit and then “received” or “unpacked” by the person at the other end (and maybe “put inside” their belief box).

All of this is largely problematic. For one, it runs against naturalistic conceptualizations of such cultural-cognitive kinds as beliefs as being mainly realized by patterns of activation across neural populations. While these may exist as (dispositional) objects in people, they cannot be transformed into an “object” that can be packaged and “transferred” to other people via any naturalistic medium we know of. Not only that, but this account of the case also glosses over a crucial step, namely, that in the act of communication, the person who “transmits” the belief has to objectify it in some natural language (Berger & Luckmann, 1966), and that this process of objectification produces an artifact that is (ontologically) part of public culture: A spoken sentence subsisting in a material medium (Clark, 2006).

This means that the two cases were only superficially different. In both cases, the internalization of belief occurs when people interact with artifacts produced by other people; in the one case, a newspaper and in the other case, a spoken sentence. Cultural-cognitive kinds, such as beliefs, are not magically transferred from one person to another (the anthropologist Claudia Strauss (1992), who also draws on a conduit-type metaphor once referred to as the “fax model” of internalization). Instead, new tokens of the kind emerge de novo from the interaction between people and artifacts in the world. While the metaphor of “epidemiology” (involving transfers of “representations” from people to people) is catchy not all of the entailments from the biological source domain should be transferred; As the anthropologist Dan Sperber (1996) (one of the main proponents of the epidemiological metaphor for cultural kinds) notes, a more accurate account points to a cognitive reconstruction process, where nothing really “jumps” from artifact to person.

Accordingly, people reinvent new token cultural-cognitive kinds of belief when they interact with artifacts in the world, whether these are spoken, written, or conveyed via other semiotic processes (which may introduce opportunities for errors, modifications, and “misunderstandings” during the objectification and reconstruction process). The notion of “internalization” is misleading, insofar as it invites the inference of the property-preserving (and identity-preserving) transfer of some kind of non-material entity from the world to people or from one person to another.

Internalization Without Transmission: The Case of Skill

This account of internalization is sufficiently powerful to capture the internalization of cultural-kinds that do not seem as “paradigmatic” as beliefs. Take the case of skill acquisition (Downey, 2014; Wacquant, 2004). It is clear that the acquisition of skill (dancing, boxing, playing the piano) counts as internalization by all of the criteria outlined earlier. First, skills are a bona fide cultural-cognitive kind, second, their internalization entails the durable modification of the person, and third, we even use the same metaphorical “conduit” metaphor when we talk about the “transfer” of skill from teachers to apprentices. It seems that, when somebody learns a skill from another person, there is something (“the skill”) that goes from one person to the next.

However, in the case of skill (in contrast to the case of communication), the conceptual metaphor of transfer and conduit is a more transparent one qua metaphor (because less conventionalized). In other words, we know that there is no magical transmission of an object called “a skill” from teacher to apprentice; insofar as skill acquisition entails the modification of the body and the brain (e.g., via the strengthening of structural and functional connections between neural networks via repetition, the modification of muscles via training, and the acquisition of increasing dexterity and fluidity of action via proceduralization) then we know that what is happening is that the apprentice independently reconstructs the bodily abilities of the teacher with no magical “skillful” substance traveling between them. We do not even have to presume that what ends up in the apprentice is strictly the same (token) “thing” as what exists in the teacher (although it is still the same kind of cultural thing), as long as the over skillful performances are functionally similar (Turner 1994).

Note that the model of independent reconstruction happens to be the same one that we ended up with after critically scrutinizing the folk (conduit model) account of linguistic communication. In this respect, there are only superficial differences between the cases of belief formation and skill acquisition as variants of cultural internalization. Both of these cultural cognitive kinds are internalized by people when they interact with artifacts in the world (in the limiting case of a skill that is purely body-based such as dance, the main “artifact” people interact with is their body and effectors). This interaction leads to the neurophysiological and physical modification of the agent (core) realized as strengthening patterns of structural and functional connectivity in neural populations, leaving behind internalized cultural-kinds (beliefs and skills) in the person.

In both cases, public culture embodied in artifacts is crucial for the internalization process, since without people interacting with these cultural kinds, no reconstruction of cultural cognitive kinds located in people would be in the offing. If we take recent developments in linguistics and cognitive science seeing language as a multimodal artifact (a complex public cultural kind) for the coordination of cognition (Clark, 2006) as a touchstone, then this “dialectical” account of internalization, in which cultural-cognitive kinds get into people (via independent reconstruction based on worldly interaction) by piggy-backing on public artifactual kinds (one with a rather respected lineage in sociology [see e.g., Berger and Luckmann 1966]), can serve as a more general model for the internalization of all cultural-cognitive kinds.


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