Culture “Concepts” as Combination of Ontic Claims10 min read

Throughout the history of cultural theory, a number of “culture concepts” have been proposed. The standard way of thinking about these is as competing notions bound to forever stand in conflict. But it is possible to see the various proposals as more than purely “conceptual” or “definitional.” Instead, using the considerations raised in previous posts, I argue that different culture concepts are actually distinct bundles of ontic claims about cultural kinds. Since the claims are about ontological issues, then they can be evaluated as to their internal coherence, as well as their compatibility with the larger naturalistic ontology animating the special and physical sciences.

In fact, as we will see, they have been so routinely evaluated, especially in the history of anthropological theory. In this sense, when people recount much-ballyhooed discipline-wide “rejections” of “the culture concept” (e.g., Appadurai 1996; Abu-Lughod 1996) this is almost always an exaggeration. What is usually being rejected, is a particular culture concept, and that “concept” is actually a bundle of ontic claims. What takes the place of the rejected culture concept is not an analytic entity that is somehow a radical alternative to “culture,” but simply a new package of ontic claims about culture that are doing the same conceptual and analytic work as the renounced culture concept, regardless of whether people decide to call it culture or not (Brumman 1999).

Importantly, most substantive proposals as to the nature of culture combine at least two, three (and sometimes more) types of ontic claims about cultural kinds. A common approach combines compositional, property, and locational claims to establish the nature of culture. Let us consider some influential instances.

Culture as an Ideational Superorganic

For instance, conceptions of culture as a “superorganic” realm of symbols, ideas, and so forth (Kuper 2009), combine a compositional claim (cultural kinds are ideal or symbolic), with two property claims (culture is systematic and shared) and a location claim: Culture is “outside” people and even “society” (e.g., people, their interactions, relationships and institutions). 

As the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, one of the most influential proponents of this view (quoted in Atran, Medin, and Ross 2005:747), put it: 

Culture is both superindividual and superorganic…There are certain properties of culture—such as transmissibility, high variability, cumulativeness, value standards, influence on individuals—which are difficult to explain, or to see much significance in, strictly in terms of organic personalities and individuals. 

This combination of ontic claims invites us to see culture as, in the words of the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (1996:12), “some kind of object, thing, or substance, whether physical or metaphysical…implying a mental substance…[and emphasizing]..sharing, agreeing and bounding.” Superorganic culture stands above and beyond individuals, who are subject to its effects. 

This conception of culture not only analytically limited due to the empirical implausibility of entitative essentialism. Also, it brings with it all of the normatively problematic “essentializing” assumptions of the older concept of “race” that it was meant to replace; thus ethnosomatic, ethnonationalist or ethnolinguistic distinctions between people are taken as indicative of the possession of internally homogeneous but externally distinct “cultures” seemingly fixed in time and place (Sewell 2005).

As the cultural psychologists Hermans and Kempen note, from this perspective, culture is turned into a “thing” endowing “nations, [and] societies…with the qualities of internally homogeneous and externally distinctive objects” (1998:113). When culture is thought of as a superorganic entity attached to groups it is hard to stay away from such biases as stereotyping, homogenizing entire populations, essentializing the nature of cultural differences, and the reification of dynamic cultural patterns into a static thing (Adams and Markus 2004:337)

Note also that a combination of ideal composition, systemness property, and (external) location yields the (ontologically problematic, from a naturalist perspective) “entitative” version of ideal culture, in which culture as a system of ideas must be assigned some type of (non-physical?) location in something like Popper’s “world 3.” This approach also leads the analyst to beg the sharing question, forcing theorists to draw too sharp a distinction between cultural symbols or ideas embedded in the cultural system and individual cultural knowledge. Ultimately, culture ends up being “a ‘free-floating entity” to which both natives and observers seem to have access but the mechanisms enabling that access remain obscure (Ross 2004:6)

Overall, the superorganic package of ontic claims is really hard to cash in without problematic and controversial assumptions, whether they be analytic, metaphysical, or knowledge-political, which is why this is the culture concept that everyone likes to use as a foil to either reject the notion of culture altogether or, more constructively, develop a better package of ontic assumptions.

Culture as Public Symbolic Systems

Other approaches are less committed to an entitative view of culture, while still seeing it as primarily an extra-somatic, non-mental phenomenon, composed of explicit, publicly manifested cultural symbols and their interrelations. This approach, most closely associated with the work of Clifford Geertz (1973) and David Schneider (Keesing 1974; Kuper 2009), combines an exclusivist ontic locational claim (culture is by definition public and not personal) with a systemness property claim (while being coy about sharedness claims but ultimately forced to presume sharing as a key property (Biernacki 2000)), and a core compositional claim (culture is by nature symbolic). 

In contrast to entitative theorists, culture is not reified as an ideational superorganic, but it is manifestly empirical revealed in people’s actions, themselves carrying the status of readable symbols in the world. As Keesing (1974: 84) noted in this respect, “Geertz takes the alchemy of shared meanings as basic, but-following Wittgenstein, Husserl, and Ryle—not as mysterious. Public traffic in symbols is very much of this world, not (he would argue) of a Platonic reified imaginary one.” 

However, it is hard for public symbolic systems theorists to not “slip” into a quasi-entitative view of culture. As Biernacki (2000:293ff) notes this “essentializing premise” comes back through the back door, and leads Geertzian symbolic system analysts to mistake “the concepts of “sign” and “sign reading” for parts of the natural furniture of the world, rather than as historically generated “ways of seeing” (emphasis in the original). This approach thus devolves into an external entatative view of culture as a symbol system closer to the ideational superorganic ontic claim bundle. 

Culture as Distributions of Representations

Some versions of cognitive or psychological anthropology (D’andrade 2001; Goodenough 2003), reject the “superorganic” version of culture in favor of a distributional approach (Garro 2000; Ross 2004:7–8). Culture is seen compositionally, as made up of ideas, concepts, and schemas internalized by people. But distributional theorists relax both sharedness and systemness property claims while shifting location from “the world” to people. They thus make an exclusivist location claim in the other direction as entitative and symbolic systems theorists.

Instead of an entity or coherent system, culture is a distribution (and perhaps a collection) of conceptual or schematic knowledge across people. In the distributional ontic claim bundle, culture as an external (and ontologically problematic or mysterious) “complex entity” drops out. As such, this combination of claims is more compatible with metaphysical naturalism, as has been argued most forcefully by Dan Sperber (1996, 2011).

In sum, a useful way to think about culture concepts is as ontic claim bundles. When considered in this light, the fundamental deficiencies and inconsistencies in some of these (e.g., culture as an entitative superorganic) are easy to see. In this respect, emphasizing the ontic aspects of cultural inquiry can help cultural theorizing and conceptual clarification.


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