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Individualism, Collectivism, and the Foundations of Culture

The word community comes most recently from the late 14th century French comunité which means commonness or everybody. In its Latin roots, it has a meaning similar to universitas (the Latin for universal, from which university is derived) or civitas (the Latin for citizenry, from which city is derived). By this definition, community has a broad, abstract, and inclusive meaning, making it more similar to the concept of community used by ecologists to describe biocoenosis (literally translated as life assemblages), than to how it is used colloquially to describe groups organized around a principal cause or objective.

This picture of Community, is one that is defined by social bonding. As one author put it, “the people make the place.” Whether online or offline, whether kinship (family) or kindred (friends), whether ‘true’ or fictive, the fundamental characteristic of community is people interacting, influencing one another, and sharing an experience. Yes, community, from this perspective, is partially about place and partially about form, but it’s true character is rooted in the social bonds between individuals. Indeed, as pointed out by Schneider, the concept of families of choice (i.e. fictive kin) along with the diversity of kinship patterns documented across the globe blurs the distinction between various categorizations of social behavior. This shifts the focus from what a community looks like, to it’s effect on an individual.

In many ways, this is reminiscent of the “sense of community” proposed by Sarason, which he described as “one of the major bases for self-definition.” The most widely regarded formulation of this construct was advanced by McMillan and Chavis, who describe sense of community using four elements: (i) membership, (ii) influence, (iii) fulfilment, and (iv) emotional connection. These “senses” are created through complex boundary maintenance rituals, which consist of beliefs and behaviors that distinguish members from non-members. Take for instance, Mormons, who in addition to common Christian practices like baptism and confirmation, have developed elaborate rituals and practices to distinguish not only Mormons from non-Mormons, but devout Mormons from less devout Mormons. While their schema, or as one Mormon leader called it “the art” of boundary maintenance, could fill volumes, one interesting example is that of the temple endowment, wherein members who have proven themselves ‘worthy’ are admitted into the temple, anointed, clothed with temple garments (infamously known as the “Mormon underwear”), receive a ‘new name’ (albeit one that is never used nor disclosed to others), and are endowed with sacramental knowledge about their afterlife. While this process might seem purely ritualistic, it serves an important function in Mormon social order. Indeed, Mormons are only allowed into the temple if they are recommended by their ecclesiastical leader. Of course, they are only recommended if they comply to orthodox beliefs about church doctrine and history; live celibate outside of marriage; disaffiliate from those who oppose the church; attend church regularly; pay a 10% tax to the church; avoid drinking coffee, alcohol or tea; and have confessed their sins to their ecclesiastical leaders. To the outsider, these restrictions may seem draconian, but to Mormons they create a sense of emotional safety, a sense of belonging and identification, a sense of personal investment, and they create a shared system of symbols by which people can relate.

Beyond community there is another form of social interaction which can not be ignored. Tönnies and Weber referred to it as Gesellschaft, or society. In their work, Gesellschaft is often contrasted with community (Gemeinschaft). Under this dichotomy, community represents the types of social interaction that are defined by personal and intimate relationships (i.e., kinship and fellowship). In these groups, individuals are subservient to the collective welfare, and indeed their identity is a bi-product of the social order. However, the larger a group becomes the more difficult it is to maintain a sense of community. Role specialization creates the need for greater individualism and ambition. This gives rise to Gesellschaft, a social order where individuals are supposedly driven by “rational will” (i.e., self interest) and the social group is viewed as primarily a means to personal success rather than as a means to self definition. At times, Durkheim and others seem to describe community as the quaint (or exotic) social order of the past and society as the social order of industrial modernity. In reality, both mechanical communities and organic societies, as Durkheim thinks of them, are observable in today’s world.

Associated with these two forms of social interaction are distinct patterns of social control. Bernstein, illustrating their operation in family life, describes them as positional control and personal control. Families operating under positional control follow categorical rules that depend on the relative position of individuals (e.g., the youngest goes to bed first, the father gets the largest portion, the boys mow the lawn, and the girls help with the dishes). Meanwhile, families operating under personal control rely more on personal feelings and wants. In turn, these two forms of family control are related to two divergent sets of rules (or codes) that underlie language, thought, and social behavior. The first, restricted coding, is often associated with positional family control and is exemplified by rigid syntax. The second, elaborated coding, is often associated with personal family control, and is exemplified by a broader range of syntax.

