Implicit Culture and the Insane Clown Posse Stance20 min read

In a recent article published online first in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, I attempt to sort out the (various) distinction(s) cultural analysts aim to track when they use the term implicit culture (and, by implication, explicit culture). The article is partly based on reflections developed previously in this blog (see here and here). As I note in the article, things get a bit complex because the term “implicit” tracks a different cluster of distinctions when used to refer to personal culture than it does to public culture, especially that routinely enacted and externalized as institutions (on cultural kinds and institutions, see Lizardo, 2019).

Public versus Personal Implicit Again

Here I would like to focus on a few implications of the argument I left hanging, particularly regarding the epistemic relation between people and the culture the analyst deems to be implicit. The paradigm case here is taken from implicit personal culture (on the distinction between personal and public culture, see Lizardo, 2017), and the prototype is the (either Freudian or modern cognitive-scientific version of) the unconscious (see Khilstrom, 2018). So, personal culture is implicit to the extent that it operates or is used by people for various pragmatic and cognitive tasks (to classify, act, think, and the like) without people being aware that it does so. The prototypical (contemporary) empirical phenomenon manifesting this type of implicit personal culture is the now-classic case of implicit attitudes (see Brownstein, 2018).

In the article, I warned that it is a tempting strategy to attempt to use the model of the epistemic relation people have with their unconscious stock of personal culture (what I called u-implicitness; this is one of two ways personal culture can be implicit; see the article for further argument) to understand the epistemic relation between public-implicit culture and people. This move does not work because implicit public culture exists exclusively as an aspect of either simple or complex external artifacts, with the artifact notion being maximally defined; see here and here (note that this is an explicit—pun intended—and possibly defeasible ontic claim about the nature of implicit public culture). Therefore, an epistemic relation between people and internal mental items can’t be used as a model (at least not without major modifications) for the epistemic relation between people and (the implicit aspect of) external non-mental items. That is, precisely because there is no such thing as cultural kinds that are public and mental (such an entity would violate the Muggle constraint), the epistemic relation between people and the public implicit cannot be the same as that between people and the personal implicit (e.g., within naturalistic constraints, there can’t be such thing as an impersonal but somehow still mental “collective unconscious,” although such a nonsensical thing has been imagined by people in the past).

So, what epistemic relation can plausibly obtain between people and public-implicit culture? Drawing on classic philosophical reflections by members of Insane Clown Posse (ICP), I proposed that the modal epistemic relation between people and implicit public culture is that of ignorance, particularly the sort of ignorance that obtains when we don’t know how a complex natural kind works. Thus, when faced with magnets (a complex natural kind), members of ICP (literally) throw up their hands and exclaim: “fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?” Expressing that the underlying workings of the magnet, productive of observed electromagnetic phenomena, are implicit to them. If ICP were committed vitalists (and as far as I know, they might be), they could have asked the same question about biological kinds: “fuckin’ cats, how do they work?” For the vitalist, the mechanisms that generate and sustain biological life are implicit and, therefore, mysterious (and better left that way). Note that, since magnets are not implicit to trained physicists familiar with Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory (and cats are not implicit to trained biologists), it follows that some (natural or biological kinds) that are implicit to person or group A could be explicit to person or group B; implicitness is a relational property of public cultural kinds and there are always relative to a given knower (or group of knowers). A general definition of (scientific) expertise follows from this; experts are simply those for whom some complex domain (e.g., high-energy physics) is (relatively more) explicit, when it is, in fact, (relatively more) implicit to most of us (see Collins & Evans, 2008).

Implicitness in Public Cultural Kinds

I argued that the ICP implicitness criterion transfers neatly to complex artifactual cultural kinds and particularly to sets of complex artifactual kinds locked together into self-reproducing loops externalized as institutions, like money, debt, gender, race, the state, language, or organizations (see Graeber, 2012; Lizardo, 2019; Jung, 2015; Haslanger, 2005). Just because (via the causal-historical criterion) a piece of public culture is generated via the thinking and practical activity of people does not mean that that piece of public culture is epistemically transparent (e.g., explicit) to those people (or to an external anthropological observer that comes in after the fact and tries to understand it). Thus, we must drop the common fallacy that just because people make public culture (or are implicated in its making and unmaking) it is necessarily explicit to those makers (or, even less likely, to “downstream” users). A moment’s reflection reveals that the opposite will be the case; after a reasonable degree of complexity is reached, most pieces of public culture (e.g., a narrative, a collective memory, a classification system, and the like) will have more implicit than explicit aspects. Nevertheless, those implicit aspects could be potentially recoverable—and thus made explicitvia some analytic procedure (thus justifying—one version of—the project of “measuring culture”). So, we can ask the same question about all types of public artifacts as ICP ask of magnets: “fuckin’ language, how does it work?; fuckin’ states, how do they work?; fuckin’ gender, how does it work?; fuckin’ money, how does it work?”; “fuckin’ organizations, how do they work?” and so forth.

