Cultural Modeling

The anthropologist A.L. Kroeber commented that Culture is both superindividual and superorganic.  “There are certain properties of culture—such as transmissibility, high variability, cumulativeness, value standards, influence on individuals—which are difficult to explain, or to see much significance in, strictly in terms of organic personalities and individuals.”  Businesses tend to think in terms of individuals. We build segmentation schemes, psychographic profiles and cognitive models based on the assumption that it is the individual we are targeting.  The problem is that human being don’t function as individuals, regardless of what Tea Party advocates and psychologists tell us.  We function within a set of parameters that extend beyond ourselves and are embodied in the shared knowledge of our various cultural constructs. In other words, we never really shop alone because we are all products of our respective cultures.  If marketers and designers think about individual “data points” they miss the deeper, fundamental elements of why we buy.  Cultural modeling is one method for coping with this.

Generally speaking, cultural models are shared perceptions and attitudes about how the world works. They are mental tools used by individuals and groups to process and organize information, make decisions, and guide behavior. People construct simple cultural models of how the world works and use these models to guide decision making, behavior and as an aid in understanding novel or unfamiliar ideas. We call them cultural models, instead of just mental models, because they are shared across social groups.  They are important because cultural models are taken for granted and operate below the level of individual consciousness. They are the tools that reconcile and direct our actions and beliefs, including our shopping habits.

Why does it matter?  Because a great deal of time is spent trying to predict behavior in the shopping arena, only to see those predictions fall flat. Individuals work in common and have social and cultural rules that often outweigh individual psychology. Black Friday should lead to MORE chaos, but it doesn’t because of the cultural underpinnings that shape what we do and why we do it – it is a holiday and an event, which means people understand that getting the best deal is superseded by social rules that prevent us from getting into altercations, theft, etc.  To be sure these things happen, but we understand them as anomalies rather than the norm. The individual animal, so to speak, is guided by cultural construct, not just individual needs.

Cultural modeling is grounded in the understanding that widely shared information is reflected by a high concordance among individuals. When there is a single cultural consensus, individuals may differ in their knowledge or cultural competence. Estimation of individual competencies is derived from the pattern of inter-informant agreement indices on the first factor of a principal-components analysis (essentially, factor analysis). These competency scores should not be mistaken for scores of expertise. The cultural model provides a measure for culturally shared knowledge, and, hence, the levels of competencies measure the extent to which an individual shares what everyone else agrees on.

Cultural modeling moves from participant observation to isolating specific concepts and statements that emerge when sifting through the data. Anecdotes lead to specific areas of testing. When presented with situations, be they rules of interaction while shopping, how we choose to manage natural resources or a host of other problems, we have to make decisions.  Those decisions involve choices.  We sift through our choices and select the “correct” answer based on how we process the elements of those choices and our degree of competency with a given context.  There are three standard assumptions of the process:

  1. Each item has a (culturally) correct answer (items are dichotomous)
  2. Items are independent given the culturally correct answers
  3. Each respondent has a fixed competence over all questions (i.e., the items are homogeneous).

The goal, then, is to isolate the items, the variables and the shared understanding of an event, place, item, context, etc.

Of course, general agreement may be coupled with systematic disagreement, as we so often see in politics.  But cultural modeling is an effective tool for uncovering both shared and unshared knowledge. That in turn leads to being able to make predictions that are rooted in understanding of a complex system rather than the data points that make up the system.  And that leads to a better understanding of your problem and the solution paths available to you.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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