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  • Modeling Cultural Idea Systems:The Relationship between Theory Models and Data Models
  • Dwight Read (bio)

Subjective experience is transformed into objective reality for societal members through cultural idea systems that can be represented with theory and data models. A theory model shows relationships and their logical implications that structure a cultural idea system. A data model expresses patterning found in ethnographic observations regarding the behavioral implementation of cultural idea systems. An example of this duality for modeling cultural idea systems is illustrated with Arabic proverbs that structurally link friend and enemy as concepts through a culturally defined computational system. Computational systems also generate new concepts, as will be illustrated through a theory model for the structure of a kinship terminology system. This examples accounts for what otherwise appears to be an anomaly in the terminology thereby illustrating the constructive role that modeling of cultural constructs can play in ethnographic research.

Language is . . . a symbolic, intersubjective, self-referential system of signs we use to structure a meaningful existence among ourselves.

(Hustvedt 2009, p. 23)

1. Introduction

In this paper we will explore some of the uses of models for representing and analyzing the structural properties of cultural idea systems through which individual, subjective experience is transformed into objective reality for societal members. By a cultural idea system is meant the concepts and ideas, transmitted through enculturation, that provide the conceptual basis upon which systems of social organization are predicated. These idea systems frame culturally meaningful behavior through cultural rules. As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, "Wherever there are rules we know for certain that the cultural stage has been reached" (1971, p. 8). [End Page 157] Yet cultural rules may be "invisible"—we act according to them but as culture-bearers we need not be aware of them, for "cultural rules are often outside your cognizance, beyond your conscious attention" (Spradley and Mann 1975, p. 7). Our goal here is to make the rules "visible" through formal modeling of cultural idea systems and then to see how the formal modeling enables us to explore further the patterning we identify in cultural phenomena.

For the modeling part of this paper, we will distinguish between theory models and data models (Read 1990, 2008). By a theory model will be meant a representation of a theory from which expected patterning for data observations may be deduced. By a data model will be meant a representation of patterning in phenomena induced from data values. A canonical example of this distinction is provided by the difference between Johannes Kepler inductively determining an elliptical form of planetary motion from empirical observations (a data model) and Isaac Newton deductively arriving at that form through his laws of motion and gravitational force applied to planetary motion (a theory model). Isomorphism between the elliptical orbit expressed in the data model and the elliptical orbit predicted from the theory model implies that the theory is explanatory for the form of planetary orbits expressed in the data model.

The distinction need not be sharp in that a data model can be constructed in parallel with a theory model and vice-versa. In some domains, such as ethnographic accounts, the complexity of human behaviors has led to confounding a data model with a theory model. Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard's (1940) classic discussion of social organization based on segmentary lineage systems in tribal societies such as the Nuer is a case in point. Though his account is referred to as an example of "lineage theory" (Kuper 1982, p. 71), his account "does not refer to actual social processes" (Holy 1996, p. 89), hence, by not incorporating process, does not provide a basis from which expected, observable patterning of group relations can be derived. Instead, his account refers to empirical patterns—the hallmark of a data model, though it may lack validation as the asserted patterns are said to be without adequate empirical support (Kuper 1982).

We will explore the formal modeling of cultural idea systems using the distinction between a data model and a theory model by beginning with a simple social behavior for which explanatory arguments can be developed without reference to cultural idea systems. Then we will introduce a...


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pp. 157-174
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