That we can be ignorant of how these artifactual kinds work is the (non-Kantian) condition of possibility for there to be experts (e.g., linguists, political scientists, political sociologists, gender and race theorists, economic anthropologists, organization theorists, and the like) for whom the relevant public cultural kinds are (relatively) less implicit than for most of us. Durkheim (1895) pointed to a version of this in his anti-philosophical argument for an empirical science of society in Rules of Sociological Method; if “social facts” (his name for public-cultural kinds) were purely explicit and thus epistemically transparent to anyone with a brain and some spare time to ponder, they could be thoroughly analyzed from the philosophical armchair and no empirical science of society would be needed. The fact that a good chunk of their nature is not epistemically transparent, thus justifies the need for and the existence of an empirical science of those facts, which helps alleviate our ICP-style ignorance relative to them.

Implicit Public Cultural Kinds and the Knowledge Illusion

Interestingly, this gives us a somewhat different perspective—different from Freudian-style versions that make the fundamental mistake outlined earlier—on why people might sometimes be ignorant about their ignorance of how public cultural kinds work, the various effects they have, and the like. It turns out that when it comes to various domains (e.g., physical, biological, and artifactual), most people do not follow the venerable example of epistemic humility set out by ICP. They do not fully admit their ignorance, and thus the large swaths of implicit aspects of the kinds in question. Instead, they walk around with a particular form of “knowledge illusion” that the cognitive scientists Rozenblit & Keil (2002)  baptized as the “illusion of explanatory depth.” They think they know the underlying mechanisms that make artifacts in various mundane domains (e.g., plumbing, electricity, inflation) “work.” When given a paper and a pencil and asked to write down this purported knowledge, most people are stumped and realize that they are, in fact, no better than ICP when faced with a magnet.

It is important to note that being ignorant about how a public-cultural kind works is not the same as being unable to use it or navigate an institutional system partly structured by it. Once again, the analogy with standard artifacts holds. We all know how to use toilets, coffee makers, and computers. Nevertheless, despite knowing how to use these artifacts to accomplish all kinds of practical tasks, most of us don’t know how they work, although we think we do, per the illusion of explanatory depth. Public cultural kinds work the same way; we all know how to “use” money, organizations, and language—admittedly, some better than others—and we even are sort of experts at “doing” all kinds of interactional and boundary work using race, class, and gender (West & Fenstermaker, 1995). However, this “recipe” or “usage-based” knowledge of institutionalized public-cultural artifacts is not really about the fundamental nature—the cogs and wheels—of the relevant cultural kinds and how they work. It has been a crucial mistake in some brands of cultural theory to go from observing the patent fact that most of us (sometimes very skillfully) “use” culture similarly to how we use tools (see, e.g., Swidler, 1986), to conclude that therefore the culture we use is necessarily explicit to the user, under the mistaken assumption that epistemic transparency is a precondition for use. Instead, the opposite is the case. Because public-cultural kinds are artifactual, they are more like computers; we constantly use them without knowing how they work and presuming that we know how they work when we don’t.

Implications for Cultural Analysis

That the knowledge illusion transfers to artifactual public kinds, and by implication, to the highly institutionalized and pervasive versions (e.g., organizations, language, race, gender, money) that fascinate social scientists in the ways just outlined has important implications for cultural analysis. Most significantly, it shows that just like Freud and the old-timey idea of the unconscious (or the newfangled idea of the implicit mind and the cognitive unconscious), where people thought that they had transparent access to their mental life and thus underestimated the amount of personal culture that is u-implicit, people are equally likely to underestimate the amount of implicit public culture out there they are blissfully ignorant of. That is, people think they know how countless complex public cultural domains work, when these are in reality as obscure to them as electromagnetic theory is for members of ICP. Importantly, this gives a somewhat revised “job description” to the social scientist, one that they seldom take (perhaps because a lot of us also fall for the knowledge illusion); social scientists are in the business of making public-implicit culture explicit to people, by revealing the underlying mechanisms that make them work and which are necessarily implicit to the laity.

