John B. Gatewood
Revised, Feb. 7, 1996
A shortened version was presented at the 93rd Annual Meeting
of the American Anthropological Association (Nov. 30 - Dec. 4, 1994, Atlanta,
Georgia) in a session entitled "Intracultural Variation and Cultural Models,"
Morris Freilich, organizer; David M. Schneider, discussant.
[See published version in: David Kronenfeld, Giovannia Benardo, Victor de Munck, and Michael Fischer, eds. 2011. A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology, pp. 102-114. Malden, MA: Blackwell.]
Many definitions of culture emphasize "sharing" to distinguish that which is transmitted by a group of people, constituting a social tradition, from that which is idiosyncratic to individuals as such. Taken literally, however, the notion of shared knowledge is quite problematic, for each individual within the group must learn things for him or herself. Collective representations are part of the given for each individual, yet each individual must construct private meanings for the collective representations. The result is intracultural variation, which arises as individuals construct personal understandings of their experiences guided by social cues and constrained by communicative effectiveness. This paper examines the loose relation between personal knowledge and collective representations using examples from Americans' ethnobiology, salmon fishing, and bartending.
It strikes me as obvious that individuals differ from one another with respect to their accumulated personal knowledge. This much is true whether comparing individuals who live next door to one another or on opposite sides of the world. Further, inter-individual differences make sense insofar as all people have to learn things for themselves during their, perhaps unique, life histories. Try as we may to teach our sons and daughters, we cannot learn anything for them -- life is a lab course. From this viewpoint, then, the fact that everyone resembles some folks more than others is what I find puzzling and interesting. And, this is where cultural models become relevant.
By definition, cultural models are supposed to be shared or held in common by groups of individuals whilst not being shared by other groups. Yet, if individuals within a group hold cultural models in common, how can these same people also differ from one another in terms of their socially transmitted, learned behaviors? That is, if culture entails sharing, how can there be intracultural diversity?
Working toward a solution to this quasi-paradox, I'd like to focus today on situations in which individuals of the same cultural tradition differ substantially in their private understandings of the supposedly common culture. That is, I'll concentrate on some situations in which there are discrepancies between people's personal knowledge (manifest as inter-individual differences) despite shared collective representations (minimally, similar ways of talking about things). The general question I would ask goes something like this:
When can we appropriately say of individuals, who know different things about the world, that they "share a common culture," and what might it mean to say such a thing?The examples I've selected concern differential knowledge with respect to trees, alcoholic beverages, and salmon fishing among a most mysterious tribe, the Nacirema.
To pass the time, Grandfather would point to the various crops, weeds, and trees along the roadside and tell me their common names as well as their uses or nuisances, as the case may be. Indeed, Grandfather knew quite a bit about "folk botany." (The local Boy Scouts used to come to his home to work on their "nature" merit badges, because he had about 30 species of trees planted around it and would teach them identifications and well as uses of the different plants.)
Despite this rather ideal learning context, I did not learn much of what Grandfather tried to teach me about native plants. Oh, the names still swirl around in my head, as do images of the plants themselves, but I was never interested in connecting names with particular kinds of plants -- why bother? So, to this day, I know oodles of names for plants I cannot recognize and am familiar with oodles of plants that I cannot name. I know the names are supposed to refer to different plants, but the relation between plant names and the plants themselves is precisely what I failed to learn. Thus, when I hear many plant names, I know what sort of landscape the referent plants inhabit, human attitudes about them, and perhaps their uses. But, when I walk in the Illinois countryside, all I can say by way of commenting on the familiar plant life is: "Yep, there's one of THOSE thingies ... and there's one of THOSE."
Given my own mix of knowledge and ignorance with respect to Nacirema plant classification, I was quite taken by anthropological accounts of the extensive ethnobiological knowledge common among various exotic cultures. Those natives sounded a great deal like my grandfather and very little like me. Just like grandfather, they know 'names for things,' whereas I just know 'names andthings.' This contrast is what prompted me to collect some data on other Naciremas' knowledge of trees and write a couple of papers on the topic (Gatewood 1983, 1984; Gretz 1987).
People like me engage in "loose talk" when the topic is trees. For the most part, ours is a purely semantic knowledge of tree names. For instance, we know that an "oak" is supposed to be a large deciduous tree whose wood is good for rustic furniture, hardwood flooring, and fuel in fireplaces and stoves. As a metaphor of someone's character, oak is durable, sturdy, and honest (as opposed to fancy/deceitful). I even know there are several kinds of oak trees, and I've been told I have some variety of oak growing in my backyard. But, I wouldn't wager $5.00 on a one-time chance that I can identify an oak tree growing wild in a mixed deciduous forest.
