Cultural Variation

Cultural variation refers to differences in knowledge or belief among individuals. This article focuses on intracultural variation, on differences in belief among individual members of the same cultural group. For example, Americans differ in their environmental beliefs and values (Kempton, Boster, and Hartley 1995); Mexicans differ in their beliefs about disease (Weller 1984); Ojibway differ in their knowledge of hypertension (Garro 1988); Aguaruna women differ in their knowledge of the names of manioc varieties (Boster 1985); and Americans differ in their familiarity, vocabulary size, and recognition ability in various semantic domains (Gatewood 1984). Cross-cultural variation, the general differences between cultural groups, is discussed elsewhere (see HUMAN UNIVERSALS; CULTURAL RELATIVISM; and COGNITIVE ANTHROPOLOGY).

Cultural variation (studied by anthropologists) contrasts both with sociolinguistic variation (studied by linguists) and with individual differences (studied by psychologists). "Cultural (or cognitive) variation" refers to relatively stable substantive differences in belief. "Sociolinguistic (or contextual) variation" usually refers to transient stylistic differences in speech. In this case, speakers share a model of what their choices of register say about themselves and make different choices of self-representation in different social contexts. For example, they may choose to show solidarity with other members of their social group in one setting and compete for status in another. "Individual differences" usually refers to differences in task performance attributable to intrinsic differences in the way individuals process information. These differences, though sometimes produced by training, are often interpreted as (biologically based) variation in intelligence, temperament, or cognitive style.

Various patterns of intracultural variation have been proposed. The simplest pattern is one implicit in most classic ethnography and often incorporated into the concept of culture itself: Individual members of a cultural group share knowledge and beliefs with other members of the group. This assumption of within-group uniformity is often coupled with an assumption of between-group divergence. For a classic review of the culture concept, see Kroeber and Kluckhorn (1952).

Wallace (1961), building on Sapir's (e.g., 1938) and Hallowell's (e.g., 1955) emphasis on the uniqueness of individuals, argued against this uniformitarian view of culture and asserted that cognitive non-sharing is a "functional prerequisite of society." He identified six possible patterns of the organization of cognitive diversity:

  1. Zero diversity (high concordance)
  2. Unorganized diversity (random differences or idiosyncrasy)
  3. Ad hoc communication (enhanced agreement among individuals engaged in the same task)
  4. Inclusion (systematic differences between experts and novices)
  5. End linkage (systematic differences between experts engaged in complementary tasks)
  6. Administration (systematic differences between managers and subordinates executing sub-plans)

The first two patterns were regarded as logical extremes, the latter four as ways of accepting and organizing cognitive diversity.

Subsequent authors have emphasized one or another of these patterns. Roberts studied high concordance codes (pattern 1) for color, kin, and clothing, among other domains. He argued that "such codes merit the heavy cultural investment made in them, for they aid rapid and accurate communication" (Roberts 1987: 267). D'Andrade (1976) suggested that most cultural beliefs were either generally shared or were idiosyncratic (patterns 1 and 2), using as an example the distribution of disease beliefs in the United States and Mexico. He later (1981) suggested that the division of labor in society would augment the total cultural information pool from two to four orders of magnitude beyond what an individual knows (pattern 5; cf. Gatewood 1983). Gardner (1976) describes Dene bird classification as a case in which cultural norms are absent and most knowledge is unique to the individual (pattern 2). In contrast, Boster describes Aguaruna manioc identification as a case in which there is a single cultural model known to varying degrees by different informants and in which "deviations from the model are patterned according to the sexual division of labor, membership in kin and residential groups, and individual expertise" (1985: 193; patterns 3, 4, and 5).

There appear to be many similar instances in which one can infer the knowledge of individuals from their degree of agreement with others (e.g., Boster 1985, 1991; D'Andrade 1987; Garro 1986; Gatewood 1984; Romney, Weller, and Batchelder 1986; Weller 1984; see CULTURAL CONSENSUS THEORY). In these instances, individuals who give the model responses are more likely to be reliable on retest (Boster 1985), consistent (Weller 1984), and experienced with the domain (Boster 1985; Gatewood 1984; Garro 1986; Weller 1984). This pattern holds even in cases, such as a word association task, in which there are no culturally normative responses (D'Andrade 1987). However, there are some cases in which domain novices agree with each other more than do experts (e.g., similarity judgment of fish; Boster and Johnson 1989). The exceptions are often instances in which domain novices can generate consistent responses with a simple heuristic. It is important to ensure that any task used to assess cultural knowledge be representative of natural uses of domain knowledge and have ECOLOGICAL VALIDITY.

