Ontic Monism versus Pluralism in Cultural Theory8 min read

As discussed in a previous post, bundling ontic claims about culture have been used to argue that culture is a single kind of thing and demarcate the boundaries of cultural kinds. This can be referred to as ontic monism about cultural kinds. Thus, a theorist might say, following Kroeber (1917), Parsons (1951), or Geertz (1973), that culture is primarily ideational or symbolic. This means that it is made out of “ideal” or “symbolic” stuff (an ontic compositional claim), and the nature of this stuff makes it different from other non-ideal (e.g., “material”) stuff.

These theorists might even go so far as to say that because culture is composed only of ideal stuff, the notion of “material culture” is a category mistake. The ontic claim here is cultural kinds are disjunctive from physical kinds (a negative “culture is not” ontic claim (Reed 2017)), such that is something is material, it is ipso facto, not culture. The positive ontic claim is that being “ideal” or “symbolic” is a mark of the cultural, such that if we know something is an idea or a symbol, we also know that it is a cultural kind.

For instance, the anthropologist Leslie White (1959: 238) noted the penchant for “idealist” culture theorists in early anthropology to reach the negative ontological conclusion regarding the notion of material culture in a classic paper on the culture concept:

Those who define culture in terms of ideas, or as an abstraction, or as behavior, find themselves obliged logically to declare that material objects are not, and cannot be, culture. “Strictly speaking,” says Hoebel (1956: 176), “material culture is really not culture at all.” Taylor (1948: 102, 98) goes farther: “…the concept of ’material culture’ is fallacious” because “culture is a mental phenomenon.” Beals and Hoijer (1953: 210): ‘…culture is an abstraction from behavior and not to be confused with acts of behavior or with material artifacts, such as tools…”

Along the same lines, Bidney (1968: 130-131) observes,

The idealists…maintain that the cultural heritage consists primarily of ideas or communicated intelligence and symbolic expression since they hold that only ideas or symbols may be communicated and transmitted. For the cultural idealists, therefore, so-called material culture is a contradiction in terms, since for them the real cultural entities, or units, are the conceptual ideas, or norms, not the particular artifacts which exemplify or embody them.

A still influential definition of culture comes from the anthropologist Ward Goodenough, for whom

C]ulture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members. Culture is not a material phenomenon; it does not consist of things, people, behavior, or emotions. It is rather an organization of these things. It is the form of things that people have in mind, their models for perceiving, relating, and otherwise interpreting them” (1957, p. 167)

Here Goodenough makes a positive monist ontic claim (cultural kinds are ultimately mental, and consist of cognitive models internalized by people) and a corresponding negative ontic claim (culture is not things, people, or behavior).

Ontic Pluralism

Ontic monism represents a classic line of theorizing about cultural kinds. The basic message is that culture is a single kind of thing, and thus sharply contrasts, in terms of ontology, with other kinds of things in the world (Reed 2017).

But this is not the only approach we can take. A venerable tradition of cultural theory, closer to that inaugurated by the anthropologist Franz Boas (and farther back to E. B. Tylor), allows for what I will refer to as ontic pluralism in the conceptualization of what culture is. One such rendering is given by the anthropologist Roger Keesing in a once-influential review, who noted that for pluralists

[c]ultures are systems (of socially transmitted behavior patterns) that serve to relate human communities to their ecological settings. These ways-of-life-of communities include technologies and modes of economic organization, settlement patterns, modes of social grouping and political organization, religious beliefs and practices, and so on.” (Keesing, 1974, p. 75).

This perspective combines compositional multiplicity (culture is ideal, behavioral, artifactual, etc.), with qualified versions of both sharedness and systemness where these properties are made more or less likely depending on the “kind of cultural kind” we are talking about. Additionally, the ontic pluralist is perforce non-exclusivist when it comes to locational claims (some cultural kinds are “in” people and other kinds are “in” the world). In the same way, they are likely to make different claims about the historical provenance of the different kinds (different cultural kinds have distinct, but related, etiologies).

This yields synthetic attempts such as the one defended by the anthropologists Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn across a variety of publications (Strauss & Quinn, 1997) and the sociologist Orlando Patterson in recent work.

For Patterson (2014, p. 5),

A synthetic analysis that defines both what culture is and does and the nature of the whole [cultural] beast over and beyond its favored parts may be achieved—still using the parable of the blind people and the elephant—by listening carefully to each person’s account of the part of the elephant they are touching and analyzing.

In the same way, culture and cognition scholars such as Norbert Ross (2004:8) defend a version of ontic pluralism about cultural kinds when they conceive of culture as

[A]n emerging phenomenon evolving out of shared cognitions that themselves arise out of individual interactions with both the social and physical environment. The natural and physical environments include both institutions and physical objects (natural as well as artificial).

Overall, ontic pluralism implies that things can count as cultural kinds despite big differences in physical realization, underlying properties, and worldly location. Ross’s distinction between culture that is internalized by people (in the forms of cognitive states) and that which is physically manifested in terms of physical objects and artifacts is fairly common among pluralist theorists who note that culture consists of both “mental and material” elements (Adams & Markus, 2004, p. 342). As such, it can serve as the basis for building a useful ontology of cultural kinds that acknowledges their “motley” status.


Adams, G., & Markus, H. R. (2004). Toward a conception of culture suitable for a social psychology of culture. The Psychological Foundations of Culture, 335–360.

Bidney, D. (1968). Theoretical Anthropology. Transaction Publishers.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. Basic books.

Goodenough, W. H. (1957). Cultural Anthropology and Linguistics, By Ward H. Goodenough.

Keesing, R. M. (1974). Theories of culture. Annual Review of Anthropology, 3(1), 73–97.

Kroeber, A. L. (1917). The Superorganic. American Anthropologist, 19(2), 163–213.

Patterson, O. (2014). Making Sense of Culture. Annual Review of Sociology, 40(1), 1–30.

Parsons, T. (1951). The Social System. The Free Press.

Reed, I. A. (2017). On the very idea of cultural sociology. In Claudio E. Benzecry, Monika Krause, Isaac Ariail Reed (Ed.), Social Theory Now (pp. 18–41). University of Chicago Press.

Ross, N. (2004). Culture and Cognition: Implications for Theory and Method. SAGE.

Strauss, C., & Quinn, N. (1997). A cognitive theory of cultural meaning (Vol. 9). Cambridge University Press.

White, L. A. (1959). The Concept of Culture. American Anthropologist, 61(2), 227–251.


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