Bradd Shore: Culture in Mind

[Readings] (09.08.08, 12:31 am)


Bradd Shore sets his sight on correcting a problematic and false divide between anthropology and psychology. He claims that the two are intrinsically related, but were kept separate during the early growth of both fields due to the desire to preserve the abstract and disembodied view of cognition. To help unite the two fields, he proposes that this may be done via the theory of mental models, borrowing from Johnson-Laird. Mental models can be used to explain the process of cognition and meaning making and illustrate this on the levels of both cognition and culture.


The foreword describes the cultural narrative of the seprated disciplines of psychology and anthropology, trying to find ways of connecting them. Notably, referenced are Mead and Geertz as forces for good. The underlying issue at stake in this discussion is the establishment of meaning. The product of meaning making is reality. However, the process is not absolute or universal. This logic could be used to express the idea that individuals live in different, but mutually construted realities.

A biological argument for the diversity of cognition: The human brain develops 3/4 its mass after birth and keeps on learning. Knowing what we do about how neural networks recognize patterns, there is just too much material that is learned that is contextually dependent for general cognition to be universal. Shore discusses later his experience moving to Samoa, and the gradual period of learning the culture, which involves learning to think like the Samoans do. This process is a gradual incorporation of Samoan mental models into his own mind. This model of understanding treats the brain as an active participant in terms of meaning making and understanding experience.

The Psychic Unity Muddle

This section is intended to dismantle psychic unity, the previously dominant trend in anthropology. Psychic unity claims that, despite cultural differences, peoples minds are essentially the same. This idea rose as a politically “enlightened” perspective on anthropology, from the previous Victorian and colonialist idea that cultural differences reflected cognitive differences. The Victorian model ultimately concluded that because cultures were different from the obviously superior European culture, they were inferior. Psychic unity aimed to defeat that, but replaced it with an equally colonialist mentality, dismissing the evidence of variations in cognition, and still reaffirming the superiority of European rationalism.

Shore’s take on this is to assert that culture directly affects cognition, but through development. The brain has an intrinsic ability to make meaning, which is shared by all cultures, but the actual meaning made, the cultural psychology, varies significantly.

Shore describes a number of anthropologists who worked in the direction of distancing themselves from psychic unity. One of these is Levy-Bruhl, who asserted that some cultures have a stronger acceptance of sensual and nonrational understanding. The concept wherein individuals can be identified in trancendental ways is called participation.

Levi-Strauss attempts to promote a universal rationality by splitting rationality into two flavors: modern and primitive (or mythic). This distinction is really not one of rationality, but of consistency, specifically with respect to some thought/value system. Levi-Strauss promotes psychic unity, but vaguely, as he says that the mind has the same capacities.

Shore has an interesting take on Geertz. Geertz encourages the movement of culture into mind, but not vice versa. By examining culture as a web of meanings, Geertz steps away from the psychic unity muddle, but does not do so completely for Shore.

Shweder does the opposite, but in reaction against western rationalism, he rejects the processor element of mind, which is going too far for Shore. Shore wants there to be a universal hardware, which is exactly the processing element of the mind. In reaction against symbolic reasoning, Shweder’s reaction is understandable, but Shore argues that connectionist models of cognition can be used to explain a universal mechanism of meaning making.

Rethinking Cultural Models

Shore describes an experience introducing visitors to Samoa. One of them asks for a conrete example of culture, which Shore cannot provide. The point here is the futility of trying to find a concrete, tangible example of culture, something that one could simply point at. This idea is an objective view of culture, thinking of culture as a system of artifacts, which could be physical objects or conversations or ideas. This view only looks at the products of culture, not the thing itself, which can be thought of as a system of mental models.

Introducing mental models explicitly. Shore references Roy D’Andrade’s definition of cultural models “a cognitive schema that is intersubjectively shared by a cultural group,” which is flawed because of its failure to accomodate several important details. The idea here is to address culture as a model, or a composition of models. These models include explicit patterns as well as tacit ones. Shore claims that the mind is a model generator. Mental models are a meaning making strategy, they come in categories of personal and conventional ones. Conventional models are mediated and have a social feedback mechanism which involves phases of expression and participation.

Conventional models may conflict with personal ones, producing anxiety. Cultural models may also have a psychic cost. Dominant models occasionally come alongside alternative models.

Some important distinctions: certain structures, rituals, games, scripts, performances, fall under the category of instituted models. These are different from conventional models. Referenced here are Victor Turner, Goffman, Schank, and Abelson. Also distinguished is the idea of a “foundational schema” which is something of a meta-model, or a general class of models which can encompass a wide variety of specific models.

Shore provides a nice set of bullet points on the types of models. This perception of models is like a toolkit, as opposed to a single unified strategy. There is classification here, but not hierarchy. In developing implementation of models as artifacts, how would one handle this diversity?