Just as authors have differed in the patterns of intracultural variation they emphasize, they differ in their description of the processes that generate those patterns. For Wallace, cognitive diversity mainly reflects the division of labor: different patterns emerge depending on how tasks are divided among individuals (cf. Durkheim 1933).

Roberts (1964) developed a view of cultures, similar to Wallace's, as "information economies" that create, distribute, and use information. He showed how aspects of social organization affect how cultural groups as a whole store and retrieve information. Elsewhere, he demonstrated how explicit cultural models of error are used to evaluate and correct mistakes, in trapshooting, tavern pool playing, and flying. See Roberts (1987) for a review.

Boster (1991) extended Roberts's model of culture as an information economy. He proposed that patterns of intracultural variation reflect the "quality, quantity, and distribution of individuals' opportunities to learn" (1991: 204). He argues that domains observable by direct inspection (e.g., FOLK BIOLOGY) or introspection (e.g., COLOR CLASSIFICATION) give individuals equal and ample opportunities to learn regardless of their cultural background. These properties give rise to high cross-cultural and intracultural agreement. In contrast, domains that can only be learned from others (e.g., mythologies) are likely to be highly variable both within and between societies, and have a distribution that reflects the social communication network.

Hutchins (1995), like Roberts, sees whole groups as computational engines. But for Hutchins, cognition is distributed not just among humans but also among artifacts such as navigation charts and compasses, for they serve to store, transform, and transmit information, just as do the humans who use them.

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Additional links

-- James Boster


Boster, J. S. (1985). Requiem for the omniscient informant: there's life in the old girl yet. In J. Dougherty, Ed., Directions in Cognitive Anthropology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 177-197.

Boster, J. S. (1991). The information economy model applied to biological similarity judgment. In L. Resnick, J. Levine, and S. Teasley, Eds., Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, pp. 203-235.

Boster, J. S., and J. C. Johnson. (1989). Form or function: a comparison of expert and novice judgments of similarity among fish. American Anthropologist 91(4):866-889.

D'Andrade, R. G. (1976). A propositional analysis of U.S. American beliefs about illness. In K. H. Basso and H. A. Selby, Eds., Meaning in Anthropology. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, pp. 155-180.

D'Andrade, R. G. (1981). The cultural part of cognition. Cognitive Science 5:179-195.

D'Andrade, R. G. (1987). Modal responses and cultural expertise. American Behavioral Scientist 31(2):266-279.

Durkheim, E. (1933). Division of Labor in Society. New York: Macmillan.

Gardner, P. (1976). Birds, words, and a requiem for the omniscient informant. American Ethnologist 3:446-468.

Garro, L. (1986). Intracultural variation in folk medical knowledge: a comparison of curers and non-curers. American Anthropologist 88(2):351-370.

Garro, L. (1988). Explaining high blood pressure: variation in knowledge about illness. American Ethnologist 15:98-119.

Gatewood, J. B. (1983). Loose talk: linguistic competence and recognition ability. American Anthropologist 85(2):378-387.

Gatewood, J. B. (1984). Familiarity, vocabulary size, and recognition ability in four semantic domains. American Ethnologist 11(3):507-527.

Hallowell, A. I. (1955). Culture and Experience. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kempton, W., J. S. Boster, and J. A. Hartley. (1995). Environmental Values in American Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kroeber, A. L., and C. Kluckhohn. (1952). Culture: a critical review of concepts and definitions. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. 47. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Roberts, J. (1964). The self management of cultures. In W. Goodenough, Ed., Explorations in Cultural Anthropology: Essays in Honor of George Peter Murdock. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 433-454.

Roberts, J. (1987). Within culture variation. American Behavioral Scientist 31(2):266-279.

Romney, A. K., S. C. Weller, and W. H. Batchelder. (1986). Culture as consensus: a theory of culture and informant accuracy. American Anthropologist 88:313-338.

Sapir, E. (1938). Why anthropology needs the psychiatrist. Psychiatry 1:7-12.

Wallace, A. (1961). Culture and Personality. New York: Random House.

Weller, S. C. (1984). Consistency and consensus among informants: disease concepts in a rural Mexican town. American Anthropologist 86(4):966-975.