Rule-based Cultural Knowledge

What counts as an appropriate action in response to a stimulus is not given by the concept in and of itself. Clearly, one can identify some token of a concept, and still not respond (or not know how to respond) to it. We need to further stipulate that "elements of knowledge and their arrangement into cognitive maps and plans are based on rules" (Spradley, 1972, p.5). Example:


Figure 5: Rules for picking up hitchhikers (adapted from Spradley, 1980, p.32)

Let's consider first the 'rule following' assumption. In criticism of claims that cultural knowledge is wholly internalised by and wholly determines the behaviour of the individual, the anthropologist Marvin Harris forcefully points out that the decontextualisation of knowledge and rules from the experience of the individual of social reality

will result in an unintentional parody of the human condition. Applied to our own culture it would conjure up a way of life in which men tip their hats to ladies; youths defer to old people in public conveyances; unwed mothers are a rarity; citizens go to the aid of law enforcement officers; chewing gum is never stuck under tables and never dropped on the sidewalk; television repairmen fix television sets; children respect their aged parents; rich and poor get the same medical treatment; taxes are paid in full; all men are created equal; and our defense budget is used only for maintaining peace. (Harris, 1968, p.590)

Clearly, real human beings are in some manner distanced from the bodies of prescriptive and interpretive knowledge tacitly assumed to regulate and explain social action; bluntly, they can choose not to follow normative rules of social conduct. A cultural information system described on the assumption that people inflexibly and uncritically generate behaviour in accordance with an internalised set of rules and facts will therefore be a poor model of actually observable human behaviour, and will breakdown in circumstances where the rules are violated. Here is an alternative view:

In all societies, as many anthropologists have pointed out, there is an ideal pattern -- what members of the society feel should be done when people behave "properly" or "normally" -- and there is the real behaviour -- what people in the society actually do. In addition, however, there is the presumed behavior -- what members of the society think other members do. (Richards, 1969, p.1115)

For the anthropologist Roger Keesing, regulatory social knowledge consists of the individual's "theory about meanings and codes for behaviour that others in the community are using". Thus when one learns what a word means, how to classify objects in the world, how to deal with bureaucrats, or what is the best tactic to secure the co-operation of another actor on an occasion, "it is with reference to the code others are presumed to be following ... One's knowledge of one's culture comprises one's knowledge of this code being used in one's community" (Keesing, 1981, p.98). That is, on Keesing's interpretation, society members do not themselves 'possess' knowledge of their cultures; rather, they construct tentative and renegotiable working models abstracted, on the basis of their experience of life 'in' the culture, from what Keesing calls the 'sociocultural performance' of others. An individual's cultural (and therefore institutional) knowledge is

his theory of what his fellows know, believe, and mean, his theory of the code being followed, the game being played, in the society in which he was born ... It is this theory to which he refers in interpreting the unfamiliar or the ambiguous, in interacting with strangers ..., and in other settings peripheral to the familiarity of mundane everyday life space; and with which he creates the stage on which the games of life are played. We can account for the individual actor's perception of his culture as external (and as potentially constraining and frustrating); and we can account for the way individuals then can consciously use, manipulate, violate, and try to change what they conceive to be the rules of the game.