Three Types of Ontic Distinctions About Culture

Following up on a previous discussion, in this post, I argue that it is useful to differentiate between three types of ontic claims about culture that have typically been made in the history of cultural theory. Typically, these ontic claims are made with the goal of isolating the “nature” of culture, or coming up with a criterion for the “mark of the cultural.” Typically the analyst is not only interested in coming up with a way to define what culture is, but also is attempting to establish what “culture is not” (Reed 2017). This then leads to typical binaries juxtaposing the positive ontic claim against the negative one (e.g., culture versus individual, culture versus economy, culture versus biology, etc.).

The three types of ontic claims culture I would like to focus on here are: 1) ontic claims about the “stuff” of culture (what I referred to before as compositional claims), ontic claims about the properties that make something cultural, and ontic claims about the causal history of cultural things. The first type of ontic claim tells us what type of thing culture is, the second type of ontic claim is concerned with the typical properties of things we call cultural, and the third set of ontic claims is concerned with the type of generative or historical processes (e.g., typical causal histories) that yield the things we call culture. I will not discuss locational ontic claims because these are less relevant for establishing the nature of cultural kinds or demarcating culture from not culture (instead, they are useful for distinguish subtypes within the overarching category of culture). Different ontic claims about culture pertain to these different ontic categories, although as we will see some locational claims emerge from ontic claims via the binaries they give rise to.

Surprisingly, we will see that depending on which type of ontic claim we focus on, an entity can be “culture” according to one criterion (causal history criterion) and not “culture” according to another (property). In addition, as Reed (2017) has argued, a number of ontic claims about culture are negative ontic claims. That is, their analytic force depends on telling us the kinds of things that culture is not while being somewhat coy as to what culture actually is. In this respect, it is also useful to keep these last type of claim (e.g., “culture is not individual”) distinct from the positive ones, as it is easier to make a negative ontic claim than to defend a positive one against alternatives. This is because a negative ontic claim (e.g., “culture is not biology”) is compatible with a number of potentially mutually exclusive positive claims.

The Types of Things that are Culture

In terms of ontic claims about the “stuff” of culture, the big division in traditional cultural theory concerned itself with differentiating between culture as ideas versus culture as empirical; Bidney (1968, 24) refers to the latter as a “realist” conception of culture (with the former being an “idealistic” conception). However, the “realist” term is misleading, especially given the wide variety of connotations that the term “realism” has acquired in recent philosophy of social science and social theory (Archer 1996; Elder-Vass 2012). It is possible, for instance to be a realist about ideas (a Platonic idealism or Popperian propositional realism), like Margaret Archer, and therefore to think of culture as both “real” and ideal. So the analyst’s stance as to whether culture is “real,” needs to be decoupled from the more basic ontic claim, which is about what the stuff of culture is. Obviously, being a non-realist about culture, is a kind of (limiting) negative ontic claim, essentially saying that the term culture fails to refer to anything at all.

So what Bidney calls realism (and which I call the “empirical” ontic claim) is based first on saying that culture as “not ideal” (a negative ontic claim), and thus has a concrete (observable) empirical reality. But what are the positive ontic claims made by those who think of culture as non-ideal and empirical? There are two broad perspectives here. We can differentiate those who make the ontic claim that culture is a material (or artifactual) thing (and thus think of culture as material culture), from those who see culture as a behavioral or practical thing. That is culture as an empirical thing can manifest itself either as artifacts or as the sum total of acquired “customs, habits, and institutions” of a people (David Bidney 1968, 24). Definitions of culture pointing to customs, tradition, the “social heritage” and the like (such as Boas’s) belong to the empirical tradition (combining artifactual and behavioral conceptions), while Alfred Kroeber’s (1917) definition of culture as an ideational “superorganic” (but still real) entity was the most influential idealist rendering in early anthropology.

Both idealist and empirical ontic claims leave open the possibility that culture can be organized as a “system” (or in weaker senses as an organized collection) of ideal entities, material artifacts, or behaviors (Archer 1996; David Bidney 1968; Sewell 2005). Any type of systemic or “plural” conception of culture (e.g., culture as a complex object composed of a set of interconnected or inter-related “culture units”) necessarily invites the counter-position of culture as a system versus the individual (David Bidney 1968; Norton 2019). That is, since what is culture is what is replicated, communicated, and ultimately shared across people, then if something is a unique individual idiosyncrasy then it is ipso facto not cultural. This means individuals can stand opposed to culture as an overarching system of ideas (as they did in the mid-twentieth century functionalist conception of Parsons or in Kroeber’s (1917) early theory of culture as an idealist “superorganic” realm) or they can stand against culture as the aggregated (artifactual or behavioral) “social heritage” as they did in Boasian conceptions of culture (Bidney 1968).

