Re: Culture as Memes?

thomas w kavanagh (tkavanag@INDIANA.EDU)
Wed, 2 Oct 1996 14:21:07 -0500

On Wed, 2 Oct 1996, GRABER, ROBERT wrote:

> G. O'Regonsuggests that American culture could be described in terms of
> memes on which there was a high degree of consensus.

Ok, you Americans (and others), what is this, as rendered in ASCII:

| * * * * * |______________________|
| * * * * * |______________________|
| * * * * * |______________________|
| * * * * * |______________________|
| * * * * * |______________________|

Is there a "high degree of consensus" about it?


When I teach intro anthro, one of the first things I deal with is the fact
that there is a differential distribution of culture in a population such
that not everyone "knows" or "shares" everything. However, we can discuss
the "dimensions" of that differential sharing.

On the one hand is the Linton's dimension of what may be called the
sociology of culture:

Universals: things/traits [memes?] shared/held by everyone: use of a
particular language, for instance.
Alternatives: alternate ways of doing something
Specialities: things/traits/memes? which are unique to a particular
segment of the population {for whatever reason, age, initiation,
gender, occupation, interest, etc)
Individual peculiarities: cultural items which are unique to one individual.

In contrast to this dimension is a dimension of "type" of cultural trait:
Culture consists of shared:

Descriptions: what a ____ is.
Procedures: ways of doing things
Normative: "must" be done in a particular way (see "values")
Pragmatic: alternative ways of doing it based on current
conditions (see "alternatives")
Values: statements about relative/absolute worth.

Now, back to the flag "meme". I would venture that there is a "high degree
of consensus" about the descriptions of the flag; it may in fact be a
"universal" in American culture. Indeed, that description probably extends
beyond the political boundaries of the American population. However, there
is probably no such consensus about the "values" asssociated with the
flag, although the particular "values" will cluster in definable
"specialty" groups.

Note also that as one moves from "individual peculiarities" to
"universals," the particular traits become vaguer and more generalized.
Politicians have known this for years: just look at the generalized phrase
"family values."

Someone previously used the example of the Hopi. I was director of the
Hopi Cultural Center Museum, 1980-81. During that time I had several long
conversations with active Hopi traditionalists (note the small 't' to
differentiate them from the political Traditionals of Third Mesa). From
them I learned that the are social dimensions of Hopi culture: Hopi
"navoti" ("knowledge") is differentiated along lines of mesa, village,
clan, lineage, sodality, kiva, and age. Therefore, what is "shared" among
the Hopi may be, at the most general, the descriptive statement, "There are
Hopis." Any more specific statement about what "Hopi" is specific to
particular groups within the population.

Note also, that the differential sharing is dynamic, it is always
changing, influenced by continual individual learning and "sharing",
pondering on the "meaning" of events; and by political influence.