  • Orientational
    • Spatial
    • Temporal
    • Social orientation
    • Diagnostic
  • Expressive/Conceptual
    • Classifacatory
    • Ludic
    • Ritual and dramatic
    • Theories
  • Task
    • Scripts
    • Recipies
    • Checklists
    • Mnemonics
    • Persuasion

Mind Games

In this section, Shore uses the system of models to analyze how spectators make sense out of a baseball game. The analysis here connects metaphors and symbolism. Models are means of structuring and interpreting events meaningfully. A model turns an arbitrary sequence of occurrences into a meaninful narrative.

Shore then connects the themes and mechanics of baseball to some unique qualities of American culture. Baseball’s asymmetry and style of walkabout connects to the American culture of individualism, privatism, and atomism. There is some vagueness here, though. Is this meant to say that baseball is itself a model of American culture? Is it an adaptation, or interpretation, or enactment of American culture? What are the structures that underlie these models?

There is a connection between the model and the culture, but it is not the rules themselves that exactly connect. The formal model generates an experience (a simulation), which, when executed, connects to the cultural themes and meanings. Some relationships are only emergent. This relates to the relationship between culture and games-as-played, versus the culture as it relates to the game’s model.

Playing with Rules

The three categories here define working with rules in games. There are constitutive rules, procedural rules, and strategies. Shore seems to be channeling Sutton-Smith here. Rules can never be complete, though. Any system of rules will lead to a boundary between the realm of the game space and the outside: Huizinga’s magic circle. Boundary violations lend to a “marginal play,” which lives in a liminal space between rules.

Interior Furnishings: Scenes from an American Foundational Schema

Shore introduces the idea of modularity as a foundational schema, that is closely related to the cultural and cognitive aspects of American culture. The examples of modularity provided by Shore are all things that have changed with modernization. It seems that Shore is attempting to explore the effect of technology on human life from an anthropological perspective. The examples he gives are well known to philosophers: particularly the idea that the use of machines likens humans to machines. The ideas of modularity and atomism do not seem so much as models, but units. What is a model in this case? An interpretive pattern that relates metaphorically to cultural values?

A term here is “Cultural pattern.” This connects to the existing dynamic cultural landscape, including political, economical, and technological factors. A cultural pattern is a snapshot of historically recorded consiousness.

Technological Trends: The Neuromantic Frame of Mind

The discussion of modularization seems to be rather pejorative in this section. Still, analysis of culture as a system of models is inherently modular.

In this chapter there are the inevitable references to Heidegger and Benjamin, both of whom were very critical of technology and its impact on human being. Modularity is closely tied to, and in this case, is essentially the same as technology in a general sense. So here surface many arguments regarding the inherent destructive/assimilative/simulative effects of technology on man.

Kwakiutl Animal Symbolism

Totemism as discussed here is a foundational schema, which relates cultural and life patterns to cognitive patterns. The rationality of totemism is associated with various natural characteristics, and cannot be easily explained by categorical logic. Furthermore, the symbols associated with meaning are participatory symbols, and the signifier is never totally separate from the signified. Shore’s argument here is that in order for semiosis (the process of deriving meaning through signs) to work, signifiers must have an establishing relationship with the signified. “The first life of any sign lies in the empirical nature of the relation a signifier bears to a referent. Signs have different sorts of affordances for producing psychological meaning. The sign’s second life is the establishment of a psychological relationship between signifier and referent in someone’s mind.” (p. 200)

Dreamtime Learning, Outside-In

The Wawilak narrative is a foundational schema which takes the form of many models within Murngin culture. The place of this narrative relates to Western “grand narratives” or cultural narratives (see Lyotard). This connection establishes the relationship between the sort of eternally-retold narratives and the cultural and cognitive models that frame them.

Tropic Landscapes: Alternative Spatial Models in Samoan Culture

The subject of this chapter is the relationship between two models of spatial navigation, which operate together in Samoan culture. The first model is a sort of inside/outside or seaward/landward model, which is binary, and is described as “digital”, in the sense that it is discrete. The second model is a more gradiated, analog model. Spatial orientation is closely related to moral orientation, where different spaces give way to different associated values and “appropriate” behaviors.

Spatial relationships are anchored in kinaesthetic experience and later tied with metaphor. The analog concentric models are learned, internalized, and embodied. “This is why Samoans are able to articulate for outsiders like myself the seaward-landward model but are less likely to convey to an outsider the concentric model, which is more directly linked to the subtle modulations of daily behavior.” These are more difficult to communicate because they are embodied, whereas the others are disembodied and can be more communicable.

There are two approaches to these models: digital and analog. In interpreting models, it is important to observe and distinguish perspective, model, and practice. Structuralist analysis imposes structuralist values, which assumes that perspective, model, and analysis are equatable, but they are not.

