Internalization and Knowledge What21 min read

As discussed in a previous post, the sociological discussion of internalization has been traditionally dominated by an emphasis on processes in which other people, via the mediation of artifacts, serve as the primary conduits via which cultural-cognitive kinds are internalized. In that respect, sociologists do not seem to make too much of an effort to differentiate internalization, or the acquisition of cultural kinds from interaction and experience in the world, from the more specific idea of socialization, or the acquisition of cultural kinds from the concerted efforts of other people (the “agents” of socialization) to try to transmit or teach them to us in some way (Berger and Luckmann 1966; Parsons 1952)

Equating internalization and socialization works well for the cultural-cognitive kinds considered in the previous discussion; in the case of beliefs and skills, internalization necessarily involves interaction with artifacts created by other people (beliefs conveyed via oral or written communications), interaction with people when they produce “live” version of such artifacts in the form of spoken words (or other overt symbols), and even the direct manipulation of the body of apprentices on the part of teachers (Downey 2014)

Interestingly, the case of belief and the case of skill are prototypical versions of two types of knowledge usually contrasted in social and cognitive science, following a classic distinction proposed by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle (2002). In Ryle’s rendering, propositional beliefs rendered as sentences in a natural language are a clear case of “knowledge that,” while skills, hard or impossible to verbalize or put in propositional form, are the prototypical case “knowledge how.” For instance, we would say, of a person who holds this belief, they think that immigrants are good for America and, of a person who commands this skill, they know how to dance Capoeira. 

However, more extensive consideration of a lot of the internalized knowledge held by people reveals the existence of a large swath of internalized culture that does not quite fit the neat division between explicit propositional beliefs and skills (in terms of the nature of the kind of involved) nor does it fit the usual origin story we tell of such kinds in terms of their provenance in teachers, socialization agents, role models and the like. Take, for instance, cultural knowledge about such entities as cats, computers, houses, or camping trips. These are the cultural cognitive kinds psychologists refer to as concepts (Barsalou 1992; Machery 2009; Prinz 2004)

Concepts clearly count as a form of internalized culture but it is unlikely any socialization agents set out (or spent much effort) to teach you cats have fur, computers run on electricity, or camping trips happen in the summer and the same for the myriad of concepts you have internalized. Instead, this is knowledge that you likely “picked up,” just by living in a world containing cats, computers, and camping trips. In fact, the reason why people don’t need teachers and socialization agents to internalize that cats and birds are alive but a rock is not, is that this knowledge is taken to be so obvious that it, in the words of anthropologist Maurice Bloch (1998:22ff), it “goes without saying”; accordingly, no socialization agent would expend effort transmitting this knowledge since they presume people will pick it up on their own (saving their energies for things that are not that obvious). This means that a lot of internalized culture does not come about via any “socialization” process at least as this is traditionally conceived (Bloch 1998:23ff; Bourdieu 1990); this, in particular, seems to apply to conceptual knowledge as an internalized cultural kind.

In contrast to most propositional beliefs attaching normative, conventional, or arbitrary predicates to entities (e.g., such as “good for America” to “immigrants”), it is a necessary condition that the world is the way it is for people to internalize a lot of the conceptual knowledge they have. For instance, if you were to take a magical time machine and go back to the fourteenth century armed with your current (explicit) conceptual knowledge of what computers are and do and tried to convey it to medieval denizens by talking to them, it is likely that you would fail to transmit the concept of a computer to your interlocutors (although you might be able to transmit a number of fantastical beliefs about the mysterious entity you are calling a “computer”). 

In this last respect, all of your “socialization” efforts would be for naught, because in order to internalize workable conceptual knowledge about a thing, you need to interact (directly or indirectly) with the thing the concept is about; in addition, you need to have workable conceptual knowledge about a number of other domains related to the thing (e.g., electricity and machinery in the case of computers) and about the likely situations and contexts in which the thing is likely to be found (e.g., offices) (Yeh and Barsalou 2006).

This is different from belief acquisition. For instance, I (a socialization agent) can stipulate the existence of a substance called “dilithium” and transmit to you the belief “dilithium can power a starship.” You do not need to have a working concept of dilithium, beyond the most general one (e..g, dilithium is a kind of substance), in order for you to acquire beliefs about dilithium (although you will have to have some conceptual knowledge, however vague, indirect, and metaphorically structured, about what “powering up” a technological artifact is, and what a “starship” is).

Enculturation versus Socialization

The above discussion suggests that concepts are a theoretically important cultural-cognitive kind, distinct from explicit beliefs and non-conceptual skills, that can help broaden and enrich our understanding of the different ways cognitive-cultural kinds can come to be internalized by people. This is for (at least) two main reasons.  