These two codes, Bernstein argues, are transmitted to children by their communities and society. Elaborated code allows speakers to better articulate their own feelings. Therefore, when operating within systems governed by personal control, elaborated codes are reflected in statements like: “Don’t bother your father, he’s tired,” “Don’t do that, you’ll hurt your sister,” “Don’t eat that, you’ll spoil your appetite.” These statements make an appeal to personal feeling because the elaborated syntax better articulates the importance of the individual. On the other hand, restricted coding emphasizes social order and transmits information about that order. In the words of Douglas,

“If [a child] asks ‘Why must I do this?’ the answer is in terms of relative position. Because I said so (hierarchy). Because you’re a boy (sex role). Because children always do (age status). Because you’re the oldest (seniority). As he grows, his experience flows into a grid of role categories; right and wrong are learnt in terms of the given structure; he himself is seen only in relation to that structure.”

Interestingly, Bernstein notes that these forms of social control and syntactic codes follow from the ways social groups are organized and indeed they support “particular forms of significance.” In mechanical communities, the importance of social order emphasizes the need to constantly reinforce the individual’s relative position in the group. As social order is strongly imposed on individuals, the restricted syntax relies on shared knowledge and understanding between speakers. Whereas in organic societies, the division of labour gives rise to elaborated coding, which allows individuals the freedom to pursue their own goals and ambitions. Further, as there is a greater variety of syntactic alternatives to choose from, the elaborated code requires less shared knowledge between speakers. Therefore, elaborated coding emerges where the demand for labour specialization is the strongest.

With that said, social control and syntactic codes do not always flow together. You can imagine a situation where a caregiver raised under one form of social control finds themselves raising children in a society or community that reinforces the opposing syntactic code. In this case, a child’s view of the world and their place in it might deviate from the expected social pattern of either their caregiver or of the broader society. Douglas argues that the intersection of these two constructs give rise to a “hundred, or a million, types of cultural bias may be out there” of which her Group and Grid Theory attempts to construct four parsimonious and comprehensive cultural categories. The first two are akin to Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft:

  1. Hierarchists are high grid and high group. In other words, their position in society is highly stratified and they are strongly influenced by group norms.
  2. On the other hand, Individualists are low grid and low group: their position in society is very egalitarian and they are weekly influenced by group norms.

With each of these two categories, there is a consistency in the relationship between family control and syntactic codes. However, in the other two cultural categories, there is a mismatch between the two: Bernstein argues that these categories represent transitional categories—the result of tension between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.

  1. The first of these, Enclavists, are low grid and high group, so their position in society is very egalitarian, yet, they are highly influenced by group norms.
  2. Similarly, Fatalists are high grid and low group, so their position in society is highly stratified, and yet they are weekly influenced by group norms.

The basic principal of Douglas’s Group and Grid model is that individuals are enmeshed in culture via language and their social interaction with others. Unlike some cultural theories, Group and Grid emphasizes that there is diversity in the ways people relate to culture. Group describes the degree to which individuals are pressured by norms and Grid describes the degree to which they acknowledge positional classifications. This raises an important question: What is the relationship between individuals, their cultural values, and the social contexts they find themselves? While much of this can be answered by reviewing Bernstein’s work, two primary hypotheses have been advanced: On the one hand, the stability hypothesis posits that individuals seek out social environments that conform, or can be made to conform, with their cultural values. On the other hand, the mobility hypothesis suggests that individuals, either consciously or subconsciously, change their cultural values to comply with their changing social environments. It is not clear which of these two holds true.

Considering Group and Grid with respect to what some sociologists describe as the rise of “networked-individualism,”56 this theory offers some important implications. First, Group and Grid suggests that what has sometimes been described as declining connectedness in the West, is better thought of in terms of social change. Indeed, research suggests that our social networks are actually more robust now than they were a decade ago. This suggests that while the West may be becoming more Individualistic, individuals aren’t necessarily becoming more isolated (though this may in fact be the case). Regarding social change, sociologists traditionally think of it in terms of intracohort and intercohort effects. Intracohort effects result from changes in how individuals view something, whereas intercohort effects result from changes across generations. If Group and Grid’s stability hypothesis is true that we would weight the importance of intercohort effects in social change, whereas if the mobility hypothesis is true, we would weight the importance of intracohort effects. Either way, Group and Grid attempts to go beyond traditional sociological discussions of social change and emphasize the importance of culture and the social structure within which culture is cradled.