The Properties of Culture

This takes us to the second type of ontic claim, here what makes something culture is not the “stuff” it is made of (e.g. ideal, artifact, or practice) but a key property of each token cultural unit or slice of cultural stuff. As noted, the most common version of this type of property ontic claim fixates on sharedness as the focal property. Accordingly, something is cultural when it is not a unique individual entity, but when it is instead shared or replicated across people (Sperber 1985). The property ontic claim is analytically distinct from the “typical stuff” ontic claim and therefore can crosscut it. Thus, we can have shared ideas, shared artifacts, shared behaviors, shared practices and so on, all of which count as culture because they are shared. “Sharedness” (under this property ontic conception), and not the typical constitutive stuff, is the “mark of the cultural.”

Note that this positive ontic claim comes with an implicit negative claim culture is not what is unique to the individual. So an idea that occurs to a single person, a “private language” (for Wittengenstein a logical impossibility), an artifact that only one person knows how to use, or a norm only one person follows, are not cultural under this conception. This property intuition sometimes clashes against the related (locational) ontic intuition that culture can be “in” or “internalized” by people, so that we can speak of such a thing as “personal” culture. Rinaldo and Guhin (2019), in a forthcoming SMR piece, make this point explicitly:

“…[T]he idea of a wholly “personal” culture is something of an oxymoron, in a sense similar to Wittgenstein’s denial of the possibility of a private language…Personal declarative culture and nondeclarative culture are those elements of the culture contained within a person, whether their memories or future plans, their speech or thoughts, their bodily activities or bodies themselves. Yet actual culture —whether practiced declaratively or nondeclaratively—is necessarily at once public and personal; otherwise it is hard to recognize it as culture, for, despite its multitudinous definitions, “culture” is nearly always understood as something with a social basis” (3).

By a “social basis” I presume that Rinaldo and Guhin are using a “sharing” criterion, although they are also making a “hybrid location” ontic claim of the type discussed by Mike Wood in a previous post.

The Provenance of Culture

The final type of ontic claim about culture is not about the stuff that it is made of, nor about a special criterial property of this stuff; instead whether something is cultural or not depends on its causal history. In classical anthropological theory, proponents of this conception made the (negative) that culture was not nature (this distinction was central for the work of Levi-Strauss (1966) who saw the nature/culture distinction as fundamental). Thus if something came into existence (e.g., in evolutionary or geological time) without the aid of human intervention (such as mountains, rivers, or tigers), then it wasn’t culture. By the same token, if the existence of something depended on and could historically be traced (whether in historical or ontogenetic time) to human intervention (like a house, a plow, or a writing system) then it was culture.

This ontic approach to isolating the nature of culture brings with it a new set of distinctions, in particular the biology/culture binary. Biological kinds are a subset of natural kinds and are thus ipso facto not cultural. The same goes for standard physical kinds such as gold or electron. These last differ from artifactual kinds such as chair or symphony, which because they wouldn’t exist without the aid of human ingenuity, count as culture. Like any binary, there are of course “in between” cases that contravene it. Take the (natural?) kind dog. Insofar as they are a biological kind, dogs don’t count as a cultural kind. However, insofar as dogs as we find them today, with the particular properties they have, only have those properties because of human intervention (selective breeding), then by the causal history criterion, count as a cultural kind.

Note that like the property ontic claim, the causal history ontic claim also cuts across ontic “types of stuff” conceptions. Thus, an idea that occurs to a person, or a house built by a person, or a new system of billing and accounting devised by a person, or a new style of dancing devised by a person, all count as cultural, even though here we are mixing compositional ontic types (ideas, artifacts, institutions, practices). What counts is not the stuff, but the history of how the stuff came about. If something emerges out of a human-led creative process and not a natural process of biological maturation or physical change then that something is cultural.

Note also that human properties and abilities are a special (self-referential) version of this last causal history ontic claim. A human ability or trait is biological (and thus not cultural) if its existence and causal history do not depend on human intervention (e.g., the trait arises due to genes or biological maturation), and a human ability is cultural if its existence (and thus causal history) involves people (whether the self or others), such as explicit teachers, self-training, or a model serving as a source to imitate. Thus, the ability to perform the Hopi Snake Dance is culture, but the ability to see using a normally developed visual system is not culture. Like before, in-between cases emerge as theoretically suggestive. For instance, while the general ability to see three-dimensional objects is not cultural, a specifically trained ability to see certain objects in particular ways (Baxandall 1988) is cultural because it meets the causal history criterion (and possibly the shared property criterion).

