Consciousness and Schema Transposition14 min read

In a recent paper published in American Sociological ReviewAndrei Boutyline and Laura Soter bring much-needed conceptual clarification to the sociological appropriation of the notion of schemas while also providing valuable and welcome guidance on future uses of the concept for practical research purposes. The paper is a tour de force, and all of you should read it (carefully, perhaps multiple times), so this post will not summarize their detailed argument. Instead, I want to focus on a subsidiary but no less important set of conclusions towards the end, mainly having to do with the relationship between declarative and nondeclarative cognition and an old idea in sociological action theory due to Bourdieu (1980/1990) that was further popularized in the highly cited article by Sewell (1992) on the duality of structure. I refer to the notion of schematic transposition.

In what follows, I will first outline Bourdieu’s and Sewell’s use of the notion and then go over how Boutyline and Soter raise a critical technical point about it, pointing to what is perhaps a consequential theoretical error. Finally, I will close by pointing to some lines of evidence in cognitive neuroscience that seem to buttress Boutyline and Soter’s position.

The idea of schematic transposition is related to an older idea due to Piaget of schema transfer. The basic proposal is that we can learn to engage in a set of concrete activities (e.g., let’s say “seriation” or putting things in rows or lines) in one particular practical context (putting multiple pebbles or marbles in a line). Then, after many repetitions, we develop a schema for it. Later, when learning about things in another context, let’s say “the number line” in basic arithmetic, we understand (assimilate) operations in this domain in terms of the previous seriation schema. Presumably, analogies and conceptual metaphors also depend on this schema transfer mechanism. In Logic of Practice, Bourdieu built this dynamic capacity for schema transfer into the definition of habitus everyone loves to hate, noting that the habitus can be thought of as “[s]ystems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures…” and so forth (p. 53).

This idea of transposibility ends up being essential for a habit theory like Bourdieu’s because it adds much-needed flexibility and creativity to how we conceive the social agent going about their lives (Joas, 1996). This is because thinking of action as driven by habitus does not entail people stuck with “one-track” inflexible or mechanical dispositions. Instead, via their capacity to transpose classificatory or practical habits learned in one domain to others, their internalized practical culture functions in a more “multi-track” way, being thus adaptive and creative. In an old paper on the notion of habitus (2004), I noted something similar to this, pointing out that “it is precisely this idea of flexible operations that allows for the habitus to not be tied to any particular content…instead, the habitus is an abstract, non-context specific, transposable matrix” (p. 391-392). Thus, there is something about transposability that seems necessary in a theory of action so that it does not come off as overly deterministic or mechanical.

In his famous 1992 paper, Sewell went even further, putting transposability at the very center of his conception of social change and agency. Departing from a critique of Bourdieu, Sewell noted two things. First (p. 16), any society contains a multiplicity of “structures” (today, we’d probably use the term “field,” “sphere,” or “domain”). Secondly (p. 17), this means people need to navigate across them somehow. Single-track theories of habit and cognition cannot explain how this navigation is possible. This navigation is made possible, according to Sewell, only by theorizing “the transposability of schemas.” As Sewell notes:

…[T]he schemas to which actors have access can be applied across a wide range of circumstances…Schemas were defined above as generalizable or transposable procedures applied in the enactment of social life. The term “generalizable” is taken from Giddens; the term “transposable,” which I prefer, is taken from Bourdieu…To say that schemas are transposable, in other words, is to say that they can be applied to a wide and not fully predictable range of cases outside the context in which they are initially learned…Knowledge of a rule or a schema by definition means the ability to transpose or extend it-that is, to apply it creatively. If this is so, then agency, which I would define as entailing the capacity to transpose and extend schemas to new contexts, is inherent in the knowledge of cultural schemas that characterizes all minimally competent members of society (p. 17-18).

Thus, in Sewell, the very concept of agency becomes defined by the actor’s capacity to transpose schemas across contexts and domains!

Nevertheless, is the link between the idea of schema and that of schematic transposition cogent? Boutyline and Soter (2021) incisively point out that it may not be. To see this, it is important to reiterate their “functional” definition of schemas as “socially shared representations deployable in automatic cognition” (735). The key here is “automatic cognition.” As I noted in an earlier post on “implicit culture,” a common theoretical error in cultural theory consists of taking the properties of forms of “explicit” representations we are familiar with and then postulating that there are “implicit” forms of representation having the same properties, except that they happen to be unconscious, tacit, implicit and the like. The problem is that representations operating at the tacit level need not (and usually cannot) share the same properties as those operating at the explicit level.

Boutyline and Soter note a similar tension in ascribing the property “transposable,” to a tacit or nondeclarative form of culture like a schema, which generally operates in type I cognition. In their words,

A..correlate of Type I cognition is domain-specificity. Type II knowledge can be context-independent and abstract—qualities enabled in part via the powerful expressive characteristics of language—and tied to general-purpose intelligence and logical or hypothetical reasoning…In contrast, Type I knowledge is often domain-specific—thoroughly tied to, and specifically functioning within, contexts closely resembling the one in which it was learned…Type II knowledge (e.g., mathematical or rhetorical tools) can be transposed with relative ease across diverse contexts, but the principles that underlie Type I inferences may not be transferrable to other domains without the help of Type II processes.