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The Social Foundations of Risk Perception

Providing a fascinating contrast to how you and I experience the world, anthropologist have found that the Guki-Ganu people “cannot distinguish between the products of their imagination and the objects of their perception.” Similarly, Berbers along with a number of cultures around the globe, are unable to distinguish between the colours blue and green. Given enough time with the anthropological literature, I’m sure you would find many more surprising cultural differences in the way people see the world. However, when we're talking about seeing the world, we are often talking about a "world view" -- something constructed not by what we see with our eyes but how we interpret what we see. 

Paul Slovic, one of the foremost experts on risk perception argues that “Danger" (i.e., what we might see) "is real," "risk" (i.e., what we interpret) "is socially constructed.” While I might quibble over whether the semantic distinction between risk and danger has much to say about the ‘realness’ of either, the general point of Slovic’s quote is important and underpins how the threats we see in the world are not objective facts so much as subjective interpretations of facts. For example, the so-called ‘danger’ of HIV transmission during receptive condomless anal sex with an HIV-positive partner is about 1 in 72. As these odds aren’t necessarily favorable—most HIV-negative men don’t have condomless receptive anal sex with HIV-positive or unknown status partners. However, not everyone equates risk with danger and a sizeable number of gay men do in fact engage in this sort of risky sex. So, the central question that cultural theory answers is how to account for the diversity in the ways people interpret danger, evaluate their personal risk, and ultimately respond to these valuations? It seems to me that there are two primary options here: (i) We could study common behavior as the product of shared individual-level psychological phenomenon; or (ii) we could study these collective actions as a sort of social phenomenon. The latter, without discounting the importance of the former, is what social theorists try to do: recast what initially might seem like an individual perception as a collective one—governed not solely by some personally generated sense of danger, but also by cultural structures that structure the structures that structure us.

To demonstrate how this works, let’s apply social theory to the study of the HIV epidemic among gay and bisexual men. First, we will need to contextualize the epidemic by identifying the major players and their relation to one another. As noted by Foucault, sexuality, especially as an identity or social movement, went essentially unexamined until the 19th century. However, inspired by the work of Darwin (1809 – 1882), academics began to explore the biological and genetic origins of human behaviour with increasing rigor up to the present day. Naturally, these investigations turned quickly to the topic of sexuality. As Foucault put it, “since sexuality was a medical and medicalizable object, one had to try and detect it—as a lesion, a dysfunction, or a symptom.” The early academic discourse regarding sexual attraction closely mirrored that which continues today: some believed that it was biologically anomalous and originated during embryonic development (i.e., inversion) while others insisted that all deviations from heterosexuality were sexual perversions.69 Thus heterosexuality and its -ism was born.

Prior to the 20th century, most gay men expressed their sexualities subversively, out of the eye and ire of the public. This was especially true in the wake of World War II and the Red Scare, when increasing social anxiety led to greater rigidity of gender roles and other social norms. However, by the 1960s, isolated urban areas, implicitly zoned for so-called ‘deviant entertainment,’ began to flourish as safe(r) cultural spaces for bohemian enclaves. Within these ‘ghettos,’ and to the dismay of the social establishment, social power began to coalesce around gays and lesbians who moved to these areas seeking cheap rents and entertainment. Eventually, the accumulation of social power among New York GBM culminated in the Stonewall Riots of 1969—an event which is considered by some to be the birth of the modern LGBT movement and a quintessential moment in the sexual revolution. Within this era of increased sexual openness and freedom, the emergence of gay neighborhoods throughout North America was a manifestation of an emerging cultural identity among GBM. Hereto, at least prior to the 19th Century, sexuality was a behavioral phenomenon—men could have sex with men without thinking of themselves as different from men who had sex with women. However, in these new neighborhoods, GBM carved out a new society and culture where they could come together, find support, and meet sexual partners. Gay men flocked from all over the continent, many from more conservative landscapes, to find acceptance and relief from the intense and sometimes violent social stigmas their neighbors and families enacted upon them. Of course, not all gay men flocked to these enclaves. Even at the height of the sexual revolution, coming out of the closet wasn’t easy for gay men and many choose to veil their pariah status.

Nevertheless, gays and lesbians had begun to achieve some level of liberation—and you know the saying, ‘Once a dog tastes blood…’. However, there were two competing visions for what homosexuality would be moving forward. Halperin paints the scene nicely:

“In the gay society of the period…the shift from deviant to normative gender styles, the rise of sex as both symbol and practice, and the euthanasia of traditional gay male culture were all strictly correlated…Now that gay men were living their homosexuality not as a cultural practice but as a sexual identity, they required a new gender style; and the masculine gender style that they adopted by expanding their sexual opportunities enabled them to consolidate a definition of gay existence and a model of gay identity that focused on sex at the expense of culture—and that excluded the feminine identifications that had informed and defined much of traditional gay male culture.”