Note finally that the last example suggests that the causal history claim is not necessarily yoked to any type of property claim, although a positive argument can be made linking property and causal history claims. This means that causal history claims can lead to different intuitions than property claims with regard to what counts as culture. The reason for this is that a “unique” cultural token can meet the causal history criterion of being the product of human ingenuity and/or a learning process (while a lot of learning is collective, some subset of learning is individual). Thus, a paranoid schizophrenic may develop a mapping between lexical items and referents that only they can decode (a private language). In spite of the fact that this private language will fail the sharedness criterion by definition, it will count as cultural because it is the product of an individual creative process (D. Bidney 1947).

In a (now classic) non-human case, when the macaque monkey named Imo started washing sandy potatoes at the river in the small Japanese island of Koshima (Kawai 1965), the practice was cultural (according to the causal history criterion) even before other monkeys imitated her, because it was a product of non-human animal ingenuity (e.g., Imo was not compelled to do it because of her genes). However, according to the shared property criterion, monkey potato washing only became cultural until some critical mass of other conspecifics beyond Imo also began to engage in the practice.

Concluding Thoughts

That different ontic claims give us different intuitions as to what counts as culture should not be a cause for despair. This is actually a widespread issue across a number of kinds in the physical, biological, cognitive, and social sciences (Taylor and Vickers 2017). Instead, clashing intuitions further support the recommendation of making ontic claims explicit so that we at least know what we are disagreeing about. As noted before, and in Mike’s previous post, some progress has been made with respect to locational claims, but people are a bit more coy when it comes to compositional, property, and causal history claims.

Another reason why being ontically explicit pays off is that it can help us identify existing blind spots in cultural theory. For instance, property claims with regard to sharedness, are sometimes assumed rather than demonstrated in spite of the fact that sharedness can be problematic for some of the things we’d like to call culture (e.g., practices or implicit presuppositions) without proposing a mechanism that leads to such sharedness (Turner 2001). As intimated before, this implies that some ontic claims can be linked. For instance, the property claim that culture is that which is “shared” can be linked to the causal history claim by proposing a mechanism(s): culture is that which is learned from others via instruction or imitation.

Finally, differentiating between different types of ontic claims allows us to organize the various culture/not-culture binaries in a more comprehensive framework. So, as we have seen, while the juxtaposition culture/individual makes sense from a property (shared/not shared or public/private) perspective, it doesn’t make sense from a causal history perspective. From this last point of view, something can be cultural and be the product of an individual creative process (Bidney 1968), or known only to a single person in the world. In the same way, while the culture/biology or culture/nature opposition doesn’t make sense from a property perspective (something can be shared because it is fixed by biology, like the fact that we have two eyes), it makes sense from a causal history approach. Finally, compositional distinctions such as the, increasingly obsolete, ideal culture/material culture binary makes sense from a “stuff” approach, it cross-cuts the other distinctions.


Archer, M. S. 1996. Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory. Cambridge University Press.

Baxandall, Michael. 1988. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bidney, D. 1947. “Human Nature and the Cultural Process.” American Anthropologist 49 (3): 375–99.

Bidney, David. 1968. Theoretical Anthropology. Transaction Publishers.

Elder-Vass, Dave. 2012. The Reality of Social Construction. Cambridge University Press.

Kawai, Masao. 1965. “Newly-Acquired Pre-Cultural Behavior of the Natural Troop of Japanese Monkeys on Koshima Islet.” Primates; Journal of Primatology 6 (1): 1–30.

Kroeber, A. L. 1917. “THE SUPERORGANIC.” American Anthropologist 19 (2): 163–213.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Norton, Matthew. 2019. “Meaning on the Move: Synthesizing Cognitive and Systems Concepts of Culture.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology.

Reed, Isaac Ariail. 2017. “On the Very Idea of Cultural Sociology.” In Social Theory Now, edited by Claudio E. Benzecry, Monika Krause, Isaac Ariail Reed, 18–41. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rinaldo, Rachel, and Jeffrey Guhin. 2019. “How and Why Interviews Work: Ethnographic Interviews and Meso-Level Public Culture.”

Sewell, William H., Jr. 2005. “The Concept (s) of Culture.” Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing after the Linguistic Turn, 76–95.

Sperber, Dan. 1985. “Anthropology and Psychology: Towards an Epidemiology of Representations.” Man 20 (1): 73–89.

Taylor, Henry, and Peter Vickers. 2017. “Conceptual Fragmentation and the Rise of Eliminativism.” European Journal for Philosophy of Science 7 (1): 17–40.