So, it seems like both Bourdieu and Sewell (drawing on Bourdieu) made a crucial property conjunction error, bestowing a magical power (transposability) to implicit (personal) culture. This type of personal culture cannot display the transposability property precisely because it is implicit (previously, I argued that people do this with a version of symbolic representational status). Boutyline and Soter (p. 742) revisit Sewell’s example of the “commodity schema,” convincingly demonstrating that, to the extent that this schema ends up being “deep” because it is transposable, specific episodes of transposability cannot themselves operate in automatic autopilot. Instead, “novel instance[s] of commodification” must be “consciously and intentionally devised” (ibid). Thus, to the extent that they are automatically deployable, schemas are non-transposable. Transposability of schemas requires that they be “representationally redescribed” (in terms of Karmiloff-Smith 1995) into more flexible explicit formats. Tying this insight to recent work on the sociological dual-process model, Boutyline and Soter conclude that the “application of existing knowledge to new domains understood as a feature of effortful, controlled cognition” (750).

Boutyline and Souter’s compelling argument does pose a dilemma and a puzzle. The dilemma is that a really attractive theoretical property of schemas (for Bourdieu, Sewell, and the many, many people who have used their insights and been influenced by their formulation) was transposability. Without it, it seems like schemas become a much diminished and less helpful concept. The puzzle is that there are many historical and contemporary examples of empirical instances of what looks like schematic transposition. How does this happen?

Here, Boutyline and Soter provide a very elegant theoretical solution, drawing on recent work suggesting that culture can “travel” within persons across the declarative/nondeclarative divide via redescription processes and across the public/personal one via internalization/externalization processes. They note that because schemas are representational, they can be externalized (or representationally redescribed) into explicit formats (from nondeclarative to declarative). People can also internalize them from the public domain when they interact in the world (from public to personal/nondeclarative; see Arseniev-Koehler and Foster, 2020). As Boutyline and Soter note, representational redescription,

…could make the representational contents of a cultural schema available to effortful conscious cognition, which we suspect may be generally necessary to translate these representations to novel domains. After they are transformed to encompass new settings, the representational contents could then travel the reverse pathway, becoming routinized through repeated application into automatic cognition. The end product of this process would be a cultural schema that largely resembles the original schema but now applies to a broader set of domains. Representational redescription may thus be key to social reproduction, wherein familiar social arrangements backed by widely shared cultural schemas…are adapted so they may continue under new circumstances (751).

Does cognitive neuroscience’s current state of the art support the idea that consciousness is required to integrate elements from multiple experiential and cultural domains? The answer seems to be a qualified “yes,” with the strongest proponents suggesting that the very function of consciousness and explicit processing is cross-domain information integration (Tononi, 2008). A more plausible weaker hypothesis is that consciousness greatly facilitates such integration. Without it, the task would be challenging, and for complex settings such as the socio-cultural domains of interest to sociologists, perhaps impossible. As noted by the philosophers Nicholas Shea and Chris Frith,

The role of consciousness in facilitating information integration can be seen in several paradigms in which local regularities are registered unconsciously, but global regularities are only detected when stimuli are consciously represented…consciousness makes representations available to a wider range of processing, and processing that occurs over conscious representations takes a potentially wider range of representations as input (2016, p. 4).

This account supports Boutyline and Soter’s insightful observation that it was an initial mistake to link the property of transposability to schemas, especially in the initial formulation by Bourdieu, where schemas were seen as part of habitus (Vaisey, 2009). Therefore, schemas reside in the implicit mind and operate as automatic Type I cognition (Sewell was more ambiguous in this last respect). Work in cognitive psychology and the cognitive neuroscience of consciousness supports the idea that transposition requires information integration across domains. For complex domains, conscious representation and deliberate processing may be necessary for the initial stages of transposition (Shea & Frith, 2016). Of course, as Boutyline and Souter note, once institutional entrepreneurs have engaged in the first bout of transposition mediated by explicit representations, the new schema-domain linkage can be learned by others via proceduralization and enskilment, becoming part of implicit personal culture operating as Type I cognition.

Finally, a corollary of the preceding is that we may not want to follow Sewell in completely collapsing the general concept of agency into the more restricted idea of schematic transposition, as this would have the untoward consequence of reducing agency to conscious representations and system II processing over these, precisely the thing that practice and habit theories were designed to prevent. 


Arseniev-Koehler, A., & Foster, J. G. (2020). Machine learning as a model for cultural learning: Teaching an algorithm what it means to be fat. In arXiv [cs.CY]. arXiv.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice (R. Nice, trans.). Stanford University Press. (Original work published 1980)

Boutyline, A., & Soter, L. K. (2021). Cultural Schemas: What They Are, How to Find Them, and What to Do Once You’ve Caught One. American Sociological Review86(4), 728–758.

Joas, H. (1996). The Creativity of Action. University of Chicago Press.

Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1995). Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science. MIT Press.

Lizardo, O. (2004). The Cognitive Origins of Bourdieu’s Habitus. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior34(4), 375–401.

Sewell, W. H., Jr. (1992). A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation. The American Journal of Sociology98(1), 1–29.

Shea, N., & Frith, C. D. (2016). Dual-process theories and consciousness: the case for ‘Type Zero’cognition. Neuroscience of Consciousness2016(1).

Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: a provisional manifesto. The Biological Bulletin215(3), 216-242.

Vaisey, S. (2009). Motivation and Justification: A Dual-Process Model of Culture in Action. American Journal of Sociology114(6), 1675–1715.

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