Meaning, Sharing, Culture

Thu, 4 Apr 1996 17:47:07 CST

M. Hill's suggestion that we utterly exclude meaning from our conception
of culture's constitution is provocative and a bit shocking--even to so
staunch a materialist as I. I think if we were to try this, it would
need to be on better grounds than the assertion that meaning is totally
idiosyncratic; surely R. Kephart's linguistic example--and the fact that
symbolic communication occurs at all--effectively refute this claim. My
next thought was that it would be good if we had some decent method for
measuring the degree of "sharedess" of meaning. Sherry Orner's classic
paper on "Key Symbols" points out that some symbols, such as the U.S.
flag, seem to have intrinsically vague, diffuse meaning--I believe she
termed these "summarizing symbols." Would this entail lower
sharedness--i.e., greater idiosyncracy--of meaning among individuals in
the population, by comparison to other kinds of symbols? Oddly, though,
I'm not sure it would do us much good to have such measurement. After
all, we have rather good data about the degree of sharedness of
artifacts and behaviors, e.g., the proportion of the US population that
owns a car or has participated in a marriage ritual. Many people own ca
rs, and nobody exactly owns, say, a space shuttle; many go through a mar
riage rite and almost none of us are inaugurated President; but cars,
space shuttles, marriages, and presidential inuagurations all seem to be
describable, equally well, as features of US culture. Perhaps we are
dealing with different senses of "sharing" here; but these
considerations seem to show that knowing how common or frequent
something is within a population is not necessarily crucial in
determining whether we want to consider it a feature of culture. Still,
I'd like to hear more from Matt --or others--about conceptualizing
culture without reference to shared meanings. --Bob Graber