Turner, S. 2001. “Throwing out the Tacit Rule Book: Learning and Practices.” The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory.

From “types of culture” to “poles of cultural phenomena”

Recent sociological theorizing on culture has made a distinction between “personal culture” and “public culture”
(Cerulo 2018; Lizardo 2017; Patterson 2014; Wood et al. 2018). Precise usage of the concepts varies somewhat, but generally speaking, personal culture refers to culture stored in declarative and nondeclarative memory, and public culture refers to everything else “out there.” What is allowed to exist “out there” varies; stricter approaches restrict public culture to material objects and assemblages (Wood et al. 2018), while more open approaches refer to things like “institutions” or “public codes” as forms of public culture as well (Cerulo 2018; Lizardo 2017).  

Theoretical distinctions about “personal” and “public” culture can take different forms. The common approach is to refer to distinct “types” of culture, such that the “personal” and “public” labels are used to refer to discrete things. An alternative is to distinguish “poles” of a given cultural phenomenon. Here, an observed phenomenon—such as symbolic meaning, a practice, or an institution—is understood as emerging from the relation between a person and the world. This latter approach, which I advocate here, opens up fruitful avenues of empirical research and gives new insight to theoretical dilemmas, such as the old “individual-vs-situation” chestnut.

Personal and public poles of symbolic meaning

Symbolic meaning emerges from a bipolar structure, pairing an external vehicle with semantic content to produce meaning (Lizardo 2016). Symbols have a “public” pole—the external vehicle— and a “personal” pole—the semantic content, stored in declarative memory. Because the meaning of the symbol relies on this bipolar structure, change in either pole affects the meaning produced. On the personal pole, this can be caused by routine human experiences, such as forgetting or gaining new experiences. On the public pole, this can be caused by changes in the material qualities of an object, such as plain old decay (McDonnell 2016)

Personal and public poles of practices

Though often overlooked, this same bipolar structure exists for practices as well. The “personal” pole consists of nondeclarative memory, such as procedural know-how, and the “public” pole consists of material “handles” that afford and/or activate the execution of know-how (Foster 2018:148). When a person is able to go about their world unproblematically, it is because of this “ontological complicity” (Fogle and Theiner 2018) between the personal and public poles of practice.

“The relationship to the social world is not the mechanical causality that is often assumed between a “milieu” and a consciousness, but rather a sort of ontological complicity. When the same history inhabits both habitus and habitat, both dispositions and position, the king and his court, the employer and his form, the bishop and his see, history in a sense communicates with itself, is reflected in its own image.” (Bourdieu 1981, p. 306)

To give an example, if you are like me, you think you know how to ride a bike. However, more precisely, you and I know how to ride bikes that respond to our bodies in particular ways. We can probably ride mountain bikes and road bikes and beach cruisers all the same, because these are all roughly equivalent. Pedal to go forward, and if you want to go right, turn the handlebars to the right. There might be small differences (single gears vs geared bikes, for instance), but the basic concept is the same for nearly all bikes. However, what if we encountered a bike that behaved inversely to our training? Some welders created a bike that did just that, and you can watch the results in this video:

The bike in the video has inverted steering, such that turning the handlebars to the right turns the front tire to the right, and vice versa. The result is that, despite all your experience riding bicycles, as the narrator boldly declares, “you cannot ride this bike.” It’s a fascinating video and worth watching. The point is that the successful execution of a practice relies on stability between personal and public poles—procedural memory and the material world.

Creating and maintaining stability between poles

Drawing out the bipolar continuities between symbolic meaning and practice, while acknowledging their grounding in distinct memory systems, allows for theoretical continuity in the way we think about how meanings and practices are formed, maintained, or updated. In a recent paper, Taylor, Stoltz, and McDonnell (2019) propose that whenever people encounter a new cultural object, the brain responds either by “indexicalizing” the object as an instantiation of a known type, or by “innovating” a new type. This process is known as neural binding, or “binding significance to form.” Taylor, Stoltz, and McDonnell limit their analysis to the bipolar structure of symbolic meaning, but the same process could be extended to understand how practices are maintained. When people encounter a new instrument, it either makes use of existing procedural memory, or instigates the development of new procedural memory. While the actual cognitive processes of neural binding would vary according to whether it is a matter of Type I or Type II learning (Lizardo et al. 2016:293–295), there is a homology when considering cognitive updating more generally as a result of the interplay between public and personal “poles” of cultural phenomena. 

