Beyond Cultural Clumps23 min read


Traditional approaches to the study of culture begin with “cultural clumps” and theorize from there. Like the devil, these clumps have been given many names throughout history. For instance, the unqualified use of the term “culture,” from Tylor’s famous definition onward, is usually meant to refer to such a mega clump. But others also use the term “system,” “pattern,” “worldview,” “national character,” and the like to refer to their favorite clump. The only difference is that sometimes the clumps are homogeneous (where the agglomerated parts are all the same kind, such as “beliefs,” or “symbols,”). Other times, as with Tylorian/Boasian definitions, the clumps are heterogeneous, including everything learned and made by people (e.g., “the cultural heritage”), whether mental or material (Bidney, 1968).

In previous posts, I have proposed a different approach: Rather than beginning with clumpy “culture concepts,” start your theorizing with cultural kinds, which are the component pieces out of which cultural clumps are made, not with the clumps. This makes the existence of cultural clumps into an empirical, not an analytic issue. It also shifts the analytic attention of cultural analysis to token examples of the kinds (e.g., a given belief, schema, practice, artifact). Following what is already standard practice in empirical work, we should study specific instances of cultural kinds (e.g., the belief in witches in seventeenth-century Salem), not (usually non-existent or spurious) cultural clumps.

The problems with the cultural clump approach are many and will not be rehearsed in detail here (see, e.g., Turner, 1994; Bourdieu, 1973). These include an ontologically incoherent holism, the unjustified projection of hard to establish (e.g., “downward”) causal power to such spurious cultural wholes, and the like. In this respect, the entire “culture concept” tradition has been an analytic failure to the extent that theorizing about holistic culture clumps (e.g., “systems,” “patterns,” worldviews,” and the like) was the point of departure rather than one possible endpoint. As noted before, most “culture concepts” are (usually doomed) packages of ontic claims not redeemable in any respectable sense. In this sense, “culture concepts” should be abandoned as a starting point for theorizing cultural analysis. Instead, we should stick to studying the actual things that we are interested in. Those things are cultural kinds, not culture concepts. Of course, we can always define the kinds if we like, but we could just point to them if we are stumped.

Does this mean that clumps do not exist? Of course not. Cultural kinds do have the dispositional capacity to come together into clumps. However, none of these clumps will ever be so gigantic as to meet the criteria of the “worldviews,” and “Weltanschauungen” of the old culture clump approach (e.g., encompassing populations in the thousands or millions). Although specific token kinds (e.g., the daily practice of salah among Muslims) can and do reach these distributional scales (Anderson, 1991). So cultural analysts in the social sciences do study clumps. Still, likely, such clumps will seldom go beyond the scale of the “mesolevel” (Rinaldo & Guhin, 2019). Most will be downright “micro” (Fine, 1979). Just like socialism, really existing cultural clumps are smaller, less powerful, and less all-pervasive than previously thought, but that also means we can study them.

So, what are the different clumps? We can proceed to typologize the relevant kinds of clumps we are likely to encounter using our previous typology of cultural kinds. For instance, when it comes to the culture people can internalize, we can distinguish between declarative sentence-sized beliefs people can assent to (e.g., “in America, everyone can make it if they work hard enough”), and nondeclarative practices or skills. So, that means that ideally, there should be at least two types of culture clumps. Clumps made up of various pieces of “knowledge-that,” and clumps made up of multiple pieces of “knowledge-how.”

Belief Systems

The first kind of culture clump, belief systems made from propositions meshed into webs of implication, is a classic of cultural analysis (Archer, 1995). In fact, it may be the uber clump (e.g., the “prototypical” culture clump) having played a central role in some of the most influential (e.g., functionalist) lines of cultural theory in the mid-twentieth century. For instance, the idea of a belief system, still popular in both sociology and political science, is the culture-clump that emerges when various pieces of knowledge-that come to be linked together.