In other words, assimilation into the heterosexual male form (diverging only in the object of one’s sexual desire) seemed to have in some respects triumphed over a more ‘radical’ or ‘deviant’ vision for gay life. This is the tension between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: communities try to maintain their established boundaries, they are distinguished by culture, they resist assimilation. Society on the other hand is enchanting to the individualist: it promises greater freedom and self expression—independence from what are seen as archaic and oppressive norms. “Being gay,” the individualist insists, “is a sexual orientation, not a subculture.”

Amid this tension, another would become obvious throughout the AIDS crisis and subsequent HIV epidemic. Indeed, in some ways AIDS reminded gay men that they weren’t mainstream—that the lure of Gesellschaft was a flimsy deception at best—and that in some ways all gay men shared a common lot with the gay community. According to some, this had a unifying effect.77 Though in reality, the tensions simply mounted along different cultural fractures that had less to do with collectivism, and instead focused on status and social position. As Douglas observed, some in the community organized themselves around AIDS services organization, in an effort to strive towards community-based prevention. Unlike the way the Polio epidemic was handled, this new prevention style was amenable to collectivists, as it offered a bottom-up approach to stopping AIDS. However, the stratification of knowledge makers and knowledge takers made the social structure of CBO’s inherently hierarchical. As such AIDS forced gay communities to undergo the fundamental transformation from an enclavist to a hierarchical social order. For those with a habit of differing to social position (either by upbringing or some other means of cultural acceptance), this was fine. But others in the community were skeptical of relying on knowledge that originated from an un-egalitarian system. According to Group and Grid, these folks perceive risks as “being embedded within a much deeper set of social anxieties” and viewed AIDS prevention efforts as “inflaming rather than dispersing these anxieties.” In summary, the gay community, like other communities, faces division from both the allure of society calling us to greater individualism and conflicts over social order.

Given this history, what does all of it have to do with risk perception? After all, that is the purpose of Group and Grid: to illuminate the influence of social structure on the ways people interpret and react to risks. The characters we’ve identified are those (1) closeted and isolated from the gay community, (ii) society’s individualists, and the two collectivist groups: (iii) egalitarian enclavists, and (iv) hierarchical positionalists. We have already briefly mentioned how the conflict between egalitarians and hierarchists plays out (i.e., Egalitarians reject the information asymmetry in hierarchical systems therefore deemphasizing the risks emphasized by the hierarchical social order), so, we will now focus on the tensions between collectivists and individualists. Assessing this relationship, Lo and colleagues found that collectivism is associated with maintenance of sexual norms, while individualism was associated with more liberal beliefs regarding sexual behavior. Similarly, collectivism has also been shown to impact the level of stigma that sexual minorities feel, with higher collectivism contributing to higher stigma when an individual is in violation of group norms. Another, related concept known as sexual altruism has also been shown to predict GBM’s sexual behavior. Together, these sorts of studies highlight the role that social pressure can have in shaping risk behavior. Collectivists, being more subject to social pressures are thus more likely to comply with community-endorsed risk management behavior. While Individualists are more free to explore; and thus employ strategies which are perceived to better balance risk taking and pleasure.

Another example can be seen when looking at technology uptake, which has become an increasingly important part of gay community life since the mid-1990’s. As noted by information systems researchers studying the uptake of new technologies, they diffuse in predictable patterns, based on specific user characteristics. For example, individualism has been associated with quicker uptake of new technologies; while collectivist groups only embrace technology on the proviso that it is compatible with group norms. Further, Dake distinguishes between egalitarian and hierarchical collectivists, suggesting that egalitarians tend to perceive new technologies as threats to their social structure, while hierarchists are more likely to perceive them as tools by which thy can expand their social dominance.

All of this is not to say that social structures determine our risk perceptions, only that they influence them. Indeed, our values about how we organize ourselves are fundamentally embedded in the ways we conceive ourselves and our responsibilities to others. Group and Grid attempts to capture this relationship and emphasize the gravity that social structures have on how we see the world and all its dangers.

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Is there such thing as an individual?

“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning.”