On the other end, people can also stabilize pairing between personal and public poles of meanings and practices by “making the world in their own image,” so to speak, for example, via sophisticated conservation practices in the case of meaning (Domínguez Rubio 2014), or changing our environment to better suit our abilities (or lack of abilities [1]), in the case of practice.

Rethinking individuals and situations

The “two poles” framework offers a new way of thinking about whether an observed practice is explained by an individual’s entrenched dispositions or the situation in which they are presently located [2]. Within the current framework, because a practice is understood as emerging from enculturated dispositions and a corresponding material arrangement (e.g. knowing how to ride a bike, and a “normal” bike), the question about situations becomes a question of the flexibility of the person-world relation. While certain practices may depend on very specific handles, others may be executed unproblematically with a wide range of material configurations [3]. Figuring out the limits of a given handle for a practice (e.g. “when does a bike become unrideable?”) is a productive empirical exercise [4].

Final thoughts

This conceptual move from “types” to “poles” has implications for the way we think about and study cultural phenomena. It suggests that any analysis of one pole in isolation is necessarily incomplete, or at least myopic. Institutions, practices, public codes, symbolic meaning—all of these emergent cultural phenomena emerge via a bipolar pairing between one or more forms of memory and the material world. They are neither “public culture” nor “personal culture,” but they do all have personal and public components. Thorough understanding demands attention to both. 

[1] “I don’t know which fork you use for what, and I can’t tell a salad fork from a dessert fork, but I do know that one is supposed to start with the implements farthest from the plate and work inward. The environment is set up so that I can follow the arbitrary norms without actually knowing them” (Martin 2015:242)

[2] See Dustin’s blog post for more on this topic

[3] For example, see Martin (2015:236–242) on how people unproblematically figure out door-opening, no matter the situation.

[4] See Aliza Luft (2015) on an especially important application of this idea.


Cerulo, Karen A. 2018. “Scents and Sensibility: Olfaction, Sense-Making, and Meaning Attribution.” American Sociological Review 83(2):361–89.

Domínguez Rubio, Fernando. 2014. “Preserving the Unpreservable: Docile and Unruly Objects at MoMA.” Theory and Society 43(6):617–45.

Fogle, Nikolaus and Georg Theiner. 2018. “The ‘Ontological Complicity’ of Habitus and Field: Bourdieu as an Externalist.” in Socially Extended Epistemology, edited by J. Adam Carter, Andy Clark, Jesper Kallestrup, S. Orestis Palermos, and Duncan Pritchard.

Foster, Jacob G. 2018. “Culture and Computation: Steps to a Probably Approximately Correct Theory of Culture.” Poetics  68:144–54.

Lizardo, O. 2017. “Improving Cultural Analysis: Considering Personal Culture in Its Declarative and Nondeclarative Modes.” American Sociological Review.

Lizardo, Omar. 2016. “Cultural Symbols and Cultural Power.” Qualitative Sociology 39(2):199–204.

Lizardo, O., R. Mowry, B. Sepulvado, M. Taylor, D. Stoltz, and M. Wood. 2016. “What Are Dual Process Models? Implications for Cultural Analysis in Sociology.” Sociological.

Luft, Aliza. 2015. “Toward a Dynamic Theory of Action at the Micro Level of Genocide: Killing, Desistance, and Saving in 1994 Rwanda.” Sociological Theory 33(2):148–72.

Martin, John Levi. 2015. Thinking through Theory. WW Norton, Incorporated.

McDonnell, Terence E. 2016. Best Laid Plans: Cultural Entropy and the Unraveling of AIDS Media Campaigns. University of Chicago Press.

Patterson, Orlando. 2014. “Making Sense of Culture.” Annual Review of Sociology 40(1):1–30.

Taylor, Marshall A., Dustin S. Stoltz, and Terence E. McDonnell. 2019. “Binding Significance to Form: Cultural Objects, Neural Binding, and Cultural Change.” Poetics .

Wood, Michael Lee, Dustin S. Stoltz, Justin Van Ness, and Marshall A. Taylor. 2018. “Schemas and Frames.” Sociological Theory 36(3):244–61.

Types of claims about culture and cultural phenomena

A relatively neglected task of cultural analysis (or cultural/culture theory) concerns itself with specifying the nature (and therefore expected properties) of the sorts of entities and processes that can be said to be cultural. Most serious cultural theorists do this, but they are seldom explicit to note that this is precisely what they are doing. In that sense, it is refreshing when a cultural theorist such as Margaret Archer just comes right and says something like “…a Cultural System is constituted by the corpus of existing intelligibilia—by all things capable of being grasped, deciphered, understood or known by someone…by definition the cultural intelligibilia form a system, for all items must be expressed in a common language” (Archer 1996, 104 italics added).