For people like me, and most Nacirema are, tree names such as "oak," "cherry," and "maple" are collective representations that do not re-present much to us. We've learned of these categories by learning their names, but we learn about the categories on a need-to-know basis. Our personal knowledge concerning the collective representation remains partial, incomplete -- especially in comparison with truly knowledgeable folks like Grandfather. Nonetheless, partial knowledge is sufficient for our needs. For example, last year I spent $2,000 for "red oak" flooring in our family room because I was convinced by people I regard as experts that red oak flooring is a good quality material and its graining will compliment the graining and hues of our new cherry cabinets. From my level of ignorance, this was $2,000 of "trust the experts" money, because I'd never even heard of "red oak" until last year.
In sum, relatively few Nacirema know as much about trees as my grandfather did. For most of us, tree names are place-holding concepts. We know of trees, but not necessarily much about them. Simply by knowing the names, however, we are able to talk with experts well enough to get what they tell us we want with respect to important stuff like furniture, landscaping, and firewood. Likewise, we often know enough about the referent trees -- their habitats and social associations -- to wield tree names appropriately in figurative language. The names, as such, frame our thinking and enable communication, but we are quite variable when it comes to the substantive knowledge we have of the trees we talk about. Although park rangers, carpenters, kitchen designers, and landscape architects are supposed to have substantial personal knowledge underlying these particular collective representations, most of us get by just fine with "loose talk" when discussing trees.
Synopsis: John knows of TREE X. John talks about TREE X. But, John may or may not know much about TREE X. The degree to which John's knowledge about TREE X is "filled in" depends on his motivations for learning about TREE X. Yet, John's "incomplete" personal knowledge doesn't seem to matter, so long as he is can talk with experts as the need arises.
The domain of "drink names" for alcoholic beverages is exceedingly large and diverse; the collective representations are legion. The Mr. Boston Deluxe Official Bartender's Guide (Anon. 1974), for example, has a 23-page index of names for "mixed" alcoholic drinks. The entire set of drink names would include all of these and a long list of un-mixed alcoholic beverages as well as their brand name varieties. A very small sample of drink names is provided in Figure 1.
An important feature of drink nomenclature, obscured by such listings, is that the drink names do not form a closed set. New names are being coined all the time, most commonly for brand names and new mixed drinks, but occasionally for new "pure," or "straight" beverages. (Lehrer, 1983, notes that 'wine-descriptors' have this same property of open-endedness.) Creativity is on-going, and the lexicon allows for this.
Lexical analysis of drink names reveals a shallow taxonomy. An ethnoscientist would rapidly discover that "brand names" refer to particular realizations of more basic, generic beverage types. Johnnie Walker Black, J&B, Chevas Regal, Pinch, Cutty Sark are kinds of scotch; Tanqueray, Beefeater, Bombay, Gordon's are kinds of gin; Hennessey, Martell, Courvoisier are kinds of cognac; Budweiser, Moose Head, Beck's, Heineken are kinds of beer; and so forth. Set inclusion of this sort might fascinate a Martian, but it is obvious and boring to Earthling lounge-lizards.
A more interesting aspect of the classificatory system is the distinction between "pure" ("straight") drinks and "mixed drinks." Of course, no alcoholic beverage is 'pure' from a chemical perspective: scotch, gin, bourbon are complex chemical compounds that vary from year-to-year and month-to-month, even in products from the same distillery. Yet, it is customary to think these categories refer to stable, homogeneous substances that are, in some sense, fundamental for the domain as a whole -- rather like the periodic chart of the elements. They constitute what psychologist Eleanor Rosch (1973; Rosch, et al, 1976) would call the basic object level. Scotch, gin, bourbon, vodka, and so forth occupy a privileged level in the classificatory system: they are the basic ingredients from which other drinks -- "mixed drinks" -- are made. Figure 2 shows the drink names from Figure 1 sorted into the three major categories recognized so far.
Today, there is very little change in the "basic beverage types" one year to the next. By contrast, there is sustained growth in the number of brand name varieties. The area of greatest productivity, however, is clearly in the inventory of named "mixed drinks." Indeed, every self-respecting, pretentious bar will try to come up with its own specialty concoctions. Creative efforts of this sort justify higher prices all around.
Focusing on segregate labels for "mixed drinks," we see several lexical forms in use. These differ along two dimensions of contrast: (1) morphological complexity of the name, and (2) whether the name gives a clue as to the ingredients or not. Figure 3 shows the previous sample data analyzed in this way (for definitions of lexeme types, see Frake 1962; Berlin, Breedlove, and Raven 1973; Casson 1981:79-80).
