Compositional pluralism, causal history, and the concept of culture

In previous posts (see here and here) I made the case for the importance of specifying underlying philosophical claims when conceptualizing culture and cultural phenomena. First, I distinguished between what I called epistemic and ontic claims about culture (following the philosopher Mark Rowland’s 2010 similar argument with regard to the domain of the “cognitive”). Epistemic claims are about the best way to go about learning about a given domain, while ontic claims are about the “stuff” that is seen as constitutive of the entities or processes that populate it. In the case of culture, epistemic claims are about the best way to go about studying cultural phenomena, while ontic claims are about the nature of culture, or, what makes cultural kinds distinctive from non-cultural kinds.

Also, I argued that if we inspect the early history of anthropological theory, we can distinguish two broad types of ontic claims about culture. First, there are what I referred to as locational claims. These are claims made by cultural theorists as to where in the world cultural kinds are to be found. For instance, a cultural theorist might say that cultural kinds (e.g., ideas, schemas, beliefs, values) are to be found “in” people (these might be followed by either implicit or explicit theories as to how those things got in there; namely, internalization theories). Alternatively (and not exclusive in relation to the first claim) a theorist might say that cultural kinds are to be found in the world (as institutions, codes, artifacts, and the like). Second, there are what I called compositional claims, which is about the actual stuff of cultural kinds. Thus, a theorist might say, following Kroeber (1917) or Parsons (1951) that culture is primarily ideational or symbolic. This means that it is made out of “ideal” stuff, and the nature of this stuff makes it different from “material” stuff. These theorists might even go so far as to say that given that the nature of culture is “ideal” the notion of “material culture” is a category mistake; the ontic claim here is that cultural kinds are disjunctive from material kinds.

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

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

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

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

Finally, I also discussed two other types of ontic claims that had been proposed to distinguish between cultural and non-cultural kinds. The first one, referred to as property claims, have to do with a special property of cultural things that distinguish them from non-cultural things. The most common version of this property claim, particularly suggestive for social scientists in general and sociologists in particular, is that the property sharedness can be used to distinguish culture from not-culture. In this respect, culture is that which is shared, distributed, or diffused across multiple people, while not-culture is that which is unique to the individual, regardless of composition (for a recent defense of this claim, see Morin 2016).

The second type of ontic claim that has been used to distinguish culture from not-culture is what I referred to as causal history claims. According to this view, what is unique about cultural kinds is that they have a specific “origin story” that is distinct from non-cultural kinds (such as biological kinds). The most common version of this origin story is that they are the product of human ingenuity, invention, or a learning process whether individual or collective. I also argued that these different ontic claims do not necessarily lead to compatible intuitions as to what counts as culture. Since something can meet the criteria for being culture according to the causal history argument but fail to be culture according to the sharedness property argument.

While the previous posts were mostly descriptive and agnostic with regard to this set of distinctions, in this post I take a stance as to what I see as the most productive mixture of ontic claims for a useful culture concept. In terms of the distinctions proposed, I will argue that if we were to arrange ontic claims in terms of the “strength” (and pragmatic usefulness) for determining the boundaries of cultural kinds, causal history claims would come out on top, followed by locational claims. Compositional claims would follow. Surprisingly, the property claim most cherished by sociologists (sharedness) turns out, in my argument, to be the least important.

Why Sharedness is a Weak Demarcation Criterion

First, I begin with negative arguments against making “sharedness” the sine qua non for distinguishing cultural from non-cultural kinds.

One problem with the sharedness criterion is that it is too broad of a distinction and thus ends up confusing important issues that end up being taken up by the other ontic claims in a more effective way. Take, for instance, the categorical distinction between “culture” and ” the individual” that emerges from the sharedness criterion. This distinction actually conflates a property claim with a location claim. So something can be “in” people but not be unique to any one individual. Critics of the notion of personal culture (a locational claim) sometimes dismiss it because they confuse it for a property claim (e.g., how can something be culture if it’s inside the person?).

This ends up begging the question for defining culture exclusively in terms of “public” behavior and performances. This was more or less the route taken by Clifford Geertz (with a helping of Rylean anti-Cartesian arguments) in the famous essays from the 1950s and 1960s published as Interpretation of Cultures in 1973. The problem here is that the analyst then immediately conflates a locational ontic claim (culture is that which is public) with an epistemic claim of dubious validity, namely, that culture has to be public because we can only study that which we have access to and we only have access to public stuff and not to “inside the head stuff” (see Smith 2016 for a deft criticism of this view).

Second, the criterion for sharing is arbitrary. This is clear if we follow White (1959) and ask the naive question: How many people need to share something in order for that something to cross the invisible boundary and go from “not culture” to “culture”?