Here the theorist is making a number of claims as to what they think culture (and possibly culture “units”) are, and how they come together. For instance, we learn that the Cultural System is made up of intelligible things, that these things have the inherent property of linking up into larger clumps, that the nature of these things is language-like, and so on. These types of claims are refreshing because even if you disagree with them, at least you know exactly what you are disagreeing with. This addresses one of the key weaknesses of cultural analysis in sociology which is as Steve Vaisey (personal communication) points out, the lack of precise points (and targets of) agreement and disagreement.

In this post, I would like to make headway on this issue by coming up with a more or less systematic catalog of types of claims one can make about cultural entities and cultural processes. One aim is to help cultural analysts be clear about the claims they make and even explicitly flag those claims as one that they are committed to making, thus staking out a clear (or clearer) position(s). Another aim is actually to spur the sort of productive disagreement Steve says is lacking in the field. I borrow from a spate of similar debates that have been going on in cognitive science for the better part of two decades with regard to the nature of the “cognitive” and the types of claims that can be made about “cognitive” phenomena in this field. We will see that some of the distinctions that have been made by philosophers of mind in this area can also be useful (and travel quite easily) to help clarify analogous debates in cultural theory.

The first distinction, borrowing from the philosopher Mark Rowlands (2010: 55-59) is between epistemic and ontic claims about a given (e.g., the “cognitive”) domain. In terms of cultural analysis, an epistemic claim has to do with the best way we have to gain knowledge about a given phenomenon. These claims can be either positive (“the best way to learn about X is via Y”) or negative (“it is not possible to gain adequate knowledge about X via Y”). Where “X” is some kind of cultural phenomenon or process and Y is (usually) some established method of inquiry. Thus, when Jerolmack and Khan (2014) argue that the best way to gain knowledge about situated practices is via direct ethnographic observation and not via interviews, they are making both a positive and a negative (respectively) epistemic claim about situated practices as a type of cultural phenomenon. A lot of recent (productive) disagreement in cultural analysis has been really about epistemic claims, of both the positive and negative kinds, with regard to cultural entities and processes (e.g., Pugh 2013; Vaisey 2013).

Ontic claims, on the other hand, are about the nature or make-up of some kind of cultural entity or process (in the case of processes, ontic claims are ultimately about the nature of the entities, and their properties, participating in the process). Surprisingly, even though these are more controversial, there has been less productive disagreement about them in recent scholarship.

Thus, Archer is making an ontic claim about the “Cultural System” when she tells us that it is “constituted by the corpus of existing intelligibilia.” This is not a claim about the best way to study the Cultural System, but about the sort of entities (and their properties) that make it up. So the first thing to recommend is that debates about the nature of culture (ontic ones) should be kept distinct about debates about the best way to study culture. The reason for this is that epistemic claims about culture may have no (or at least neutral) ontic implications (e.g., Jerolmack and Khan do not tell us much about the nature of situated practices). However, ontic claims about culture usually have epistemic implications. For instance, one may argue that because culture has such and such properties or is this particular type of thing then the best way to learn about it is via a particular method of inquiry.

The second point is that there are different types of ontic claims. In the case of cultural analysis, I think two broad types are of particular relevance: Compositional claims and locational claims.

Let us begin with the first kind. Compositional ontic claims answer the question: “what is this thing (at least partially) made out of?” (a more general way, and therefore less useful, way of asking the question is to say “what is the nature of this thing?”). For instance, Christian Smith’s (2010) “What is a Person?” is a (long) disquisition on the ontic nature of (you guessed it) the social science kind person.

Compositional claims also partially answer the question of the typical properties of things (since they specify components with a given set of properties). So in the case of culture, cultural phenomena, or cultural entities, a compositional claim would tell us what they are made out of, and what is the nature of these parts or components. So, in the quote above, Margaret Archer tells us that culture is composed of entities she refers to as “intelligibilia” and that it is in the nature of these entities to be “capable of being grasped, deciphered, understood or known by someone” (this would be considered a relational property, such as the capability of sugar to dissolve in the presence of water) and to link up to one another via logical implicational chains to form “systems.”

Not all ontic compositional claims need to be seen as proposing highly controvertible (or controversial) proposals (as in the Archer example). Some can be quite mundane. For instance, when it comes to what archeologists and anthropologists call material culture (objects, artifacts, and so on that exist by way of human ingenuity and intervention), the ontic compositional question both straightforward and relatively uncontroversial: Material culture is made out of matter or “physical stuff.”

