Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries and Cultural Transmission Theory

Ken’s
comment to an earlier post reminded me that I haven’t yet made good on my
promise to talk about Charles Taylor’s book, Modern
Social Imaginaries
. I approached
the book because I’m interested in the concept of a "social
imaginary," which Taylor describes as:

"the ways people imagine their
social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between
them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper
normative notions and images that underlie these expectations." (page
23).

Taylor’s
definition sounded an awful lot like the vague notion that anthropologists call
"culture," at least old-school anthropologists and instructors
teaching intro classes. It seems to me,
however, that Taylor doesn’t really mean to include most of those clauses in
his real concept of an imaginary — instead, the last clause of the above
definition comes closest as an intentional definition of the concept he
describes extensionally through narrative. Taylor is really getting a distinction between conceptual levels of
cultural and social phenomena: some
notions and concepts and metaphors are more "core" or "paradigmatic"
than others, and the deeper ones last longer and serve almost as a
"landscape" upon which the more fleeting and transient of our
cultural expressions evolve. Taylor’s
use of the term really doesn’t get more precise than this, which makes the book
both an interesting read because of its expansive narrative of intellectual
history, and frustrating if one is approaching the concept (as I did) from an
analytic and scientific perspective.

Here’s
where my perspective on the book is perhaps idiosyncratic and of less general
interest than perhaps Ken was hoping. A
good deal of my research (in partnership with Carl Lipo) a few years back had
to do with formally modeling the patterns and thus "processes" by
which cultural information is passed between individuals. The earlier, and possibly better grounded,
version of this type of research is usually described as the study of
"cultural transmission," on the grounds that the linguistic and
imitative passing of information between individuals serves the same formal
role of "inheritance" as genetics does, in Darwinian evolutionary
theory. (1) Ultimately, of course, the
claim is that Darwinian evolutionary theory is applicable to, and thus must be taken into account in explaining, the
evolution of cultural behavior in people. Note that I didn’t claim that evolutionary theory is the only theory that must be taken into account in
explaining cultural behavior; in this sense it is not a replacement for the
vital work done by economists and other social scientists. In fact, the claim that I’m making is that
the social sciences will find scientific (i.e., empirically adequate and
falsifiable) explanation of patterns of human behavior possible only when we
bridge the gap between the disciplines and unify their insights with the
evolutionary processes which form the biological background of human
existence. (2)

 

Given
that as background, my interest in Taylor comes from an issue seen in much
formal modeling of cultural transmission: the "traits" or "memes" shared between individuals
are "featureless" and flat, often little more than arbitrary tags or
markers. In essence, much of the early
work in cultural transmission models has the feel of what Mayr derided as
"bean-bag genetics." Traits or
memes have no structure, few rules by which the traits themselves interact or
affect their respective (or combined) behavioral expression, and thus there is
little to link sets of differential equations which might accurately describe
the frequency history of a trait to the social and environment conditions which
might have favored or disfavored its spread. The situation is isomorphic, in fact, to the historical situation in
which early genetics found itself, prior to starting to understand the
molecular pathways by which DNA segments are ultimately turned into proteins
and thus into phenotypic expression.

 

Why
is this important? Because if, as I
mentioned above, one believes that norms, power relations, other social
processes, ecology, economics, and other "rich" descriptions of
behavior need to be incorporated into an overarching evolutionary perspective
in order to be a "complete" framework for studying human behavior, we
must show how each of these articulates with the more mathematical machinery
for describing the population and frequency dynamics of behaviors over
time. And Taylor’s notion of a
"social imaginary" (in the more restricted sense of paragraph 2,
above), starts to point the way.

 

Our
shared conceptualizations of the world are clearly not a "flat" space
of concepts, equal in importance or priority. Efforts at formal knowledge modeling in computer science (deriving from
cognitive science/AI research) make it clear that "common sense"
knowledge forms a dense and complex "tree" of concepts, logical
relationships, semantic equivalences and difference, and behavioral
relationships. Thus, it seems clear that
cultural concepts of behavior, norms, and institutions would form a
"tangled web" of concepts, some of which would be more
"foundational" than others. Those concepts which are closest to the root of many conceptual
relationships — i.e., are "foundational" — would be the formal
equivalents of Taylor’s intuitive notion of a social imaginary. These are deep concepts — like his concept
of discussion in the public sphere — which admit many variants for their
realization, depending upon what mix of other norms and concepts were present
in a population.

 

It
is in this sense that I discussed the social imaginary functioning as the
"landscape" against which more transient and less stable
"memes" would spread, evolve, and ultimately "fit together"
within a population. Obviously, the
"foundational" concepts that I’m referring to — the social imaginary
— change as well, as Taylor documents. But they change much more slowly, since they’re "hooked to"
much of the rest of the concept pool. In
the language of biology, we’d say that these foundational concepts are
"conserved" in evolution.

 

Finally,
this is all leading to the next steps in our attempts to model cultural
transmission processes. I believe that
if we’re going to use generative modeling of complex social interactions as a
tool to study behavior and evolution, our models need to escape being
"bean-bag memetics" and we have to do a better job representing the
relationships of traits to each other and to the decision rules we’re trying to
study. Thus, I’ve been thinking about
the next generation of our agent-based simulation efforts, with this in mind —
explicitly modeling cultural traits as they relate to each other, some
surficial and transient, but varying within limits placed by deeper, more
foundational traits, change in which is harder because of their large number of
conceptual linkages within each modeled agent. I’ll be writing more about the nuts and bolts of this later, as I work
out some of the design issues, but essentially what I’m trying to do is create
more realistic social simulation models by incorporating Taylor’s notion of the
social imaginary into formal models of "meme" transmission.

 

Notes:

 

  1. A
    lot of the more recent, and more "popular," work in this area goes by the name "memetics," which unfortunately has gotten diluted with a lot of connotations and associations that aren’t really very helpful. Thus, I tend to refer to such models by the name they were originally given within anthropology: cultural transmission.
  2. Just
    as a warning to potential commenters, I’m not interested in getting into arguments about whether "evolution" and "people" should or shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence. Such arguments, so common today in the blogosphere, are essentially political arguments. Nobody is going to win, and we won’t accomplish anything. More
       importantly, such arguments are not a way of doing scientific research, and thus aren’t useful for my purposes here. If you think I’m off track, develop your own arguments and research and convince me (and other researchers) by doing a better job of explaining the vast body of observations and data.

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