First, the existence and pervasiveness of concepts as internalized cultural-cognitive kinds license the distinction between socialization and enculturation as routes to the internalization of cultural kinds. Most sociologists are like Zerubavel in the birthday party example offered in the previous post and use the terms interchangeably, talking about “socialized or acculturated” people. We are now in a position to make a more principled distinction. Socialization is the internalization of cultural-cognitive kinds, such as beliefs and skills, from interaction with agents who intend for us to learn explicit beliefs via direct or indirect (e.g., put them in the world in artifactual form for us to find) symbolic interaction or apprenticeship relations in which such agents coordinate, supervise, and ensure the acquisition of particular skills (e.g., walking, writing, riding a bike). 

Enculturation, on the other hand, is a more general idea, referring to all forms of internalization of cultural kinds, even in cases where no explicit teachers or communicators (either human or artifactual) are involved. In contrast to socialization, where we can reconstruct a direct or indirect communicative or transmissive  intention on the part of a socialization agent and directed to a socialization target (which, when successful results in internalization), with enculturation, we encounter the, initially puzzling case, of cultural internalization that seems to work by “osmosis.”

 Most conceptual knowledge is not acquired via socialization; instead, the bulk of conceptual knowledge is acquired via enculturation: Non-directive processes of experience with and exposure to (solitary or with others, direct or mediated) to exemplars of the physical, artifactual, biological, or social kind in question. For instance, a lot of the conceptual knowledge about the properties of objects residing in the “middle-sized” world of cats, dogs, rocks, tomatoes, magnets, and computers (e.g., not electron, quarks, and supernovas) is acquired via enculturation (not socialization), although knowledge about implicit aspects of some of those objects, if it exists, is usually acquired via socialization (we can go to engineering school and figure how computers work from a teacher or a book). Contextual or variable knowledge about practices regarding such objects (e.g., that in this house cats stay outside) is clearly acquired by socialization, while knowledge that cats eat food, like to sleep, and can move on their own without having to be pushed around by a person (Mandler 1988), is acquired mainly via enculturation. 

While a lot of (lexical) linguistic knowledge (e.g., mapping of word labels to objects) is acquired via socialization, it is important to underscore that conceptual knowledge (e.g., that cats have tails and dogs bark) is distinct from the knowledge of how to map lexical labels to objects in a natural language (Tomasello 2005). Children begin to acquire conceptual knowledge about a lot of categories before they learn the mapping between lexical items and members of that category in their native language (Bloch 1991). In the same way, grammatical linguistic knowledge is acquired via enculturation (Tomasello 2005), although a second-order version of it is re-acquired in school via socialization. 

Knowledge What

Second, concepts as cultural-cognitive kinds do not quite fit Ryle’s “knowledge-that” and “knowledge-how” binary mentioned earlier. As already noted, we can have “knowledge-that” beliefs about things we have no (or very faint) concepts of (like dilithium). In addition, the hallmark of procedural knowledge (e.g., knowledge of how to ride a bike) is precisely that it is non-conceptual (Dreyfus 2005). You do not need the conceptual knowledge about bikes (e.g., that they are typically made out of metal) in order to learn how to ride one. In fact, you could theoretically lose the conceptual knowledge (e.g., via some traumatic brain injury causing selective amnesia) while retaining the practical expertise. 

In this last respect, the existence of conceptual knowledge as internalized cultural-cognitive kinds, distinct from propositional and procedural knowledge, points to the possibility that Ryle’s classic distinction of know-how/know-that does not provide an exhaustive taxonomy of internalized cultural kinds, as has been presumed in previous work (Lizardo 2017). What is missing is what philosophers Peter Gardenfors and Andreas Stephens (2018; see also Stephens 2019) have recently referred to as knowledge-what; general (impersonal) knowledge about the expected properties and features of objects and events in the world. Knowledge-what is equivalent to what other theorists refer to as “conceptual knowledge” or knowledge stored in the “human conceptual system” (Barsalou 2003; Barsalou et al. 2003)

In terms of the contemporary theory of memory systems, if knowledge-how is associated with non-declarative procedural memory and knowledge-that with declarative episodic memory, then knowledge-what encompasses both non-declarative and declarative aspects of semantic memory (Stephens 2019). Accordingly, if knowledge-how is composed of the sum total of cultural-cognitive kinds internalized as skills, and knowledge-that is that composed of cultural-cognitive kinds internalized as (explicit) beliefs (and other declarative “propositional attitudes” about the world (Schwitzgebel 2013)), then knowledge-what is primarily stored in the form of concepts (although we do not need to settle on any one particular theory about the format in which concepts are stored in long term memory). 

What makes conceptual knowledge distinctive from non-conceptual (procedural) or strictly propositional knowledge is the fact that it allows us to categorize, make inferences (e.g., derive new knowledge from old knowledge), and thus make reliable inductions about the properties and characteristics of the physical, biological, and social kinds that fall under the concept (Gärdenfors and Stephens 2018). In this respect, concepts stored in semantic memory seem to have both procedural (they allow us to do things) and declarative components (Parthemore 2011; Stephens 2019). Thus, if we know that an event is a “birthday party” (as with the Zerubavel example above), we can reliably guess (and expect) that cake will be served. If we know something is a cat, then we can reliably guess (and expect) that it likes to sleep, eat food, and it’s not ten feet tall. 