– Clifford Geertz –

Perhaps the most popularized attempt to describe the self, Freud argued that individuals are defined by three cognitive components: the id (das Es/it), the ego (das Ich/I), and the super-ego (das Über-Ich/over-I). The id, he described as the carnal, animalistic, and instinctual part of the mind that underlies our consciousness. The id, however, is not our consciousness. Consciousness, for Freud, resides in the ego. Thus, it is the ego, not the id, that experiences, makes judgements, and forms rationalizations. In short, the ego is the ‘us’ within us. Together the ego and the id face reality: they eat, they sleep, and they interact with others. This third point, social interaction, is where the super-ego comes in. Freud believed that the super-ego is the moralistic, conscientious, and inner critic that checks and balances the carnal id—driving the ego towards compliance with social norms and ideals. Freud illustrates the concept of the super-ego by conflating it with that of the father: paternalizing, commanding obedience, standing in the way of the childish wants of the id. However, this conflation is more than mere hyperbole or metaphor. Freud believed that the super-ego is a product of the home—shaped by the pageantry of parenting.

While others would agree that environments play an important role in human development, critics of Freud argued that his cognitive model was not falsifiable, and that instead psychologists should focus on observable behavior rather than trying to decode internal cognitive states. In a progressive domination over Freud, behaviorists like Thondike, Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner convincingly demonstrated that behavior could be explained largely as a product of external stimuli: When a dog hears the dinner bell, he comes for dinner. When a parent hears a child’s cry, they come to rescue. When a child hears his mother’s song, he is lulled to sleep. By the early 1950’s it seemed as if cognitive theories were on their last leg. Skinner had made significant progress in describing how behavioral (operant) conditioning could explain complex human phenomenon like emotion, speech, and free will. However, on a warm summer day in 1956, there was revolution brewing. It was the second day of the Special Interest Group in Information Theory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky and others presented a broad array of works, each chipping away at the assertion that cognitive research was irredeemable and that behaviorism was the law of the land. Summarizing the collective judgment against Behaviourism, Chomsky states: “One would naturally expect that prediction of the behavior of a complex organism (or machine) would require, in addition to information about external stimulation, knowledge of the internal structure of the organism, the ways in which it processes input information and organizes its own behavior.” According to one notable attendee (George A. Miller) of this symposium, “I left the symposium with a conviction, more intuitive than rational, that experimental psychology, theoretical linguistics, and the computer simulation of cognitive processes were all pieces from a larger whole.” As history would have it, the summer of 1956 was only the start. In the coming few years, Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, and many of the other -ologies (linguistics too) would redefine themselves by the cognitive perspective. Each of these fields signaled “an end to the era of ‘Lets look at people’s behavior and see what they do.’” 

While some, like Bandura, attempted to strike a conciliatory tone between behaviorists and cognitivists, even he acknowledged that “although behavior can be shaped into new patterns to some extent by rewarding and punishing consequences, learning would be exceedingly laborious and hazardous if it proceeded solely on this basis.” Instead, Bandura and others suggest that families facilitate early social learning by modeling “language, mores, vocational activities, familial customs, and the educational, religious, and political practices.” of their societies. In short, children learn not just by responding to their families, but by mimetically becoming one of them.

This process of identity formation begins early in a child’s life and is inseparably rooted in the intimate relationships that infants have with their kin, particularly their parents. Imagine, for a moment: when an infant smiles, her parents are there to smile back; when she cries, they are there with doting sympathy; and when she is angry, they are there with their own frustrations. Children are born and raised with this sort of well-practiced call and response, back and fourth, give and take. Indeed, throughout a child’s life, parents and children engage in an intricate and delicate ballet of information exchange. As a result, this dance increase social bonding between parent and child, and the more bonded two people are, the more they mirror, mimic, and model one another.

Biologists have identified two primary neuropeptides that facilitate this process of bonding and information exchange: oxytocin and arginine vasopressin. They have also shown that so called “mirror neurons” fire in our brains when we watch others complete a task, as if we were completing it ourselves. Further, researchers have observed that the mere act of watching someone engage in a behavior, increases the chance that the observer will subsequently engage in that same behavior. As these processes are rooted in one’s neurobiological development it is believed, for good reason, that the family exerts profound influence over how individuals will interact and connect with others for the rest of their lives.

Take for instance the infant-caregiver relationship: According to Attachment Theory, which is rooted in a psychological experiment called the strange situation protocol, patterns of early social bonding have a dramatic influence on a child’s life course. In summary, the experiment places a caregiver and their infant child in a strange room as researchers watch from behind the secrecy of a one-way mirror. At some point, the mother is asked to leave the child in the room alone, and then after a few minutes is asked to return. During this time, children have been observed to react in predictable ways to the departure and return of their caregiver. Based on these reactions infant-caregiver attachment patterns are classified as either (i) secure, (ii) avoidant, (iii) ambivalent, or (iv) disoriented.