This non-controversial ontic claim example is important, because a key point of debate in cultural theory since the introduction of various “culture concepts” in early 20th century anthropology by such scholars as Boas, Sapir, Whorf, Mead, Kluckhohn, Kroeber, and others, had to do with the fact that some ontic compositional claims posited that culture (or some realms of culture) was composed of parts that seem to have no clear physical or material status (Bidney 1944), such as “ideas” or “patterns.” In fact, the entire tradition in which culture is seen as being composed of ideas, concepts, and so on, and saw itself as distinct from one that emphasized something empirical or material (such as material artifacts, practices, or the “social heritage”) is based on (only half-defended) ontic claims that you can have a concept of culture in which the main components of culture are somehow non-material (Bidney 1944). The cultural theory developed by Talcott Parsons in the mid-twentieth century from anthropological sources influenced by idealism, was of this sort (Lizardo 2016).

Ontic compositional claims about the components of culture are useful in delineating the divide (or point of productive disagreement) what can be said to be “naturalistic” versus “non-naturalistic” approaches to cultural analysis; while the latter is open to postulating that at least some components of culture do not have to have a material realization in some kind of physical structure or medium, the latter insists that culture must be composed of entities with such a realization (Sperber 1996).

The point to keep in mind is that if you postulate a non-material component of culture (e.g., concepts, ideas and so on) you are making an ontic compositional claim that has to be cashed in somehow. For instance, you will be forced to defend some type of metaphysical “substance” dualism (of the type Rene Descartes ultimately was committed to (Rowlands 2010, 12)), in which in addition to objects having material substance there are also non-material (or spatially non-extended) objects, with the human mind being the most important of these. The problem with such types of substance dualisms are many, and therefore analysts may want to reduce their allegiance to ontic claims that commit them to the postulation of non-material entities (as elimination of metaphysically suspect entities and substances has been the historical trend across all scientific disciplines (Thagard 2014)).

One way in which analysts committed to some form of naturalism, but who also want to “save” some of the core concepts of idealistic theories of culture can proceed is by proposing what philosophers McCauley and Bechtel (2001) refer to as heuristic identities (the philosopher Thagard [2014] refers to them as “explanatory identities”). A heuristic identity (ontic) claim says that this type of thing is identical to this other type for purposes of theorizing and scientific discovery (in this respect heuristic identity claims are ontic claims that are used for epistemic purposes), wherein the first type is the metaphysically suspect kind and the second type is the more respectable naturalistic kind. So the trick for ontic naturalists about culture is simply to say a type of cultural entity that had been conceptualized as “non-material” in the idealist tradition of cultural theory is actually this type of thing that has a relatively non-controversial material basis (even if the details of that basis have not been completely worked out yet).

Following the heuristic identity trick, we can, for instance, say that something like “concepts” or “ideas” are (type) identical to patterns of connectivity and activation across populations of neurons in the human brain (Blouw et al. 2016). This makes ideas physically realizable, and would then lend specificity to the ontic claim that culture, in this “idealist” sense, is composed of ideas or concepts (and would make culture a “collection of collections” (D’andrade 2001), or the distribution of patterns of connectivity and activation across populations of neurons in the brains of human populations [Sperber 1996]). Note that heuristic identity claims are both heuristic (they are tools for theorizing and discovery) and provisional (open to revision in light of new scientific evidence or theoretical advances).

Behavioral conceptions of culture (as distributions of activities and practices in human populations) also make implicit ontic claims as to the nature of cultural objects, although these are less problematic (from a naturalistic perspective) than those made in idealist theories. The reason for this is that practices and enacted behaviors have a more or less non-controversial grounding in the human body and are readily observable. Thus, the ontic claim here is that culture is composed of behavioral units or linked systems of such units (possibly along with the material or artifactual complements of those practices). A more restrictive version of this practice approach would make the ontic claim that culture is actually composed of distributions of procedural knowledge (Cohen and Bacdayan 1994), in which case culture would also have to be grounded in patterns of connectivity and activation in the (e.g., motor) neurons in the human brain (partly) responsible for the generation of those practices (Lizardo 2007).

Now to the second type of ontic claim. Locational claims are the type of ontic claims that answer the question “where is culture?” Everybody who makes an ontic claim about culture makes an implicit locational claim, because entities, even non-material or non-extended ones, have to have a location (Rowlands 2010, 11–13), and the nature of the entity usually determines their typical locations (e.g., standard material objects are located in physical space). For instance, Margaret Archer, in the quote above goes on to specify that given the fact that the Cultural System is made up of intelligibilia, then the Cultural System is located in what Karl Popper referred to as “World Three” (this is similar to Descartes’ claim that even though the mind had no physical extension, it had a physical location near the pineal gland). In this respect, ontic locational claims are analytically distinct from ontic compositional claims.

