Cultural Models and the Environment

In anthropology there are many ideas about the nature of ‘culture’.  Cultural models, according to Roy D'Andrade, are used to represent something, or to reason with by mentally manipulating the parts of the model to solve some problem.  They are learned, non-declarative knowledge, and their learning is social and individual.  ‘Culture’ is thought to be composed of many cultural models, differentially internalized by culture members.  To quote Holland and Quinn (1987), 'Cultural models are presupposed, taken-for-granted models of the world that are widely shared (although not necessarily to the exclusion of other alternative models) by the members of a society and that play an enormous role in their understanding of that world and their behavior in it.'

General principles of hierarchy and self-organization used in ecosystems and other systems can be applied to models of cognition, including cultural models.  During self-organization, systems are guided by the maximum power principle.  Self-organization tends to develop network connections that use energies in feedback action to aid the process of getting more resources or using them more efficiently. 
Systems maximize power by: 
  1. Developing storages of high-quality energy
  2. Feeding back work from storages to increase inflows
  3. Recycling materials as needed 
  4. Organizing control mechanisms that keep the system adapted and stable
  5. Setting up exchanges for needed materials
  6. Contributing work to the next larger system
In accord with fundamental principles of hierarchy (Odum) entities to the right in a structure hierarchy are fewer in number, have longer turnover times, larger spatial scale, higher search/exploration ability, higher maintenance cost, can take more varied inputs and/or from varied sources, have larger feedback effects, and produce products of higher “quality” – a word redefined by Odum to reflect the great convergence or concentration that was necessary to produce the product or service. 
Hierarchy in Culture

In this diagram, cultural models are located within a hierarchy of cognitive objects, related to various theories or models of culture and cognition.  Cultural models occupy a middle area in the hierarchy.  Examples of important cultural models are models of 'inequality', 'competition', 'class', 'race', 'free markets', 'science', 'gender', 'warfare', 'plants', 'animals', 'health', and others.  Cultural models at this middle scale benefit from the structural objects provided by language, and more basic units of conceptualization, such as 'semantic domains', 'folk genera', or 'linguistic postulates', which structure our understanding of the world, below our level of awareness.  Cultural models may be said to be organized into larger 'cultural-configurations', 'worldviews', or 'habitus'.

Hierarchy of SchemasThe cultural models object of the diagram above can be described in more detail.  Following D'Andrade, cultural models can be recognized as being composed of increasingly specific schemas.  As in other hierarchies, there exist many low-level schemas, which constitute many middle level schemas, which themselves constitute few top level, cultural models, or what D'Andrade calls 'master motives'.  Unlike D'Andrade's conceptualization, however, the diagram here represents the essential feedbacks from the higher levels that can be understood to control or determine which cultural schemas exist at the smaller scales or lower levels of the hierarchy.

farmCultural models of the environment can help us understand how people cognize the human-environment relationship. 
Models of the environment are sometimes called traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).  Some of TEK is declarative knowledge, and so is better labled 'cultural theory' (D'Andrade).  But a tremendous amount of environmental knowledge is also encoded in cultural models and is therefore not simply or readily recountable by a subject, but must be constructed by the researcher through cultural model analysis.  Of great interest in itself, cultural models of the environment can also be useful in the formulation of environmental policy that reflects what people know and how they think about nature.

Cultural models (as all objects of symbolic culture) are located within a larger conceptualization of humans within human-ecosystems that can be called a sociocultural system..  A sociocultural system (below) is composed of
material assets, social structural diversity, cultural models, and language, and the interactions between these components, the natural environment, and the people that continuously produce and re-negotiate their forms.  These components always co-occur.

CulturePeopleNatureThe biosphere context of a sociocultural system is represented in highly aggregated form to the left in this diagram.  Natural resources in earth systems are commonly partitioned into categories of renewable (sun, tide and uplift), slow-renewable (timber, topsoil, groundwater), and non-renewable (coal, oil, natural gas, metals) resources.  This categorization scheme indicates the turnover time relative to human life-spans.

A sociocultural system is conceived as a self-organizing system of amplification, constraint, and pulsing dynamics with many shifting limiting factors within ecosystems and within itself (population density being only one).  Within these material constraints are situated the human symbolic systems of cultural models, possessing structure and dynamics of their own.  Intentionality and agency can be understood to self-organize with a highly dynamic human and extra-human environment.

The term sociocultural system more precisely conveys the fact that humans have co-evolved an integrated repertoire of symbolic behavior plus material assets, technologies, and social organization, each within language contexts.  These components (above) are identified with separate “storage” symbols.  They are assembled from left to right, representing increases in replacement time.  They are joined by a single interaction symbol, indicating that no component is "prior", each is potentially limiting, and all may amplify production with autocatalytic feedback (arrows from storages returning to the interaction symbol).  In systems terms, they are co-products of humanity.

The storage of symbolic "culture" is here labeled "cultural models" to avoid confusion with the former imprecise term, to accentuate the fact that symbolizing behavior is only one component within the larger sociocultural system, and to draw our attention to the contentions that symbolic culture is composed of countless cultural models that interact, sharing themes or postulates, that are constantly evolving or being re-negotiated, and that constitute their own (hierarchical) system, one that profoundly and fundamentally shapes the ways we see the world.

The interactions between components of the sociocultural system and between ecosystem resources are aggregated into one interaction symbol.  This indicates that the dynamics of each affects the other.  The fact that the non-renewable storage is not reproduced (no inflow, only outflow) at this temporal scale indicates that there are limits to the growth of our contemporary sociocultural systems, systems that supplement renewable energies with fossil fuels. 

Related Publications:

Abel, Thomas 2003 “Understanding Complex Human Ecosystems: The Case of Ecotourism on Bonaire.” Conservation Ecology 7(3):10. [online] URL: