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
process of getting more resources or using them more efficiently.
Systems maximize power by:
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
- Developing storages of high-quality energy
- Feeding back work from storages to increase inflows
- Recycling materials as needed
- Organizing control mechanisms that keep the system adapted
- Setting up exchanges for needed materials
- Contributing work to the next larger system
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
below our level of awareness. Cultural models may be said to be
organized into larger 'cultural-configurations', 'worldviews', or
The 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.
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
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,
models, and language, and the interactions between these components,
natural environment, and the people that continuously produce and
re-negotiate their forms
components always co-occur.
biosphere context of a sociocultural system is represented in highly
aggregated form to the left in this diagram.
resources in earth systems are commonly
categories of renewable
tide and uplift), slow
topsoil, groundwater), and non
-renewable (coal, oil, natural
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
fact that humans have co-evolved an integrated repertoire of symbolic
plus material assets, technologies, and social organization, each
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
with autocatalytic feedback (arrows from storages returning to the
symbol). In systems terms, they are
co-products of humanity.
storage of symbolic "culture" is here labeled "cultural
models" to avoid confusion with the former imprecise term, to
the fact that symbolizing behavior is only one component within the
sociocultural system, and to draw our attention to the contentions that
symbolic culture is composed of countless cultural models that
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
system and between ecosystem resources are aggregated into one
This indicates that the dynamics
of each affects the other.
The fact that
the non-renewable storage is not reproduced (no inflow, only outflow)
temporal scale indicates that there are limits to the growth of our
contemporary sociocultural systems, systems that supplement renewable
with fossil fuels.
Abel, Thomas 2003 “Understanding Complex Human Ecosystems: The Case of
Ecotourism on Bonaire.” Conservation
7(3):10. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol7/iss3/art10