Today, the folk (and some analytic) conceptions of culture are based on the belief system imagery. So, when we say, “in this culture,” things are done this way or that, we mean something like “within the ambit of this particular belief system shared by these people here.” Other lines of cultural analysis reject sentence-like beliefs as the units and go for “word-sized” concepts instead, but retain the basic holistic culture clump imagery. For instance, Sausserian approaches to “symbol systems,” (e.g., Leach, 1976) conceive of culture as a set of semiotic elements (words, concepts) linked together by webs of semantic relations (e.g., antonymy, synonymy, hyponymy, and the like). So if a semiotic “cultural logic” reigns over a given collective (e.g., the American code of civil society), it is presumed to be coherent, shared, and the like, at scale.

As Turner (1994) has noted, there is also an entire tradition of cultural analysis positing various types of clumps (e.g., worldviews and the like), seemingly made up of interlinked sets of “assumptions” and “presuppositions,” except that they live in some (incoherent) “implicit” or “tacit” compartment of the collective mind. As I’ve argued before, this is also a non-starter. So, the whole “collective-presuppositional” tradition of analysis is just another version of the belief-system-style culture clump (but with even more extravagant and indefensible ontic claims), as are some lines of Weberian interpretation that rely on the “world image” concept (Strand & Lizardo, 2015).

Overall, it is unlikely that you are talking about anything if you are talking about any of these clumps. Empirical studies of belief systems in sociology, political science, and the cognitive science of religion show that consistent belief systems are scarce and hard to maintain. If they exist, it is not at the scale imagined by traditional culture clump theory. Instead, pristine, elaborate, and well-connected belief systems tend to exist among numerical minorities. These are usually motivated experts who have a lot of time and energy to invest in maintaining and making explicit all the logical links, expunging contradictions, and the like (e.g., in the Conversian tradition in political science, these are political elites, and in religious studies, these are religious professionals; in most empirical studies of “cultural logics” these are also shared within the ambit of particular professions like journalists). At the folk level, belief systems are fragmented and inconsistent, with any linkages (to the extent they exist) due not to deductive logic but to non-rational or a-rational factors like political identity, heuristics, or ingroup/outgroup dynamics (Boutyline & Vaisey, 2017). This frees up (survey, interview) researchers to just study the cultural kinds (e.g., the specific beliefs or attitudes) themselves à la carte without buying them wholesale as necessarily coherent sets of belief systems (e.g., Kiley & Vaisey, 2020; Vaisey & Lizardo, 2016).


But what about clumps made of nondeclarative pieces of know-how? This kind of clump has not had as storied a career in cultural analysis as the belief system type. In fact, only one prominent theorist has argued for the existence of this type of clump. I refer to Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, which, as initially defined, was indeed proposed as a culture clump (Bourdieu, 1990). However, Bourdieu was self-consciously reacting against the anthropological versions of the clumps discussed earlier (both in its belief-systems functionalist form and its semiotic system Sausserian/Levi-Straussian forms). As an alternative, Bourdieu proposed a culture clump made of a different kind of cultural kind. Not sentence-sized beliefs or word-sized symbols, but action-sized pieces of bodily know-how, nondeclarative skills, and abilities linked together to form a clump-like system he called habitus; the culture clump everyone loves to hate.

There is some confusion whether the habitus is a culture clump at all because Bourdieu was so adamant about distinguishing his clump from the anthropologists’ clumps that he suggested that the habitus had nothing to do with the “culture concept” because he equated that to clumps made of beliefs and symbols (Lizardo, 2011). Today we are smart enough to recognize that practices, skills, and the like are bona fide cultural kinds (Reckwitz, 2002), so we can qualify Bourdieu’s proposal. Habitus is a culture clump, it is just a clump whose cultural components are habits, which is a bit counter-intuitive at first, but now we are used to it. However, as a culture clump, the habitus has all the defects and weaknesses of all culture clump concepts:

  1. It is a “holistic” concept, so people begin with the clump rather than study the kinds (e.g., the actual habits the habitus is made of).
  2. The concept takes the clumping for granted instead of giving us a story of where the clump from comes in the first place (habits are assumed to be clumped into a system ex ante).
  3. The clump is applied so that its scale ends up being way more extensive than the clump can credibly handle (so that entire classes and even nations (!!!) have a “habitus“).