Although it might be entertaining to continue analyzing drink names as if we didn't know anything about them, I'd like to jump to some observations on the social functions of drink names. For present purposes, there are five relevant points:
1. The primary function of drink names, independent of their linguistic form, is to establish an unambiguous, 1-to-1 referential relation -- a publicly-known semiotic code -- whereby customers can ask for a particular potent potable and be reasonably assured of getting what they asked for.
2. The public code, the system of collective representations, bridges over very asymmetrical knowledge boundaries. When placing an order, all the customer needs to know about a drink is its name. The bartender is supposed to supply all the other knowledge. Thus, so long as the customer and bartender share the same public code, they can interact successfully despite substantial differences in their knowledge of drinks.
3. Drink names serve an important, though latent, social function. They are used to signal in-group boundaries. People "in the know" can wield this lexical set to accomplish a variety of face-work (Goffman 1958) vis-a-vis bartenders, cocktail waitresses, and other customers. This latent function probably accounts for the lexical irregularities and idiosyncrasies of drink names, as well as their referential opacity.
4. The referential focus of drink names is on the ingredients that make up the drinks, including their relative proportions. Other aspects of the actual drink -- what might be called the drink's full "presentation" -- are usually left un-said. There are, however, a few expressions whereby customers can emphasize, or deviate from, their drink's standard presentation. These utterances are generally linguistic tag-on's to the drink name, e.g.,
scotch, neatCorrect usage of these auxiliary expressions signifies that one knows the unsaid standard or norm that is being modified. Hence, correct talk of this sort conveys the meta-message that the customer is both discriminating in taste and knowledgeable as regards customary bartending procedures.
Wild Turkey, on the rocks
whiskey sour, up
Campari and soda, with a twist
vodka martini, shaken not stirred [James Bond].
5. Finally, most customers think bartending expertise is pretty much a matter of rote memorization -- associating recipes with drink names. Not only does this impression ignore the kinesthetic aspects of bartending knowledge, but it also reflects a grossly oversimplified view of bartenders' mixology knowledge. Bartenders organize the incredible number of drink names and corresponding recipes into a small number of "recipe templates" that define similar families of drinks. For example, a martini, gibson, manhattan, and rob roy all derive from the same deep structure:
TEMPLATE = BOOZE + VERMOUTH + GARNISH (1.5 oz.) (.75 oz.) martini gin dry olives gibson gin dry onions manhattan bourbon sweet orange/cherry rob roy scotch sweet orange/cherrySimilarly, a daiquiri, whiskey sour, Tom Collins, and bacardi cocktail are all variants of the basic "sour" template: 1 oz. of booze plus 2 oz. of sour mix, then shake or blend to a froth, pour, and add garnish. Drink varieties within a given family arise by altering the main booze ingredient and by slight "bendings" from the basic structure in terms of glassware, additional (spice) ingredients, and garnishes. Some recipe templates are named, some are not; but most customers aren't even aware such templates exist.
In summary, minor miracles of social organization occur thousands of times per hour at bars across the land. Speaking as a former bartender, it is simply amazing how little customers need to know in order to get the drinks they want. Minimal similarities in collective representations enable successful social interaction despite large differences in personal knowledge. So long as the customer can talk the talk -- knows of a drink and asks for it by name -- he or she can get happily drunk. The bartender, whose knowledge of drinks is generally both more extensive and differently organized, stands ready to "fill in" whatever gaps may exist in the customer's knowledge.
Synopsis: The only thing customers need to know to get a mixed drink from a bartender is the drink's name. Customers and bartenders must share these collective representations, but their personal knowledge associated with the mutually identified drinks are generally quite different. What bartenders know about drinks is very "filled in" in comparison with the customers' very partial knowledge.
Purse seining is a kind of net fishing. The seine is big net about a quarter-mile long and 90 feet deep, with corks on the top and weights on the bottom. The seine is manipulated in the water by two boats working in tandem: the main boat and a smaller skiff.
Six people do all the work. The skipper stays on the main boat and runs the show; the skiff driver maneuvers the power skiff around; and the other guys are deck hands.
Putting the seine in the water, closing the net to entrap the fish, and retrieving the catch is called "making a set." A "set" begins when the skipper gives the order. The skiff driver and a deck hand take off with one end of the seine in the opposite direction of the main boat. They go out and hold the net open so fish swim into it. When the skipper thinks it is time (after about 15-30 minutes of "holding the set"), he signals for the skiff to return.
