CHAPTER FIVE

CONVENTIONAL KNOWLEDGE AND THE CULTURAL CONTEXT

by Hugh M. Lewis

 

The cultural context is important to the understanding of how knowledge becomes expressed and articulated in the world, and leads to a predictive understanding of human actions within specific, culturally defined behavioral settings (i.e. getting a haircut in a barbershop, ordering flowers from a florist, having a tooth pulled at a dentist office, attending a catholic mass on a Sunday morning, or sitting in front of the Television watching a movie on a Saturday night.) We may say that cultural context in an empirical sense is the total scope of such behavioral settings. In very social setting in which meaningful interaction takes place between members of a shared cultural orientation. A multi-cultural context can be referred to as a more complex social environment typical of modern state societies in which there are numerous alternate cultural behavioral settings, plus a number of such settings which are typically and by definition inter-cultural.

But the cultural context has other, namely cognitive and linguistic, facets that are important to understanding how the context, as a universe of symbolisms, situated within a material, carpentered and social environment, serves to constrain, reinforce and sanction human cognition, attitudes and behavior. We cannot escape the prison of culture, and its bars are the invisible chains of the mind.

It is said that the symbolic patterning of language is arbitrary and that the structure of its patterning is independent of the contexts of its articulation. From a cultural standpoint, this is not quite correct. We cannot imagine an instance of linguistic structure which is free or beyond a particular behavioral setting or cultural context, and we cannot imagine a symbolic structure of language which is entirely unconstrained or free of the unwritten and unspoken conventions of cultural preunderstandings. It is more accurate to claim that all language patterning is relatively non-arbitrary to the extent that it is conventionally constrained by culture, and that is patterning is always relatively dependent upon the socio-cultural contexts of its articulation.

It is this conventionality of constraint and its relative contextuality which renders all understandings situated and culturally relative. Cultural knowledge is by definition conventional knowledge that means that it is relatively widely shared, available and common to the behavioral settings with which it is implicated. As conventional knowledge, it is most often reinforced by secondary rationalizations and symbolizations which serve to legitimate its efficacy and reify its sense of reality. Rarely do we question the conventions of our understandings, and they come more often as basic habit for which we have a strong preference.

Cultural knowledge is minimally shared. Culture functions and is integrated on the basis of an achieved and implicit consensus of such knowledge. Cultural knowledge is by definition common knowledge. It is more or less inter-subjectively available to a community of culture-bearers. Being minimally shared and definitively common, cultural knowledge therefore depends on some means of objective codification in an organized sign system which enables the transmission of such knowledge.

A great deal of cultural knowledge is also implicit. That which is explicitly codified is only a small portion of the total amount of information or its patterning represented. Learning the holistic gestalt of a cultural orientation requires being able to successfully infer the implications of cultural knowledge from the patterning and expression of the signals available. Thus, if we can decipher the ideograms or the script of an archaic language, we can thereby figure out the meanings of the surviving texts, and thus piece together portions of the overall patterning of the cultural orientation.

Cultural knowledge comes to be represented and expressed through a set of cultural schemas and models that direct and sanction appropriate behavior in specific settings. These schemas and models can be seen as prototypical shared exemplars around which a cultural orientation becomes defined. Schemas can be taken as sets of scripts or decision trees that organize expected behavior and outcomes from given, standard situations and settings. We may invoke, utilize and amend different schemas as occasions call for, and we come to revise our schemas as adaptation to new situations may entail. Cultural models can be taken as more basic and central cultural conceptual systems which organize a great deal of behavior, and which can be seen to operate meta-logically in the organization of different schemas across alternate behavioral settings. It can be expected that any given cultural orientation may have only one or a few basic models, and that the sign of a culture in transformation is the presence and conflict of two or more incompatible models which lead to discrepant views of reality. A model functions paradigmatically at the level known in science as general theory and lays down the overarching symbolic aegis for the organization and justification of a variety of different schemas and symbolic representations of reality. For instance, the basic cultural model of the Chinese can be said to be one of filial piety that is tied to the patrilineal household organization of the family. This leads to a very different orientation than the cultural model of Americans that is held to be one of rugged individualism and romanticism--a kind of superman model.

A schema can be considered to be a script or related set of scripts the relationship between which are defined on the basis of domain dependency Those domains being tied to the behavioral settings within which scripts are normally articulated under a set of mutually shared and implicitly understood expectations of reciprocal behavior. Schemas thus represent an implicit level of ordering of behaviorally tied knowledge with defines roles, reactions and appropriate and inappropriate responses.

Models represent structurally more central and basic orientations which are for the most part more normally out of awareness. They are inscribed in the background as the focus of values and general attitudes or expressed rationalizations about the world, as well as in the articulation of social interrelationships in the world.

 


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/08/05