Meaning is not in a cloud hovering over Cincinnati: Talking (mind and) sense about culture

Hardground etching (2005) by Karl W Nelson


“But meanings cannot be abstract structures that are nowhere in particular (or in a cloud hovering over Cincinnati, as a colleague of ours put it sarcastically). As we have already noted, if they are nowhere in particular, how can they ever come to motivate action? A reasonable slogan here would be, “Abstract entities cannot have concrete effects.”

~ Strauss & Quinn 1997, p. 19.


As you have probably guessed, Strauss & Quinn (and Burbank – our Australian equivalent), loom fairly large in my Anthropological Pantheon of Awesomeness. I have been thinking through and writing up disparate sections of Chapter 1 lately, focusing on theory and how and why I seem to draw on quite disparate bodies of theory. I recently wrote, in part:


More than any other, Cultural Schema Theory is that which I ‘think through’ in my approach to, and analysis of, ethnography. I am aware that cultural schema theory often appears to be more ‘biological sciences’ than anthropology and the methods often more ‘laboratory style’ discourse analysis than participant observation. I suspect these two factors deter many anthropologists, not least because they seem to trigger traumatic memories of social evolution and biological determinism from our shared (as colleagues) disciplinary childhood. However, as Strauss and Quinn have always made clear, cultural schema theory is not intended to be an exhaustive, exclusive theoretical ‘whole’.


Cultural Schema Theory affords anthropologists and ‘Anthropology’ an understanding of how, as human beings, we learn about the world around us in ways that shape who we know and feel ourselves to be – on an individual and collective (i.e. cultural) level, and how and why these understandings motivate people to act in particular ways. It offers insight and means with which we might begin to account for the explanatory gap evident when we try and understand why some people put so much effort into doing some things and not others.


When used alongside other anthropological theories or approaches Cultural Schema Theory affords what I consider to be a genuinely humanist or ‘humanistic’ approach – we are all human beings who learn about the world in ways that shape who we know and feel ourselves to be – on an individual and collective level, which motivates us to do what we do, to pursue the life we know and feel to be right and desirable for ‘people like us’.


Even after ‘a-many few’ re-readings I still kind of like this part of the Chapter. Anyhow, what I originally intended to post was (only) the following, which is an excerpt from Human Motives and cultural models, edited by Roy D’Andrade and Claudia Strauss. This particular excerpt is from a chapter by D’Andrade (who seems, to me at least, to be something of an intellectual ŋapipi (MB, Yolŋu-way) to the afore-quoted Naomi Quinn and Claudia Strauss but I may just be making that up):


‘It will not do to simply say “action is culturally constituted” or “the self is culturally constituted” or “emotion is culturally constituted”. Such a position is wrong for a number of reasons. First, it postulates a causal link (“x constitutes Y”) without specifying any kin of mechanism or process by which x and y might be connected. At best this kind of talk is a huge oversight, at worst it is word magic. Second, it ignores the salient fact that not all of any culture is internalised in anybody. Much of any culture remains at the “cliché” level – sometimes called “ideal culture” – and does not influence action. Third, different individuals internalise different [arts of the same culture in different ways, so that the statement “action is culturally constituted” deeply misrepresents the degree of individual and group variation within a culture.


Fourth, as most anthropologists in moments of intellectual sobriety recognise, action, the self, emotion, etc, are influenced by many things besides “culture” – the way the human body is constructed, the way the brain works, social factors of many kinds, economic considerations, individuals interests, etc. To trace out the process by which culture influences action requires a theoretical multi-causal vocabulary which can encompass variation and similarity, the argument here is that motivational and cognitive concepts form an important part of such a vocabulary’ (Roy D’Andrade in D’Andrade & Strauss (eds) 1992, Human Motives and cultural models, p. 41).


Leave a comment

Filed under Anthropological Awesome, Anthropology, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s