Based on a number of longitudinal prospective studies, these patterns of attachment have been found to be predictive a wide array of personal and interpersonal outcomes. For instance, securely attached children are more likely to be socially competent and better adjusted later in life. They have higher IQs, better social skills, greater relationship success and satisfaction. Meanwhile, ambivalently attached  children are more anxious; avoidantly attached children have greater difficulty establishing emotional relationships throughout adulthood and experience a narrower range of emotions in their day to day lives; and children who express disorganized attachment as infants have less developed brains and higher rates of psychopathology.

All of this is not to say that our family lives determine our destinies, only that they influence them. After all, the categories used above to describe infant-caregiver relationships, as with all attempts to categorize humans, are somewhat fluid and more nuanced than their description would lead you to believe. Indeed, infants become toddlers, toddlers become teenagers, teenagers become young adults, and so on, and so on. Throughout it all, our social environments shift and change. Perhaps we find new mentors, make new friends, and find fulfillment through intimate relationships. Each of these new bonds, as with our infant-caregiver bond, leaves some impression on us, shaping who we are and how we relate to the world.

Indeed, according to social and cultural theorists, individuals are influenced by a broad array of social forces.  For instance, habitus, which describes a set of embodied mental and physical schemata—and what Bourdieu famously refers to as the “structured structures…structuring structures”—have even been leveraged to discount the subjective experience of free will. For instance, the way one sits in a chair or caries their shoulders, the words and syntax used to rationalize the world to a child, the seemingly individualized tastes and preferences around food or fashion, the subtle but not insignificant social cues exhibited by a social class or group of people—these sort of unprocessed, unconscious behaviors, can all be attributed to habitus. Contrasting habitus with norms, norms are better articulated and more present in the forefront of behavioral cognition. They are more like social pressure than destiny. Indeed, like habitus, they influence how we act, but offer greater agency in their expression.

Both habitus and norms are related to culture—indeed, some will use ‘culture’ as an umbrella term to describe all of which I have discussed here (In fact, I may do the same later in this exam, though more so for convenience than accuracy). Regarding culture, D’Andrade has said that “culture consists not of behaviors, or even patterns of behavior, but rather of shared information or knowledge encoded in systems of symbols.” Indeed, culture is conceptualized as a system of shared meaning. For example, sportsmanship, marriage, beauty, justice—the shared definition of these things is what we would think of as culture. According to Schneider, “Where norms tell the actor how to play the scene, culture tells the actor how the scene is set and what it all means.” Finally, in addition to habitus, culture, and norms, there is also discourse. Discourse is also primarily concerned with language as opposed to behavior, per se. According to Chomsky, de Saussure, Foucault, Derrida, and others, language serves as a sort of foundation for culture. Without language, whether physical or verbal, there are no shared meaning systems: each person must learn the significance of things for themselves. Language allows for shared meaning to exist because it creates a vehicle for the social transmission of culture. But, according to social scientists, language is not just a peripheral phenomenon. Indeed, culture is like carrots suspended in a green Jell-O pudding, and language is the Jell-O. Discourse, then, is a language process by which culture is constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed within and between social groups.

Together, culture, discourse, habitus, and norms have a profound impact on the constitution of the self. For instance, the Bongo-Bongo people report that their minds are located in their knees—not behind their eyes. Tahitians can only define themselves in relations to others (e.g., for example I would not be a writer, I would be a person who is writing for you.). The Gahuku-Gama do not distinguish individuals from the social roles they occupy (e.g., Caesar is both the man and the ruler). Neither do they imagine themselves to be of equal worth with others, but are instead subject to their social position. People living in Oriyas, India describe personalities by what people do, while American informants tend to overlook behavioral context and speak more abstractly about “what a person is like.” Perhaps of greater familiarity, many in the West believe that they are the same continuous person in any given context across their life—despite obvious context-dependent changes in behaviour, personality, intellect, etc. In summary, all of this evidence demonstrates that “People around the world do not all think alike…The relationship between what one thinks about (e.g., other people) and how one thinks (e.g., ‘contexts and cases’) may be mediated by the world premise to which one is committed (e.g., holism) and by the metaphors by which one lives.”

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