clay_shirky's picture
Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher; Adjunct Professor, NYU Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP); Author, Cognitive Surplus

Dan Sperber's Explanation of Culture

Why do groups of people behave the same way? Why do they behave differently from other groups living nearby? Why are those behaviors so stable over time? Alas, the obvious answer—cultures are adaptations to their environments—doesn't hold up. Multiple adjacent cultures along the Indus, the Euphrates, the Upper Rhine, have differed in language, dress, and custom, despite existing side-by-side in almost identical environments.

Something  happens to keep one group of people behaving in a certain set of ways. In the early 1970s, both E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins noticed that the flow of ideas in a culture exhibited similar patterns to the flow of genes in a species—high flow within the group, but sharply reduced flow between groups. Dawkins' response was to assume a hypothetical unit of culture called the meme, though he also made its problems clear—with genetic material, perfect replication is the norm, and mutations rare. With culture, it is the opposite—events are misremembered and then misdescribed, quotes are mangled, even jokes (pure meme) vary from telling to telling. The gene/meme comparison remained, for a generation, an evocative idea of not much analytic utility.

Dan Sperber has, to my eye, cracked this problem. In a slim, elegant volume of 15 years ago with the modest title Explaining Culture, he outlined a theory of culture as the residue of the epidemic spread of ideas. In this model, there is no meme, no unit of culture separate from the blooming, buzzing confusion of transactions. Instead, all cultural transmission can be reduced to one of two types: making a mental representation public, or internalizing a mental version of a public presentation. As Sperber puts it, "Culture is the precipitate of cognition and communication in a human population."

Sperber's two primitives—externalization of ideas, internalization of expressions—give us a way to think of culture not as a big container people inhabit, but rather as a network whose traces, drawn carefully, let us ask how the behaviors of individuals create larger, longer-lived patterns. Some public representations are consistently learned and then re-expressed and re-learned—Mother Goose rhymes, tartan patterns, and peer review have all survived for centuries. Others move from ubiquitous to marginal in a matter of years—pet rocks, the Pina Colada song. Still others thrive only within a subcultural domain—cosplay, Civil War re-enactment. (Indeed, a sub-culture is simply a network of people who traffic in particular representations, representations that are largely inert in the larger culture.)

With Sperber's network-tracing model, culture is best analyzed as an overlapping set of transactions, rather than as a container or a thing or a force. Given this, we can ask detailed questions about which private ideas are made public where, and we can ask when and how often those public ideas take hold in individual minds.

Rather than arguing about whether the sonnet is still a vital part of Western culture, for example, Sperber makes it possible ask instead "Which people have mental representations of individual sonnets, or of the sonnet as an overall form? How often do they express those representations? How often do others remember those expressions?" Understanding sonnet-knowing becomes a network analysis project, driven by empirical questions about how widespread, detailed, and coherent the mental representations of sonnets are. Cultural commitment to sonnets and Angry Birds and American exceptionalism and the theory of relativity can all be placed under the same lens.

This is what is so powerful about Sperber's idea: culture is a giant, asynchronous network of replication, ideas turning into expressions which turn into other, related ideas. Sperber also allows us to understand why persistence of public expression can be so powerful. When I sing "Camptown Races" to my son, he internalizes his own (slightly different) version. As he learns to read sheet music, however, he is gaining access to a much larger universe of such representations; Beethoven is not around to sing "Fur Elise" to him, but through a set of agreed on symbols (themselves internalized as mental representations) Beethoven's public representations can be internalized centuries later.

Sperber's idea also suggests increased access to public presentation of ideas will increase the dynamic range of culture overall. Some publicly available representations will take hold among the widest possible group of participants in history, considered in both absolute numbers and as a percentage of the human race. (Consider, for example, the number of people who can now understand the phrase "That's killing two pigs with one bird.") It is this globally wired possibility for global cultural imitation that Mark Pagel worries about when he talks about the internet enabling "infinite stupidity."

At the same time, it has never been easier for members of possible sub-cultures to find each other, and to create their own public representations, at much lower cost, longer life, and greater reach, than ordinary citizens have ever been able to. The January 25th protests in Egypt hijacked the official public representation of that day as National Police Day; this was only possible when dissidents could create alternate public representations at a similar scale as the Egyptian state.

Actual reductionism—the interpretation of a large number of effects using a small number of causes—is rare in the social sciences, but Sperber has provided a framework for dissolving large and vague questions about culture into a series of tractable research programs. Most of the empirical study of the precipitate of cognition and communication is still in the future, but I can't think of another current idea in the social sciences that offers that degree of explanatory heft.