Predictably, post-Bourdieusian theorists have just “deconstructed the clump,” pointing out that the habitus (within people) can be cleft, split, fragmented, clivé, and the like; in addition, across people, collectives seldom share a homogeneous habitus, with diversity in habits within-groups and cross-cutting overlaps between-groups being the rule rather than the exception (Lahire, 2011). So, we are left with the pieces (this or that habit or skill) without having to force them into coherent systems where they fit together harmoniously. Theoretically, this is not as dramatic as discovery or theoretical advance as some claim, since “deconstructing the clump” is precisely the story of post-functionalist theory in sociology and anthropology (e.g., Swidler, 2001; Hannerz, 1992).

The recipe is easy. Suppose you give me a culture clump (regardless of what it is made of). In that case, it is easier to show out that it is fragmented, inconsistent, and the like than to show that it is a highly structured holistic entity. The reason for that is that proposing a clump exists is always a stronger claim than suggesting a given standalone component’s existence and causal efficacy. At the end of the post, I will provide you with one reason why.

For instance, the proposition “Americans hate welfare because they believe that with hard work they can make it,” is much easier to defend empirically than saying, “Americans hate welfare because they have imbibed an entire neoliberal ideology composed of hundreds of beliefs linked together by chains of logical implication, and their hating of welfare follows as a strict deduction from the high-level principles up in the chain.” Of course, trying to establish the empirical validity of this last is a hopeless undertaking. But the first hypothesis has a fighting chance. This hypothesis will moreover be consistent with the fact that the same person who hates welfare because they think that with hard work they can make it can also tell you in the next breath that they believe the game is rigged for the little guy like themselves by college professors and other elites, without their hating of welfare because they think that with hard work they can make it, being in the least impinged by the fact that college professors, whose median salary is way smaller than this person’s, are standing in the way of their dreams. 

Note that in this last respect, any “critical” theory of “ideology,” in which this last is just a giant culture clump composed of a bunch of interlinked beliefs, will fail for the same analytic reasons as vanilla functionalist culture clump theory. Thus, regardless of whether you are a happy functionalist who likes the existing state of affairs, or an angry Jacobin who would like the revolution tomorrow, if you live by the clump, you die by the clump.

Regardless, deconstructing the habitus clump has been empirically liberating because it has allowed researchers to just study how particular skills and abilities are acquired in a social context without having to worry about fitting those specific pieces of know-how into a larger habitus-like clump (e.g., Cornelissen, 2016). Ultimately, habitus is a failed concept not because it proposed the (still generative!) idea that pieces of know-how could (theoretically) come together to form soft-assembled systems, but because it took such systems for granted and began their theorizing from there. Just like post-functionalist theory, it is better to follow the post-Bourdieusian clump-deconstructors and point out that splitting, fragmentation, and the like is the norm and that if you end up finding some very coherent set of skills and abilities clumped together into a giant coherent habitus, then you better explain how that happened because that is the actual puzzle.

Clumps versus Entropy

Given the vicissitudes of both know-that clumps and know-how clumps, it seems like we can derive a general lesson for why culture clumps have struggled so much in the history of cultural theorizing. Overall, the moral of the story seems to be to not take clumps as pre-existing analytic entities, take their clumpiness (if it exists) as a puzzle to be explained, and assume that the “normal” state is not clumpiness but disorganization, such that the clumping of cultural kinds into anything resembling a coherent system becomes the explanatory puzzle.