…[I]f expression by one person is not enough to qualify an act as a cultural element, how many persons will be required? Linton (1936:274) says that “as soon as this new thing has been transmitted to and is shared by even one other individual in the society, it must be reckoned as a part of culture.” Osgood (1951:208) requires “two or more.” Durkheim (1938:lvi) needs “several individuals, at the very least.” Wissler (1929:358) says that an item does not rise to the level of a culture trait until a standardized procedure is established in the group. And Malinowski (1941:73) states that a “cultural fact starts when an individual interest becomes transformed into public, common, and transferable systems of organized endeavor.”

Singularity/plurality is a weak ontic demarcation criterion because it is implausible to suggest that the nature of an entity is radically transformed by gaining the (relational) property of being a duplicate or being shared across multiple people. And artifact remains an artifact whether it is unique or doubled and so does an idea, belief, representation, skill, and so on.

As the anthropologist Gerald Weiss (1973) once sardonically remarked:

Since there is no difference in kind between, for example, an idea held by one man [sic] and the same idea held by two or more, we are justified in stipulating that any human nongenetic phenomenon, shared or not, is a cultural phenomenon. The “group fallacy” that [for] culture to be culture [it] must be shared has only one thing to say for itself: it is widely shared (1401).

Why Causal History is a Better Demarcation Criterion

Causal history is a better demarcation criterion to distinguish cultural from non-cultural kinds. This is for at least three reasons.

First, the causal history of a thing has a stronger link to the nature of the thing than does the (ancillary) fact that it is a singularity or it is part of a plurality. That something belongs to the (biological) kind polar bear is much more informatively given by its causal history than by the fact that it is the last individual representative of its kind (e.g., due to extinction by climate change). The same for cultural kinds. That something emerges via a human creative process (for human culture) and that that something is then transmitted and learned by others is much more informative about the nature of the thing and much more useful in distinguishing it from other kinds of things than knowing whether it is held by one, two, three or fifty people.

Post-Chomskyan debates as to the status of language are useful here. When Chomsky defined “I-language” as an encapsulated, biological module in the brain that was inborn and simply matured during development without much input from the environment, he was ipso facto using a causal history criterion that removed human language from being a cultural kind. Instead, for Chomsky, language is a biological kind (Chomsky 2009). This means that Chomskyan I-language in spite of being “shared” by the human species does not count as culture by this definition. The Revival of domain-general conceptions of the origins of language and syntax that use refurbished conceptions of the learning process (e.g. Tomasello 2009), in effect, are attempts to reclaim language as a cultural kind. Note that what matters here is causal history (for Chomsky language emerging out of a biological module from a maturational process; for Tomasello emerging as a multifaceted capacity from a domain-general social learning process) not sharedness. That language ends up being “shared” in both of these (incompatible) stories, tells us that this criterion is more of an after-effect than definitional.

Second, the causal history criterion sidesteps the problematic individual/culture distinction in favor of (more tractable) binaries, such as culture/biology; see Weiss 1973: 1382ff). The problem with the individual/culture distinction is that it brings back all kinds of irresolvable dilemmas from the social theory tradition revolving around the Durkheimian individual/society partition and resultant “agency/structure” problem (in post-Giddensian parlance). These are less than helpful debates that don’t need to be recapitulated in cultural theory (Martin 2015, chap 2). Counterposing the individual to culture leads to problems related to the alleged effects of “culture” as a (possibly spurious) external ontological “thing” on individuals. This gets worse when the “sharedness” property gets linked to the “system” property so that now culture as an organized external system is counterposed to individuals, who are now faced with the task of using, internalizing, or even being completely transformed by this external system thing. The causal history criterion, by putting the genesis of cultural things in individual and collective creative activity at the forefront, avoids this issue.

Finally, the causal history criterion is compositionally pluralist. By compositional pluralism, I mean that it admits that culture can be made up of things that seem to be of different kinds. That is, a skill, a practice, an idea, a schema, a symbol, and a material artifact count as culture because they share comparable causal histories: All of these are the product of human invention, ingenuity, and tinkering, and all can be differentiated from those human capacities that have a biological or genetic history (Weiss 1973). In addition, the use of all of these can be learned and transmitted by people (in some cases, but not all, leading to the incidental property of being shared). The causal history criterion thus avoids the silly position that some compositional monists are forced to take, like for instance, denying the obvious fact that material (artifactual) culture is a kind of culture while also accommodating the “motley” nature of cultural kinds.


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

Chomsky, N. (2009). Cartesian linguistics. Cambridge University Press.

Martin, J. L. (2015). Thinking through theory. WW Norton.

Morin, O. (2016). How traditions live and die. Oxford University Press.

Rowlands, M. (2010). The new science of the mind. MIT Press.

Tomasello, M. (2009). Constructing a language. Harvard university press.

Weiss, G. (1973). A scientific concept of culture. American Anthropologist75(5), 1376-1413.

White, L. A. (1959). The concept of culture. American Anthropologist61(2), 227-251.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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