In this last respect, it seems like Zerubavel was talking about enculturation (as an example of internalization), not socialization, if only because it would be odd to find socializing agents expending much effort “teaching” people that cakes are eaten at birthday parties; instead, parents bring out the cake since even before kids can talk (or show them picture books with birthday parties featuring cake), so by the time they can talk they expect to see cakes at birthday parties. In this respect, the presence of cake is part of the (Euro-American) concept of a birthday party (and is not a propositional belief about birthday parties although it may be that too), and people learn it via an enculturation process (although a late newcomer from a society in which something else was served on this occasion would probably have to learn it via socialization). 

There are of course systematic relations between both enculturation and socialization processes, and knowledge-that and knowledge-what as internalized cultural kinds. People become encultured (exposed to a multimodal ensemble featuring people, activities, and objects in a situational context) at the same time that they are socialized; so these internalization processes are not mutually exclusive. However, since enculturation is the more general form of internalization, it follows that, even though all socialization entails enculturation, a lot of enculturation takes place absent the concerted effort or explicit attempts at teaching coming from socialization agents (Bloch 1998; Bourdieu 1990; Strauss and Quinn 1997). Just by acting pragmatically (alone or in concert with others) in a world populated by physical, biological, artifactual, and social kinds people will come to internalize a large swath of (some easy some hard or impossible to explicitly articulate) conceptual knowledge-what about those kinds. 

In this last respect, it is likely that one reason why the distinction between knowledge-that and knowledge-what has not been sharply made in cultural theory has to do with the “linguistic fallacy” (Bloch 1998:23ff); this is the idea that, just because we can paraphrase conceptual knowledge using linguistic propositions (e.g., we can say that cats have tails) in belief-like form, it follows that conceptual knowledge consists of just such a collection of know-that sentences and propositions (e.g., “beliefs about” the kind the concept refers to (Bloch 1991; Strauss and Quinn 1997:51)). However, despite their many differences (Machery 2009), no contemporary theory of concepts taken as a serious contender in cognitive psychology sees them exclusively represented as a collection of sentence-like structures (although some armchair philosophical theories, such as Jerry Fodor’s “language of thought” hypothesis do). 

A well-known problem with the proposal that conceptual knowledge-what can be reduced or paraphrased as a lot of “knowledge-that” statements is what the philosopher Daniel Dennett (2006) once referred to as the “frame problem.” This is the idea that the number of explicit beliefs we would have to impute to a person to try to summarize their storehouse of (multimodal, cross-contextual) conceptual knowledge what of even the simplest of “basic level” objects such as a chair is virtually infinite, exploding exponentially once we realize how much “implicit beliefs” people seem to have about the category (e.g., we would have to presume that people “know that” chairs are not made out of cheese, did not exist in the Pleistocene, do not explode five minutes after someone sits on them, are not secretly laughing behind our backs, and so on.)

Partly motivated by this (and other issues; see Prinz (2004) and Barsalou (1992)), some of the more promising accounts of concepts as internalized cultural (and cognitive) kinds, abandon lingua-form representation altogether, suggesting that conceptual knowledge consists of simulations stored in the same modality-specific format as the perceptions we have of the (physical, biological, social, etc.) kinds represented by the concept (Barsalou 1999; Clark 1997; Prinz 2004). This account is consistent with observations about cultural internalization made by ethnographers. As Bloch (1998: 25) notes, “[a]ctors’ concepts of society are represented not as strings of terms and propositions, but as governed by lived-in models, that is, models based as much in experience, practice, sight, and sensation as in language” (see also Shore (1996); Bourdieu (1990) and Strauss and Quinn (1997)); propositional beliefs that are a cultural kind distinct from concepts of. In this respect, concepts as a cultural cognitive kind, acquired via enculturation processes may represent a much more crucial aspect of people’s everyday knowledge of the world than propositional beliefs “about” the world. 

One upshot of the above discussion is that we do not need three separate internalization stories for the three (broad) forms of internalized knowledge (that, how, and what). Instead, enculturation, or, the emergence of personal culture via pragmatic and bodily interaction in the world, serves as a general template, with concept acquisition being the most general form of this process, and skill acquisition and belief formation serving as special-purpose stories featuring artifact-mediated interactions with the world, typically involving other people as intentional drivers of the internalization process (“socialization”). In this respect, all cultural-cognitive kinds (e.g., concepts, skills, beliefs, etc.) are constructed and internalized via people’s activity-driven experience in the world, only a subset of which involve interaction with artifactual cultural kinds. Some cultural-cognitive kinds (e.g., concepts for animals and objects) can emerge from people’s direct interactions with other biological and physical kinds, while others (beliefs about the benefits to America that come from immigration) from people’s interactions with artifactual kinds produced by others with the intent to transmit them to us. 


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