Now, the seine is in a big circle with both ends tied to the main boat. Two guys start "pursing" the bottom of the net by wrapping a line, which is run through rings attached to the bottom of the seine, around the drums of a winch on the main boat. This slowly closes the bottom of the seine, rather like pulling the purse strings of a lady's purse, and keeps the fish from diving out of the net. While two deck hands are pursing, the other two are running around doing assorted things to keep the seine from getting tangled. When the pursing is finished, the crew hoist up the bottom of the net and drop it on deck. Now, the fish are trapped.
All that is left to do is "haul gear" until there is just a bag of fish in the water. How you get the fish on board depends on how many you've caught -- either you'd hoist up the whole bag with a block-and-tackle or "brail" the fish with a dip-net. When all the fish have been brought aboard, the deck hands haul in the bag-end of the seine, pitch the fish into the hold, then get everything cleaned up and ready for the next set.This description of purse seining is what I'd call a narrator's account. The story is told from the posture of an informed observer of the operation as a whole, and it is a very abbreviated description, almost a distortion, of the personal knowledge required to accomplish seining. Still, it works well enough as an overview. It's the sort of story my brother told me before I went to Alaska, what experienced seiners tell rookies before they go out the first time, what we used to tell tourists back in port, and what I tell students, friends, and relatives who want to know something about purse seining.
Generally, rookies have heard a couple of narrators' accounts before they actually go fishing. The differences between these narrators' accounts -- these ways of representing seining in public discourse -- and the personal knowledge required to do seining become painfully clear when rookies participate in their first set. It's well and good to know seining jargon and enough about the referent actions to tell a story, but reciting a narrator's account doesn't get the work done. Speech acts catch no fish. Knowing about seining is not the same as knowing how to seine.
The collective representations embedded in a narrator's account do provide a somewhat useful, if vague, comprehension of the group's overall efforts. Still, each fisherman must master his own job routine by himself. Getting all his own tasks done properly and on time is what dominates the seiner's thinking and constitutes the immediate reality while fishing. And, most of these 'little tasks' aren't even named.
Thus, despite having heard several verbal explanations of purse seining, it took me about a month of fishing before I could connect the little tasks in my job routine with the 'Big Picture' provided in the collective representations. Further, even when crew members do use collective representations to define segments of their private action routines -- e.g., thinking to oneself, "We are now 'hauling gear'." -- crew members vary widely in the personal knowledge mobilized during that time segment (Gatewood 1985).
Synopsis: Being a competent salmon seiner involves many layers of knowledge: knowing of, talking about, knowing about, and knowing how. Competent seiners can indeed re-present seining to others, but it is their private "know how" that catches fish. Each seiner develops these tacit skills, which are only marginally related to the level of public discourse, for him or herself.
Firstly, I hope the examples have shown that sharing collective representations does notnecessarily mean folks share a great deal of personal knowledge. Secondly, whereas collective representations generally underlie talk (public discourse), personal knowledge underlies human action.
So, what good are collective representations? Why do they exist at all? Are modern humans just pretentious by nature, do we just enjoy talking about things they don't know much about, or is there some deeper, adaptive rationale for our proclivity to indulge in loose talk? Let me offer some speculative answers to these questions in the guise of an origin myth.
ORIGIN MYTH FOR COLLECTIVE REPRESENTATIONS
Once upon a time, long, long ago ... in the small-scale, face-to-face societies of proto-human primates, each individual did pretty much the same thing as every other individual, at least those of the same age and sex group. Because everybody was doing pretty much the same things in the same environment while watching each other, individuals developed very similar understandings of their very similar life experiences. But, each proto-human could only guess what the others were thinking and feeling, inferring their psychic states from context, non-verbal cues, and occasional emotive vocalizations.
One day, folks began mumbling and grunting to each other as a regular accompaniment to action. The co-presence of speaker, hearer, and referent enabled other folks to associate various 'human-vocal-sounds' with 'things-in-the-world.' Talk was invented. Before long, folks could talk about things even when they weren't doing them and, through talk, conjure word-pictures in their own as well as their fellows' minds. "Collective representations" were born -- ways of communicating about activities and surroundings, ways of making explicit previously implicit mutual understandings. With talk, Garr found out she knew pretty much the same things as Thag, Gwan, and Blodnar (her reference group). She felt less isolated. Talk was comforting, fun, and useful. Unfortunately, babies didn't know how to talk the group's talk at birth. New kids had to learn the talk-forms for themselves, but they picked it up fairly quickly with only intermittent coaching and corrections. Generations passed ...
As groups spread out across the Earth, they unconsciously developed distinctive ways of talking, each requiring a period of learning. More generations ...