One uncomfortable (given the populist intuitions of most social scientists and their discomfiture with technocracy) but necessary implication of this is that people are most certainly ignorant of how most public culture works (here ignorant is used to refer to the epistemic relation in a non-normative sense, even though in American English, “ignorant” is seen as an insult or pejorative). Not only that, this is just not just “passive” ignorance; there are pervasive institutional and cognitive loops helping sustain this ignorance, thus keeping people ignorant of their ignorance (Mueller, 2020). Even worse, people likely may have formed all kinds of folk theories about how those cultural domains work. Moreover, most of these theories are very likely wrong. Just like there is a fact of the matter about how a watch, magnets, and cats work, there is a fact of the matter about how racialized social systems and gendered organizations work, and people can have (and are expected to have!) false beliefs about it (if they have any; note that ignorance, accompanied by an illusion of knowing, is the more likely possibility compared to the possession of an elaborate but wrong theory). In other words, the beliefs held by the folk regarding the underlying working of various public-cultural domains should, in principle, be correctable by experts, just like your weird ideas about how magnets (or cats) work are correctable by the relevant scientific experts. The tradition of French-rationalist social science running from Durkheim to Mauss, to Lévi-Strauss, to Bourdieu, to Wacquant, has no problem with this implication and, in fact, derives it from an explicit—pun intended—social scientific theory of expertise relative to the folk.

Note that when it comes to public cultural kinds that people feel like they really, really know how they work (e.g., gender, race, sexuality), this issue becomes even more critical and more vexed, especially when it turns out that many of these kinds are implicated in highly complex self-reproducing loops involving social practices and links between personal and public culture of such intricacy that they will necessarily be primarily implicit even to the most heroic and committed of folks (and even to many “expert” social scientists; otherwise there would be nothing to discover via scientific inquiry). This opens up a familiar can of worms concerning epistemic authority relations between so-called social science experts and the folk, what sort of folk expertise exists out there that social science experts may not have access to, and so forth. These are beyond the scope of this post to deal with; here, I only want to note that any non-trivial commitment to the idea of implicit public culture does force the analyst to take a stance on this complex set of issues. As I remarked, dropping the pseudo-Freudian version of the epistemic relation between people and public-implicit kinds can do a lot to alleviate the concerns of those who see any combination of a Freudo-Durkheimian “authoritarian” epistemology of expert knowledge as necessarily terrible for and dismissive of the folk (see, e.g., Martin, 2011, p. 74ff).

Even more interestingly, recent work by the cognitive psychologist Steve Sloman and collaborators (see Sloman & Fernbach, 2018) reveals that various knowledge illusions are sustained precisely because the folk (implicitly?) think that there are experts out there who possess this knowledge. Thus, a “bottom-up” folk-to-expert relationship can sustain some illusions of knowledge regarding the implicit aspects of public cultural kinds. That is, precisely because there is a social distribution of knowledge and a “division of epistemic labor”—a key implication of “semantic externalism” in philosophy (see, e.g., Burge, 1979; Haslanger, 2005; Putnam, 1975) and social constructionism in sociology (see, e.g., Reay, 2010)—people walk around thinking that they know more about a bunch of stuff they know little to nothing about. The key mechanism here is that, when it comes to knowing, people may (once again implicitly) not differentiate between the knowledge that is “in their heads” and the knowledge that is in other people’s heads (and even knowledge that is stored in non-biological “heads” like books and Wikipedia servers). So one reason people don’t act like ICP all the time is that they (once again personal-implicitly) believe that they live in a community of knowledge (Rabb et al. 2019). In effect, people practically believe that “expert knowledge “out there” is potentially my knowledge “in here,” so I kind of know stuff that I don’t really know.” As long as people believe they have (direct or indirect) social access to how something works, they enter an epistemic stance of ignorance about ignorance because they have access to practical strategies (googling weird rashes) that would relieve them of that ignorance.

Concluding Remarks

In this post, I hope to have shown that the issue of implicit public culture, and the epistemic relation people have with it, goes beyond simple taxonomic matters (although, as I point out in the JTSB piece, the taxonomic piece is essential). Instead, once we get the taxonomic thing straight and develop a coherent way of thinking about the epistemic relation between people and implicit public culture, all kinds of exciting (and controversial) questions open up. These include classic issues in the sociology of knowledge regarding the relationship between people’s practical or personal recipe knowledge and the theoretical or “expert” knowledge of social scientists (which we can tackle using novel theoretical resources), the mechanisms that sustain resistance to knowing more about the implicit aspects of public culture, a version of systematic sociological ignorance concerning how particular cultural and social domains work, along with exciting problems and puzzling phenomena generated by the social distribution and division of epistemic labor.


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