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50 words for snow 4: what counts as sociocultural?

Last updated on 1 Mar 2019


    1. Conceptual confusion
    2. The economics of cultural categories
    3. What are phenomena?
    4. What counts as sociocultural?
    5. Species
    6. Constructing phenomena
    7. Explanations and phenomena

Jim Harrison made the following comment on the last post:

… I have trouble understanding how you distinguish the s and the c in your pseudo equation. You mention folk taxonomic as an example of sociological distinctions, but if such taxonomies aren’t part of culture, what’s left to put under c Maybe distinguishing s and c just don’t matter much to you. A line or two later you’re talking about sociocultural phenomena.

It’s a fair point. I was very unclear. But, as the sign says, this is where stuff goes through my head and ends up splattered on the screen, without much happening in between the two.

First off, I don’t think there is a sharp demarcation between sociological and cultural “spaces”, nor between the sociocultural and the biological. Instead, I think that human development is all three. Biology proffers dispositions to develop in particular ways, sociology sets the constraints and resources, and culture sets the prior “art”, as it were, that developing humans acquire and then set about modifying. Since all three domains, as it were, are in my view about the acquisition and use of resources that affect the fitness of the individuals, there is selection going on at all three levels, and this is what defines them as domains in the first place.

The diagram I used was a little misleading. A much better one, with extra colour, is this:


since trees and other nonsocial facts are not constructed by humans, while houses and other social facts are constructed by social dynamics. Cultural facts are symbolic and passed on through imitation and education. Moreover, what is a sociological fact can affect the nonsocial and cultural and vice versa. Categories about each “domain” are constructed to a degree, but what they are constructed to represent are environmental, and the environment is “natural” (that is, not socially constructed), sociological (constructed to represent social organisation and patterns) and cultural (constructed to represent the symbolic milieu). Since humans always have constructed their environment to a degree (the so-called “niche construction” hypothesis applied to humans), we are now, and have always been, in our “natural” environment. However, there is another way to conceptualise niche construction: as the individual adaptive environment that buffers development against “strict” natural selection. Organisms adapt individually within the degrees of freedom allowed by their biology. When this has a cost to fitness, natural selection takes over.

So natural selection, social selection and cultural selection represent three layers of selective processes with the consequent differences in the rates of their evolution. However, they are unlinked in many ways: cultural selection can be slower than sociological and even biological – consider biological selection against diseases brought about by trade, a social process, and the cultural changes that entails, for example. This is a complex interplay of evolutionary forces.

Still, the variables in my “equation” can still be given values, if we can identify for any given trait, biological through to cultural, what the modal values are. If not – if it is too complex to do so – we can still understand what the forces are to a degree of precision allowed by the particular case.


  1. bbenzon bbenzon

    “Cultural facts are symbolic and passed on through imitation and education. Moreover, what is a sociological fact can affect the nonsocial and cultural and vice versa.”

    You’re almost there, John. My teacher, David Hays, taught me to distinguish between society as a human group and culture as the attitudes, ideas, and activities existing in the group. FWIW, he learned that distinction from his teacher, Talcott Parsons.

    So, in the large we can talk about Australian society as all those people living and interacting in Australia (let’s just set aside foreign visitors and such). But Australian culture, is there anything, as such, and in the large? For purposes of discussion we can think of white Australia is more or less one culture and contrast that with aboriginal Australia, and I really don’t know how many different culturally different social groups. Of course, many individuals in those aboriginal groups have taken on many of the cultural characteristics of white Australia. Conversely, we know that when Crocodile Dundee takes off that silly hat and that silly vest, he can “go native” in “the outback” and become culturally aboriginal.

    In response you might say, “But that’s so complicated!” My reply: “Yes. Well…it IS isn’t it?”

    In the rather special case of small and relatively isolated hunter-gatherer and horticultural groups, we have social groups that are monocultural. And it’s my impression that, at least in part, it’s in the course of studying such groups that “culture” came to mean, well, culture, as opposed to meaning “the finer things, which aristocrats do, but proles do not.”