I have argued elsewhere, that much progress can be made in cultural analysis by being specific about locational claims. For instance, key distinctions among different types of culture, such as the distinction between “personal” and “public” culture first developed in cognitive anthropology are primarily of a locational type. We know that personal culture is “in” people, while public culture is “in” the world and this is an important analytic point to make. We can make these claims even if the more controversial ontic claims about composition have yet to be worked out. We don’t have to agree about the underlying nature of culture in the world, but we can agree that it is in the world.

The same thing goes with culture in persons; we don’t have to agree about the way that culture is internalized by people and the underlying form it takes in this state (e.g., cognitive, neural, ideational, conceptual, etc.) but we can agree that culture does get internalized by people, even if we have yet to work out a full theory of how this internalization happens (Quinn, Sirota, and Stromberg 2018), such that a person can carry some sort of cultural knowledge when they move around the world and this is different from the type of cultural knowledge embedded in material objects, artifacts and other recording technologies (inclusive of Archer’s ontologically ambiguous “intelligibilia”). Note that even anti-cognitive cultural analysts who say that there is no such thing as personal culture (because all of culture is “outside the head” (Wuthnow 1989)) are making an (negative or eliminationist) ontic claim in this respect.

To sum up, I have argued that if we are to have productive disagreements in cultural analysis of the sort Steve Vaisey craves, we must get clearer about the sort of claims we are making so that we know what exactly we are disagreeing about. I have proposed that there are at least two broad types of claims we can make about a given domain (such as culture). We may make claims about the best way to gain knowledge about it (epistemic) or the best way to think about its underlying nature (ontic). Cultural analysts, therefore, may have two broad points of productive disagreement. Much recent productive disagreement in cultural analysis has centered on epistemic claims. Surprisingly little has been about ontic claims, although the first generation of cultural theorists in early and mid-20th century American anthropology mainly argued about these (Bidney 1944). The recent “culture and cognition” turn in cultural analysis provides an opportunity, I believe, to not only disagree about methods but also about different ontic conceptions of what cultural phenomena and cultural processes are.


Archer, M. S. 1996. Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory. Cambridge University Press.

Bidney, David. 1944. “On the Concept of Culture and Some Cultural Fallacies.” American Anthropologist.

Blouw, Peter, Eugene Solodkin, Paul Thagard, and Chris Eliasmith. 2016. “Concepts as Semantic Pointers: A Framework and Computational Model.” Cognitive Science 40 (5): 1128–62.

Cohen, Michael D., and Paul Bacdayan. 1994. “Organizational Routines Are Stored as Procedural Memory: Evidence from a Laboratory Study.” Organization Science 5 (4): 554–68.

D’andrade, Roy. 2001. “A Cognitivist’s View of the Units Debate in Cultural Anthropology.” Cross-Cultural Research: Official Journal of the Society for Cross-Cultural Research / Sponsored by the Human Relations Area Files, Inc 35 (2): 242–57.

Jerolmack, Colin, and Shamus Khan. 2014. “Talk Is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy.” Sociological Methods & Research, March.

Lizardo, O. 2007. “‘Mirror Neurons,’ Collective Objects and the Problem of Transmission: Reconsidering Stephen Turner’s Critique of Practice Theory.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour.

———. 2016. “Cultural Theory.” Handbook of Contemporary Sociological Theory.

McCauley, Robert N., and William Bechtel. 2001. “Explanatory Pluralism and Heuristic Identity Theory.” Theory & Psychology 11 (6): 736–60.

Pugh, A. J. 2013. “What Good Are Interviews for Thinking about Culture? Demystifying Interpretive Analysis.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology.

Quinn, Naomi, Karen Gainer Sirota, and Peter G. Stromberg. 2018. “Conclusion: Some Advances in Culture Theory.” In Advances in Culture Theory from Psychological Anthropology, edited by Naomi Quinn, 285–327. Palgrave Macmillan.

Rowlands, Mark. 2010. The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology. MIT Press.

Smith, Christian. 2010. What Is a Person? Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Thagard, Paul. 2014. “Explanatory Identities and Conceptual Change.” Science & Education 23 (7): 1531–48.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2013. “Is Interviewing Compatible with the Dual-Process Model of Culture?” American Journal of Cultural Sociology 2 (1): 150–58.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1989. Meaning and Moral Order: Explorations in Cultural Analysis. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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