The general proposal goes as follows. Begin with the kinds themselves (more accurately specific tokens thereof) and follow them into the field (or the RStudio interface) to see if they do indeed clump together with others of their kind (or with different kinds altogether!). What we don’t want to do is begin with clumps or “clump concepts” that allegedly tell you about the clumps and their mystical powers over people via ex-ante argumentation. The primary point is that, even if the cultural kinds you follow don’t end up assembling into clumps, you still have something to study. It is a fallacy to think that culture can only be causally powerful, Power Rangers style, only when assembled into giant clumps. Instead, token cultural kinds by themselves have causal powers; whether they come together into clumps is incidental. A single belief or habit can be causally powerful on its own (think of your Twitter habit) independently of whether it is part of a more extensive belief system, cultural logic, or habitus

From this, it follows that even if you were to find and describe a coherent culture clump located at an appropriate mesolevel (e.g., the habitus of French humanities Professors who live in Paris), you should probably also consider all the centripetal forces operating to fragment, split, or otherwise bring disorganization to the clump in question so that the various pieces of the clump go all in their different ways (Cornelissen, 2016).

This last set of considerations give us a clue as to why it is not a good idea to take clumps for granted. Borrowing a generative idea from the work of Terry McDonnell (2016), it is time cultural analysts place the kinds they study within the context of entropy. Things, including cultural things, tend toward disorder and disorganization. That means it is always cheaper to say “this belief exists,” or “some percentage of Americans believe this,” than to say “Americans are under the sway of an individualist ideology.” Following the logic of entropy, the latter would be probabilistically less likely because to keep together a pristine ideology in which the number of logical or inferential links increases exponentially in the number of elements, shared in a population of hundreds, thousands, or millions, just sounds utterly insane and improbable. Too many factors are working against it. People are learning and unlearning that, forgetting this, motivated-reasoning their way to this other thing (Sperber, 2011).

That means that pockets of coherence and clumpiness, where they exist, are deserving of study because there you will have both a causal genetic story to tell (how did this set of beliefs clump emerge from a disorganized collection of considerations?) and a synchronic entropy-negating story to tell (how is this belief maintained so that its clumpiness and organization persist?). Note that both questions also apply to habitus-style know-how clumps. Moreover, both questions play to the comparative strengths of sociological work, since we know that while a given individual may struggle to sustain a coherent belief system or a coherent habitus on their own, this becomes easier when embedded in fields endowed with institutional structures, authority figures, interpersonal relationships and the like (Rawlings, 2020).

Outside-in versus Inside-out (Again)

Here I want to reiterate that this outside-in story is not a general-purpose story of the causal power of culture. Instead, it is a special-purpose story of where cultural clumps (if they exist) might come from and what social mechanisms help sustain them (Sewell, 2005; Swidler, 2001). It has been an analytic mistake to sell these special-purpose outside-in stories as general substitutes for how “culture” (in general) works. The problem is that this over-generalization of the outside-in story takes away all causal power from internalized cultural kinds (Vaisey, 2008). As noted earlier, this is a fallacy; cultural kinds can be causally powerful on their own, so that a single belief, attitude, or nondeclarative disposition links to action (from the inside-out) without having to be part of a larger clump and without having to fit with or be consistent with the other cultural kinds the same person has internalized (Lizardo, 2017).

So whether “cultural kinds affect action,” is an entirely disjoint question from “what are the mechanisms by which cultural kinds come to form coherent clumps.” For the former, a pure outside-in story is an overreach; for the latter, it is an excellent place to start. As noted, there are now well-established, and long-running lines of work in cultural analysis showing that cultural kinds (specific beliefs, attitudes, or know-how) can affect action from the inside-out independently of their membership in clumps, so answering this question in the affirmative is not a negation of the idea that outside-in mechanisms might be essential for the formation and maintenance of entropy-defying culture clumps at micro and mesolevels.

However, questions remain. Are belief systems made of sentence-sized kinds and habituses made up action-sized habits the only culture clumps that exist? Are all culture clumps affected by entropic forces to the same extent? Do we need to postulate distinct mechanisms keeping the different clumps together? These will be the subject of future posts.


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