In some groups, social roles began to proliferate in conjunction with complex divisions of labor. Individuals in these societies depended more and more on other members of their society for things they could not make or do themselves. Each individual talked about more and more things, but knew less and less about most of them. Many aspects of the collective representations became "empty categories" for most of the society -- they knew of the categories but very little else. Still, because they shared the same collective representations, individuals with increasingly divergent personal knowledge could interact successfully, learning what the others knew on a "need to know" basis.
And, that is how we got to be the ultra-social creatures we are today ... inter-dependent and reciprocally ignorant.In conclusion, the evolutionary significance of collective representations is that they dramatically reduce what each of us must learn while at the same time providing access to a much greater store of wisdom than we possibly can learn. So long as inter-individual differences with respect to what is learned include a core of shared collective representations, the ensuing "intracultural variation" is very adaptive.
Returning to my initial question, then, I would suggest it is appropriate to say a group of individuals "shares a common culture" if, by this, we mean simply they have learned similar ways of talking about -- of re-presenting -- things to one another. But, sharing cultural models does not imply homogeneity as regards substantive knowledge. Personal knowledge concerning cultural domains is highly variable, grading from knowing of to knowing about to knowing how.
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Figure 1. A Sample List of "Drink Names" port sidecar Ouzo Stroh's apple cooler martini daiquiri rob roy gin and tonic cuba libre brandy presbyterian Drambuie manhattan screwdriver vodka scotch Budweiser old fashioned harvey wallbanger bourbon Campari Wild Turkey lager vodka tonic stinger singapore sling gin Pernod scotch and soda salty dog triple sec Grand Marnier gimlet Tom Collins bloody mary brandy alexander black russian mai tai seven and seven champagne Bombay perfect manhattan Galliano tequilla sunrise margarita creme de cacao stout zombie pink lady white russian sherry Absolut vodka martini bacardi between the sheets frozen daiquiri brandy sour rosé ale pousse-café[# User your browser's "BACK" command to return to text #]
Figure 2. "Drink Names" by Major Categories BRAND BASIC MIXED NAMES BEVERAGE TYPES DRINKS ------------------- ------------------- ------------------ Absolut (vodka) ale apple cooler Bombay (gin) bourbon bacardi Budweiser (lager beer) champagne between the sheets Campari creme de cacao black russian Drambuie gin bloody mary Galliano lager brandy alexander Grand Marnier port brandy presbyterian Ouzo rosé brandy sour Pernod scotch cuba libre Stroh's (lager beer) sherry daiquiri Wild Turkey (whiskey) stout frozen daiquiri triple sec gimlet vodka gin and tonic harvey wallbanger mai tai manhattan margarita martini old fashioned perfect manhattan pink lady pousse-café rob roy salty dog scotch and soda screwdriver seven and seven sidecar singapore sling stinger tequilla sunrise Tom Collins vodka martini vodka tonic white russian zombie[# User your browser's "BACK" command to return to text #]
Figure 3. Lexemic Analysis of Names for "Mixed Drinks" REFERENTIALLY REFERENTIALLY OPAQUE INDICATIVE +------------------------+------------------------+ UN-ANALYZABLE | daiquiri | | PRIMARY LEXEMES | gimlet | | | mai tai  | | | manhattan | | | margarita | | | martini | | | pousse-café  | | | stinger | | | zombie | | +------------------------+------------------------+ ANALYZABLE | between the sheets | brandy alexander | PRIMARY LEXEMES | black russian | brandy presbyterian | | bloody mary | tequilla sunrise | | cuba libre | | | harvey wallbanger | | | old fashioned | | | pink lady | | | rob roy | | | salty dog | | | screwdriver | | | sidecar | | | singapore sling | | | white russian | | +------------------------+------------------------+ PRODUCTIVE | frozen daiquiri | apple cooler | PRIMARY LEXEMES | perfect manhattan | bacardi (cocktail) | | Tom Collins  | gin collins  | | | brandy sour | | | vodka martini | +------------------------+------------------------+ SECONDARY | | | LEXEMES | | | +------------------------+------------------------+ POLYLEXEMES | seven and seven  | gin and tonic | | | scotch and soda | | | vodka (and) tonic | +------------------------+------------------------+ Notes:  Analyzed from viewpoint of monolingual English speaker.  Alternate name for "Tom Collins" is "gin collins," as opposed to a "vodka collins." "Gin collins" is a referentially indicative, productive primary lexeme.  A "seven and seven" means a highball composed of Seagram's 7 whiskey and 7-Up. If one knows these brand name products, then the segregate label would be referentially indicative, otherwise not.[# User your browser's "BACK" command to return to text #]
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