    So, within the large multi-cultural social group that is the United States we see that there’s been a lot more talk of Islam and the Middle East since 9/11, a lot more of those “memes” if you will. Is that a cultural change? Not so much. Almost all of those memes preexisted 9/11, they just weren’t so widely dispersed in the society. The word “islamofascist” may well have been a new coinage, but that’s not much of a change in the culture. The practices of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), however, are new, and they are certainly practices in the cultural domain, especially the ones that take place in boarding areas of airport terminals, where they are sometimes know as “security theater”, a designation that places them strongly within the cultural realm.

    The spread of all those memes about Islam and the Middle East is a more or less intelligible result to the terrorist attack of one social group, variously recruited from Middle Eastern states, on the territory of another, the United States of America. We can think of that as social process which does not, as such, change the culture. Culture, after all, can exist only in society. That, I suppose, is your social selection at work. The creation of the TSA is also a social process, but one that introduces new cultural practices.

    Is there any such thing as cultural selection in this view? I’m not sure there is, for all selection of practices takes place in some group. And, at the moment, I’m OK with that.

    [I’ve been thinking in terms of this distinction between society and culture for decades. But this particular spinning out of the consequences is off the cuff and subjective to modification.]

  2. jeb jeb

    p.s. thinking on the hoof I think a look at pig and cassowary, in a wider local context may be interesting and a useful way to shed more light on the subject and the wider arguments.

    You’re subject choices look fruitful. Devil is in the anthropological detail but having a shared space makes that more manageable.

  3. There’s a Norse myth about how Thor was suckered into a drinking contest. He tries to empty the proffered drinking horn at one swallow; but even after three tries, he fails. What he doesn’t realize is that the horn is really the ocean. I don’t know how you’re feeling; but after rather more than three attempts at the questions raised in your recent posts, boy am I Thor. Explaining consciousness is said to be the hard problem, but making sense out of the problems raised by your pseudo-equation is arguably harder, whether you think of it as the project of expanding the theory of evolution to encompass social and cultural evolution, coming up with a universal (or more universal) taxonomy of what there is to talk about, or—my hobbyhorse—trying to rethink the human fact in a radically sociological way (which amounts to thinking of sociology in a radically naturalistic way.)

    I’m far lazier than you are so all I’ve got to offer so far is this.

    A while back you wrote “What I am interested in here is how our categories converge, if they do, on facts about the world as it is without us.” My problem is that I’m acutely aware of the interpenetration of the S and O, i.e., that there is neither a world without us (for the time being) or an us without a world. That was the point of my comment about what the external world is external to, the remark that you were responding to.

    If epistemology is a set of answers to the question “what can I know?” it’s fundamentally screwed up because the I’s don’t know very goddam much, the impressive capabilities of trained observers notwithstanding. We’re on the same page about that, I expect, though perhaps I worry more about the difference between the I know and the we know than you do. In fact, I think that “Who knows?” is the question of these times of massive research projects, big data, and neural nets. What are the S’s? I’d like to say that the subject of knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, is plural; but that wouldn’t go far enough because the things (the O’s) aren’t just what the knowledge is about. Their characteristics and regularities make finding things out possible. They are a part of coming to know so that science has to be understood as a process in the world as well as a social process. What makes induction work (sometimes) is not our habit of believing in it or a synthetic a priori rule but the fact that some stuff actually behaves regularly in our laboratories and elsewhere. Science is thinking with the things; and the more we‘ve gotten the things involved, the better we’ve done.

    In the spirit of Diogenes Laertius I append a bad poem on this point:

    Taking the Side of the Things

    We think the scientists do science
    And nature just sits there and poses.
    In fact, without a firm alliance
    Of man and thing there’d be no gnosis.
    The line between the S and O
    Is dotted and moves to and fro.
    It’s like what happens on a date
    If you get lucky and you mate.
    We get inside of nature’s pants
    Because the lady wants to dance.
    Or to make the selfsame point
    Without alluding to your joint:
    Science happens
    As much in things as in the mind
    Else the naked eyeball of our pride
    Would be definitively blind.

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