When Models Collide: Cultural Origins of Ambivalence

The discussion in this case is about conflicting models, when models operate against each other. An example is given with morality and ethics, which involves the play of values within morals. The discussion of model conflict is very reminiscent of Goffman. The conflict however, is not one of roles, but of models and systems and values.

Shore gives a few examples of models at conflict. The first of these is one wherin the chief of a villiage is murdered. The son of the murdered chief is visited by a Christian pastor who professed the moral course of action, to turn the other cheek and forgive. This was done using a sort of formal speech, and in an authoratative space. However, sometime later, the same pastor visits the son again, outside, speaking in a more informal speech, telling him that “if he does not avenge his father’s murder, he is not his father’s son.” The boy later on attacked the murderer with a machete while he was being escorted through the village. The values at contrast here are those of filial piety versus ostensible moral behavior. This example is extremely related to Geertz’s analysis of the failed funeral in Bali. Here, Shore uses the approach of models to explain the circumstances, though. When contrasted against Geertz, we are made aware that models do change over time, sometimes new ones are introduced and others become irrelevant, and frequently they operate in conflict with each other.

Shore gives three more examples, but in each of these cases, the culture has a formal ritual for handling the indiscression that arises from the conflict. Even in the case of the murder, Shore explains in the epilogue that there is a slow and difficult process by which the murderer’s family is exiled from the villiage. If models are the means by which we make meaning, rituals are how that meaning is turned into daily life.

An ethical struggle is about rationalizing and legitimizing a course of action. “Thus, ethical discourse is not just the enunciation of moral values but commonly involves a rhetorical struggle to legitimize one course of action and depreciate an alternative, even though both possibilities exist as ethical alternatives.” (p. 296)

Culture and the Problem of Meaning

This chapter is about formalizing the construction of meaning. There is a summary according to some bullet points:

  1. Logical vs psychological
  2. Meaning construction versus information processing
  3. Meaning and memory
  4. Realist vs nominalist
  5. Experiential realism (Lakoff and Johnson)
  6. Analytical/nonanalytical, concept formation

There are stages in meaning construction: Shore borrows the Piagetian ideas of assimilation and accomodation, wherein old models are applied to new phenomena, and models are modified or created to account for new information, respectively. Also relates to Churchland’s idea of exploratory understanding.

Shore makes an interesting claim: Language enables the articulation of mental models into propositional ones. “I am not suggesting that analytical models are irrelevant to human cognition. Far from it. Many cultural models are themselves in the form of complex programs that have an internal syntax characteristic of informational models. Moreover, these sorts of cultural models probably proliferate under conditions where language is written and practices are rationalized into sets of procedures and formalized recipies. One would also expect them to proliferate in highly industrialized settings where machines mediate human relations. More generally, whenever people are forced to ‘work out’ their models and communicate them in verbal terms, all cultural models are transformable into such propositional models. Indeed, a hallmark of human language is that it posesses the potential of a universal transducer of human experiences into informational terms.”

On Meno and the hermeuneutic circle. The Socratic dialogue answeres the question of knowing arguing for eternal, timeless knowledge. Shore makes the interesting connection where he agrees, by claiming that memory is the key, but it relates to experience, rather than inheritance.

There is a strong critique of Saussure, who neglects the difference between systematic and psychological arbitrariness. Signs may be arbitrary as relates to their meaning, systematically. However, psychologically, signs have a much deeper connection to their referents. Lakoff and Johnson provide a better approach to meaning, but mddule on whether “idealized conceptual models” exist in the mind or in the world (and other issues).

Analogical Transfer and the Work of Culture

Shore argues toward a neural and connectionist approach to examining meaning making. The work of neural pattern matching is meant to serve as a bridge between social/cultural models and individual mental models. This would play out as pattern recognition and encoding of choice. The argument is that experience and matching (classification) is what drives analogy, and cognition occurs as a result of this pattern matching.

Explaining the embodiment aspect of cognition, Shore mentions that language is anchored in synaesthesia (or what I might just call experience). Audio phonesthemes are a hard argument against the AI comprehension of language.

An interesting example that connects experience and symbolic reasoning is Werner and Kaplan’s work on “Symbol Formation”, which explains a heavily embodied process of learning symbols, that takes place in development.

Analogy here is a useful analytic tool to connect experience and cultural meaning, and connect models to experience.

In the epilogue, Shore gives a wonderful summary: “As the Murngin Wawilak story reminds us, the making of a meaningful world engages a set of preexisting forms, but only in relation to a set of personal dispositions of a particular knower. The emergent world is a coming-into-knowledge of another world that already exists. This is the Murngin version of culture’s twice-born character, the ceaseless flow of semiosis, inside-out and outside-in, linking culture in the world and culture in the mind.” (p. 379)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorShore, Bradd
TitleCulture in Mind
ContextShore connects anthropology and cognitive science
Tagsanthropology, mental models, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.